Shaped By Scripture: Two Different Ways of Reading the Bible

One of the most important jobs of a pastor is to share tools that will help those who want to follow Jesus grow deeper in faith and love. One thing I realized after six years of ministry is that I was asking people to read the Bible in different ways without explaining exactly what this might look like. This short article is intended to address one aspect of the frequently asked question, “How do I read the Bible?” There are two different ways of reading scripture, and both are important.

THE FIRST WAY of reading scripture is in-depth Bible Study. This way of reading seeks to understand the Bible in its original historical and cultural context. It asks questions like: Who is the author of this book? Who was the intended audience? When was it written, and what was going on culturally, politically, and socially? What is the genre of this passage of scripture, and what was the purpose of the writing? What does this word or phrase mean in Greek or Hebrew?

This way of reading scripture is an attempt to love God with our mind (to be good stewards of the gift of reason) and to draw inspiration and insight from the people of God who came before us. However, since these kinds of questions are difficult to answer without academic training in biblical studies and ancient languages, the average lay person is largely dependent on the scholarly work of others. Since this is the case, it is extremely important to get the best resources available so we can access the most accurate information.

The single best resource you can purchase to help answer these difficult questions is a good study Bible. There are some important things to consider when making your selection. First, you need to get a good translation. I recommend either the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or the New International Version (NIV). Second, make sure that the study Bible has introductions, notes, commentaries, and other helps that are informed by the most current scholarship in biblical studies. You do not want to get a Bible that uncritically parrots tradition and ignores the last fifty years of scholarly research. Third, remember that explanatory notes will usually be denominationally biased. For example, the commentary in a Catholic study Bible will differ in significant ways from a Wesleyan study Bible. You should take this into consideration when making your selection. Although there are many good Bibles to choose from, my personal recommendation for mainline Protestants is The New Interpreters Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon 2003). The Bible that you chose for study is very important because not all “Study Bibles” are equal, and if you purchase one that ignores contemporary scholarship then your learning will be fraught with misinformation. As you get more serious about Bible study and run into more difficult passages, you might want to secure a scholarly commentary or word study. Since commentaries are usually single author writings, it is important to select one that is written by a genuine expert in the text you are reading. If your pastor been trained at a reputable seminary or divinity school then s/he can help you find a solid resource.

As a Pastor, I think that this kind of in-depth Bible study should be done at least once a week, and it is usually best done in a group setting led by a competent and well-informed teacher.

THE SECOND WAY we read scripture is devotionally and meditatively. Instead of focusing on what the Bible meant in its historical-cultural context, you are reading the Bible to listen for God’s message directly to you! Instead of taking the words apart for detailed analysis, you are bringing them together in your innermost being, letting them penetrate into the most hidden corners of your heart. Prayerfully reading scripture will allow you to hear the still small voice of God so that you can discern God’s next steps for your life. This might come as a word of inspiration, healing, and comfort, or a word of conviction, correction, or judgment. It all depends on where you are and what you need to heal and grow.

In my experience, the best way to read scripture devotionally is the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. Below is a guide on how to do this, which I learned from the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit (Conyers, GA).

  1. Lectio: Carefully select a book of the Bible (e.g. Psalms, one of the Gospels, one of the Epistles). Read very slowly (like a cow chewing cud). You are not reading for information but formation. You are listening for God to speak to you through the words of the Bible, and you have to read slowly and with focus and expectation so as not to miss the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13). So, read very slowly until a word, image, or verse speaks to your heart and then stop immediately. Close your eyes and focusing on this word, image, or verse, say it over and over again slowly to memorize it in your heart. This is God speaking to you. The next day, you will pick up exactly where you left off in the Bible reading. It might take several weeks and even months to read one book of the Bible in this way. But it is more important to hear God’s voice than to finish a chapter, section, or even sentence.
  2. Meditatio: Ponder this in your heart. Ask, “Why did God speak to my heart through this word, image or verse?” Think about and reflect on it in personal and concrete ways. This will show you where you need insight, encouragement, correction, or change. It is sometimes helpful to journal these thoughts.
  3. Oratio: Enter into conversational prayer with God from the heart. Be honest about how you feel. Make a decision about how you will respond in concrete ways to be obedient. This conversational prayer leads to application in your daily life.
  4. Contemplatio: Close your eyes and clear your mind. Try to simply be with God in stillness and silence—without words, thoughts, or images. This will be very difficult if meditation has not been a regular part of your devotional life. Most will struggle with what contemplatives call “monkey mind,” the experience of restlessness and a barrage of unwanted thoughts. But continue to relax into God’s presence and after recognizing the thoughts, gently let them go. (I will be publishing on article on meditation in the near future that will be helpful for the beginner.) The main idea is to simply be in God’s presence without any agenda, knowing that God wants to spend time with you.

Whereas I recommend doing in-depth study at least once a week, daily devotional reading is most beneficial.

So if you want to grow as a disciple of Jesus, remember that both of these ways of reading scripture is important. Be intentional about setting aside some time in your busy schedule to be shaped by scripture.

(©2015 This article may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.)

How to Use Your Talents: Overcoming Fearful Inactivity

In the Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30), we see that God wants to take the good work Jesus has done in you and multiply it through you. God saves you for something bigger than yourself–to help others discover the saving love of God. But this mission of multiplication cannot be complete if we are paralyzed by fearful inactivity. In this message, I explain some contributing factors of fearful inactivity and how God’s love empowers us to move from being consumers of religious goods to producers for the kingdom of God!

What’s the Point of Life? Learning from a Rich Fool

Many people get to the end of life and realize that they have missed the point. They work hard for financial security, keeping everything they have to themselves. The love of money corrupts their character and leads to misery. Jesus explains how to avoid this trap and how to embrace a life full of meaning, value, purpose, and joy. Check out this message and learn how! (We had some technical difficulties with our camera while shooting this video, so in some places the video cuts in and out. But the audio is good all the way through. We’re working hard to get a new camera to fix the problem.

Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?

As a pastor, I am called to minister to a variety of people who have differing political views, social ethics, and interpretations of the Bible. This being the case, I try to be careful about what I say regarding polarizing issues and resist getting sucked into social media threads where people are not having intelligent conversations but taking potshots in defense of their tribe. However, after reading comments on numerous Facebook threads written by some of my Christian brothers and sisters on the issue of gun control, I cannot remain silent. Sometimes we have to risk speaking out when something important is at stake. There are some things for which we should be willing to suffer. Indeed, there are somethings for which we must be willing to die, and that it is what this article is about.

In the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME church in South Carolina, N.R.A. Official, Charles Cotton, argued in an online discussion that Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was shot and killed in the attack, bore some responsibility for the deaths because he had opposed a change to South Carolina’s gun laws that would have made it legal to carry a concealed weapon into a church. He said, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead” (“N.R.A. Board Member Deletes Criticism of Victim in Church Massacre,”, 6/19/15). While these comments were abhorrent to me, it was not totally surprising to hear this coming from an N.R.A. representative. However, what has been most shocking is the number of Christians who have adopted and expressed this view in social media venues with no critical reflection on their own faith and what it means to be a Christian.

What would it mean for us to start bringing guns into church? I am not primarily interested in whether this would result in more safety or danger for our congregations. In my opinion, to focus on the practical effects serves to obscure the real issue for Christians. Indeed, to make a decision about guns in church simply based on the practical effects without any critical reflection on the relationship between power and salvation in the New Testament is already to capitulate to the anti-Christian idea that we should secure our own existence through violence, and the more subtle assumption that salvation somehow comes through force. The idea that one might be willing to die at the hands of someone filled with hatred to be a living and breathing testimony to the love of Christ and the power of cruciform love has become unthinkable for many in our churches today. While the soil of the early church was watered by the blood of Christian martyrs who knew the saving power of love and would rather die than engage in violent retaliation, martyrdom has become completely unthinkable in most Western churches today. I am increasingly convinced that this is a root problem when it comes to questions of gun control.

To say that we should not create more sensible gun control in our country because it would make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to purchase guns to protect themselves from criminals who easily get guns illegally in the streets is to completely miss the point. Indeed, to start with the question, “How can I secure myself?” is to obscure a deeper question, “Is securing my physical safety the most important thing in life?” If the life and theology of the early Christian community has anything to say about it, then the answer is clearly, no. Our ultimate concern should not be to secure our earthly life and well-being, but to live in obedience to God, even if that means dying.

So what does it mean to live in obedience to God? Christians answer this question by looking to the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So what message is proclaimed by Jesus Christ? In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus say:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Without settling the issue on how these kinds of sayings in the Gospels can be deployed in politics, what do we do with these sayings on a personal level? How do we respond to Jesus? Was he not in some sense revealing the heart and character of God, and God’s strategy for defeating sin, evil, and death in this world? We are quick to dismiss these kinds of statements as rabbinic hyperbole, but this position is called into question when we realize that Jesus didn’t just say these things as a teacher, but lived them in a way that cost him his life!

For example, when the Romans came to take Jesus by force, which secured him for an eventual execution, Peter pulled out his sword to protect him. Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). If we continue reading in this passage, it becomes clear in the story that Jesus could have protect himself and retaliated. He tells Peter that he could call twelve legions of angels to wipe out the enemy. But this was not a practical decision aim at protecting himself; it was a theological decision based on his understanding of God and the way God works in the world. It was a moral decision based on what it means to live as a reflection of God’s character in very concrete ways. The important point here is that Jesus could have resisted or retaliated, but he chose not to! He intentionally absorbed the hatred and violence in his body as an act of self-sacrificial love, precisely to save us from hatred and violence. This is how God saves the world, not by returning evil with evil, but by returning evil with good. It was precisely by not fighting back, by becoming defense-less, that Jesus was the clearest embodiment of the love of God. It was precisely by not fighting back that the saving power of love was released for the transformation of the world. In this way, God redefines power in the cross of Jesus Christ.

It is not only with his words, but also the shining example of his life, that he calls out to us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is what it means to be a Christian, to live and die like Jesus. How can we claim to be a Christian if our life is not in some sense cruciform? How can we claim the name of Christ if we do not bear testimony with our life and death to the saving and healing power of a self-sacrificial love, which is the only thing that can ultimately conquer violence?

If you want to understand the logic of the gospel of Jesus Christ, listen carefully to these words:

“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)

Paul understood this well. As one who, prior to his conversion, used force and violence to accomplish his political, social, and religious agenda, he says after an encounter with the risen Christ, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Again, we read in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

The problem is that most Christians find the way of the crucified Messiah unthinkable. I can just hear the internal dialogue: “Seriously? Refuse to resist an evil person and become defense-less in the face of violence? Turn the other cheek? Love my enemy? Pray for those who persecute me? Repay evil with good? Be willing to die in order to bear testimony to the love and saving power of God? Absorb violence self-sacrificially instead of retaliate?  Be willing to lose my life so I can find it? Well, that’s just crazy!” I know this is a hard message to hear, and to say that Jesus’ plea, “Come and die,” is “good news” just seems nuts. But there it is, and that is why it is easier to talk about gun control than the logic of the gospel, which is not “Take up your Glock and follow me,” but “Take up your cross and follow me.”

This Gospel runs contrary to our very nature. This Gospel is offensive. This Gospel strikes a deep cord of fear in our hearts. This is one reason why Jesus says repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” He knew that once we really got what being a Christian is all about that it would terrify us. Many people want Jesus to save them from sin and hell, but they have no interest in following him to Golgatha. They want access to the power of God to secure their own existence, without a life structured by self-sacrificial love.

I remember when it was popular in youth groups to wear WWJD bracelets. While I don’t think that asking, “What would Jesus do?” provides easy answers to all of life’s questions, it can sometimes help focus us on what is most important. When thinking about the massacre at Emanuel AME church, what would Jesus have done if he were sitting in a pew when Dylann Roof opened fire? Would he have pulled a gun to shoot and possible kill this young man? Given everything I know about Jesus, I think it is safe to say “No!” Rather, I think he would have spread his arms wide in love, even if that meant giving his life to show this young man the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus would rather die (and did) than use violence in an attempt to save us from violence. The day we capitulate to fear (and the consequent lust for power) by bringing guns into churches is the day the enemy has gained the upper hand in the struggle of good versus evil.

So what is the solution to violence in our country? I don’t have all the answers, but the Gospel seems to suggest that that we need fewer gun-slinging cowboys and more people for whom martyrdom is a real possibility if they are called to show with their death the truth of redeeming love. You might think that all of this crazy, and it is according to the standards of the world. Jesus knew this when he said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). And Paul knew it too when he said, For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Brothers and sisters, it is one thing to say, “This Gospel is really hard, but I wish I had that kind of faith,” and it is another thing to say, “I refuse to accept the logic of the gospel and follow a crucified savior.” I often find myself deeply struggling with what it means to live a life of non-violent, self-sacrificial love. I am not recommending that we seek out martyrdom. The early Christians would have found this odd, because for them martyrdom is not something that we chose for ourselves, but a special calling with a special grace to witness to God’s love in a special circumstances that are in certain ways beyond our control. I certainly do not want to glorify suffering; human suffering is always heartbreaking, even when it is redeemed by God and yields unexpected goods. Like most human beings, I naturally want to defend myself and repay evil with evil. But I also want the voice of Jesus to penetrate my fear so I can clearly hear the truth, no matter how difficult it might be for me to accept. I want to have the courage, strength, and hope to follow his way, no matter what the cost. I want to grow so that my faith might shine as bright as the Christian martyrs both in the past and in the present, both at home and abroad. What would it be like to have that kind of faith? How would life be different if we were willing to fully trust God not only with our lives but also our deaths? What would it be like to drop our defenses and be so filled with love that we no longer fear death? Now that would be real power! This is the kind of power that was released when the families of those who were killed at Emanuel AME stood up and said, “I love you and forgive you!” May we aspire to have that kind of faith!

What Do You Treasure? Gaining a New Perspective

In this message, I reflect on the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). The main idea is that the Kingdom of Heaven is among us hidden in plain sight. Do you have eyes to see? Once we find this invaluable treasure of God’s presence it changes everything. Check out this message to see how!

Don’t Fight the Lazy River: Finding Spiritual Power Pockets

I just got back from vacation at Atlantis in the Bahamas. One of my favorite things to do at the resort (in addition to eating) was riding down the lazy river on a double tube with my fiancé, Emma. The first time we pushed out into the current it was surprising to discover that many parts of the river were not so lazy at all! At several points, we were pulled into class two rapids and hit with a series of big waves generated by a damn that repeatedly opened and closed with ten second intervals. About halfway around, you could get out, climb a series of stairs, and ride your tube down slides that dumped back into the river. The rapids, waves, and slides were exciting, but in between these fast places the river got so lazy that it felt like you were standing still. We even got stuck in a few places against a wall and had to paddle back into the current to get going again. Every time things slowed down, my natural response was impatience. I knew that things were supposed to slow down at various points (after all, that’s why they call it a lazy river). I also knew that the contrast between the fast and slow parts of the river made the fast sections more fun. Finally, I knew that when things slowed down if we just relaxed in the tube then the current would pick us up again. But it was hard to relax and our compulsion was to paddle ourselves back into a power pocket or jump out and walk the tube back into the fast part of the current. As we navigated the lazy river a few times, I thought of several connections with my real life.

Sometimes we are shooting the rapids, riding big waves, and flying down slides. Life is exciting and we have lots of momentum. Other times we feel like we are standing still or stuck against a wall. During these times our natural instinct is to paddle—to push, work, or otherwise exert effort to create momentum. If we are stuck against a wall then some paddling might be necessary, but don’t forget that there is a current to help you along. I really believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world creating a stream of life—a current—that moves the world in a certain direction, toward God’s preferred future. If we forget this and just start exerting a bunch of energy to get unstuck then we might find ourselves inadvertently paddling upstream, which will result in an exhaustion that leads nowhere fast. But if we remember that we live, breathe, and have our being in the stream of life generated by the Holy Spirit then we can cooperate with this current by paddling into spiritual power pockets that will launch us forward. You don’t have to create all the energy and forward momentum by yourself! The real question is, “Where are the power pockets?” and the way to answer this question is by spending time in prayer and meditation on scripture. And if you are not stuck but things are not moving as fast as you like, then maybe you don’t need to paddle at all. Maybe you just need to relax, appreciate the gifts that a slow pace provides, and trust that the current is strong enough to move you forward.

Another connection I made was related to my relationship with Emma. When you are riding in a double tube all of this stuff gets more complicated! Both people have to remember and trust the current, both have to communicate about when to relax and when to paddle, and both have to find the power pockets together. Sometimes one person is saying “Relax!” and the other person is saying “Paddle,” but when you are connected in a life-long partnership you can only move forward as a team—you have to act in harmony. This requires two people that are willing to stay in the tube together, good communication, and real patience.

Where are you on the stream of life and how can you work together with the people you love to find the spiritual power pockets that will propel you toward God’s preferred future?

It’s Dangerous to Read the Bible Too Literally: The Seeds of Religious Extremism

Civilization is being challenged by religious extremists around the world by groups like ISIS: violent invasions, the seizing of land and property, public executions, taking women captive as slaves, tearing down sacred places of worship, and destroying irreplaceable cultural artifacts. We read reports of public floggings, the imprisonment of women who are the victims of rape, the abuse of the heterodox, and the cutting off of people’s hands for petty crimes like stealing.

Most of us in the West become indignant, protest the uncivilized nature of these practices, and even sign online petitions to make our voice heard. As Christian communities in the West get news about other Christians being intentionally targeted and slaughtered in the most barbaric ways, we feel a special connection that generates empathy for the victims and rage against the perpetrators. We are tempted to think that Christianity is a religion of love and peace that serves as a civilizing force in society, while Islam is a religion of terrorism, hatred, and violence. Armed with the conviction that we are good and they are bad, our hatred is emboldened and we become blind to the seeds of the same kind of extremism and violence in our own sacred texts.

However, almost all the abhorrent practices that we condemn in Islamic extremism can be found in the Old Testament. There are too many examples to cite in a short blog post, but I implore you to read your Bible. As one example, I would invite you to read Deuteronomy 20-21 (and if you have time, go ahead and read through chapter 26). Here we read about brutal behavior that is not only considered permissible but commanded by God. By combining (1) a sense of manifest destiny as God’s chosen people with (2) a strict application of lex talionis and (3) a worldview shaped by a system of purity that requires the purging of all that is “unclean,” the author paints a picture of merciless conquest. We see the total annihilation of holy war: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This supposed divine command includes the murder of women and children! As we read these chapters, we see violent invasion and conquest, along with practices such as seizing property, forced slave labor, taking women as captives and raping them to make them unwilling wives, tearing down places of worship, and destroying religious artifacts. As we continue reading in Deuteronomy we find other barbaric practices commanded by God such as the public execution of rebellious children (21:18-21), women who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), and anyone caught in adultery (22:22). We see racism in the exclusion of some people from worship (23:1ff), divine sanction for public floggings, and dismemberment as a punishment for petty crimes. Again, almost everything that we condemn as barbaric and hateful in our protests against Islamic extremism is found in our own sacred texts if we read them too literally.

In fact, one of the primary justifications of religious extremism is the literal reading of sacred texts. This has been pointed-out repeatedly by scholarly assessments of ISIS. For example, in the article written by Bernard Haykel in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (see link below) we are reminded that “The Islamic State is a Jihadi-Salafi movement, which means that its members adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of the texts of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.” Wherever you find religious extremism that uses exclusion, violence, and fear to accomplish its purposes you will almost always find a literalist reading of sacred texts. While this is not the only cause of violent extremism, it is an important one.

While condemning Islamic extremism abroad, some fundamentalist Christians in America use a similar hermetical strategy to justify their own brand of extremism. While championing a literal reading of the Bible, most ignore almost all Old Testament laws until an ideological bear is poked. They will slog through a sea of divine commands and prohibitions in the Old Testament and quickly dismissing them as outdated or barbaric, until they find one or two verses that support their preconceived ideas about a politically charged moral issue. Once cherry-picked from their larger context, these verses are elevated to the infallible Word of God and used to condemn, exclude, and oppress perceived enemies.

It is not difficult to see that a strict literal reading of the Bible is actually reserved for a narrowly selected group of passages that can be used to justify moral (and political) positions that are developed quite independently of the Bible. Verses that are not helpful in supporting one’s ideology can be rejected as irrelevant, and those that are helpful are elevated as the inerrant word of God. So while the outward manifestations of extremism look very different when comparing middle-eastern Islamic fundamentalism and American Christian fundamentalism today, both seem to share the hermeneutical strategy of insisting on a literal reading of select passages of scripture to justify one’s extreme views.



Fear of Scarcity Should Not Determine Generosity

We live in a world of immense need, and often we are presented with opportunities to give: the offering plates are passed on Sunday morning, late night television commercials remind us of starving children, and organizations like the Red Cross launch text campaigns on social media to help those harmed by natural disaster. In moments when we are inspired to respond generously, we are tempted to think, “Finances are really tight right now and I don’t have anything to give.” This focus on lack of resources functions to silence the generous impulse. But this way of thinking in which the fear of scarcity forecloses on generous action is called into question by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 8.

In this chapter, Paul brags on the churches of Macedonia because while they were enduring a time of severe affliction and living in extreme poverty they were still filled with “abundant joy” and showed extravagant generosity to “the poor.” Indeed, Paul explains, “they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints . . .” (vv.3-4). How is this possible? How can people enduring severe affliction and extreme poverty exhibit abundant joy and radical generosity? Because they gave not according to what they did not have, but in accordance with what they did have (v.12). They didn’t start by asking, “Do I have enough to give?” which is a question driven by scarcity and fear. Rather, they started by asking, “Given what God has already placed in my hand, what can I freely share with others,” which is a question driven by abundance and gratitude. This change in perspective is exactly what is necessary to become a cheerful giver that activity reflects the extravagant generosity of God. This is the kind of giving that God desires from us, the kind of giving that makes sense of Jesus’ saying, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).

Is your worldview driven by scarcity or abundance? How would things change in your life if you focused on what you have to give not on what you don’t have to give?

Becoming a Holy Fool!

Western Christians seem hell-bent on saving themselves by intellectual work, by having the right beliefs or the correct interpretation of the Bible. Our culture indoctrinates us with the lordship of the rational mind that constantly organizes, categorizes, and analyzes in order to figure things out. Knowledge is power, so if we can figure something out then we can control it. Think about the way educators talk about students “mastering” a subject. There is much to be gained by this kind of thinking, but it can be deadly when we try to ultimately secure ourselves by means of rational control. But this is exactly what many are trying to do in the Western (especially Protestant) church. While it is difficult for us to admit, we speak out of two sides of our mouth! On the one hand we proclaim that salvation is a pure gift of love received in faith. On the other hand, we insist that salvation requires “the right” interpretation of scripture (i.e. my interpretation of scripture), or “the right” beliefs (i.e. my beliefs). So are we saved by God’s love or are we saved by intellectual work (which would be another way of trying to save ourselves)? I am not saying that systematic and constructive theology are unimportant. Nor am I saying that the content of our beliefs are unimportant; our beliefs profoundly shape who we are and how we act, for better or worse.  But I am saying that when we start tying salvation, as well as who should be included or excluded in the church, to having “the true” interpretation of scripture or “the right” beliefs, then we are slipping back into a form of works righteousness. (By the way, when someone says, “That’s not Biblical,” it is sometimes a passive-aggressive way of saying, “Don’t question my interpretation of the Bible!”)

I am becoming increasingly convinced that a big part of the solution to this problem is to balance our emphasis on the rational with a healthy dose of the contemplative. Richard Rohr says, “The final stage of the wisdom of faith is what we might call becoming a Holy Fool. Ironically the Holy Fool is one who knows that he doesn’t know but doesn’t need to know either . . . the Holy Fool doesn’t need to know. He obviously would like to know, but he is able to leave the full knowing to God” (Everything Belongs 123). Rohr calls the Western way of thinking “small mind” and the Eastern way of thinking “big mind,” and then says that true faith is a convergence of the two. This reminds me of Anselm’s dictum, “Faith seeking understanding,” with the qualification that at the end of the day we must stand silent before the mystery of God.

Many people have come to view the church with suspicion because of an apparent “bait and switch.” We say, “God loves you just the way you are and offers salvation as a pure gift of love,” and when they say, “I want this gift!” we reply, “You can have it if you interpret the Bible like we do and embrace the same beliefs (including social and political beliefs) that we do!” Indeed, social and political litmus tests come to determine who is an insider and who is an outsider, and the church builds ideological walls to keep the pollutants out! We condemn the most obvious expressions of this division, exclusion, and condemnation as distasteful (which is not really to do so in the cause of radical love), but are there remnants of Westboro-Baptist Church hiding in the corners of our hearts and churches? When you find them, they will not look anything like grace, nor will they align with Jesus’ constant command to be unified in love.

Oh how things would change if we could become more like the Holy Fool who doesn’t need to figure everything out and then use this “truth” to control, ridicule, exclude, and condemn to hell people who disagree. Oh how things would change if we could learn to be more patient with ambiguity, uncertainty, and even unknowing. I pray that we can all experience the inner freedom of not having to know (and therefore control) everything, so that we can find ways to be more unified in love.