Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Christian Salvation -- Is it about this life or the afterlife?

Some Christians have a narrow understanding of salvation that makes it all about the afterlife (going to heaven). They think they know who has it and who doesn’t, who’s in and who’s out, and they consider the work of the church to be largely about converting others to their version of the truth of salvation. It’s hard for me to be too critical of these Christians, since at one time, I, also held to that exclusive version of salvation.

Progressive Christians (and more evangelical Christians are coming to this realization also) insist that there are multiple images and metaphors for salvation in the Scriptures and different contemporary ways for understanding salvation. Many Christians are surprised to learn that not a single reference to salvation in the Old Testament relates to the afterlife. And only a few references in the New Testament relate specifically to the afterlife.

One of the dominant images in both Testaments is salvation as liberation from bondage. In the OT this is Israel’s primal story: Israel’s liberation from the domination system of Egypt. In the NT this is understood primarily as liberation from entrapment, liberation from the anti-life pull toward alienation, disintegration, and addiction (what Paul called the “flesh” and “the law of sin and death”). 

This image, as it is found in one Gospel story, is particularly illuminating. Just after Jesus predicts for the third time his suffering and death, James and John ask if they can sit by Jesus’ side in his kingdom and share Jesus’ rule (Mark 10:35–37) . This continues the bitter dispute the disciples had been having over who would be the greatest (see Mark 9:30–37).

Jesus says, “This is how the prominent people of the world function. They strive for places and positions of power in order to lord it over others. Not so with you. If you want to participate in God’s dream for the world, then you must become the servant of all” (my paraphrase of Mark 10:42–44). Then, Jesus offers his own life as an example, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The word translated “ransom” could also be translated “redemption” or “liberation.” Jesus is not specifically speaking of his death, though his death is the culmination of the life he lived. This text is saying that the self-giving, sacrificial life of the Son of Man (Jesus) becomes a means of liberation for his disciples as they follow his way of life.

The afterlife is not in view at all. The liberation here, in this passage, is from a life of grasping power and position, from the need to lord it over others. The disciples wanted to turn the old pecking order, where they were on the bottom, into a new pecking order, where they would be on the top. Jesus wanted to liberate them from the pecking order all-together. Jesus wanted to ransom/redeem them from the whole game of competing with and comparing themselves to others, so they would be free to be “servants of all”—without regard or distinction for social status, without bias or prejudice, without favoritism toward any.

Some Christians like to think of salvation only in terms of the afterlife, because then they don’t have to struggle with the need to die to the ego-driven self and become a humble servant of all people, which is what Jesus requires. It’s much easier and more convenient to make salvation about going to heaven. One hardly has to change at all; just believe the right doctrines or obey the right Christian rituals.

Healthy Christianity is about personal, communal, and societal transformation. It’s about liberation from egotism, greed, and selfish ambition. It’s about reflecting the image of God in all our relationships, embodying the love and compassion of Christ in all that we do, and serving all people without discrimination.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Key to Reading the Bible Transformatively

One of the most important tasks we engage in as a Christian community is the task of interpreting and applying the Christian Scriptures to our personal and communal lives. But reading (understanding and interpreting) the Bible in ways that can be transformational can be challenging. One Bible passage says one thing, while another Bible passage seems to contradict it. How do we know what to take seriously as “God’s Word” to us and what should be taken with less seriousness, or perhaps even disregarded because of the flawed theology of the biblical writer? And how do we make the distinction? 

The early Christ followers give us a key to reading and applying sacred Scripture. In Acts 2, Luke presents an account of early Christian preaching. Peter speaks to the Jewish community in Jerusalem in light of the outpouring of God’s Spirit on Jesus’ disciples on the day of Pentecost. Bible scholars point out that Luke tells the story Luke’s way, giving it his own theological twist and emphasis. But it is also generally conceded among New Testament scholars that Luke is passing on some of the core elements that constituted the earliest Christian proclamation. 

One of the critical components in the early Christian proclamation of the gospel was the way they reread and reinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. In Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, he offers a radical rereading of Psalm 16:8–11 and Psalm 110:1, applying these texts to the resurrection of Christ. These Psalms, of course, in their original contexts meant something entirely different. 

The early disciples did not conclude that Jesus was the Messiah in light of the promises in their Scriptures. They concluded that Jesus was the Messiah based on their conviction that God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead (Acts 2:36). Then, they worked their way backwards, radically reinterpreting the Old Testament to fit the paradigm of promise and fulfillment. They started with the conviction that Jesus brings to fulfillment God’s redemptive plan for Israel and all humanity, then they read the story of Israel in light of that conviction. This led them to read new meanings into Old Testament stories and texts that could not have possibly been intended by the original authors. 

The Apostle Paul does this same thing in his use of the Old Testament in his letters to his churches. For example, in his letter to the Galatians, as part of an extended argument on the inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant community, Paul cites the promise given to Abraham and his offspring/seed in the book of Genesis. Then, he makes this huge, dramatic interpretative leap: “it does not say, ‘And to his offsprings,” as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is one person, who is Christ” (Gal 3:16). This, of course, is a radical rereading/reinterpreting of the promise in light of the Christ Event. 

If we follow this same principle, we can reinterpret Scripture through our experience of and personal/communal encounter with the living Christ. For example, I read the many passages in the Bible that speak of retributive judgment/justice through the lens of Jesus’ life, message, teaching, death, and resurrection, as I have encountered Christ in the Gospels. What Jesus says about loving our enemies and the character of God (see Luke 6:27–36), and the way in which Jesus absorbed the hate and violence of his enemies in his death through non-retaliation and forgiveness (the passion story in the Gospels), trumps (takes priority over) all those passages in the Bible that sanction divine violence and seem to support retributive justice. 

I read the Bible through the lens of God’s more complete disclosure of God’s self through Jesus of Nazareth, whom God stamped with approval when God raised him up. The central Christian message of the first disciples was that Jesus, who was crucified by the powers that be, God raised up/vindicated, showing him (or appointing him) to be Messiah/Christ and Lord (see also Rom 1:3–4). 

Again and again, I apply this basic principle of biblical interpretation to contradictory and incompatible passages of Scripture. It’s a much better system than simply ignoring, denying, or trying to explain away clear and obvious contradictions in the Bible. It is a system of interpretation that has a precedent in the interpretative work of the first Christians. 

And it is a much better and more humble approach than the one taken by a number of conservative Christians and preachers, that while ignoring the Bible passages that contradict their message, pronounce condemnation on those who question their (church’s, group’s, denomination’s) absolutist teaching/preaching and their rendition of, “The Bible says . . .” 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Toxic Christianity in The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of my all-time great movies list. It is pervaded with great lines and rich spiritual symbolism. The warden, Samuel Norton, is an icon of toxic Christianity. When Andy and the other prisoners make their first appearance before the warden, immediately the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. He has one of the prisoners beaten for asking, “When do we eat?” Holding a Bible, he tells the prisoners, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.” 

The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. But it’s clear from the beginning of his appearance in the story that his Christianity is in name only. In one scene, the warden enters Andy’s cell. He takes Andy’s Bible as Andy and the warden quote Scripture verses back and forth. He does not open the Bible, which is good since the rock hammer Andy uses to tunnel through the cell wall is hidden inside. When he hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.” 

The final verse that the warden quotes is John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Of course, the warden does not have the foggiest notion what that verse really means. The warden walks in darkness and is about as blind and un-liberated a person as you would ever find. But he thinks he is a Christian. 

Christianity (as well as toxic religion in general) can be as deadly and destructive as it can be redemptive and life-giving. I sense that for a number of people who wear the badge of Christian faith, their faith has become a cleverly disguised way of protecting the ego. I suppose we are all guilty of this to one degree or another. 

Religion can become a clever way for us to feel secure, to feel superior (we are the ones chosen while the rest are passed over and excluded), and to be in control. Jesus, in the Gospels, saw right through this. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus found hospitable table fellowship, not with the moral majority, but with the immoral minority? Those who thought they could see were actually blind, while those who knew they were blind found spiritual sight (read John 9). 

Authentic spirituality is not about being correct or citing Bible passages. It’s not about wearing the right badges or shouting the right pledges. It’s about being humble enough to admit that we are blind, so that the Divine Spirit can lead us to a place where we can see. 

There is no magic formula: Believe this, do this, practice this. There are no four spiritual laws, five steps, six principles, or seven habits for highly spiritual people. But somehow our illusions must be exposed and we must face the many ways we parade and protect our egos. Somehow we must surrender to a greater Love and greater Story, instead of being so absorbed in our own little stories where we are so easily offended and hurt, and become bitter, jealous and resentful people. Somehow we must let go of our passion for power, prestige, and possessions that dominates Western life, and become more passionate about what Jesus called the kingdom of God

I wish I could offer you a prescription, but there is none, other than following Jesus. Transformative spiritual persons are fairly easy to detect, though. You can see the Love and Compassion in their eyes, their face, their words and gestures. Their whole body radiates the light of Christ. They are gentle, understanding, humble, empathetic, and at the same time, they can be bold, courageous, and unafraid to challenge the powers that be. 

Why are there so few transformed people today in Western/American Christianity? Or even better, why has my own (your own) spiritual growth been so slow and difficult? Interested in your response: cqueen@fewpb.net.