The Least, First

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Why seeing Jesus can be alarming – a letter to a friend

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Secret MessageFriend of mine just finished Brian McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus. My friend found it attractive and reasonable – and yet frightening. McLaren does have a way of reminding one that Jesus is a whole lot bigger than the boxes into which we’ve tried to put him. And the boxes – which we’ve trusted so profoundly – are not Him at all. Our foundations shake.

Remembering the loneliness of seeing the difference between Christ and my own cherished denominational outlook, I decided to write a note of encouragement. You can probably guess what the questions were to which I respond. Here goes:

Dear “Greg:”

Welcome to a new vista of discipleship. Would that more of us were frightened by the enormity of what we’re trying to understand!

Several thoughts:

1. I don’t think McLaren is saying the need for forgiveness of sin is any less than we believe it to be. I think he’s saying there are some other things that are much more important than we’ve held them to be. And that is profoundly consistent with the best parts of our Wesleyan heritage, which are drenched with stories of people with hearts of love changing the realities of their world – or rather, bringing the realities of their world into closer alignment with the Kingdom of God.

2. Is that the same as being a good person? Not for me, it’s not – for it is in communion with Christ that my yearning to love and serve is renewed. When I grow weary of Christ, I find myself escaping into something less than love. My main task appears to be keeping my heart fresh.

3. I hope you’ll read A New Kind of Christian. It sets a little clearer foundation regarding how we got into where we are today, and how much of what we believe is deduction based on a modernist world-view rather than Christ himself.

For instance: Neither Jesus nor Paul ever wrote a theology book. Why is that? It is probably because systematic theology was a product of a certain way of thinking – a way that was not in use in their day. During the Enlightenment, cultural norms turned toward expression of truth as a series of deductions based on reason, and (eureka!) systematic theologies popped up all over.

Now we stand (we think) at the brink of post-modernism. Conservative religious communities are among the last strongholds of the particular way of seeing truth that has been common for the last 400 years – but they mostly aren’t aware of it, and have confused that passing method of epistemology – determining what is true – with truth itself.

An example: Twenty years ago, it was common to meet someone at an altar, show them Scripture, point out that Jesus had said that he would forgive our sins if we confessed them, and see their faith spring into life. The syllogism was epistemologically satisfying to them – they could believe, logically.

It doesn’t happen as much that way today. Read the Four Laws to a person with post-modern epistemology and they’ll blink and look at you completely unmoved at best, suspicious or angry, at worst. It does not seem like truth to them – it may even seem like you are hoping to trap them into saying they believe something that they don’t. For they determine what is true, in part, relationally rather than logically. They believe because they have seen truth lived in others.

We who have lived in modernism’s stronghold want to say, “But that isn’t as good as logic!” But why isn’t it? It “isn’t” because logic is the sine qua non of modernism’s (our) epistemology – not because logic is better in any absolute or timeless way.

You’ll see this all over the place as you read the Bible with fresh eyes. It’s why expository preaching has been so “right” in recent decades – and also why Jesus never did it. It’s why our approach to cults has been book after book of proofs and logic. It’s why we call our Basic Bible Studies “discipleship” – when, obviously, they’re studies that may or may not result in discipleship. It’s why we worship facing the front, why we use pulpits, why we see sermons as the core of worship – it’s an imitation of the 16th century university model. It’s why we train preachers in classrooms – and why Jesus trained them on the street. It’s why evangelicals and fundamentalists fought over the word “inerrant” while Paul was content with “God-breathed” – because the Bible had to be “inerrant” to fundamentalists, who didn’t realize that they were insisting on a modernist’s view of truth, and thought they campaigned for a timeless principle.

Now systematic theology is our best attempt so far at distilling the content of the Bible in a topically organized manner (reductionism being another part of modernism: that things have kernels of “truest” truth, and we can distill them down to their smallest parts – hence the Four Laws, again). But, obviously (yet somehow controversially) systematic theology is not Bible. It is deduction based on Bible as we see it, set into a framework of the epistemology of a particular time. It is wonderfully useful, but, like any paradigm, it is also perilously limited – for it is our own view of the Bible rather than the Bible itself.

And this is why I’ve begun preaching from the lectionary’s texts rather than choosing my own. I knew the lectionary would drag me through the Bible to a much greater extent than I was used to. I knew the lectionary would put Scriptures before me that I wouldn’t have considered preaching from. Here’s the point: I wanted a way of moving myself more toward the priorities of the Bible itself, rather than the priorities of the systematic theology I’d learned. Not to put systematic theology aside, but to keep it in its rightful place. I figured if I was preaching my way through the Bible itself, those things that came up again and again would likely be the priorities of the Bible – thus, by faith, the priorities of God – the things that God especially wanted us to know well. My point was not that systematic theology was wrong, but simply that it was a filter that has changed through history and will continue to do so. And given the fact that we are in a moment of what may be the greatest world-view change in 400 years, it seemed wise to anchor myself to the source itself.

This has been especially delightful because it has me majoring in Jesus. Every week, a gospel passage takes the lead. And I’m finding Jesus much more wonderful than I had previously realized. He, after all, is the core of the core of our faith. Seeing him clearly is foundational: We are Christ-ians, after all, not theology-ians, or even Bible-ians.

And I suspect that is the heart of McLaren’s message: the pursuit of Jesus himself. Understanding what Jesus was saying about salvation, and to whom, and when and why. Watching closely what he does, and understanding that to be the holy life. Isn’t it ironic that following Jesus should be regarded so skeptically by Christians?

And where this leads me again and again (I’ve often thought, “Lord, I can’t preach on this again!) is here: love. Wesley was right (at least in this!). Jesus is love all over the place, again and again. When I preach him, I end up preaching love far more than I otherwise would.

All that to say that in changing times, I think Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life more than ever. We can follow him safely, no matter where it leads us. Things that are less than him will become less important. Things that are priorities of his will show up all over.

Yes. It is often scary. I just finished preaching through Mark, and it seems to me the disciples were puzzled and frightened through most of the book, utterly unable to fit Jesus into their own expectations until the resurrection blasted their expectations off the map. It isn’t comfortable.

But from time to time, we get new glimpses of Jesus, we see him use us, we know “power has gone out” from us, we see ourselves handle something we know we once couldn’t possibly have handled – and it is worth it all.

Alarming as it may be to see our foundations as rooted in time rather than eternity, my hunch is that you’ll be finding yourself in Jesus himself more than ever, and that he will thrill your heart.

Peace!
Monte

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Written by Monte

January 16, 2007 at 12:51 am

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