Friday, January 30, 2009


This is something I've been meaning to get around to for some time: a list of the various books I've either reviewed or cited on my blog. I've also added a few books that have influenced my thinking even though I haven't directly referred to them here.

Armstrong, Karen: A History of God
Bell, Rob: Velvet Elvis
Boyd, Gregory: God of the Possible
Boyd, Gregory: The Myth of a Christian Nation
Burke, Spencer: A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity
Chapman, Patrick: Thou Shalt Not Love
Ellul, Jacques: The Subversion of Christianity
Fowler, James: Stages of Faith
Lewis, C.S.: The Great Divorce
Martin, Dale: Sex and the Single Savior
McLaren, Brian: A New Kind of Christian
McLaren, Brian: The Last Word and the Word After That
McLaren, Brian: The Secret Message of Jesus
Miller, Donald: Blue Like Jazz
Miller, Donald: Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance
Nouwen, Henri: Bread For the Journey
Nouwen, Henri: The Genesee Diary
Pagitt, Doug: A Christianity Worth Believing
Schaeffer, Frank: Crazy For God
Smith, Chuck, Jr. and Matt Whitlock: Frequently Avoided Questions
Sullivan, Andrew: The Conservative Soul
Sullivan, Andrew: Virtually Normal
Temple, Gray: Gay Unions In the Light of Scripture, Tradition and Reason
Tolkien, J.R.R.: The Fellowship of the Ring
Yaconelli, Mike: Messy Spirituality
Yancey, Philip: The Jesus I Never Knew
Yancey, Philip: What’s So Amazing About Grace?

And since there's always some smart aleck who will ask why the Bible isn't on this list, well, here it is.

There are many more books that have inspired me over the course of my life, of course - not to mention countless articles, essays, poems, stories, songs, movies, speeches and conversations - but this will have to do for now.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Chapter and Verse

Real Live Preacher has written a thought-provoking essay on the violence that so many conservative pastors do to the faith of their congregants in the cause of studying (and "believing") the Bible. When we treat the Bible like a rulebook, it almost inevitably follows that the context of any passage we seek to extract a rule from becomes secondary to our quest for concrete answers, if it matters at all.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in our tendency to read the Bible as though it were a collection of individual verses. When Medieval scholars first divided the books of the Old and New Testaments into chapters and verses, their intent was to create a useful indexing system for quickly referring to particular passages. And it is indeed difficult to imagine studying and discussing the Bible without such a helpful tool.

Their work has, unfortunately, had the unintended side effect of altering how we approach the Bible. Those chapter headings and verse markers that make it so easy to pinpoint specific items also make it more difficult to see the books of the Bible as organic wholes. When a chapter ends, we stop reading until our next study session. We memorize individual verses or sets of verses as though they were self-contained units of instruction. The Bible's broader themes may not be entirely lost on us, but it becomes far more difficult to keep sight of the forest when one's attention is repeatedly diverted toward specific trees.

Taken as individual units, many of the Bible's verses begin to look like encyclopedic entries. Our longing for a life free of uncertainty and difficult choices spurs us to recombine those verses into a rulebook that, properly followed, might release us from the burden of personal responsibility and the consequences of ill-chosen actions. The verses that don't fit into our new encyclopedia are allowed to remain, but we pay little further attention to them.

When application of those rules produces mixed results, or even harm, it becomes the fault of those harmed, since the rules themselves were "biblical" and therefore beyond reproach. Thus we reap the consequences of our dream of a life free from consequences, as the faith of many is battered and destroyed by the dictates we proclaim as God's commands.

The Bible, once a God-breathed (and therefore living) vessel, becomes a Frankenstein's monster of dissected and recombined parts, the life that once flowed through its words long gone. The role of the Holy Spirit is reduced to that of a glorified tour guide, the Infinite constrained from doing anything that isn't sanctioned by the finite. The book meant to point us toward the one we worship instead becomes the subconscious object of our worship.

Not that our idolatry and legalism can all be laid at the feet of those Medieval men who simply wanted to make it easier to study the Bible. Their work may have enabled us as we acted on tendencies that were already within ourselves, but ultimately only we are responsible for our actions, even if we did invoke God's name in the process.

Changing the way we view and study the Bible may entail a lifetime of learning (and unlearning). Truly knowing the Bible is so much more than being able to recite its verses, more than being able to discuss -isms and -ologies constructed from its teachings, and certainly more than being able to wield it like a club against those we view as sinners. Getting to know the Bible is not unlike getting to know a person; it happens slowly over time, through hundreds of conversations and often in defiance of any formulas intended to build relationship. Mere recitation of biographical facts says little about how well one actually knows a person.

And just as each person we meet can teach us a little more about God, so can each book of the Bible. But not in the declarative, authoritarian way we so often wish it would. There's beauty and untold mysteries waiting to be discovered, if we're willing to set aside our own agenda and take the time to find them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wisdom From a Starbucks Cup

Beware of turning into the enemy you most fear. All it takes is to lash out violently at someone who has done you some grievous harm, proclaiming that only your pain matters in this world. More than against that person's body, you will then, at that moment, be committing a crime against your own imagination.

-Ariel Dorfman

Friday, January 09, 2009

Life Soundtrack 11

Viva La Vida, by Coldplay - my favorite song of 2008 and a beautiful study of the folly of investing one's life in the pursuit of power and glory. Best lyric:

Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh, who would ever want to be king?

Saturday, January 03, 2009


One of the topics that Doug Pagitt tackles in A Christianity Worth Believing is the issue of biblical literalism. I've addressed the problems with treating the Bible as a rulebook on enough occasions that there's little reason to repeat those arguments here, but Pagitt throws an interesting twist into the discussion:

I've come to believe that this battle has little to do with the Bible and more to do with certain beliefs many Christians want to keep intact. The Bible becomes justification for their position. This is particularly true on the topics such as homosexuality and the role of women.

I know that saying this is going to raise some hackles, but I think there are people who argue for an "inerrant" authoritative understanding of the Bible to support their prejudiced feelings about homosexuals. I know they would deny it, and they have done so to me many times. They would argue that it works the other way - the Bible teaches certain ideas about homosexuality, so that's what they believe.

Maybe so. But it just seems so odd that their beliefs on other biblical topics are not so pronounced. I have rarely had a conversation about the ills of gossip based on the authority of the Bible. I've had even fewer conversations in which people suggest the church should be actively working to eliminate obesity as a form of gluttony because the Bible clearly condemns it. Nor are people concerned about slander simply because Paul warns against it. And despite the Bible's deep and continual concern for the poor, I rarely have conversations in which people use the authority of the Bible to make a case for economic justice.

But on the issue of homosexuality, something strange happens. If the subject at hand is the authority of the Bible, someone invariably asks what I think about homosexuality. If the subject is homosexuality, someone invariably asks what I think about the authority of the Bible. There must be some connection. It makes me wonder if people would argue about the authority of the Bible if it had nothing to say about homosexuality. [pages 63-64]

It's nothing new to point out how inconsistent most conservative Christians are when it comes to teaching and obeying biblical commands; divorce and remarriage comes immediately to mind, as does greed. Some sins really are worse than others in the eyes of many Christians who publicly insist that all sins are equally bad, and the most plausible explanation is that they're allowing their personal feelings to influence their theology to at least some extent.

I've witnessed, on more than one occasion, the faces of otherwise warm and hospitable individuals twist in disgust when the issue of homosexuality came up. Had they known that not everyone around them was heterosexual they almost certainly would have tempered their reaction. It was, however, far more instructional to witness their honest feelings on the subject - feelings too visceral to be adequately explained by the existence of several Bible verses that appear to condemn homosexual behavior.

In answer to Pagitt's query I suspect that the conservative evangelicals I know would believe in biblical inerrancy even if the Bible were explicitly gay friendly. Whether their opinions about homosexuality would actually be any different is a separate issue; for many it probably would make a difference. For the rest, it's never too difficult for those who see the Bible as as rulebook to read whatever rules they want to find into the text, all the while insisting that they're simply repeating what the Bible says.