Saturday, August 28, 2010

On the Title of This Blog

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 edition).
The phrase "when faith and culture collide" might seem a bit odd. Isn't faith part of culture? Webster defines culture this way:
"the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time."

According to Webster (which is reflecting common usage), the parameters of culture encompass "religious" groups as well as social ones.
Culture often shapes faith, but that doesn't mean it should. We have influences all around us, and it's always tempting for us to let the world dictate our theology to us. We might find the Bible to be a bit uncomfortable in some of what it says to us, so we sometimes treat it like Play-Doh and mold it to conform to what the world expects of us.
If you've been following this blog, you may have wondered what the Hebrew in the title (וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה) is all about. It's from Habakkuk 2:4, a verse quoted by the apostle Paul in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11.
After Habakkuk complains to God about His people's wickedness and God's subsequent decision to raise up a wicked people to punish them, God gives him this answer (the English translation of וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה is set in bold):
"Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; but the righteous will live by his faith" (Habakkuk 2:4).
Paul doesn't translate the 3ms pronominal suffix ḥolem vav (the וֹ ["his"] in בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ ["by his faith"]). If he had, you would have expected to read the Greek translation as follows: Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως αὐτοῦ ζήσεται ("but the righteous one by his faith will live").
Intriguingly, Paul leaves out the αὐτοῦ ("his"), which would otherwise translate the וֹ at the end of בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ. Instead, Paul simply renders the verse this way: Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ πίστεως ζήσεται ("but the righteous one by faith will live"—no "his").
Also, get this: Paul would often use the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament done by Jews before the time of Jesus) to quote from the Old Testament, as would most Jews of Paul's day. After all, most people (Jew or Gentile) in the time of Paul spoke Greek. Think of the Septuagint as the "NIV" of its time. The New Testament in general often uses the Septuagint.
But in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, Paul doesn't use the Septuagint. The Septuagint (LXX for short) curiously offers a different rendering even from our oldest available Hebrew manuscripts: Ὁ δὲ δίκαιος ἐκ
πίστεως μου ζήσεται ("but the righteous by my faith will live").

I can't prove this, but I think Paul—having been trained as a Pharisee—knew the original Hebrew of this passage, and he was offering his own translation. Of course, it's possible that the Septuagint's translation actually reflects older Hebrew manuscripts now lost to us. But we have no way of knowing this unless older manuscripts end up popping up. So my best guess is that Paul is just rejecting the LXX's μου ("my") and deciding to leave out αὐτοῦ ("his") in his own translation.
But to make matters worse, the mysterious author of Hebrews quotes from this passage as well and places the μου after δίκαιος (thus making it read "my righteous one will live by faith"). (See Hebrews 10:38.)
So which one's right? Maybe it's not so much a matter of which one (the author of Hebrews or Paul) is right, but what did each intend to say by referring to this Scripture? Maybe another post can tackle the Hebrews 10:38 usage of Habakkuk 2:4. But for now, let's focus on what Paul meant by his translation:
Habakkuk complains to God about the problem of human evil, and God gives a powerful response: "The righteous shall live by his faith." In Romans, Paul is using this Scripture with reference to the "good news" of Jesus the Messiah.
Perhaps Paul thought that if he put an αὐτοῦ ("his") in the text, that would distract the recipients of his letter from the intended message of Habakkuk 2:4. That is, just as maybe the LXX was giving an interpretive rendering ("by my faith" meaning "by God's faith/faithfulness a righteous one will live"), Paul was also giving an interpretive rendering ( "by faith a righteous one will live"). "So Habakkuk meant," Paul says, "that a person is justified by faith…period—I don't even need to say 'his faith' because I just want you to know that it is by faith that the justified one lives."
In Galatians 3:11, Paul uses this verse to say that no one is justified by the works of the Law. It is instead "by faith." It may not have hurt for Paul to include a "his" (and if it weren't for the fact that his culture was patriarchal, why not a "her"?) but again his point was to focus on one word…faith. We aren't justified before God by our own keeping of the works of the Law. That does nothing for us. It is by faith.
None of this is our own doing. It is all God's doing. We have faith (or believe) in the one whom He has sent, and it is only by His grace that we can be saved from the wrath our sin makes us deserve. That's the gospel.
So what does all this have to do with the phrase "when faith and culture collide"? When we have faith in/believe in Jesus, that inevitably causes culture collisions. People develop customary ways of doing things—a culture. And sometimes that culture rubs up against our faith in a hostile way. (Example: "What? Saved by grace? That's not how we do things in America! We earn good things here!") But other times when culture collides with our faith, it is more receptive to what it finds.
Webster's definition of culture (by including "religion" in the umbrella of any given "culture") reflects the popular notion that Christianity is simply part of Western culture. And in the Webster's dictionary sense, it is. But the deep truths of Christianity cannot be confined to Western culture. In fact, they often bump against much of what makes us "Western." After all, the faith we get from the New Testament's proclamation originated from a non-Western source. But that doesn't mean that Christianity is confined to non-Western cultures either. If Christianity is true, it bumps against aspects of all cultures, while finding friendly reception in other aspects of every culture.
That's why, on Mars Hill, some sneered at Paul when he told them about Jesus and the resurrection, but others wanted to know more.
Let's just not make the mistake of editing our faith to conform to the culture. Instead, our faith is to transform the culture.

Monday, August 9, 2010

They Were Never “True” Christians

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 edition).
When I was in middle school, I discovered Internet message boards. My parents had purchased one of the America Online early versions (when dial-up was the only thing available), and I discovered a whole new world of discussion boards where people would post what they thought online. And they would often disagree. That was when I first started dialoguing with non-Christians—people who didn't already believe the same things I did.
I was one of those naïve evangelical kids who had been taught that anyone who claimed to be a "former Christian" was never really a Christian to begin with. That is, they never truly understood that one had to be saved by grace, not by works.
So to show off my obviously "Christian-exclusive" knowledge and maybe save some souls in the process, I got into a conversation with a self-proclaimed "ex-Christian" on a discussion board that concerned the topic of religion. She said she once believed in Jesus but could no longer do so. Having been taught that such people weren't true Christians to start with, I protested and arrogantly posted something in response like, "Nah. You were never a true Christian. Look, I dare you to try and describe what Christians believe about how we get saved. Go ahead. I'd be surprised if your answer is correct."
When I posted the comment, I leaned back in satisfaction. She's probably going to say that Christians are saved by the works of the Law or something. She couldn't possibly understand that true Christians believe we're saved by grace. So when she gives me the wrong answer, I'll explain to her what Christianity is really all about!
A couple hours later, I checked back for her response. She had written, "According to Protestant Christianity, a person is saved by grace through faith. Jesus supposedly died on the cross for our sins, and it is only by believing in Jesus that one can be saved from the fiery pits of hell. Yeah, right. I'm so glad I don't believe that anymore."
I didn't respond. But I knew she had nailed me. I suppose I could have written back, "Ha! I knew you were going to say that! But did you really believe it?" Of course, then I would have made an even bigger idiot out of myself.
Think about this: Does it help for us to say, "You were never really true Christians to begin with" to people who say they used to be Christians? Why do we say this? Is it because that's what we think we're "supposed" to say? Do we have any good reasons to say it?
Some relevant verses to consider:
"My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who had given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand" (John 10:27-29).
"They went out from us [Christians], but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us" (1 John 2:19).
"For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame" (Hebrews 6:4-6).
Maybe you think one of the above verses (or some other verse) proves that anyone who claims to have once been a Christian never really was one to begin with—except maybe for that last one. Or maybe you think that the last one is hypothetical, and if you keep reading, you'll see that the writer of Hebrews is really saying that anyone who believes has assurance of salvation.
Whether some people were "true Christians" (is this the same as saying someone was "truly saved," or is it questioning whether they "truly were Christians" in how they treated others and what they believed?) or not is beside the point, though. They certainly thought they were Christians. You might quote 1 John 2:19 to them and insist based on that passage that they never really were Christians, but that won't get you anywhere. Many of them will articulate the same things that you believe as a Christian. You might rationalize it all away by saying, "Oh, they're just parroting what they heard. They never really believed it! If they had, they wouldn't be atheists now."
What if we listened to people better? Listening doesn't mean compromising. But it does mean actually hearing what the other person is saying to you, whether you agree with what they're telling you or not.
Consider this atheist's video on this topic, for example. Go to the 2:34 mark, and you'll hear this interesting statement:
I believe Christians are scared to admit there are actual former Christians. They just don't see any way they could stop believing themselves; therefore, there's no way someone else could stop believing. Making this hateful statement helps them feel high and mighty and feel that they are above others because they're God's "chosen ones." But this pompous attitude is the opposite of the humbleness [that] the religion teaches.
That last line should sting us: "But this pompous attitude is the opposite of the humbleness [that] the religion teaches." Are we considering others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) when we make such statements? If we have favorite verses we use to tell "ex-Christians" that there is no such thing as an "ex-Christian," have we considered the verses themselves carefully? How do we know we're applying them correctly? I leave you with these questions to ponder.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Common Evangelical Clichés

I think a lot of people like top-ten lists, so I'm including a top-five one here today instead, just to do something different. Also, it's easier to think of just five things. Following is a list of five evangelical clichés you may have heard at your churches. If you've said any of these (or if you say any of these on a regular basis), please don't be offended by my inclusion of them. But if you're particularly attached to any one of them, feel free to disagree with me, and I'll be happy to have a discussion about it. If you grew up in the evangelical world, you probably are pretty familiar with these statements by now:
  1. "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." Believer-turned-skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman observes, "Occasionally I see a bumper sticker that reads: 'God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.' My response is always, What if God didn't say it? What if the book you take as giving you God's words instead contains human words?" See Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 13–14. Sound bites like "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it" don't help discussions very much. If an atheist were to say, "God doesn't exist, I don't believe in Him, and that settles it," would you find this particularly helpful? I wouldn't.

  2. "God wants to deliver us from religion"/"Christianity is not a religion—it's a relationship." I put these two together because they make the same fundamentally annoying error. They redefine the word religion, creating a new "Christianese" kind of communication: When many evangelicals say religion, they tend to mean anything that looks like us trying to get up to God rather than God reaching down to us. Everyone else doesn't understand the word religion this way. (I think most people would say that Christianity—even though we define it as a relationship in which God reaches down to us out of His grace and we do nothing to get to Him—is clearly a religion.) Also, consider James 1:26-27. How can there be such a thing as "pure and undefiled religion" in Christianity if "God wants to deliver us from religion"?

  3. "Don't intellectualize the gospel." What does "intellectualizing the gospel" even mean? Are we trying to allude to Paul's teaching that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough" (Galatians 5:9)? If so, then that's an epic fail. Let's stop using the word intellectual as though it meant the same thing as heretic or infidel. What's wrong with thinking deeply? Did C.S. Lewis "intellectualize the gospel"?

  4. "The Bible is a collection of God's love letters to you and me." I am not one to underemphasize God's love (and we are the bride of Christ, after all), but using love-letter language to describe the Bible is hugely problematic. What things come to your mind when you think of the term love letter? Maybe the letters that Noah wrote Allie in The Notebook, right? Romantic imagery. Does this story from the Bible come to mind? I hope not.


    I understand what people mean when they say they're reading God's love letters, but think about it: Suppose you're a Christian who hasn't really read the Bible but has been told that the Bible contains God's love letters to you, and then you start reading the Bible for the first time. And because you trust the well-meaning Christians who told you this was God's love letter to you, you're going to take along with you some contemporary love-letter assumptions about what the Bible is going to look like.


    Let's say you're on the standard read-the-Bible-in-a-year track. You might think it's odd that a "love letter" contains a story about the origins of humanity and God's covenants with people named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but you continue thinking, "How is this a love letter again?" Once you get to God ordering mass executions (see, for example, Numbers 31:2,17-24), you might start to say to yourself, "Wait, I was expecting this to be a love letter! This doesn't sound very loving to me!"


    To be sure, God is love (see, for example, 1 John 4:8), but God is also dangerously holy (see Exodus 19), and He also smites people who oppose Him or His people (see Numbers 31, referenced earlier). In other words, God is not a Care Bear. Also, the Bible was not written to you (or me) personally. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that the Bible is unintended for you and me. In a deeper sense, it is quite correct to say that the Bible was written as an act of love on God's part for all of humanity—which includes you and me. But the apostle Paul wasn't sitting down one day and thinking, "You know, I should write Becca a letter today. I'll just randomly claim I'm writing to the Galatians instead, but I'm really writing for Becca. And it isn't really even me who is writing this. It's ultimately God's love letter. Word."


    Furthermore, if you read Galatians, it's a pretty harsh letter. Sure, we could argue that Paul was being loving toward the Galatians, but when you write a "love letter" (in the romantic way we think of love letters), do you call the intended recipient of your letter "foolish" (see Galatians 3:1)? The Greek word translated as "foolish"—ἀνόητος—could also imply a lack of intelligence. So "you stupid Galatians" might even be an acceptable translation there. Hmmm… I'm not so sure Noah ever said to Allie that she was "stupid" in his love letters to her—unless, of course, he was being playful. But the context of Galatians doesn't allow for Paul being playful. He was quite serious. (Read Galatians. It's an important letter about the grace Jesus provided for us on the cross.)


    So all that to say that this is an unhelpful cliché. The Bible is simply not God's collection of love letters to us—it does contain His revealed message to humanity, but our contemporary term love letter carries connotations that simply don't accurately describe the Bible. In fact, I would contend that the Bible's greatness goes beyond the paramaters of the term love letter—it talks of the one who has the power to bring us from death to life (see John 5:24).

  5. "got faith?" Got creativity?