Start with the Miracle: An Experiential Hermeneutic

A while back my wife Lindsay and I were boarding a plane in Houston. Lindsay was walking a couple of steps in front of me as we made our way through first class. As she passed by a man standing in first class he looked her in the eyes and said “You are so beautiful.” Then he said again to himself in a lower tone, “So beautiful.”By this point, I was standingright in front of him. In a split-second of inspiration I turned and said to him, “Yes. She. Is.”

It was odd, because the man looked vaguely familiar.  Once we sat down, our seat buddy helped us figure out why. His name is Ricky Estrada...he was Panch, a California highway patrol cop on the popular 1980’s television show CHIPS. Anyway, after that incident, I have to admit, I was fairly proud of myself. Not so much because my wife had been hit-on by a TV star...but because I was pleased I'd been able to come up with a retort on the spot.  Even so, as we spent the next couple hours and better responses kept jumping into my head...Oh, I should have said, “And she’s all mine” or no, I should have said -- “You have no idea”.

I’m sure you’ve done this know, spent time replaying encounters in your head and coming up with all the things you wish you would have said.

Well, allow me to introduce you to a master of the zinger.  His story is in John chapter 9.

At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus and his disciples are walking along, and they see a man who has been blind from birth. After a little lesson, Jesus spits on the ground and makes mud and then rubs it on the guys eye sockets and then tells him to go wash up. Amazingly, he does this and he is healed.
The people who used to see him begging see him walking around and are confused...Is this really the man who was blind? After asking him what happened they take the man to the Pharisees and I want you to read this part. 
 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath.  Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. "He put mud on my eyes," the man replied, "and I washed, and now I see."  Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they were divided.
So the religious experts are split – some are saying “He broke the Sabbath, he’s a sinner” and others are saying “He healed this man, he’s a saint”. Then someone suggests that maybe the man wasn’t really healed, that he’s just making it up, so they call in his parents and ask if he was really born blind. His parents confirm that he was indeed born blind. The Pharisees are at a dead end with them, so they bring in the man again and tell him to confess his lie.
A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. "Give glory to God," they said. "We know this man is a sinner." He replied, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" Then they asked him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered, "I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?" Then they hurled insults at him and said, "You are this fellow's disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don't even know where he comes from." The man answered, "Now that is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." To this they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out.
I hope you can see what I mean about how this blind man had some brilliant come-backs. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” That must have had the crowd roaring. And then, when they say they don’t know if Jesus is from God, he takes his theatrics to another level. “It’s a miracle!!!” he says. “You are the most educated among us and you’re blind to the simplest truth...that only God’s friend could heal a blind man!”

Then, nailing the final nail in their own coffins, the Pharisees say “What do you know? You were born in sins!” This is one of those misfired comebacks. By saying he was “born in sins” they were actually admitting that he was born blind. And if he was born blind, but now can see, then obviously he has been healed and their whole line of reasoning crumbles.

I love this story. I always have a good laugh at the expense of Pharisees. But, I have two questions I want to ask. First, Where did the Pharissees go wrong? How could they possibly have been so blind to the presence of the God? And second how did the blind man get it right?

Where did the Pharisees go wrong? Certainly, the Pharisees were wrong about what it meant to keep the Sabbath. Mixing mud and applying spittle were not violations of God’s Sabbath law as they believed. The Pharisees went astray by having a flawed interpretation of what it meant to obey God’s will.

Luckily for us, our interpretations are always flawless.
The fact of the matter is that we all have less than perfect understandings of God’s will. And I don’t think we can fix that – even if we were all to pursue Ph.D’s in exegesis, this wouldn’t change because it’s just not a problem of education, it’s a problem of human finitude.
The Pharisees were wrong about the Sabbath, and we are like the Pharisees; we never get it completely right. But we don’t have to despair because the Sabbath issue is wasn't the real problem.  Being wrong is not the same as being blind.
What blinded the Pharisees was their second error, one which I pray we can avoid: they didn’t start with the miracle. Remember vs. 16: “Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” They were divided about whether to start with the miracle, or start with the apparent breach of Sabbath.

They had to choose. If they started from the miracle, they would conclude that Jesus was from God. But if they started from the (presumed) Sabbath breach, Jesus would look like a miracle-worker leading people away from Yahweh.  Deuteronomy 13 had warned of this, saying that those with supernatural powers who lead people away from God should be executed, and the Pharisees had memorized this one.

The Pharisees decided that they knew one thing -- “We know he is a sinner!” they said.

The blind man knew one thing too. He said, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.”

The blind man started with the miracle...and he saw Jesus for who he was. Starting with the miracle transformed the blind man into the only one who could truly see.

When I was a student at Wheaton College, the few Democrat students used to joke about how Wheaton was so devoutly Republican. When election time would come around they would say...“If Jesus were to run for President on the Democratic ticket, Wheaton College wouldn’t vote for him.”

You know, it’s not that hard to miss the time of God’s coming – all we have to do is start with anything other than the miracle of God's present action among us.
The Pharisees had God in human flesh, walking, teaching and healing among them...and they could not see him. The irony is that they were blind precisely because they were so confident they could see.
We, too, have God present and active among us.
How’s your vision?
(This is a revised sermon preached in 2006 in a Preaching Practicum class at Fuller Theological Seminary).

*By the way, this 'starting with the miracle' hermeneutic is pretty much what seems to have induced Peter and the Jerusalem Council to legitimize Gentile Christianity.

Batman vs. Jesus

No, this is not a post about who would win in a fight, though such a question has been raised before on an internet poll. By the way, Jesus is winning and here are the top 3 responses: #3 "I voted Jesus, just in case voting for Batman would condemn me to eternal damnation. Jesus." #2 "Jesus. Batman kills him, he resurrects himself, sucker-punches Batman when he isn't looking." #1 "Batman- a man trained in most forms of combat VS. a pacifist who didn't fight against Roman troops who came to crucify him. Edge...Batman (and this choice is only the second most blasphemous action this week.)

Instead, I'm writing because the juxtaposition of Batman Begins (spoiler alert) with the Sermon on the Mount has been provoking some thoughts lately. As you may know, the driving theme of Batman Begins is Bruce's wrestling with his deep seated desire for revenge against the man who killed his parents. This anger is transfered to 'evildoers' in general and it is only gradually that he comes to realize that "Justice is different than revenge." And that would seem to be a fitting moral to the story, but the movie climaxes with a scene setting the parameters on the requirements of justice. With the villain at Batman's mercy, prodding Batman to finish him off, Bruce responds in what is apparently meant to be a witty and self-evident moral conclusion: "I'm not going to kill you, but I don't have to save you!" Immediately after this statement he abandons the villain as the train careens into a building, resulting in his inevitable end. Thus is the climax of the first edition of the latest Batman story.

Then there is Jesus, who in the climactic scene of his story is simultaneously at the mercy of his persecutors while secretly restraining his own perogative to bring down heavenly armies to wipe out his enemies.  As he hangs on the cross, before breathing his last breath, he reveals his guiding morality: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." Fulfilling his own teaching to love your enemies Jesus' life flies in the face of the common sense that characterized the morality of his day which bears a striking resemblance to Batman's moral code. "You have heard it said 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."

Jesus wouldn't be satisfied with Batman's morality. Neither can followers of Jesus content themselves with merely doing no harm to 'evildoers'. We must love them. If we imagine Jesus in Batman's place as the train approached the building with his enemy at his mercy and insisting on his own death perhaps he would say "I'm not going to kill you--I'm going to save you!" I'm watching with interest how Batman's moral code will serve him in the Dark Knight.  We already know how Jesus' served him through his dark night--it ended with a bright Easter morning.

The Good Book: Genre and Context

Here are some reflections on proper interpretation of the Bible -- by no means comprehensive, but hopefully able to spark some new thinking...

There are at least four crucial considerations in attempting to interpret the Bible: genre, context, purpose and biblical antecedents. This post will offer some thoughts on the significance of the first two.

Genre is simple to illustrate. We all know that a love letter, with its flowery exaggerations is read differently than a math textbook, and a historical novel is read differently than a historical biography. The 66 books of Scripture contain a myriad of genres. Consider the Psalms and Song of Songs, which are poetry. Poetry is not to be read literally, but metaphorically. Love is not a rose literally, but it is one metaphorically. The question of genre is particularly relevant for Genesis, the Gospels and the Epistles. Genesis’ early chapters, contrary to popular belief, were never meant to be a historical scientific account of the creation of the world. It was a polemic response to the competing creation narratives, offering stark contrasts on the central questions “What is God like?”, “Why were we created?” and “What is God’s posture towards us and what is to be ours to God?” It is not history, it is myth. But myth which tells the deeper truths than fact. Truths regarding the deepest questions of life, which are not scientific (“How did it happen?”) but teleological (“Why did it happen?”).
The Gospels are difficult because they immediately appear to fit into a genre that is familiar to us: historical biography. And the Gospels do contain reliable biographical historical information about Jesus, but they are not written with the kind of preoccupation with historical factual accuracy that characterizes Modern biographies. Like Genesis, the Gospels tell the truth, with less concern for the facts. Of course, some of the facts are the very foundation of the truth claims made by Scripture. The resurrection, as a historical factual event, is the only basis of making the truth claim that Jesus was the Son of God whose death atoned for the sin of the world. But if we apply a strict inerrantist view to the Gospels, the contradictions become apparent: Did Jesus overturn the tables in the temple at the beginning of his ministry, or the end? Did Jesus heal so and so in Galilee or Nazareth? Inerrantists are forced to strain credulity and argue for both. In this way, inerrancy contains an impulse for the anathematized attempt of Tatian in the 2nd Century to merge all the gospels into one, in the Diatesseron. This gospel ‘harmonization’ destroys the ability of each Gospel to highlight different truths about Jesus and in place of a harmony of different voices offers a stale melody.
Moving on to the Epistles we have to keep in mind that these are letters from an apostle to a congregation, or region, with its own challenges. Epistles are not manuals with timeless rules of the church. The Epistles are not written to us, they are written to the 1st century churches in Corinth, Ephesus and Colossae. When we read the epistles as letters, we have to always ask, “What was going on in this church that made Paul say so-and-so?” Because what Paul commanded there, for that church in that situation, may or may not be God’s will for our churches in our situation. And that leads us directly to the third crucial element of Biblical interpretation, context.
I have already stated the significance of context. All the books of the Bible were written by a specific person or people in a specific time, place and culture and for application in a specific community in a time, place and cultural location. The Epistles, with their teaching on women, are the most fruitful place to see the significance of context.
Paul told Timothy that the women in his church were not to “teach or have authority over a man”(1 Tim. 2:12), and yet at the same time, Paul referred to Junia (a woman) as “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16:7). So what explains Paul’s apparent inconsistency? Inerrantists are compelled by their understanding of Scripture as loaded with timeless principles to go to great lengths to deny Junia’s gender – a futile attempt according to the historians and scholars I find credible on the matter. Just as they attempt to ‘harmonize’ the Gospels into singularity, they attempt the same with the teachings of the Epistles. But if we allow Paul to be the pioneer and pastor of many congregations, as he was, then it makes all the sense in the world that he would have specific instructions for some congregations (given their needs and context) that were not incumbent on all others. (Some scholars believe that Timothy's church had a problem with female heretics from the cult of Artemis, goddess of the Ephesians.)

It is true that many of Paul’s letters were cyclical – and meant for passing on to all the other congregations nearby, but if we take this to mean the intended audience was equally all churches throughout time and space including ours, we are guilty of ignoring the theologically loaded significance of Paul’s greetings almost always indicating which church or churches this particular letter was for. The rest of us are blessed eavesdroppers, allowed to listen in as God, through Paul or another Scriptural author, guides brothers and sisters of ours in a different time/place with whom we have relevent similarities and differences of character, situation and cultural context.

Francis Collins, leader of the human genome project and Christian apologist conveys some of this as it relates to Genesis as he sits on the Colbert Report.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Francis Collins
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The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Dr. Francis S. Collins Pt. 2
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As a young woman I sat pew-side dreaming about the possibilities of becoming a pastor.  Each week at mass I would watch in awe as the priest preached good news from the pulpit, taught the dangerous truths of scripture and called people to participate in something larger than themselves.  
For me, the call to get out of the pews began with a dream of one day joining the great lineage of preachers to share the radical news of Jesus Christ.  Although, this is where my calling began, I have since discovered that the call to come out of the pews runs much deeper, and the places to which pastors are called are much darker.
I am a pastor with a church-based campus ministry, at Stanford University. Like any college campus, Stanford comes with a whole host of challenges: secular hostility to Christianity, overcommitted students,  the constant and overwhelming temptation of self-glorification.  And like any pastor, I encounter road blocks along the way; road blocks that annoy and pester me, and others that shake me to my core.  
As a young woman sitting pew-side dreaming about becoming a pastor, I would have never imagined that what I thought was a call to come out of the pews would become a call to walk into the darkest places of people's lives, a call to push back against the painfully broken institution of the church universal, and most importantly a call to hope in something larger than ourselves.   
So today, I dare to hope...
today, I muster the strength to push back...
and today, I follow the call to get out of the pews...

The Inerrancy Heresy

What follows are some thoughts I captured after a troubling experience with a Christian School some time ago...I welcome your comments.

The doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy, and the popular misconception (both in the church and outside of it) that inerrancy is THE Christian doctrine of Scripture, is one of the greatest hindrances to contemporary Christian ministry. As such, it could be called a heresy -- especially when it lifts Scripture to the level of divinity, subtly making it the fourth member of the trinity and perpetuating Bibliolatry. By denying inerrancy, I do not wish to imply that Scripture contains errors, but that if and when we read Scripture as at all points historical, factual and literal, our erring approach will lead us to find errors there.

 Scripture faithfully and sufficiently communicates what it’s authors intended, namely the truth about who God is, who we are, and what God has done, preeminently in Jesus Christ. The flaw of inerrancy is that it ties the credibility of the truth claims of Scripture to a modernistic understanding of truth, which is limited to fact. Facts are important but they are not everything--they aren't even the most important thing. The Creation account does not have to be factually, historically accurate for it to be true in the deepest sense. One of the enlightening meanings of Jesus statement “I am the truth” is that truth does not reside in facts, but in a person. Jesus is the truth about God, and the truth about humanity, because he is the God-man. He shows us God’s love for us. He shows us what it means to be truly human.

Inerrancy goes hand in hand with the idea that Scripture was written by human hands but, ostensibly, without human minds. It imagines that the authors may well have been writing in a spirit induced trance. And that what they transcribed was the timeless will of God for humankind at every time in every place. But this is not a Christian doctrine, it is (as far as I understand Islam) a Muslim one. Muslim’s accept the Koran as essentially lowered from Heaven. All it’s cultural teachings indicate that culture ought always to be as it was at the time the Koran was received. This is not how we understand the Bible. We believe in an incarnation, the true Word of God came first and foremost in human flesh. Jesus is the Word of God – the image of the invisible God, the one who makes God known to us. Scripture is God’s word when it effectively leads us to God’s Word, Jesus. It is the doctrine of infallibility that teaches us that Scripture is faithful to lead us to the Word of God, Jesus.