Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tipping (Sacred) Cows

Today I wrote a guest post over at Aaron's blog. Aaron and his wife, Emily, are the ones who took me to the hospital and stayed with me during my recent appendicitis fiasco, so you should like them! Here's my post...

Recently, my husband and I said words that got people hopping at our small group. We were feeling ornery. I've never written about the topic because I don't want to be stoned for tipping over a sacred cow. But in the interest of open and honest discussion, I'd like to broach the topic with you:

A close, personal relationship with God (or Jesus)

This phrasing is so very prevalent in much of contemporary Christianity. You can hardly go to a church, retreat or Christian bookstore without hearing about this close, personal relationship that we are told is the heart of Christianity.

Here is my bias so you can understand why such phrasing concerns me: I am a copy editor at heart. I highly value accuracy. Second, I'm a strong proponent for sola Scriptura. It's the primary guide we have in a world of fallible humans and changing culture. So if it isn't explicitly in the Scripture, I'm wary of it.

In the second half of the 20th century (as far as I can tell), we developed the vernacular around this concept that we can have a close relationship with Jesus or God. (I think it might date back to this video. :) ) This idea was extrapolated from many verses such as John 15:15, Philippians 3:8, Psalm 59:16-17, and many others. We didn't really have one succinct way to express these concepts, so we developed a vernacular around it that, while not necessarily being incorrect is also not found in the Bible. (There is no verse in the Bible that talks about having a close, personal relationship with Christ or God the Father in so many words.)

I see this shift in our focus as a positive balance away from a focus merely on outward piety to a focus on genuine belief.

But here is the crux of the matter: Now, several decades later, this vernacular has stuck more than the original Bible verses it was derived from. This is always troubling for this reason: Rather than beginning with Scripture and deriving our meaning from it, we begin with the concept, "a close, personal relationship with Christ," and then approach the Scriptures to derive meaning out of them that fits within our pre-constructed framework. We are not coming to the Scriptures empty-handed to see what they might teach us; we are coming to the Scriptures pre-loaded with our thesis and looking for verses to support it.

Any scholar could tell you that this is bad scholarship. And it leaves us so very open to read the Scriptures based on our own current culture and worldview.

For example, we live in a highly individualistic society. Individualism isn't inherently good or evil, but we certainly can lean too far in one direction. Our culture tends to be self-interested rather than socially-minded. We look out for ourselves first. We ask the question, "what do I get out of this?" more than some other cultures. This can lead us to an unhealthy inward focus in many aspects of life.

I believe the negative effects of this can be seen in our concept of what it means to "know Christ." Oftentimes in discussing our "relationship with God," we can focus on our own individual, personal experience in life. We can begin to view our "relationship with God" as a means to our own cozy psychological experience. It can become very focused on how we are feeling. It can become very focused on our individual quest for a pleasant experience in this life.

It is true from Scripture that God comforts us (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) and Jesus came to give us rest (Matthew 11:28-30). Clearly, God cares about our inward struggles. But has our contemporary culture that can tend toward individualism and inward focus allowed us to focus on some verses far more than others?

Does our preloaded bent of a "close, personal relationship with God" cause us to read this passage and focus on "knowing Christ" (by which we often mean having a quiet time) at the exclusion of "participating in his sufferings" and "becoming like him in his death"?

Does our culture cause us to read this passage and focus on "the knowledge of the Son of God" at the exclusion of "works of service" and "becoming mature"?

Moreover, do we read phrases such as “knowing Christ” and “the knowledge of the Son of God” and interpret them in light of our pre-loaded concepts rather than understanding them in light of the original language and context? Do we see “knowing Christ” or “having a personal relationship with Jesus” as more than just having a quiet time, but being amazed at the “surpassing worth” of who He is and what He has done? Does our “personal relationship” fill us with wonder or is it just an item on the checklist?

I'm definitely not suggesting we chuck "knowing Christ" (a far more comfortable term to me than "a close, personal relationship with God" simply for the fact that it is in the Bible) for "works of service." It's not a matter of faith versus works.

It's a matter of recognizing that we are, nearly at every turn, influenced by our culture and by our presuppositions. It's a matter of being willing to come to the Scripture, as much as we humanly can, not subtly trying to fit it into our comfortable preconceived notions, but with a mind humbly willing to admit and consider what it finds.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I think part of the problem is that we can take an extrapolated term like this and say: "This is it, this is all those verses are about. This is the be-all, end-all of Christianity". Here, when people ask you if you want to be a Christian, they're quite likely to ask you if you want a personal relationship with Jesus (as an advertisment for Christianity). In another time and place, that's just not how people would put it. And maybe it's partly done because people wanted to move away from the "do you want to be saved from your sins and escape Hell?" line and focus on the more positive aspects of Christianity, especially after we got perhaps a bit too focused on piety over faith and grace. And partly it may be a capitulation to the fact that our society doesn't believe in sin any more, but we are interested in personal experiences. So we adjusted the advertising and started talking up the "close, personal relationship with Jesus". It's less honest advertising, though, in my opinion. After all, it's offering something as if it can be granted in this life in the full sense, which it can't. Jesus left the Earth. On purpose. So in the traditional sense in which the average person understands a close, personal relationship, they're being sold a bill of goods. What they're really getting (and this at least shows that the Hell people were being honest, although they too can get myopic and focus only on that one item) is salvation from sins, the Holy Spirit, and a chance to take up our cross and follow Jesus in this life with the hope of being united with him -after death-.

Really, like you say Amber, the key is to not get myopic and not get too attached to our own advertising, so much that we start believing in and focusing the advertising more than the actual Bible, whether we're Hell people or Relationship people. The real story is much more complex and beautiful. Yes, Jesus came to save us from sin and Hell, but that's not the end-all of Christianity. Get em saved and that's all that matters. Salvation from sin is the beinning of the story, not the end of it. And a relationsip with Jesus is what we all look forward to in Heaven, but right now we've got to be freed from sin, perfected in following Him, suffer for Him, imitate Him, and embrace the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. That perfected relationship is our goal, but we're not at the goal yet. We've got a lot of ground to cover, a lot of becoming like Jesus to do, a lot of living in a broken world, enemy territory, before we can come home to be with Him. We need to be looking ahead to that goal in hope while looking behind at that door in thankfulness, while clearly standing in the moment and recognizing all that lies in between (and the Bible has an awful lot to say about that). And that's the tricky part.