Sunday, October 19, 2014

Controversies in the church: The Basis of Doctrine

I have long wanted to return to the series on controversies in the church, but have reached a point where I do not know both sides equally well, having never seen some of them from the inside. This post is an attempt to move forward all the same, with a simplified format that makes some progress possible. The hope is that, if readers comment or later reading expands my knowledge, more could be added. 

The controversy: The Basis of Doctrine

One of the largest controversies in the Western church -- at the heart of the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics -- is the question of how the church forms its beliefs and teachings. On the Roman Catholic side, the view is that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching. On the Protestant side, the view is that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. In the earliest decades of the church there is very little difference between those views because the earliest decades were marked by the apostles and those who learned directly from them. But as the voice of the apostles faded from living memory and was preserved in writing, the two roads diverged.

The basics:

Roman Catholics

(From the outset I'd like to be clear: I would be glad for suggestions from Roman Catholic readers if there is any way in which I can be more accurate about their teaching.) On the Roman Catholic view that the Church wrote Scripture as an instrument for teaching, it follows that the Church has the key position in deciding what is taught and how it is interpreted. The Roman Catholic church claims the continuing authority to develop teachings, and to teach them with the same authority as Scripture: the authority of the church.


There is some variety among the Protestant groups about the exact role of Scripture, but in general there is agreement that the Scripture records what the apostles taught. This is not to say that all books were written by apostles, but that all books were written in the earliest church and were faithful to what the apostles, still contemporaries, were teaching. The church has the duty to remain faithful to what the apostles taught, neither adding to it nor subtracting from it.

The weaknesses:

Roman Catholics

Rome does claim the authority to go beyond what is written in the Bible. But does the Church have authority to go against something in the Bible? The question becomes more interesting if we view the Bible as a record of what the Church taught. If the Church wrote the Bible as a teaching instrument, then why would there come a time when the Church needed to teach something different? If the authority for the Bible is the Church, and if the authority for the later teachings is the Church, then how and when and why did the teachings of the Church change?

There are other kinds of questions too, that involve either questions of church practice or questions of actual historical events: Since Peter was married and is considered the first Pope, why can't other popes be married? Or if nobody ever asked Mary whether she remained a virgin until the end of her life, on what basis is there a teaching involving that?


The most obvious Achilles' heel of the Protestants is the doctrine of the Trinity. While it is easy enough to find verses that support the idea of the Trinity from the Bible, and it is common to extrapolate the Trinity from those verses, the fact remains that the Trinity is nowhere explicitly taught in the same way as things like the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the dead. If the Trinity is accepted without being explicitly taught, why not other things?

Another, less obvious issue again has to do with questions of changing doctrine. Take, for example, the previous discussion of controversies over creation and evolution: many Protestants have decided that it is a mistake to believe in a literal six-day creation. Is that "literal six-day creation" to be considered a mistake in the Bible, or a mistake in the early church's interpretation? On the view that it is a mistake of some kind, how does someone hold that view without savaging those who hold to the ancient interpretation (or, as those groups would say, hold to the plain meaning of the text)? Is there any way to come to an authoritative agreement over interpretations of the Bible, if the authority resides in the Bible or the apostles or God but not in the church? Is there any way to preserve unity with those who disagree?

Common Problems

In the early years of the Christian church, the two views were not so different: whether the Bible teaches what the church teaches, or whether the church teaches what the Bible teaches. At this point, while Roman Catholics and Protestants have gone down their different roads, we are both meeting the same kinds of problems. Some problems have to do with changing teachings: the question of whether we should change, and on what authority. Other problems have to do with claiming that there is an unchanging basis, in the face of these kinds of changes. And the question of making a change is a question that both groups face: if we don't have some unchanging basis, then what defines us?

As Christians, we are ultimately Christ's people. But can we agree on what that means for what we teach?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dark Nights of the Soul

I cry out, O God, but you do not answer. I stand up, but you merely look at me. (Job 30:20)
It's easy to understand why Job had a "dark night of the soul". He had enjoyed many blessings: prosperity and family and health -- and respect. The blessings were all taken away. He suffered punishments or curses or destructions that he had not deserved. His accuser had wondered: Had Job only loved God because of his easy life? So every shred of ease and comfort was taken away from him. But there are those who have easy lives who still have the same despair:
Meaningless, meaningless. Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless! (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
This is often thought to have been written by King Solomon. He had wealth, power, ease, prestige, home, family. He had achievements to his credit. His name and reputation would long outlast him. He had every worldly blessing. And he found them all meaningless.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)
Now that may be the most famous of all the dark verses of the Bible. King David may have voiced it first, but most strikingly, Jesus voiced it from the cross.

When we don't talk about the "dark nights", I think we do ourselves and each other a disservice. We think we're alone. We don't realize that the dark nights may actually be where we have the most company.
A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3, on the Messiah to come)

(For those wondering -- the occasion for writing is a friend at church who pulled me aside this morning because he has been going through a season of dark nights. And he knows that I've struggled with that too, so he knows he can talk to me when he is going through it himself.)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Teenage Sunday School: Introduction to Revelation

How do you introduce teens to a book like Revelation? We covered things like:

Basic orientation

  1. There is not complete agreement on what the book of Revelation means. There may never be complete agreement on what it means during the course of human history. 
  2. The book of Revelation was not accepted in the earliest days of the church. One reason was its use by various "doomsday" groups. It's necessary to take peoples' predictions of the end times with a grain of salt. 
  3. It is symbolic, and to some extent mysterious. It is presented as a vision, and not everything in that vision is explained. 
  4. It is a very visual book. (After like the third time that a keen insight had been offered by one or the other of the two brothers in my class who are manga artists, and a similar number of "puzzled" episodes from the verbal-thinkers, I pointed out: because the book is largely filled with images and imagery, the visual thinkers have the edge here over the verbal thinkers. That their usual roles in class may be reversed while we study such a visual book, as the people who think in pictures may well understand faster than the people who think in words.)

Introduction to Number Symbols

Asked them to name symbolic numbers in the Bible. We discussed 3, 7, 12, and 40. (We'll get around to 4 and 10 later; this is was meant as an introduction to the idea of symbolic numbers.)

  • Examples of 3: Trinity, "Holy, Holy, Holy": 3 as symbolic of God and holiness. 
  • Examples of 7: Sabbath. (Also: sabbath year, Jubilee, 70x70 of the wait for the Messiah; 70x7 of Jesus' forgiveness). The theme of blessing, rest, forgiveness. Also the sevenfold Spirit of God. 
  • Examples of 12: Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve apostles. The basic idea is the people of God. 
  • Examples of 40: 40 days and nights of rain, 40 years in the wilderness (Israelites), 40 days in the wilderness (Jesus). The theme of purification, judgment, repentance, dedication. 

Mentioned to them that some things were also in numeric code. They were all familiar with the simple children's code where 1=A, 2=B, 3=C and so forth. Mentioned that there were parts where a similar code seemed to be in use for the identity of the big villain of the piece, whose number was 666. That there was a "letters for numbers" scheme in Hebrew, and in Greek, and in Latin -- which makes it even trickier to figure out what the "666" may have originally meant.

Exercise: The Letters to the Churches

Because we had done an awful lot of talking, we did something participatory next, which meant not taking the text completely in order. Each student was assigned one of the letters to the 7 churches to read silently, and as they read the letter, they were to look for two things:

  1. How is Jesus described in the letter? Look at the beginning of the letter where it describes who it is from. 
  2. What is promised to the people who hang in there through the hardships and overcome? Look towards the end of the letter where it says, "To him who overcomes, I will ...". 

We then went around the room twice: first, each person said how Jesus was described in their letter. Mention that the way Jesus is introduced in each letter is related to the message that each individual church is receiving. (For instance, in one letter where Jesus is described as more angry-looking than others, the text of the letter includes that the church needs some serious correction, kind of a "kicking-tail-and-taking-names" kind of letter.)

Next, each person related the promise that was given in their letter. Afterwards, asked for comments about peoples' favorite promise.

Images and Concepts from the Letters

We spent some time discussing the images and concepts from the readings:

  • manna (God's providence, lasting food, Jesus as bread of heaven)
  • tree of life (eternal life)
  • being blotted out of the book of life (judgment)
  • double-edged sword (usually refers to God's word. Sword as a defense for the good and a danger for the evil -- both between people and within ourselves)
  • Hades (Greek origins and borrowed here, land of the dead where people were waiting for the end of time)
  • Second Death (wait on that one, don't want too many spoilers for the end of the book)

Here the keen contributions from the visual thinkers were the plainest. We also talked about how images can mean more than one thing, that in some ways images can carry more meanings than words. With words, sometimes we try to be precise and mean exactly one thing. With images -- and the images used here all have a long and rich history -- they'll find that one image carries all the meanings of the thing itself, and all the histories where it has ever appeared, along with it. The use of images gives the book multiple layers of meanings from the same verses. Just because you have found one meaning in an image, you may not have found them all.

Introduction to the Vision

We went back to the earlier part of the book and read the introduction to the vision. They all picked up on how many things mentioned in the introduction had also been brought up again in the letters. Some discussion of the "angels of the churches" and different ways that could be understood. How a lot of the imagery -- like the robe and the sash and the lamps -- went back to Moses and the tabernacle. How, as the lessons continue, they will often see images that have come up before in other places in the Bible.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Just for fun: Gracepoint versus Broadchurch

I made a few predictions before Harry Potter book 7 was released, and I got more right than wrong. So I'll try again here.

I am an unapologetic devotee of the groundbreaking, profoundly moving British crime drama series Broadchurch. It is the mostly deeply and thoroughly human crime drama I've ever seen. As Fox kicks off the official first episode of the American remake this week, I plan on watching that as well. (David Tennant is reprising the lead, though without his usual Scottish accent. The rest of the characters have been recast.) They say there's a different ending, hinting at a different killer. Here are my thoughts on the likely differences in the two shows.

Warning: While there aren't full-fledged "spoilers" in here for either series, there is some open speculation here about "whodunnit" in the American version which I have obviously not seen yet, and that does contain some information about who didn't do it in the prior British version. So don't read if you don't even want hints.

There are some things that they simply had to change if they were going to do an American remake. The dad's best friend won't be named Nigel, and probably nobody will poach pheasants or own a crossbow. Those things just wouldn't work if the story were set in the U.S. It was also predictable that the cast would have a little more racial variety over here, since the U.S. has more racial variety than the U.K. (The crime affects the Solano family in the U.S., where it was the Latimer family in the U.K.)

Other things that probably wouldn't happen in a U.S. remake:

  • The lady detective crying so often. That's not simply against some PC etiquette for how professional women are portrayed; it's also fairly unrealistic for how an American lady detective would handle herself in the professional world. 
  • The minister being portrayed positively. Most U.S.-based shows, if they portray Christians at all, portray them at least somewhat negatively. Think Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, or Angela Martin from The Office. 
  • The lady detective having huge and glaring blind spots that compromise her professional judgment, as part of the plot. While blind spots could happen to anyone in the real world, it's somewhat against PC etiquette for how professional women are portrayed on TV or in film, especially if their blind spot relates to them being somewhat emotional and naive. (As we have already seen in the previews for Gracepoint, in the U.S. version the lady detective does not get passed over for a promotion at the hands of a lady supervisor, but at the hands of a male supervisor, and does not react by pouting in a bathroom stall.)

As it affects the crime and "whodunnit" though:

There were only 3 strong suspects in the British version (er, ok, 2 strong suspects and the surprise of who really did it). If they're going to change "whodunnit" for the American version, you can bet they won't change both the race of the actor to non-white and then make him the criminal too; that's not likely to happen. So my bet is that, in the U.S. version, "whodunnit" will be the other remaining suspect: the Christian minister. (The main pro -- and the main con -- of that choice are the same thing: given some of the undertones of the crime, hanging it on a preacher or priest would be predictable.) But another con: dramatically, the preacher is a far weaker choice for "whodunnit" than was made in the British version, where the killer was known and trusted by quite a few people, which led to some amazing reactions as the town realized who had actually committed the crime and how they had trusted the killer. In the British version, the innocent-but-suspected vicar is somewhat of an outsider. So while it would have been shocking if he had done it, still not to the extent as when the true killer was revealed. If they want to keep the absolute thunderstruck reaction of having known and thoroughly trusted the killer, if it's the preacher then they'll have to make him more of a part of the action, or risk losing all the drama when people realized that they knew the person who did it. I actually hope they keep the original identity of the killer in the U.S. remake. Some of the character arcs and relationships were deeply affected by the killer's identity.

So that's my best guess (and wishlist) for how Gracepoint might unfold.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Learn to love our neighbor: The most basic forms of love

As Christians, we're on a mission to join God in loving the world. So when we talk to someone or meet someone, where do we start? What are the most basic starting points for building love? Here are a few:

  • Noticing someone: If we look past someone without seeing them, without recognizing their importance, we have not loved them. If we recognize another person, notice them, consider their worth, then that is a simple form of love. So even taking time to acknowledge someone is a form of love. Jesus may have been pointing this out to us when he reminded us to greet other people, and not just those who love us in return.
  • Recognizing the good in someone: If someone has made an effort, developed a skill, or has a natural gift, it is worth recognizing. When Paul tells us, "If there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things," we might also think enough to mention it to the person who inspires us. It may be just an extension of what Paul wrote on love, and thinking on these things may develop an eye for kindling love.
  • Recognizing ourselves in the other person: Any two people have something in common. We all share our humanity. If the foundation of love is loving others as ourselves, and the foundation of mercy is treating others as we want to be treated ourselves, and the foundation of justice is likewise built on the idea that we are all alike and should be treated alike, then it follows that one of the keys to understanding, to all of love and justice and mercy, is to recognize ourselves in the other person, and them in us.
  • Understanding: There are few gifts that touch us as much as when someone else understands us. It may be that they take the time to listen to our life story, or take the time to ask how we are and actually listen to the answer. It is the first way in which we fulfill the command to share each others' burdens.
  • Warmth: There is a simple hospitality of spirit that Jesus demonstrated to us, something that drew people and made them feel welcome, and at home, simply to be in his presence. In every home that feels like home, there is a warmth and an acceptance that is the heart of that home. We take that spirit into the world with us. 

If you all were to leave comments helping me figure out what else I could add to the list, I'd be grateful.

Take care & God bless

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ

It isn't often that I write about a piece of fiction; I believe this is the first time I have ever quoted the thoughts of the director who made the movie adaptation of a piece of fiction. But when reading Roger Ebert's biography of Martin Scorsese, I chanced across some comments by Scorsese about the book The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Scorsese's film version stirred controversy, to say the least. It has been many years since I saw it, and I have not read the book, so I'm not sure how faithful Scorsese was to Kazantzakis' vision. I wanted to share his comments because I was surprised -- and touched -- by Scorsese's view of the original book, and particularly his view of Jesus' last temptation on the cross. Below is an excerpt from an interview between Scorsese and Ebert. (Ebert came across as harboring some resentment, dislike, or antagonism towards his own Roman Catholic upbringing; Scorsese did not come across that way so much; he was likewise raised Roman Catholic. That tension was a recurring theme in the biography; it does play out here in a minor way in the interview.)
Scorsese: We just wanted to make him [Jesus] one of us, in a sense. ... Christologically correct, they call it, that Jesus is God and man in one. That's the one thing we assume, okay, bang, we go in with that and Kazantzakis too, you know, in the book. And the idea that, if it's man, then he has to be afraid of dying. 
Ebert: And he has to be capable of lust. 
Scorsese: And he has to be capable of everything. And what I thought was so great -- so great -- about Kazantzakis's book was that the last temptation is not for riches or whatever; it's just to live the life of a common man, to have a family, to die in bed and that sort of thing. It's almost a love that he has for mankind, you see. The love that he has for us. That's the idea. And in order to die he has to know what we go through. If he doesn't know what we go through, what good is God, you see.  
So what did the fully human Lord think about, when his enemies taunted him to come down from the cross, and he had begged for the cup to pass from him? I think that Scorsese was right about this: it is possible that there was a last temptation born out of love for us, and love of life, and fear of death. It's what it means to be fully human.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Teenagers and some thoughts about "Honor your father and mother"

My regular readers will know that I teach a teenage Sunday school class. Today's main consideration was "what the law of God is really for" -- where God so loved the world and we join him in loving the world; where God does not ask us to bow down to him (rather than the idols) but asks us to do right by our neighbors; where we are called to build a good life, build a loving family, build a community that is secure and supportive and stable; where God gives us the pattern that enables us to do that.

But in a class of teens, the call to "honor your parents" deserved a moment's consideration. Younger children can have a very deep trust in their parents, and a deep dependence. As teenagers, that's changing. The class is full of people who are either young adults or within a short time will become young adults. I asked for a show of hands how many of the teenagers could name one thing -- anything -- that they now did better than their parents. As I kept naming the hobbies and interests of my students, and began including things like working electronics, soon every hand in the room was raised. And I mentioned that by now, all of them had seen their parents make mistakes; it's human, and everybody makes mistakes. (I should add, by now I expect everyone has asked their parents a question to which they don't actually know the answer.)

So with the naive trust of a child now ruled out, a teenager is going to look at their parents as more human, closer to equal. (It does help to look at them as equal, and not give into the temptation to dismiss them as worthless simply because they're imperfect. We are all imperfect too.) So these  teenagers still living at home may need some thought about why to trust their parents' judgment. We considered experience: that the teenagers may be young adults, but they're newbies, and newbies make mistakes. We considered that parents have had years and years to see how certain things work out in the real world, and do have a better idea about how some things work out in real life. And if they're trying to teach you something, it's because they want to spare you learning it the hard way.