One of the most significant challenges I face as a pastor and teacher – whether in church or in academic settings – is helping people to learn how to read the Bible through different lenses than those to which they are accustomed and to discuss divinity in often uncomfortable ways.
Don’t get me wrong, I also struggle with my own lenses. I was educated in the context of Western civilization and culture. I grew up in the Midwest/South. For almost the entire first decade of my life as a Christian, I saw things very black and white.
And often wrong.
Jesus was American, not Jewish. Jesus was white, not middle-eastern. The true cultural and historical contexts of the Bible were not nearly as important as learning how to be morally pure, conservative-minded, and trained to defend my faith against atheists, Mormons, foreign religions, and…most importantly…liberals.
The true cultural and historical contexts of the Bible were not nearly as important as learning how to be morally pure, conservative-minded, and trained to defend my faith against atheists, Mormons, foreign religions, and…most importantly…liberals.
I have come to realize that no matter how much I grow and learn, my presuppositions will always be affected by my roots. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can easily create distance from both contextual and spiritual realities. As a pastor, all of this also creates challenges in communicating honest, heartfelt, and meaningful thoughts without being misunderstood by those who were raised and educated in the same ways.
Things really began to change for me because of two wonderful journeys that began in my life right around the same time.
The first was a feverish pursuit of trying to understand Scripture in its original context – through studies of ancient languages, anthropology, and cultural backgrounds. I was able to finally connect my very Western-minded brain with the fact that the Bible was written from primarily an Eastern mindset. More on this in a later discussion.
The second, which again ran concurrently with the first, was exposure to what is often called “the global church” or “the church worldwide”. As I began to engage in cross-cultural relationships both at home and abroad, my view of what a follower of Jesus looks like and how faith is practiced began to grow much, much wider.
The more I began to view the biblical text and the mosaic of God’s people on earth with a wider lens, the more the words and work of God came to life in full color. As these two journeys have continued for almost 20 years, I have become less interested in pointing out the sins of others, defending God or the Bible, and attacking liberalism. Instead, I am continually seeking new ideas and experiences that evoke worship towards God, wonder towards His words, and genuine love towards the people He has created from every corner of the earth and walk of life.
Without a doubt, I still have a LONG way to go. I heard Peter Enns point out recently the absurdity that anyone could ever receive a degree with the title, “Master of Divinity.” These journeys will never reach their end. Instead, as they continue to progress forward, they will only grow deeper at the same time. The closer we swim toward the bottom in the direction of the Divine, the more we realize there is no bottom to reach. We just keep swimming deeper.
I had an experience a few years ago while in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC that opened my eyes to this concept even further. As I was making my way slowly through the galleries of my favorite painter, Rembrandt, I saw a group of people gathered around one of his more obscure paintings. As I approached, I realized this was a group of students from Columbia University – art history students I presume – surrounding their professor who was asking questions about the painting.
The painting was Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer. The professor was asking and answering questions, while pointing out several aspects of the painting involving light, symbolism, clothing, and history that I had not noticed. I subtly inserted myself into the group, and even contributed some of my own ideas into the conversation. Of course, most of what we were doing was merely conjecture, since Rembrandt was not there to corroborate our interpretations. In many ways, Rembrandt himself was not invited into our discussion.
As we dissected this painting to the nth degree, it occurred to me that we had forgotten the wonder of the masterpiece itself. We were so busy critiquing its possible meanings, that it was no longer meaning-full. I finally stepped back and exclaimed, in what must have seemed like a dull-witted moment, “Can we all just agree that Rembrandt was an incredible artist?”
How often do we do this with the God of the universe? We attempt to categorize and systematize and offer explanations that are nice and neat, often without inviting the Artist Himself into the conversation. We are discussing the painting, but not enjoying its beauty. We are focused on the symbols, and not the One to whom they point. We are too busy parsing His words, instead of following His words.
We are discussing the painting, but not enjoying its beauty.
When we accept this method of thinking, I believe we end up living contrary to the two great commandments of Jesus. Instead of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we reduce Him to paradigms and categories that fit our own ideologies and opinions. Instead of loving our neighbors as ourselves, we reduce them only to the sum total of what they “affirm” or “deny” and apply labels that we feel give us permission to deem a person acceptable or write her or him off completely.
We need to use a different lens.
Over the next few weeks, I want to propose some areas and topics where we might use a different lens. I hope you will join me in the discussion.