What to Do about Bad Guys

There’s been a lot of talk about gun control here in the States since the Sandy Hook massacre.  I know people on both sides of the debate and have seen some interesting points on both sides, but I have found one line of logic to be particularly troubling.  It’s best encapsulated in this little meme here:

Yes, I get it, thank you.  And I disagree.  But no, I’m not stupid.

The argument underlying this one is that the best solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  The problem at Sandy Hook, see, was that nobody there was armed except the bad guy: Adam Lamza.  If the principal or a teacher had had a gun, too, then the bad guy would have been stopped sooner.  So we should give the good guys the guns so that evil is vanquished.  Peace, through superior firepower.

Incidentally, you can see this kind of logic in all kinds of other places, too.  For example, with American foreign policy in Syria.  What do we do when the bad guy (the Syrian dictator) is killing innocent civilians?  The answer: give the good guys guns so that they can vanquish the bad guy.

Do you get it?  Or are you stupid or something?  Any idiot can understand this logic.

(Then again, maybe that’s the problem.)

The nice thing about this line of reasoning is that it makes the world so simple.  See, since the dawn of time, mankind has been caught in an epic battle between good and evil.  Every man and woman must take a side.  Will they be good guys or bad guys?  Bad guys will always try to perpetrate evil on innocent people.  So the good guys must always work to imprison or kill the bad guys.  That’s the way it has been since the beginning.

See, here’s what you do to achieve peace.  It’s real simple:

  1. Figure out who the bad guys are.
  2. Find them, and either
  3. Kill them (always preferable) or (if you must) put them in jail.

Seriously, how many movies have you seen where this is the exact plot?

The question that this is answering is one that’s provoked every time we see the innocent dead: How do we respond to evil?

What’s frustrating about Sandy Hook for people using the Kill the Bad Guy approach is that the answer doesn’t make itself apparent.  The Bad Guy already killed himself, so we can’t kill him.  But, by God, we will make sure that we can kill the next one—and we will put a gun in the hands of every teacher in order to do so.

Can I suggest one tiny thing?  Kill the Bad Guy is certainly one response to evil.  But it is not a Christian response: that is, it is not one that makes sense inside a Christian worldview.

Certainly, we can agree that this is not the way Jesus responded to evil?  A brief quote from the man himself:

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also [ . . . ]

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

If the world’s response to evil is “Kill the Bad Guy”, Jesus’ response seems to be, “Love the Bad Guy”.

This response, of course, seems like foolishness to the Greeks.  Is evil to just be allowed to run wild?  Surely if the good guys do nothing, then evil prevails.

There’s lots to say, more than a blog can contain.  But let me suggest that within a pagan worldview (yeah, I said it: pagan), the answer to violence is always more violence.  Escalation is inevitable, because the Enemy must be taught a lesson.  But it seems that Jesus says that the answer to the death-dealing power of violence is the life-giving power of love.

It seems that the primary battle Jesus saw in situations such as this one was not “Good Versus Evil” but “Hatred Versus Love”.  And when we look at things through that same lens, everything changes.  Meeting hatred with hatred seems ludicrous.  Meeting death with death looks insane.  For you can not defeat violence with violence any more than you can drive out darkness with darkness.

Bringing it home, then: what is the Christian response to Sandy Hook?

There’s lots to say, but I’ll start here:

  1. Think of someone in your life who is mentally ill: autistic, schizophrenic, manic depressive, take your pick.
  2. Go find that person.
  3. Love them like you do your best friend.

Test Post

This is just a test to see what things look like around here.

Why the Church Needs Women

Maybe it’s just the circles I travel in, but I’m feeling lately that less and less people are willing to put up with misogyny in church.  Have we reached a tipping point in our debates about gender, or is it just me?

Take this, for example.

Last week at his annual Desiring God conference, John Piper gave some remarks on the year’s theme, God, manhood and ministry.  Among them:

“For the sake of the glory of women, and for the sake of the security and joy of children, God has made Christianity to have a masculine feel. He has ordained for the church a masculine ministry.”

The comments (read them in full here) provoked not a little controversy.  One of my favorite bloggers, Rachel Held Evans, decided—wisely, I think—to withhold her own response, instead asking her male readers to write a blog post which “highlights the feminine images of God found in Scripture or that celebrates the importance of women in the Church.”

I’m happy to oblige.

Here’s the gist of it: women are living, breathing witnesses to the truth about human nature who in their very bodies direct God’s Church away from idolatry and heresy and toward true Christian faith and practice.

And here’s why.

The Greek culture within which Paul preached was fundamentally Platonic in its outlook.  The Greeks despised the ‘material’ world for the sake of the ‘ideal’.  They believed that the immaterial soul was ‘imprisoned’ within the material ‘body’, and that virtue consisted in forsaking the body for the sake of the soul.  Along with this worldview came a very specific hierarchy of being: at the top was God or the gods, who were completely immaterial; just below them were men; and much further down were women and animals.  The more closely tied something was to its body, the less value it had.  Women, because of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, and so on, are much more closely tied to their bodies, and so were considered further away from virtue, reason, and truth.  In Socrates’ day, the Greeks despised women and upheld men so much that they considered the ‘purest’ form of love and affection to be that between men and boys!  Why?  Because women were base and impure.  It was shameful to associate with them more closely than necessary.

Now.  All of the early heresies that orthodox Christianity rejected can best be understood as a misappropriation of early Christian teaching into a Greek worldview.  The Greeks simply couldn’t grasp the idea of worshipping someone who had an actual body: the Gnostics, for example, taught that Jesus came to teach us how to escape the body through secret knowledge (gnosis), similarly, the Docetists taught that Christ only appeared to be a human being, and never actually became a human body(the Greek word dokeo means ‘to seem’).  Christ’s corruptible, human flesh was, in St. Paul’s words, foolishness to the Greeks.

There’s been a lot of good studies (see Richard Beck’s work here) showing that psychologically, we in the West have yet to overcome our Greco-Roman worldview.  We simply can’t imagine a God who eats, drinks, shits, gets the flu, and dies like the rest of us.  We don’t want our God to be vulnerable. 

Yet that God the Son was actually made flesh is essential to Christian orthodoxy.

What’s this got to do with women?  Well, in one respect, the Greeks were right: women (generally) are much more in touch with their bodies than men are.  Women menstruate, women give birth, women nurse children.  Their bodies are intimately tied into the ongoing cycle of life and death that is an essential part of being human.

Men?  Not so much.  Men tend to ignore their bodies or think of them as secondary to their actual identity: a vestige of the old Greek way of thinking.  Men tend to idolize invincibility, invulnerability, and immortality—men aspire to be heroes, or better, to be gods.  We don’t like women because we associate women with limitation, with vulnerability, and with all the trappings of human flesh.  (You can still see this in the Church today, where women’s bodies are often considered to be a source of ‘temptation’ which ‘distract’ men from focusing on ‘spiritual’ matters.)

Here’s the point: women remind us men that we, too, are flesh.  In doing so, they encourage us men to accept our limitations and our humanity, and thus, to accept the salvation that comes in the flesh of Jesus Christ.  It is women who lead men into God’s kingdom.

In communing with women (particularly as spouses, but also as family and friends), men tie themselves more intimately to the rhymes and rhythms of human flesh.  And that’s a good thing, because when we do that, we image God more fully.

For God did not consider woman’s flesh as something to be despised or ignored or covered up.  No.  God selected it to be the very vessel of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  God saw fit to honor women by entering the world through one of them.  God partnered with a woman, in her flesh, to become flesh.

All that icky uterus stuff the West devalues women for?  God was delighted to inhabit a woman’s flesh, to make it the very vessel through which God became a human being.

So, all of this talk about the Church’s ministry being a “masculine ministry”?  As if women are primarily ‘alongside’ men (read: nonessential)?  Please.  In order to bring salvation to all men, even God needed the help of a woman.  In fact, God could never have done it without her!

Women are indispensible to God’s ministry.  Therefore, women are indispensible to God’s Church.  We men need women to show us the truth about our own bodies, to reveal them to us as the very focus of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ.

Can I get an amen?

Islamics 101: “As-salaamu alaikum!”

It was the staring that caught me off-guard.

I had made it through customs without any problems, and the hour or so after baggage claim had been a frantic attempt to figure out Cairo’s public transit system, which is a whole ‘nother blog post, believe me.  Anyway, I was so out of breath and ready for a break that, finally stepping from the cool of the subway tunnel into the warmth of the railcar, I was hoping for some relief from feeling out of place, out of sorts, and way out of my comfort zone.

No such luck.  I entered a railcar crammed with Egyptians: men in dark suits and bright ties, chattering on their cell phones; little kids in Reeboks and Mickey Mouse t-shirts; their moms, most in a hijab and a long skirt; macho teenagers in flamingo-pink tees and studded jeans.  Some would not have looked out of place in Seattle—but I, let there be no doubt, looked completely out of place in Cairo, hurtling along with them sixty feet below the streets of the city.  Everyone’s gaze, inevitably, locked onto me, and wouldn’t let go.

Who in Allah’s name was the white boy with the beard?

It took me a while to figure out why they stared so—shamelessly.  The first ride I took, it was a struggle to keep from giggling.  Being the only white kid in the room was a new (and kind of fun) experience for me.  But as I learned more about the culture there, being stared at like the star of the freak show started to make more sense.

"Where's Zosel?": way easier than "Where's Waldo?"

Beards are popular enough in Seattle, but in the Middle East, they are a sign of Islamic piety, both feigned and genuine.  Members of the Muslim Brotherhood—a large, well-organized group in Egypt whose conservative influence on politics and culture there is not unlike that of evangelicals in America—whisper Qur’anic verses from under their big beards on the subway.  They also have calluses on their forehead—I kid you not!—supposedly from praying so much, but my friends told me that the look can be faked by applying vinegar, lemon juice, or something similar.  Either way, for Egyptians, a big beard means you’re a devout Muslim.  So a white foreigner sporting a beard like mine was a bit of a walking contradiction.  Like if Osama bin Laden had sported a crucifix and a clerical collar, then walked down Main Street, USA.

Not that a white guy to Egyptians is the same as Osama to Americans, but you get my point.

About half the time this situation was bearable.  I’d look around and watch as people pretended to not be staring, but then feel their eyes boring into me as soon as I looked away.  Sometimes, though, something had to be said.  A group of six teenagers, standing right in front of me, staring directly at me, for twenty minutes?  That kind of attention is more than I could bear, personally, and I needed a way to acknowledge the awkwardness and start a conversation.  Luckily for me, I knew the exact words that would do the trick.  So, whenever this happened—which was at least twice a day—I pulled out my earbuds, smiled broadly, and addressed them with the magic words.

As-salaamu alaikum!”

Instant smiles from everyone.  I had given the call; now was the response, chanted in unison:

Wa alaikum es-salaam!”

This worked like a charm.  Every time.  What’s more, it almost always began a conversation which ended with one of them giving me their contact information.  “If you ever need anything in Cairo, don’t hesitate to call.  Welcome to Egypt!”

As-salaamu alaikum (ahs-sah-LA-mu a-LIE-koom), see,  is the formal Islamic greeting—it means, “Peace be upon you!”  And it’s reply—wa alaikum es-salaam!—simply returns the blessing.  Here’s the Arabic:

"As-salaamu alaikum!"

I get tired of the casual, but often insincere, “Hey, how’s it going?” of American culture.  Everyone just says, “Fine, how are you?” and moves on without really caring.  But can you imagine greeting family, friends, and strangers with a blessing like “peace be with you”?  And saying goodbye with a simple, “peace”?  I found this way of moving in the world enchanting.  Peace—the Arabic word is salaam—was offered and received in every encounter.  I am trying to do that more often here at home.

See, the word salaam, peace, is a word with deep roots in the Islamic imagination.  And for good reason.  Check this out:

Arabic words, like in Hebrew, are built off triconsonantal roots: so, three consonants which, put in a certain order, call up a certain root meaning.  Any word built off of k, t, and b, for example, connotes something to do with writing.  You put vowels between the letters to denote the different possible meanings: kataba, for example, means he wrote, maktub means letter, kaatib means author, and so on and so forth.

The word salaam—as in, “as-salaamu alaikum”has the triconsonantal root s-l-m.  Wanna know some other words with that root?  How about Islam?  And, by extension, Muslim?  “Islam” is the Arabic word for submission, and a “Muslim” is one who submits.  So peace, in Islam, is intimately tied to submission to God’s will.  The letters of peace lie at the very core of the religion.

Pretty cool, huh?  By the way, salaam in Arabic is the same word as shalom in Hebrew.  And “Shalom!” is how you greet people in Israel.  Go figure.

The twenty-fifth chapter of the Qur’an, called “The Criterion”, has this to say about peace:

The worshippers of the All-Merciful are they who tread gently upon the earth, and when the ignorant address them, they reply, “Peace!”

Dr. Juan Cole, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Michigan, gives historical context to the verse (full post here):

The small Muslim community in Mecca faced much harassment and persecution. The “ignorant” in this verse are the militant polytheists who hate the monotheistic message of Islam. What they “speak” to the Muslims is abuse and taunts. The early Muslims viewed the times of pagan dominance as the Age of Ignorance (al-Jahiliyyah).

One name for God in Islam is al-Rahman, or the All-Merciful. This verse chooses that epithet for the divine, it seems to me quite deliberately in this context. The Muslims are the worshippers of the All-Merciful. It is implied that they are expected to exemplify this divine attribute in their own lives, and to show mercy, compassion and forebearance to others. (The root r*h*m from which al-Rahman derives implies all of these characteristics).

So what do they do when the “ignorant” Meccans curse them, taunt them, and harass them?

They reply, “Peace be upon you.” They wish their tormentors peace, and in so doing they pledge their own nonviolence toward them.

Kinda sounds like Jesus a little bit, doesn’t it?  Showing mercy, compassion, and forbearance–and all this tied up in one of the names for God!  Here’s another verse of the Qur’an, this one from the fourth chapter:

Do not say to one who offers you peace, “You are not a believer,” seeking the spoils of this life. For God has abundant treasure. You used to be like them, after all, and then God blessed you.

Dr. Cole explicates the verse (again, the full post here):

Muslims say “hello” with the phrase “as-Salamu `alaykum”– “peace be upon you.” Once the pagan, polytheistic Meccan tribes started attacking the Muslims and trying to wipe them out, the question was raised of how to repond when a pagan not connected to the Meccans greeted a Muslim.

The instinct was to refuse to accept the sincerity of the greeting, “peace be upon you,” which was also a pledge of non-violence toward the person greeted. That tendency was reinforced by greed, since if the Muslims fought these pagan strangers and won, they would legitimately be able to demand loot from them. (This was a tribal, often nomadic society, and that was the custom when tribes raided each other).

The Quran settles this dilemma. It says that Muslims are not to taunt pagans who greet them with “peace be upon you” by shouting, “You’re not a Muslim!” They are to accept the sincerity of the greeting, and are not to get so greedy for spoils that they let it affect their judgment of others. When you are offered peace, take it.

As a stranger in an Islamic society, perhaps there was some amount of suspicion surrounding my presence.  What were my intentions and purposes in Egypt?  My offering of peace—“As-salaamu alaikum!”—was, as Dr. Cole notes, also a pledge of goodwill and nonviolence.  And Muslims, in the Qur’an, are obligated to accept that pledge.  Any sort of tension that existed before these words was resolved almost right away.

I hope by now you see what I am doing.  There is a great deal about jihad, holy war, in the Qur’an, to be sure.  Lots of people in the West are fearful of anything to do with Islam because they think that that’s all there is to it: violence.  Islam is a violent faith, they’ll say.  The Qur’an is full of talk about violence and war (then again, have these folks ever read the Bible? The books are pretty similar in that regard).

But here’s my point: if you take an honest look at Islam and the Qur’an and ask which is closer to the heart of Islam–jihad or salaam–your answer is in the very name of the religion and its followers.  The answer is in the way they say hello and goodbye.  It’s right in front of you.

Just remember that next time you watch the news, OK?

Thanks for reading this, friends.  And until my next post: salaam!

How I’m Responding to 9/11, 10 Years Later


Where were you when you heard the news?

It was my second week of eighth grade, and I came upstairs after a shower to find my mother in the family room, watching the morning news.  It wasn’t unusual to find her up this early, nor, I think, to have the TV on.  Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson, and the late Peter Jennings were a welcome presence in my household at any time of day.

Last night I went on YouTube and watched nearly two hours of ABC news footage from that morning—the same footage I would have watched ten years ago.  A sudden interruption of the regular programming; Diane and Charlie tell us that something has struck one of the World Trade Center towers; then a continual stream of footage.

What had happened?  No one knew then.  Some kind of explosion.  Was it a plane?

Watching everyone try to construct some kind of meaning out of this in those first minutes, those first hours, is engrossing.  The sense of helplessness, of confusion, of fear: you could reach through the TV and feel the hackles on their neck.

And, of course, the big question:

Who DID this?

Reaching back into the memories of my eighth-grade self, this was the real question on everyone’s mind.  New words, new syllables and sounds were the first to reach my ears from a foreign region.  Someone from “The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine” was the first to claim responsibility; a senior member of the group declared their innocence soon afterwards.  Then, the real name, thrown around over shots of burning buildings and falling bodies:

Osama bin Laden.  The first Muslim name to ever reach my ears.

And the hijackers’ names: I remember one right away.  Mohammad Atta, the ringleader.  The other eighteen I pulled from Wikipedia: Waleed al-Shehri, Wail al-Shehri, Abdulaziz al-Omari, Satam al-Suqami, Marwan al-Shehhi, Fayez Banihammad, Mohand al-Shehri, Hamza al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, Hani Hanjour, Khalid al-Mindhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Salem al-Hazmi, Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al-Haznawi, Ahmed al-Nami, and Saeed al-Ghamdi.

Think of the significance of that.  A whole generation whose earliest collective memory is of nearly 3,000 dead at the hands of Muslims.  The images poured in over the next days, and weeks, and months: tanned children in dusty, dancing for joy in front of old, battered, fuzzy TVs.  Ululations expelled in the foreign tongue of a foreign land.

My first Muslims.  In my mind’s eye, I can still see Atta’s face; he was fearsome, certainly, to my eighth-grade mind, though he only saddens me now.

Issa the prophet, whom we Christians call Christ, said this: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”

Yet, how to love Mohammad Atta?

And how to love Ahmed al-Haznawi?

How do we love the foreigner, the stranger—the Other, the “not us”?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, of course.  But I think that one way to love people (even dead people, perhaps) is through curiosity.  You can demonstrate your love for someone by asking questions.  By learning.

Learning (and teaching!), done in the right spirit, is an act of love.

Almost certainly, my interest in and passion for Islam, for the Middle East and its peoples, and for how to respond as Christians stems from what I saw that morning 10 years ago.  Everyone has responded somehow—and I, in my own way, have responded (and this is so typical of me, I can just imagine my girlfriend rolling her eyes) by wanting to know.  And now, I feel another response arising within me: wanting to share.

So, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 I’ve resolved to do a better job at sharing my own knowledge (though slim!) about, and experiences (though brief!) with, a culture and people that we have in the last 10 years  made thoroughly Other, and, at times, made enemy.  It’s the best response I can think of, a decade later, to what happened on 9/11.

I’ll be doing five posts total, not including this one.  So, I hope you will click over every once in a while!  I’ve been looking forward to sharing this for a very long time, and it’s one of the ways I hope to show my gratitude towards those who empowered and encouraged me to go on my trip to the Middle East, as well as those who received me so hospitably while I was there.

May these coming posts be demonstrations of respect, honor, and most of all, love for those people.

Lenten Ideas for the Relatively Uninspired

Ash Wednesday, dear friends, is upon us!

Lent, oddly enough, is perhaps my favorite season in the church calendar.  The prayer, the fasting, the careful examination of self and society, the repentance and discipline . . . it’s my cup of tea, really.  I’m kind of depressing that way.

There are lots of different disciplines and practices a person can take up for Lent (a good list is here).  But in the post I wanted to talk specifically about fasting.

Usually we associate fasting with food.  One year I gave up coffee, for example.  Another year I gave up junk food.  This is the kind of fasting most deeply rooted in church tradition, and I think it’s an important one.  But I think the practice of fasting can be expanded a little.  Fasting, I think, is not as much about food as it is about consumption.  In the early days of the Church, most Christians really only “consumed” food.  But in 21st century America, we consume a lot more than that.  We consume all sorts of things–in fact, so much so that many theologians fear that a “consumptive” mentality is threatening the way we even think about religion, relationships, and the gospel itself.

For example, left to my own devices I spend an enormous amount of time on the internet, mainly reading blogs.  I read The Daily Dish for the news, and then look at Facebook and Twitter to see if anyone’s posted anything cool, then look at various religious and news blogs.  When I’m bored, this is what I do.  I read far more in one day than I’ll ever be able to really digest.  I am (to use a very old word) a glutton when it comes to information.

So for Lent this year, I am giving up blogs, Twitter, and online news websites.  Basically any kind of text-based online media is being cut out.  This will cut out an enormous chunk of time from my day.  Probably 2-3 hours.  I know, it’s crazy.

That’s the really intimidating thing about this: all the free time.  I can’t bear the thought of being alone with nothing to distract me.

The fear of loneliness is common to all people in all times, I think.  But we Millennials are unique in our ability to distract ourselves from this loneliness.  And we owe that to the internet.  We spend vast quantities of time online . . . and for what?  To what end?

So, here is my proposition to my peers (and any other internet addicts, for that matter): stop using the internet as a distraction during Lent.  Use the free time to practice some kind of discipline.  This will look different for different people, but here’s three more possibilities to get you started:

  • For the social network addict: use Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else you use to keep in touch only once a day, and limit your time.  Say, “I’m only giving myself one Facebook visit per day, and I’ll only be on it for twenty minutes.”  Trust me, nobody needs more than twenty minutes a day on Facebook: the rest of that time, you’re just distracting yourself for something else.  Now, what will you fill that time with?  Here’s an idea:  we all have people we’d like to have closer friendships with, but instead of engaging them we just comment on their statuses every once in a while.  How about a phone call instead?  Or better yet, a coffee date?  For Lent this year, swap lots of superficial interactions for a few, longer, more engaging ones.  You’ll be glad you did.
  • For the entertainment addict: Swear off YouTube, Reddit, StumbleUpon, or whatever your poison is, and take up something with more depth.  Instead of an hour every day checking out the coolest memes on Reddit, how about getting together a bunch of friends for a movie night once a week?  Find a friend with a Netflix account, get some popcorns, and make one night a week about enjoying a good movie with some good friends.  I promise, you’ll enjoy that so much more.
  • For the music addict: It’s pretty simple.  Stop torrenting, downloading, and otherwise consuming music.  Stop bringing your iPod with you everywhere, and learn to live with silence.  And better yet, use that time to actually learn to play that guitar, you know, the one still in it’s case underneath all your dirty laundry?  Or how about something entirely new?  How about learning to play the banjo, or piano?  In short, become a producer, rather than a consumer, of music.  That could be fun, eh?
  • For the information addict like me: give up on blogs and the news, and read a freaking book.  There’s lots of great ones out there: pick a classic.  Pick a long one, a good project.  You’ve got forty days, and that’s a long time when you’re not keeping up with twenty blogs a day.

Alright, that’s four ideas.  Anybody else got any good ones?  What should you be consuming less of this Lent?  And how are you going to use all that extra time you’ll have freed up?

To the Young, Restless, and Reformed: An Open Letter

Dear Young, Restless, and Reformed:

We need to hash some things out.  See, I was trying to avoid this conversation, I really was, because so often these kinds of things degenerate into arguments that are frankly repellent and repulsive, especially to non-believers, but it seems that there are too many of you to ignore.  You have most of the big-name pastors (Piper, MacArthur, Driscoll) and have a lot of influence in the evangelical world, of which I consider myself, in some strange way, to be a member.  So we should really talk.

I want to start out by saying that I admire your enthusiasm and your passion.  You’re good people, by and large.  I rarely meet one of you whom I don’t genuinely like.  You have a love for the Scriptures that I envy, and I wish I could quote Scripture as readily as you do when entering into a theological discussion.  And I wish I were as passionate about evangelism as you, too.  But in all of that, I have a word of rebuke, and, I think, of encouragement.

First, the rebuke:

You’re very proud.

I say this, I hope you understand, not in condemnation.  We are all proud at times, and perhaps I should take a good look at the log in my own eye before I point out the speck in yours.  The things is, I think most of you know that you’re proud.  You say this among yourselves in private, or to those you trust.  “My biggest struggle is pride,” you’ll say.  I’ve heard this a lot.  John Piper took a sabbatical this year, in part, to deal with pride.  Mark Driscoll struggles with pride.  In fact, I know that you struggle with pride because you are always talking about humility.  It’s one of your favorite topics.

And still you struggle.  And I’m wondering if you’ve stopped to consider whether there might be some deeper emotional logic behind this fact.  Because from my perspective, it makes perfect sense that you’d be dealing with pride.  You see, I think there is a certain amount of theo-logic behind this tendency of yours.

Let me back up for a second.

Can we just acknowledge this together?  The world is a confusing place.

It’s big, it’s complex, there’s  a lot going on, there’s a lot to learn.  You might even call it chaotic: at first or second glance, it seems random, meaningless, and even cruel.  All kinds of things happen that we don’t understand.  That’s stressful.  Yet we humans are, by nature, meaning-making creatures.  We are trying to figure it all out!  And that’s an enormous task.

Religion is one of the ways that we make meaning out of the world.  One thing that all religions do is order the universe.  This, in the face of a chaotic reality, is a very comforting thing.  We are comfortable with order.  We are not comfortable with chaos.  We want to make sense of things.

This would all be well and good if we agreed about what meaning can be made out of the world.  But we don’t.  In fact, far from it.  Some of us are Christians, some Hindus, some Muslims, some Buddhists, and some are non-believers.  And there are myriad other religions, other worldviews besides the ones I’ve just mentioned.  And even within Christianity there are differences.  There are Orthodox and Catholics and Protestants and Copts and Abyssinians.  And within Protestantism, there are even more differences!  There are Lutherans and Anglicans and Presbyterians and evangelicals and Quakers and Mennonites.  And just look at evangelicalism!  There are charismatics and cessationists, liberals and fundamentalists, Calvinists and Arminians, and, yes, universalists, inclusivists, exclusivists, and all kinds of in-betweenists.

In light of this diversity, can we acknowledge something else together?  The Bible is a confusing book.

A reader who comes to the Bible for the first time, without any kind of prior knowledge, is likely to be very confused.  There’s a lot of strange stories about people who lived a long time ago.  There is a God who wrestles people and appears in bushes or as three strangers.  There is a great deal about a guy named Jesus.  There are a lot of letters to some churches by a guy named Paul, and some letters after that acknowledging that much of what Paul said can be confusing.  There is a vision at the end.  There is a lot of song lyrics, and some poetry, and some ancient erotica (seriously, what is that doing there?).  There are lots of people predicting the future: sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong.

We approach the Bible in a very similar way that we approach the world: we both inherit and construct a system of meaning within it.  We, inevitably, interpret. And that is a very dangerous task.

With most other texts, interpretation is really quite harmless.  I don’t care much what sense you made out of Ulysses or Catch-22, to be honest.  But the thing about religion, and about worldviews in general, is that is makes a certain claim on us at an existential level.  It demands attention, and action.  It is of the utmost importance.  There is much at stake.  So we cling to our religion, to our doctrine, to the way we view the world, in spite of the very real possibility that, well, we might be wrong.  And, from a purely demographic point of view, we very likely are.

But we don’t like to admit that possibility, and frankly, deep down, we feel threatened by those with whom we disagree.  Don’t think I didn’t notice how in a tizzy you all were about Rob Bell’s new book.  For many of you, the video was a confirmation of what you had always suspected: Rob Bell is a heretic.  Universalism is heresy, and Rob Bell must be a universalist, so he’s a heretic.

Are you so quick to condemn?  Is it your place to judge?  Who gave you the authority to deem some to be orthodox and others to be heretics?  Many, many Christians throughout the history of the Church have believed that, in some way, God will bring all of Creation into God’s Kingdom.  Conversely, believe it or not, that doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement that you hold so dear—the one that you scorn Bell for not holding to—is a relative newcomer on the theological scene.  Bell seems to love God and the Scriptures as much as you do.  Why is he instantly an outsider if you happen to disagree?  Why not listen to what he has to say?  Is he that much of a threat to you?

You worship the same God, yet you would cast him out of your circle at the first sign of dissenting opinion.  This is hardly the treatment demanded of you by Jesus, or the Scriptures.

My suggestion is that the vehemence, anger, and frankly, hatred of your response (and you can rationalize it all you want, but I know hatred when I see it) indicates that something is deeply wrong with your perspective.  So, here is my message to you Reformed kids, or at least, the ones who struggle with pride so much:

Believe in God, not in your understanding of God.

Many of you, I think, believe more in your doctrines about God than in the true God, whom those doctrines are provisional statements about.

Trust the Bible, not your interpretation of it.

I know this is hard for you folks, saying that you may be wrong.  You, more than most, I think, are prone to an immense amount of existential anxiety—a certain gnawing fear of where you stand in the world—and doctrines that are very concrete and specific give you an incredible amount of comfort.  Being ‘right’ means that you know where you stand, and this knowledge, in a confusing and chaotic world, seems crucial to survival.

But certainty, especially of the theological variety, can be the most unforgiving of idols. As soon as we reduce God and God’s ways to a set of propositional truths about God, we stop worshipping God altogether.  We worship doctrine instead, and doctrines are as unworthy of our worship as any Asherah pole or image of Baal.

What’s worse, we become . . . proud. If we alone have the right doctrine, we alone the right understanding, then really, how silly or misguided or in error are those people who think otherwise?  Right?  I mean, how could they even believe anything else?  After all, we so obviously have the right answer . . .

You see what I mean?  It is your certainty—really, your almost cavalier cocksureness about what is true doctrine—that leads you to prideful thinking.

And now, the encouragement:

Friends, what you must recover is a deep, abiding sense of wonder at God’s mystery.  It is only in the eschaton, at the end of days, that we will know fully, even as we are fully known.  Until then, all our doctrines—whether that be universalism or cessationism or penal substitutionary atonement or anything else—are “best guesses”.  They are thoughtful reflections and meditations on Scripture, tradition, and our own experiences.

Please, please understand that God is a mystery to be encountered, and encountered in the Person of Christ, not a doctrine to explain.  Because of their provisional nature, because they arise out of this encounter, our words about this God—our theologies—must be brought forward with open hands.  They must be offered, not wielded.

True humility emanates naturally from acceptance of this fact.  We. Do. Not. Know.  God alone is Truth.

You want to be humble?  Give glory, then, to the One who is revealed not in human words, but in human form; not in what we say about God, but in what God says about us; not in the wood and clay of human doctrines, but in our own encounter with the great mystery of a human Person—that is, Jesus Christ our Lord!

It is when, and only when, we encounter this God that we can experience true humility.  For before this peculiar, mysterious God, all our words, all our doctrines become but stammers and stutters in the presence of the One Who is Holy.  In the presence of the Living God, all must fall silent.

Grace and peace to you, my brothers and sisters.  May God grant you an assurance of God’s love today, tomorrow, and the next day, too.  May you forever grapple with God’s mysterious presence.

Your friend,

Michael Zosel