A Few Words About Perspective and the Bible

Perspective

Perspective

How you see something—what experiences and expectations you bring—really matters. Take a look at this image. I first saw this in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (an oldey-but-goody). What do you see?

Do you see a young woman?

How about an old woman?

Both?

This may be a high-school level example, but it still holds true: our perspective governs what we see and experience.

This is no different with the Bible.

Like it or not, we all bring “ourselves” to the Bible, in the form of expectations, baggage, hopes, and various experiences. All of these frame the questions we ask of Scripture. Sometimes these questions are obvious, and we’re aware of them, while other times we aren’t quite clued into what we are asking the Bible “to do” for us as we read it. For instance, it’s easy to approach the Scriptures with the desire to have them

+ make us feel good about ourselves…
+ justify our beliefs…
+ tell us how to get to heaven…
+ tell us about Jesus…

… and on and on. Over time these can change, but we almost always bring SOMETHING to the Scriptures as individuals, and furthermore the church collectively brings questions as well as it goes through time.

I wanted to lay out four broad perspectives that we can bring to the Bible, and make a couple comments and suggestions about them. There are certainly more perspectives (and questions) than this, but somehow I feel like these are the big ones that are shaping our faith today (and starting to shape it for tomorrow).

Reading the Bible with a Soteriological filter means that we are asking, “How can I get saved?” (soter is Greek for “save”). This paradigm maintains that the point of Scripture is to (in older parlance) “tell us how to get to heaven.” Obviously Scripture has a lot to say about the state of our souls, and about God’s desire to save us, but a lot of explicit “saving” language is actually absent from the even the Gospels, and though Paul, for instance, writes a lot about it, he seems to talk about community just as much (if not more).

When we read the Bible with a Christological filter we are reading it through a lense that asks, “What does this tell me about Jesus?” In so many ways, Jesus is the fullest revelation of God’s work on earth: He is Messiah, Son of God, Emmanuel. The Bible is obviously concerned with Jesus’ identity and vocation on earth. The challenge of this paradigm is that frankly it can be difficult to find Jesus in some of the pages of the Old Testament in particular, and when it’s difficult to find “answers” to the question we are asking (“Tell me about Jesus”), it can be easy to simply put down the book and decide that it’s irrelevant.

In my opinion, these two paradigms and filters have dominated the church’s approach to Scripture in our recent age. However, two other paradigms are now entering the discussion that I believe have the potential to really expand our understanding of Scripture.

Reading Scripture with an Ecclesiological filter means we are asking, “What does this tell me about the Church?” In contrast to the both the soteriological and Christological filters, this paradigm starts with community. It assumes that the Church—the People of God—is central to God’s work in the world, and that Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul (along with everyone else who wrote and assembled the canon of Scripture) want to convey that importance. In our individualistic society, coming at the book of Romans, for instance, from the perspective of learning about community can radically change our understanding of Paul’s point. (I believe we actually find that Paul is JUST as concerned with unity and helping us all to get along” as he is in telling us how to be saved, largely because he knows that the unity of the Church between Jews and Gentiles is actually one of the signs that PROVE Jesus was who he said he was. But I digress.)

Lastly, and similarly, we can read Scripture Missionally. This means we are asking the Bible to tell us about the mission and work of God in the world. This paradigm is grand and epic; it does a great job of tying everything together, and runs from Genesis 1 (well, 3 at least) to Revelation. Stated simply, this paradigm maintains that Scripture is telling us how God plans to redeem all of creation and restore it to its original status of being reflection of His character. A missional reading of Scripture unifies the story of Israel, Jesus, Paul and the church along one strong “spine”, and actually thrusts the story forward into our age.

These paradigms are not simply big words to throw around. They really do impact the way in which we read the Bible. We miss so much of the story when we engage in only one way to read it. If you’ve never thought about the Church when you read the Gospels, simply write the question, “What does this tell me about living together as the Church?” on an index card and keep it in your Bible as you read.

The point of all of this is, quite frankly, is to expand the way in which we read and interact with the Bible. It’s too grand a story to be contained by the narrow perspectives that have contained it.

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Making a New Refrigerator

“…(E)ven if there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as private interpretation of scripture, the illusion of private interpretation leads to much mischief. It encourages individuals to forget that every text has an original, and so appropriate, context. To remove a refrigerator repair manual from its original context–the world of refrigerator selling and repair–is to render it useless.” – Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People (emphasis added)

I am very much enjoying reading Rodney Clapp’s unpacking of the Kingdom and the Church. The writing is confrontational, informed, and thoughtful. To be blunt, I think he’s right on the money. But I think in this quote, he doesn’t go far enough. As I’ve seen it, his “refrigerator repair manual” metaphor is only partly true; I think the whole truth of the situation for the church is that as we’ve read the scriptures individualistically (narcissistically?) and out of their original context, we’ve done more that just render the “manual” useless.

I wonder if we’ve decided to just dream up a new refrigerator to match our remade manuals.

The refrigerator surely resembles the original–things like grace, sin, love, and Messiah are used with great passion and intensity–but when return the manual to its original intent (or as close as one can get to the mind of the original writer and audience), we find that machine was supposed to look and feel a bit different. The same terms are there, but somehow have different meanings.

I think this is troublesome trend in the Church: that we aren’t content just to puzzle over the difficulty of reading a 2,000 year old repair manual. Do we simply invent a new device that matches what we think the manual was telling us to build? That seems to fit our understanding of YHWH, our 21st century culture, and our own felt needs?

Wanted: Pastor of Wisdom

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine. He was the lead pastor of a church we started together up in Chicago, however he left a couple of years ago just to take some time off and consider some possible new directions for himself in ministry.

Unfortunately, the economy dropped into the pooper, and church budgets are definitely hurting; finding potential jobs in ministry (or anywhere, for that matter) has been difficult. Not only that, but my buddy definitely doesn’t fit the mold of a “typical” evangelical pastor, personality-wise. Quite like me, he’s not really a “Type A” personality. He’s contemplative, quiet. He’s content to not dominate a room when he walks into it.

We were reflecting on the culture of pastoring nowadays: even though he’s successfully planted and sustained a church (which is more than a lot of pastors can claim), he’s readily passed over due to his relatively mild personality and also, his gift mix.

“You know,” he said, “when I took my spiritual gifts inventory years ago, I was told that I have the spiritual gift of wisdom, and I totally resonate with that, but you know what? Today’s church seems to not need wisdom.”

We laughed, but it’s a bit scary. The gifts that seems to be sought after by the church nowadays are definitely leadership, apostleship, and creativity (in the form of communicating or playing music). Combine any of these with a hard-charging personality and any obvious skill or ability in your chosen ministry field, and you can pretty much guarantee yourself a job on staff somewhere.

But my buddy and I also have been reading the Book of the Acts lately (that’s right, I said the “Book of The Acts”: it’s a more accurate title), and we were struck by Acts 6:

2So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…

Wow. So the first criteria to run a “food pantry” for the early church was not a passion for the homeless and/or the gift of administration. It was that you be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.”

I repeatedly encounter church staff that are incredibly skilled individuals, but not as many that could be considered “wise.” Maybe it’s just me, but I connect “wisdom” with a depth of knowledge, and a quiet willingness to apply that knowledge to life in a gentle, practical way.

I wonder how different our churches would appear if the staff that they sought out were wise before they were skillful. If they were encouraged to develop the work of the Spirit in their lives rather than to merely “get things done.” If you are blessed to serve on a church staff already, are you leading out of a depth of wisdom, or merely dispensing your duties? Are you seeking to engage in discussions that develop the deep places of your life, or merely interested in “playing that guitar, monkey boy?!?”

No One Stands Alone

“No One Stands Alone”

The church where my faith initially took root and began to grow legs had a motto, “No One Stands Alone.” I wasn’t a part of its development; I don’t know who came up with it, or what debates may have surrounded its selection. What I do know, however, is that it spoke to a deep need of me and my friends: to know and to be known. That slogan has remained with me as sort of a DNA-like implant on my soul: a church should be a place where no one stands alone, whether at a party or in the darkest hour of need.

Yet, still, this is much more easily said then done. We naturally gravitate towards folks we know, folks who have common passions, interests, and hobbies. In isolation, there’s really nothing wrong with this. But the people of God should somehow be different; there should be a constant “intentionality”, or focus, to practically everything we do. Whenever we gather, the radical expression of hospitality should be right there with us as a subtext. There is always an opportunity to be the voice of welcome, the face of hospitality: all you have to do is too look for those who are standing—or sitting—alone. Welcome them into your conversations; find out what their story is, and tell your own.

I am a self-confessed introvert; one of my favorite off-handed comments is basically, “Yeah, but everyone knows that I don’t like people.” This is obviously meant to be humorous, but I know that this is brokenness and sin in my life — I intensely guard “my time”, and am reluctant to engage “the stranger” in hospitality. At the same time, I burn with indignation and conviction when I see people standing alone, staring at the backs of groups of strangers who are engaging in the well-practiced art of exclusion. The church has become much to adept at this, and we need to stop.

In the same spirit of John’s 1st letter (“We love because he first loved us”), we should welcome others because we were first welcomed by God. We have come from being radical outsiders to the very people of God, and now it’s our turn to look with the eyes of the welcoming Savior to find those who are waiting to know us, and to be also known. What if the next time you attended a worship gathering or event at “church”, you took a moment to pray to God, asking him to give you eyes that would recognize the outsider, the lonely? What if you invited those who were sitting by themselves to join your friends? Your family? I think it would start a quiet, radical revolution of love and invitation in our communities.

Where is my city?

In a book I’m reading right now, the author lists six markers of a “city”.

  1. public spaces
  2. mixed-use zoning
  3. local economy
  4. beauty and quality in the built environment
  5. critical mass
  6. presence of strangers

I’m somewhat incredulous as to how the capital of Florida can not have — what would be reasonable? — four of these markers? Where are the mixed-use zones? Where is beauty and quality in the built environment?

More thoughtfully, though, could a church actually help bring these things about? Could a community bring these things into fruition?