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Physicians and Quacks, Lovers and Gigolos, Investment Counselors and Con Artists

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My assertion that, viewed biblically, salvation is contextual – that God meets us with it in our time, place, and situation of need for deliverance, release, healing, or revitalization – may seem similar to the blessing-dispenser view of God preached by the prosperity gospel evangelists, but, no, the two stand in opposition to each other. They are opposed to each other in much the same way as the honest lover and the gigolo, the legitimate investment counselor and the con artist, or the prophet who speaks unwelcome truth to the powerful and the false prophet who supports the king’s ambitions and pretenses. Jeremiah declares of such false prophets, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14 NRSV) There is the problem with the prosperity gospel’s always friendly and supportive blessing-dispenser god. Like a quack rather than a real physician, this false god treats people’s wounds lightly, with a little conscience salve and assurances of blessings to come when the bill is paid. To be healed, the patient of a true physician must confront the illness and accept treatment that may prove painful. To receive valid salvation within the context of the real need for it, a person or a people must face the full negativity of their dilemma and face also their own part in it.

Even the Hebrew slaves, who certainly had not enslaved themselves and so were not at fault, had to learn, upon being set free, to see and admit their own slave mentality in order to leave it behind. Their masters no longer provided them with meat or even water. They had to step up to thinking and living as free people. Light, pleasant healing is seldom enough for deep wounds. The problem of the former slaves was not guilt but a complex combination of shame and dependency. They had been abused and yet rendered dependent upon their abusers. Salvation meant escaping the abusers and the false security of dependency with its old habits of self-protecting and pleasing, of making peace where there was no peace.

I want to keep this post short because it is hard – not so much hard to understand as to accept. Healing can hurt. Liberation requires release from the oppressor and from the self that has been forced to adjust to being the oppressed. Receiving hope necessitates letting go of false hopes and dreams often long-held. What has been comforting must be rejected as false comfort or at least as no longer appropriate to the new, liberated situation. Guilt over having adjusted to the imposed oppression is probably neither fair nor helpful, but facing the shame and dependency is likely necessary however difficult. Unrecognized self-hatred must be faced to be left behind.

The theologian Douglas John Hall whose books serve as my springboard for this series of blog posts has written that the majority cultures in current North America, particularly in the United States and Hall’s own Canada, continue to want to see themselves as heroic even as they find themselves increasingly slipping into depression and despair. In his analogy to Greek mythology, we want to see ourselves in the image of Prometheus who boldly stole fire from the gods to become humanity’s benefactor, even as we live more and more in the image of Sisyphus who was condemned to roll his great rock up the hill again each day while knowing he would never get it to the top but would end the day feeling it slip from his grasp and then watching it roll back down the hill to await his repetition the next day of the same pointless labor.

Biblically, salvation is always responsive to the need of the time, place, and situation. The Word, the truth of God, meets us where we are and enters into our situation in solidarity with the afflicted, the oppressed, the trapped, the outcast, and the defeated. That same salvation may come also to the oppressors, abusers, slavers, and privileged who steal life from their victims, but it is even harder for them to accept it as salvation when it topples them from their falsely exalted positions and so feels like an outrage. For both oppressed and oppressor, the goal is healed humanity set right, but it may be easier to be lifted up to valid humanity than to be knocked down to it.

The biblical understanding of salvation as this-worldly, contextual, and relational raises many question and challenges for Christendom-style, triumphant Christianity. More to come.

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For the World

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Biblical faith is not escapist. Neither is it world-hating. Because, however, love moves from the particular to the whole – from the person loved to the world loved – it always has been tempting for those who feel chosen or called to isolate themselves in some sort of purity and security, closing their hearts to the rest of humanity and the rest of creation.

Biblically, to be chosen means to be called out from among the many, not honored as superior, and then to be sent back among the many as a servant of God’s love for them, even when that love is angry or grieved. The Creator loves the creation. Israel is called to become a light to the nations, a banner of hope, a representative of God’s steadfast love for all earth’s peoples. The human is created in God’s image and likeness for the stewardship of representing God’s love and care for all the creatures and the very earth itself.

Salvation is always personal because love is personal and particular. Parents recognize the pricelessness of all children through their love for their very own children. Their empathy for strangers’ children draws strength from their compassion for their own. That’s how love works.

Jesus Christ sends his disciples into the messiness of the world, just as God sent the earlier prophets into the messiness, suffering, and corruption of the marketplace and the centers of political power. Salvation is not escapist, and when Christianity presents salvation as escape from this world, we have corrupted our message and thwarted our calling.

If we are chosen, it is because God’s eye is on the world. Yes, we are called to be different – to think and act differently from the ways of the society in which we live – but for the sake of that society. If, instead, we retreat into Christian enclaves, surrounding ourselves with (like-minded) believers and avoiding others except, perhaps, to give them aid in our benevolence (most often from a distance, without actually going among them), we are putting the light Christ has given us under a basket (Matthew 5:15) so it illuminates nothing for anyone but shines only for itself and likely soon goes out.

Current end-time Christianity is both escapist and world-hating, longing to be “raptured” out of the world, leaving (the “late, great”) earth to be burned to a crisp. But that end-time sectarian Christianity is only the extreme of Christian escapism, popular and dangerous as it has now become. Any Christian faith turned inward upon itself and seeking to keep its hands clean from the dirt of the world is aborting its calling to follow Jesus Christ. We are not chosen for obsession with our own purity, neither of morals nor of doctrine. We are not called to be self-consciously better than other people.

What we term the Incarnation (the becoming flesh of the Word, the relational Truth of God) means God’s truth got dirty with the dust, muck, and slime of our humanity’s degradation and suffering. Jesus never turns away in disgust from the wretched, the shameful, or the degraded. In anger he does confront the self-righteous, those contemptuous of the rabble whose sins and failings stand out in plain sight, but his anger is their chance to take another look at themselves and realize their own humanity.

If anyone is chosen, elected, saved, or called, it is not to be raptured out of the world but to be sent back into it to love it and suffer with it. The only perfection to which Jesus calls his disciples is that of love (Matthew 5:44-48). That call is to service not sentiment, to empathy not pity, to solidarity not benevolence, and to humility not grandstanding.

Now that the churches (especially but not only the so-called “mainline” Protestant churches) are being humbled by their loss of both popularity and prestige, maybe – just maybe – they can find themselves anew within the movement launched in the early church, before the Roman emperors drafted the church into the imperial systems and structures and transformed it into Christendom. For what does it benefit a church to gain the whole world but lose its soul? Maybe now that we are losing what we thought we had gained, we can discover the truth in that question.

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Salvation? What Is That?

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I said earlier in this series, “Relearning Christian Faith,” that we need to allow the gospel to expand our severely restricted view of salvation. The Bible presents salvation as something that happens for us in context – that is, within the context of human distress and need. Water is salvific for a person dying of thirst but not for one who is drowning. That example may sound trivial in contrast to the question of our ultimate destiny beyond our dying, but its implications are not trivial at all. At issue are questions of when, where, and how life matters.

If the only truly significant question in the life were how each of us will spend eternity, salvation would be nothing more than a matter of ensuring the proper arrangements were made for us before we died. This life would be meaningless aside from the decision about hereafter. Christianity departs from the Bible when it presents life that way, as merely a matter of time allotted for making the choice between heaven and hell. That stick-and-carrot means for driving us has driven us astray, thereby degrading life, love, and all that gives worth to being human in this world. Fear hell (the stick) and hope for heaven (the carrot)! Decide before it is too late because you never know when you’ll die! Get saved! And then stay saved, which has generally meant being obedient to Christian authority and giving “time, talents, and treasure” to a church or to the latest evangelist with a commanding personality and an entertaining show. No wonder that from the outside Christian faith has seemed a clever and insidious way of driving the sheep, keeping them under control, and fleecing them! It has too often and for too long been just that. But, no! Biblically, salvation is coming alive, stepping out of confinement into freedom to move, being healed, coming to a dignity that enables life and love to be shared, going forward with hope and courage. And, because human life is relational, living it involves going forward together with shared purpose and responsibility.

In the Bible, salvation is restoration to life – to freedom, wholeness, and vitality. Salvation takes many forms, depending upon the present distress of the person or people in need of saving. For the enslaved people of Israel, salvation came as exodus (stepping out) from the bondage that had kept them degraded to the level of beasts of burden. Those who were no people, subhuman, were released from their shame and delivered into freedom as God’s people, and their release required great adjustments because it made them responsible for their shared life in ways they had not been allowed to be responsible during their enslavement. For the prisoner, salvation comes as release. For the outcast, it comes as acceptance back into the family or community. For the mentally ill, as clearing of the mind. For the sick or broken, as healing. For the lonely, as friendship and love. For the childless who long for children, as conception and birth (or adoption). For the abused, as escape, healing, and dignity. For the refugee, safety and freedom in a new home. The list could go on to be as long as the list of life-threatening, life-robbing, life-diminishing distresses and agonies of being human in this world. And those last three words in the previous sentence matter greatly – “in this world” – because here is where God meets us with salvific grace.

The focus of the Bible is upon this world, not another, and upon this life. I am not denying the important role of salvation in responding to the distress of our mortality – to the human crisis of death and impending oblivion. “I believe in the resurrection of the particular person who is loved and the life everlasting.” But even distress over our mortality belongs to us in this life in this world – within the context of our actual being where we are. It is the living who fear death. The person who learns to trust God here and now will be learning to trust God also for then and forever, but the biblical focus is upon here and now.

I want to keep these posts shorter than some have been, and so I’ll hold for next time a consideration of the life-damaging consequences of falsely deferring salvation until after death. Faith, hope, and love belong in the present. We do not see what lies around the next bend in our life’s road, but we can learn to trust, and we can discover what salvation means in our present anxieties.