I'm not always realistic, but I try. It's something that, for me, requires a lot of work. What I have found to be a necessity for getting to the root of a problem - in my family, work, etc. - is the ability to stop and ask myself one simple question, "What is actually going on here?" For example, last week after preaching in downtown Evansville, IN, a man approached me and said that he was very upset and would likely not be back to that particular church. For about thirty minutes we discussed whether or not one should spank their kids, go to seminary, read books other than the Bible and the nature of hell. The situation was not improving. My new friend was growing more and more adversarial by the moment. I really wanted, as a Christian apologist/theologian/preacher to believe that things really were as they seemed. I wanted it to be the case that the root of all of this was a misunderstanding on his part about some theological or practical Christian issue. If I could only harness the intellectual and spiritual prowess that I had honed over the past fourteen years of study his eyes would be opened and instantly a transformation would occur that would render the man the most agreeable church member in Evansville. That didn't happen. Instead, I asked myself the simple question, "What is actually going on here?" This led to the realization that he had been asked by a member of our church security team not to keep moving in and out of the sanctuary. Only then did I remembered that the very individual was constantly in and out of the service charging his cell phone and such. While I usually don't care about this sort of thing, in his case, it had become a huge distraction. Case closed.
However, the same simple question, "What is really going on here," is one I bring to bear on theological and biblical issues as well. I'm immersed in a theologeek culture that I love, but that is sometimes characterized by the high-minded, holy-cloud mentality found in the philosophers of Acts 17:21 of whom the bible says, "Now all the Athenians and the foreigners residing there spent their time on nothing else but telling or hearing some new thing." This often leads young Bible-scholars and theologians to erect complex and daunting towers of proof-texts in an attempt to build some new construct or system atop the pages of the sacred text. These begin as theories that serve as fodder for coffee house discussions, then they become alternative hypotheses of interpretation, next they may become new perspectives as the progenitor of the idea publishes a book on the subject. The final step may or may not involve this formerly bazaar concept being crystalized as doctrine. . . Don't get me wrong this can be a good thing. Sometimes, though very seldom, there is something that has gone unnoticed for centuries that needs to be teased out. Unfortunately, the lust for that holy grail of theology leads to some strange things. Theologians can end up looking less like scholars and more like mad scientists in a lab mixing and stirring various scriptural texts together in an attempt to find some way of elucidating a "truth" that is not there. Alchemy. Often it is in such moments that the Scientist needs to remember the hermeneutical principle of asking, "What is really going on here?"
It is at this moment that I should mention that my latest preacher/theologian infatuation involves a man named Brian Zahnd. Brian took part in a highly publicized debate on Calvinism recently and while some of what he says I cannot help but reject (much to my chagrin) his sermons articulate this principle with words I had not thought to use. He says, "Taking its cues from the scientism of a bygone era, Western Christianity has tried for too long to make the gospel a kind of scientific formula—a pseudo-science of Biblical facts, atonement theories, and sinner’s prayers—when it’s more like a song, a symphony, a poem, a painting, a drama, a dance, and, yes, a mystery." Now, while I cringe at the preemptive use of the term "mystery," and actually think the "sinner's prayer" would fit well into Zahnd's imagery, (ala the wedding proposal/moment of marriage/invitation and agreement to dance etc.) I agree with him that often we tend to miss the point in an attempt to clinically and lifelessly probe a passage until it gives us either something new, or confirms our latest hypothesis.
I truly don't want to make this a post about Calvinism, but I see it there in technicolor. The story of the Bible is one of choice. God repeatedly affirms, "If you do this, I will bless you, if you do that I will bring you down." The story of the Bible is one of choice. Without genuine libertarian freedom, there is no genuine ability for sacrifice. Without the genuine ability for sacrifice there is no genuine ability to love. Yet, God is love and commands us to love. Jesus died for every individual in a universal atonement so that anyone who chooses to place their faith/trust in him might be saved. Yet, budding reformation enthusiasts tend to get so pseudo-sciencey with the atonement/sacrificial system and clinically probe and mix enough that they come away with a peer-reviewed limited atonement. Now someone is sure to misunderstand and think that I am saying that an honest exegetical investigation is not necessary or a bad thing. God forbid. Others might think I am conceding that the most rigid and academic work on the atonement actually does give us a limited one and we should just ignore that. God forbid! What I'm merely getting at is a clarion call for sobriety in theology. When your work brings you to a conclusion like limited atonement, the best thing might involve asking the question, "Is this really what's going on here? . . . Really?"
Lastly, after fourteen years of staying away from this sort of thing for fear of being called a liberal, I'm going to mention a rock song. Secular? You decide. In the year 2000 U2 released a song called Beautiful Day that cleaned up at the Grammys. What most casual fans never heard was an early version of the song called Always, that only appeared on the single release of Beautiful Day. Remember CD singles? Now you feel old. The song speaks of the need to answer the question, "What is really going on here?" The whole album, that it would have been on, was about the need to remove clutter and cling only to All That You Can't Leave Behind. Because of this, the song uses imagery like "crack the bone - get to the marrow," and "get down off your holy cloud - God does not deal with the proud." Always draws to its close with "turn each song into a prayer - now and forever." I had already been thinking of this what's-really-going-on approach to the text when I got in my car and heard the song. I'm not saying God was speaking through a rock band or anything. I'm just saying that the song was in many ways a reminder that truly understanding the Christian faith requires you to be a student of the Word and a lover of Jesus.
Here today, gone tomorrow
Crack the bone, get to the marrow
To be a bee and the flower
Before the sweetness turns to sour
What we have we're gonna keep, always
What we've lost we don't need, always
What is it that won't let you sleep, always
Be the arrow and the target
Put your head over the parapet
Be uncool, yes be awkward
Don't look in the obvious place
The soul needs beauty for a soulmate
Get down off your holy cloud, always
God will not deal with the proud, always
Well if you dream then dream out loud, always
Eternally yours, always
I want you
I want you
I want you
Touch me now inside
I wanted to be a man
I wanted to call
You say you come to know yourself, always
Don't find yourself in someone else, always
And always wear a safety belt, always
Wait for me I'm running late, always
This is the moment that we share for always
Turn each song into a prayer, always
Now and forever