Category Archives: Stories
This blog post is my review of the third chapter in Peter Enn’s brilliant book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. You can find the previous two under the Bible tag.
So far, I think this has been my favorite section of the book. After deconstructing what our expectations should be when we read scripture—especially the Old Testament—Peter Enns builds on these concepts and constructs something meaningful for us as readers. He peels back another layer of these ancient stories and reveals the depths of what the writers were trying to communicate when they penned some of the greatest stories in history.
Enns begins by really tackling the hard truth: there is no such thing as “straight” history! It doesn’t exist in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter. Anyone who takes pen to paper and writes out an account of something that happened in the past, whether it was yesterday, or fifty years ago, or two thousand years ago, is going to write it from a particular angle. A different person might tell the exact same bit of history in a completely different way.
To illustrate this very important point, Enns explores the four Gospels and the choices each writer made when describing various key moments in Jesus’s life, such as his birth, the miracles he performs, his death, and his resurrection. Enns writes:
“Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority. All four Gospels are connected to history, but each also tells us a lot about how these writers saw Jesus, what they believed about him, what was important to them and their communities.”
He gives a few examples of how the three synoptic Gospels especially build off each other and tell the same miracle stories, but sometimes in different sequential order, or with different details that highlight a particular point that is in line with that particular Gospel’s overarching theme. Each writer shaped their telling of Jesus’s life in a way that was tailored to their own audience.
The implications of reading the Gospels in this manner are fascinating. For example, Luke’s Jesus is very kingly. The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary that is only present in Luke’s Gospel, immediately tells the audience that this baby is a descendant of David and Israel’s rightful king. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth reveals a different goal; he is echoing the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. God used a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert; God used a star to guide the Magi to the infant Jesus. The historicity of some of these details may be questionable, but their implications for the significance of Jesus’ birth certainly is not!
After providing several more of these examples, Enns shifts his attention from the Gospels to the Old Testament stories and evaluates them using the exact same framework. In the Old Testament, as well, we can see plentiful examples of how the writers shaped the events of history to reinforce a particular overarching agenda. He walks through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Chronicles, and Kings. Just as with Jesus in each of the Gospels, we see in these books that very different images of Solomon and David are presented. In the Chronicles, David is the charismatic, brave, bold king that Israel needed most at the time. The Chronicles’ David is a symbol for Israel’s future: promising and full of hope.
In the Kings and Samuel books, however, we see a more human David; he has an affair with Bathsheba and murders Uriah, and at the end of his life he disrupts the order of succession by naming his younger son Solomon as his heir (speaking of which, the theme of younger sons being favored over their older brothers is also peppered all throughout the Old Testament). He also begins the process of building the temple despite God’s clear command to the contrary. He is, in short, a very different person from the heroic figure in 1 and 2 Chronicles.
Enns rounds out the “God Likes Stories” chapter in an incredibly fascinating manner. As the final chapters of this section unfolded, I became amazed at the intricate way that so many of the Bible’s most iconic stories are interconnected. The same themes emerge again, and again, and again throughout these stories. Applying this lens of the “present shapes the past” helps to bring these themes to light.
Reading these stories in this way also helps us place them within a genre appropriate to their content. All of the connections and interplay between them point to the reality that each of these stories are myths. And before you start thinking that myths are just wild fairy tales spun out of thin air, just read Enns’ definition of a myth:
“Myths were stories that were part of ancient ways of describing ultimate reality, which is found not here and now but on a higher and more primal plane of existence, the behind-the-scenes actions of the gods in primordial time.”
The myth of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis is a perfect example of this. In this story, Adam symbolizes Israel; God creates him, makes him a promise, and fulfills that promise until Adam disobeys God, along with his wife Eve. The two are then exiled—cast out from the garden. If that doesn’t echo Israel’s own relationship with God I don’t know what does!
Likewise, in the Genesis story, there is an ancient Mesopotamian myth that the god Marduk violently murdered the goddess Tiamat, rent her body in half, and formed the waters above the firmament and below from her carcass. In Genesis, God performs the exact same creative act, except he does it by his own spoken Word; he is uncontested among gods.
Speaking of water imagery, the connection between the Genesis story, the Noah story, and the Exodus story are fascinating. By separating the waters, God is creating order out of chaos (the untamed sea was a symbol of chaos in the ancient world). And when God flooded the world in Noah’s story, he unleashed the waters to their chaotic fury, but created a vessel of safety for Noah and his family. Likewise, Moses is rescued as an infant when his mother forms a basket for him to navigate the waters of the Nile. And later, we once again see the imagery of God parting the waters when he rescues the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptians. The connections are endless!
Under the surface, each of these stories is declaring the sovereignty of God and his unrivaled power over the other gods of the day. The ten plagues, for example, are essentially a slap in the face to Egypt’s gods: they worshiped the Nile as a god of life; Yahweh turned its waters to blood, a symbol of death. The Egyptian goddess of fertility was depicted as a frog; Yahweh multiplied the frogs of the land himself. And on it goes.
If we value these texts for nothing more than what we believe they can tell us about Israel’s literal history, we are missing the forest for the trees. We are overlooking the broader, deeper things that were going on when these writers immortalized these stories in writing. Enns explains this with wonderful clarity:
“The Bible, then, is a grand story. It meets us and then invites us to follow and join a world outside of our own, and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process. Maybe that’s really the bottom line. The biblical story meets us where we are to disarm us and change how we look at ourselves—and God.”
The writers were comfortable with changing, adding, erasing and exaggerating history to create meaning in their contemporary age, and the result is a Bible that doesn’t always behave how we expect it to, but is full of so much more dynamic retellings of God’s part in the history of Israel than we could imagine.
This will probably be the longest blog post I write in this series, because the issue of violence in the Old Testament carried out in the name of God has been one that has plagued me for years. It caused me to fear the Bible, to question the nature of God, and live in the apprehension of one, hard question that I couldn’t shake: What if I just can’t stomach a God like that?
Ever since I read these stories for the first time, it has boggled my mind that so many faithful readers of scripture stand by these stories and insist on believing that they reflect the God of the Christian faith. When I truly read these stories and let them rest in my heart, I found that I just couldn’t grasp them in the way I was taught to grasp them.
These stories felt barbaric and archaic to me, so far removed from the picture of God that we see in the New Testament person of Jesus Christ. And they are supposed to be one and the same, are they not?
Reading how Peter Enns tackles these troublesome verses in The Bible Tells Me So was such a comforting experience for me. Here was a reading that was genuine, and did not attempt to gloss over these violent texts with an explanation that justifies God’s choices. Here was a reading I could believe.
Enns uses the most famous example of genocide in the Bible—the genocide of the Canaanites by Joshua and the Israelites—as an example for how to read such stories. He outlines the views on Canaan depicted in the Bible, beginning with the curse of Canaan that occurs in Genesis 6, and continuing with example of how the Canaanites seemed to be doomed for destruction every time they are mentioned in Genesis.
The next section proceeds to summarize in detail the gory details of the destruction that Joshua and the Israelites inflict on the Canaanites, including conquering thirty-one towns, beheading kings without mercy, and slaughtering surrendered enemies. This is all trotted out as the methodical fulfillment of the convenant God made with Abraham. Enns writes:
“Bottom line, the extermination of the Canaanites is not an afterthought. According to the Bible, Israel’s God planned it from the days of Noah and the flood, and he carried out the plan with bracing determination and precision, patiently encouraging and even training the troops to get it done.” (p. 40)
After laying the groundwork facts, Enns then goes on to outline several different approaches for how we can fit this story into the larger narrative of the Bible, and a God who in later OT passages and often in the NT is a God of peace and mercy who charges his followers with turning the other cheek when met with violence.
One argument that Enns lays out claims that God has a “nice side”, and that the compassion of God is the overriding theme of scripture. The destruction of Canaan is just an exception to the rule. And yet if that is your perspective, does it really justify that one instance of violence? If a man is benevolent his entire life, and in a moment of passion commits a murder, is that murder any less egregious because of his blameless life up to that point?
The most common way that people justify this story and others like it is to point out that the Canaanites deserved retribution because they had been living irredeemably wicked lives. God had to make an example of them and purge them from the land he had promised to Israel as a way of maintaining the purity of his chosen people and as a lesson for us about the seriousness of rebellion against him.
Ultimately, though, this argument also breaks down when you study scripture carefully and within the context of everything Enns has laid out about God’s covenant thus far. He writes:
“They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them.” (p. 51)
There was nothing special about the Canaanites themselves, and everything special about the particular land they occupied. We would be reading of God’s wrath if any other people group had settled there, and that group would have likewise been transformed in a scapegoat to justify the manner in which God fulfilled his covenant to the Israelites.
There is more. In the Old Testament narrative of Joshua’s conquest, there are instances when the Israelite army encounters towns of non-Canaanites. There is no indication that these towns are subject to the judgment of God in a manner similar to the Canaanite. Yet under God’s command, these people are to become slaves of the Israelites if they surrender. To be internally consistent in a “Canaanites are wicked” approach, you must also contend that it is God’s divine judgment to divide up innocents as spoils of war (For an example of such an occurrence, see Deuteronomy 20:10-15).
If we read the exact same stories in the Koran or any other religious text, we would denounce that god as utterly reprehensible, or at the very least archaic and irrelevant. Likewise, we must contort the biblical texts in order to defend God’s genocidal commands in our scriptural canon.
After laying out all the wrong ways to approach Old Testament violence, Enns spends his final sections of this chapter describing how we can apply an informed, holistic reading of these texts that takes cultural limitations into account.
We cannot pull these texts out of their historical context and treat them differently, despite being part of the canon of scripture. Enns writes:
“So much of Israel’s culture looks very similar to what we see elsewhere in the ancient world. Israel’s system of laws, worship practices, notions of kingship, style of poetry, attitudes toward women and slaves, ideas about how the cosmos was created, and on and on, were unquestionably shaped by its time and place—which is to say, Israel’s culture developed the way every other culture in the history of humanity developed: as part of a larger cultural environment.” (p. 56)
This larger cultural environment that Enns refers to is one in which you must conquer or be conquered, kill or be killed. It was a violent world in which mass slaughter was rampant, and a victory in battle was often attributed to the power of the god the conquerors believed in. Read in this light, it makes perfect sense that the story of Israel and its conquest of Canaan unfolded the way that it did.
Essentially, the Israelites wrote their own version of history that glorified the God they served and created an identity for themselves: God’s chosen people, inheritors of a land where they could establish themselves as a nation with roots. In the pages of the Old Testament, we see a perspective of God that is limited by the perspective of His chosen people. God let his children tell their own story about Him in a language they could understand, a language heavily influenced by their own cultural understanding.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading this new book released by Peter Enns called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Let me just say up front that this book is fantastic. I’m enjoying it immensely: so much, in fact, that I’ve decided to do a chapter-by-chapter review of the entire thing. The perspective Enns brings to the table is such an important one, and I think that if we all read the Bible in this way we would find that we can read it with reverence and intellectual integrity without forcing it into a mold it was never meant to fill.
Right out of the gate, Enns makes it pretty clear that this is no typical perspective on how we as Bible-believing Christians ought to read the scriptures. He writes:
“In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. But they were also ancient—and that explains why the Bible behaves the way it does.
This kind of Bible—the Bible we have—just doesn’t work well as a point-by-point exhaustive and timelessly binding list of instructions about God and the life of faith. But it does work as a model for our own spiritual journey. An inspired model, in fact.” (p. 23)
The basic purpose of the book’s introduction is to lay the groundwork for how Enns will be approaching the Bible throughout the book. He gives a basic overview of his life and how his views of scripture shifted radically shortly after he graduated from college. He was listening in on a theological conversation between an atheist friend and a Christian friend, and the reality that they had such knowledge and conviction about what they believed, and he felt ignorant by comparison.
This triggered a journey for him in which he studied the Bible, and then began reading all the books on theology, philosophy, church history, commentaries and more that he could get his hands on. He went to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in Old Testament Studies, where he encountered some of the bizarre ways in which the New Testament writers—especially Paul—interepreted the stories of the Old Testament. And he began to learn how comfortably those stories fit among their contemporary narratives.
“I feel I have been given permission to be honest with myself and with God about a Bible that behaves so unBible-like without being told God is deeply disappointed in me for doing so and might turn on me at any second.
I gained a Bible—and a God—I was free to converse with, complain to, talk back to, interrogate, and disagree with, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust, rather than needing to tiptoe around lest a grumpy God lash out with plague, famine, and sword if I get the Bible wrong—like an abusive, drunken father you don’t want to wake from his nap.
I was learning to trust God enough to know that, like family he will come through no matter what, that his love and commitment to me is deepr than how my brain happens to process information at any given moment, to trust that God will be with me, not despite my journey but precisely because I was trusting God enough to take it.” (p. 21)
As I read through Enn’s description of coming to terms with what the Bible truly is, and not what we force it to be, I was amazed at his ability to take the biblical texts at face value and yet remain respectful of its position as an inspired scripture that can teach us so many key things about God and ourselves. What this introduction showed me more than anything else is that you don’t have to bend the Bible to your will—or even to Church tradition—to let it transform you. You don’t need to have every passage hammered out into a malleable caricature of what is truly going on.
You can read the Bible exactly for what it is: ancient literature reflecting the ancient ideas of multiple men and women throughout history. They each colored history in their own ways for different purposes. And this doesn’t render it useless to us at all today; it just means we need to approach it with its context in mind, and read it in a way that is consistent with that context. Only then will the deeper meanings in scripture jump out that perhaps you had previous glossed over with an oversimplified or misinformed reading.
After driving this point home, Enns proceeds with introducing the first difficult topic he would be covering in the book: Old Testament violence. In my next installment of this series, I will provide an overview of Enn’s treatment of stories of God-ordained genocide in the Old Testament and why it is a poor reading of these texts to treat them as reflective of God’s nature or God’s judgment.
Okay so this post won’t have much of anything to do with the sorts of themes I usually tackle on the blog. It won’t even have anything to do with Christianity, to be honest. It’s just something I’ve been mulling over in my mind for the last few days.
The other day, I read this post on a blog I follow regularly. The writer, Samantha, discusses a YouTube video that recently went viral in which a woman dressed in a fitted t-shirt and jeans walks around New York City with a very passive face, making it clear to passersby that she is not interested in interaction with others. Throughout the course of her experiment, which lasted several hours, she received catcalls, sexually suggestive comments, and was asked for her number multiple times.
Samantha called this street harassment, and she shared her own experiences going through the same sort of thing throughout her life. They are frightening, unnerving stories, and a part of me was quite resentful of reading them, because as I did I felt paranoia rising up inside me.
I have had quite different life experiences from Samantha and the girl in the video. I grew up in a small town, and street harassment was never something I experienced at all, either in high school or college.
Now, though, I work in Wheeling, WV, a town that isn’t exactly big, but it definitely has a bad reputation in the area for violence, drugs, and crime. And I work second shift, so I walk to my car every night around midnight to go home.
And I’ve been cat-called a couple times, and men have said “heeeeeeey, girl” to me in a suggestive manner, and once a man easily twice my age asked for my phone number.
So I have a little more experience with what Samantha is talking about, and I can sympathize with her for defending the girl in the video. A lot of the YouTube commenters were terribly harsh towards her and accused her of just seeking attention, and blowing the men’s greetings out of porportion. But Samantha calls out the ignorance of these commenters very poignantly:
“They don’t understand. They’re screaming about “how can just saying “hi” be harassment?! Feminists are just so stupid and sensitive,” and I want to scream because most of the street harassment I’ve ever experienced in my entire life starts with “hi”– and it never ends well. You say “hi” back and all of sudden you’ve given them permission to follow you. You flip them off, and they get pissed– really pissed. You ignore them and suddenly it’s all about how ugly you are and how they’d never f*** you anyway.”
As I thought about Samantha’s blog post, and the woman’s video, and my own comparatively harmless experiences, I have come to realize that I can’t be that person. I understand the importance of caution when you are cat-called on the street, because it can easily escalate into something dangerous.
Yet…not to sound narcissistic, but one of the qualities I hold most dear about myself is my tenacious insistence in believing the best about people. Sometimes it borders on naivety, and I am hurt when I realize just how flawed some people around me are. But in general, I don’t want to lose that. So when a man says “hello” to me on the street, I will always smile back and return the greeting, even if it makes me a little uncomfortable. I will always give the people around me the benefit of the doubt until something happens and I can’t reasonably do that.
And I understand that this mindset of mine probably exists because I’ve never been assaulted by a man, never been forced by a man, never experienced any sort of sexual harassment beyond the quite mild situations I described above. Because let’s face it, if the worst I can say about my experiences with strange men in public is that a man twice my age asked for my phone number, I think I’m pretty safe in saying I have room for faith in men that other women might not have.
So, I guess, all that is to say I understand the importance of taking to heart what Samantha has said, and I appreciate the importance of the video’s message. I know that ignoring the reality that street harassment can potentially escalate is a dangerous thing to do. And I know it is important not to downplay these situations, because to do so is to ignore the reality of stories like Samantha’s. I just think it is important to find a balance—a balance between being cautious without being paranoid, wise and yet gracious.
Because here is the truth. I am the kind of person who believes the best about people. And I hope I always will be.
So, I follow a lot of blogs. More than a dozen. And a lot of the voices I read are beautiful, and I want them to be heard. So I also share a lot of blog links on Facebook. I am always careful to review these pieces, to look them over and confirm that they are words I’m sure I want to validate before I share them. Sometimes I share things knowing full well that they will be perceived negatively by most of my Facebook friends (such as this incredibly thought-provoking piece, which ignited a lively debate on my timeline).
Other times I recognize that a topic is heavy, and must be handled gently, so I do my best to share blog posts that are not controversial, blog posts that remind us all of something important.
This past weekend I finally had the opportunity to sit down with my laptop and a decent chunk of time and wind my way through all the news stories and blog posts about the tragedy that happened in Ferguson. And I was shocked and dismayed and alarmed at what I read and the venomous opinions being slung around.
And I was also shocked and dismayed and alarmed because so few of my Facebook friends shared anything remotely sympathetic toward the people of Ferguson, Michael Brown, or his family.
So I wanted to offer a voice; a voice that begged for empathy and to remember that what happened is a human issue first and foremost, before it is a race issue. I shared this voice on Facebook, because how could you possibly incite a storm of controversy with words like that?
Well, quite easily, it turns out.
I got a few negative comments – nothing horrible, but enough to leave me feeling disturbed and angry. We are Christians, aren’t we? Doesn’t that mean we react to Michael Brown’s death first and foremost with compassion for this young man’s family, and everyone else who has been so affected by this tragedy?
Doesn’t that mean we affirm their grief and anger? Are they not the oppressed in this situation? The ones whose voices are being met with military force and tear gas and rubber bullets?
There is something wrong with the world when I share a post reminding everyone that Michael Brown is someone’s beloved child, and that his death is a tragedy, and the first comment I receive after sharing that is a reminder that I don’t have all the facts, that Michael was tall, heavy, physically aggressive, and high on marijuana while the officer was just following protocol, was serving and protecting.
Yet the officer is not the one who died that day.
So part of me regretted sharing that post, even though I honestly thought it would be a gentle reminder to remember that this story is about a human being, and I didn’t imagine it would attract controversy. Perhaps, in that regard, I have too much faith in my Facebook friends. I don’t know.
But I won’t take it down, because sharing links like that on Facebook are one tiny way of standing in solidarity with those who are angry and grieving in Ferguson right now. It’s not enough; I know that. I know there is more that I and others can and should be doing to support the voices of those who are being drowned out. But it is something.
So let’s not turn a deaf ear to what is happening in Ferguson right now. And oh dear goodness, of the love of all that is good in this world, let us remember who the victims are.
**Please be aware: this review contains significant spoilers for the film Noah**
Since its release, Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has garnered extremely polarized responses. Some praised it as a masterpiece, and others deplored its alterations of the original story of Noah and the ark, which can be found in Genesis 6-9. I had been anticipating the film for some time, and my interest was piqued despite all the harsh Facebook statuses about how much it butchered God’s Word. Some of the more liberal blogs I follow were posting quite positive reviews, so I thought it was worth giving it a chance for myself.
I’m very glad that I did! I found so much to love about this movie, even if it did include a few plot lines that I felt were unnecessarily over-the-top. What I enjoyed most about Noah was how Aronofsky brought the characters to life and reminded us in very sobering fashion that the story of Noah is not happy one; it is a story about genocide.
I’ve read the Bible story many times throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I watched the film that it occurred to me how tragic it must have been for Noah and his family to live through the destruction of all human and animal life on earth except themselves and the animals on the ark. What a burden!
Aronofsky fleshes out every character in the film, infusing the story with humanity. Most especially, I found his treatment of the character Ham to be absolutely fascinating. Of all the characters in the film, it is with Ham that I sympathize most. He creates tension in the story because he is Noah’s foil; Noah seeks to preserve nature, but Ham has no qualms about uprooting flowers. Noah is merciless (or faithful, depending on what way you look at it) in his insistence that all humanity is condemned according to God’s will, but Ham has compassion for a girl and tries to take her on the ark as his wife. Noah advocates non-violence, and uses his weapons only to protect his family, but Ham is fascinated when the film’s antagonist, Tubal-Cain, offers him a battle-ax. Ham is a complicated character, clearly lured by the evil in his heart yet desperate to rescue the victims in his life at all costs—even the cost of his father’s life.
I also found the character of Noah to be compellingly faithful to the biblical account. His loyalty to God—whom he and others call the Creator—is unwavering. Though the viewer senses his anguish, he remains stubbornly obedient to God’s will. Throughout the film, Noah is faced with decisions in which his own moral conscience is pitted against what he believes is God’s divine will. His resolute determination to carry out that will, despite the pleadings of his wife and sons to the contrary, reveal a character consistent with the man described in the Bible.
Noah is committed to righteousness and obedience, and he is willing to follow God’s commands even when they border on the heinousness. In one of the most shocking scenes in the film, Ham attempts to rescue a girl from Tubal-Cain’s camp and bring her on the ark. As they are escaping, however, her foot gets caught in an animal trap, and when Noah arrives to fetch his son, he drags Ham away and leaves the girl to suffer a grisly death at the hands of an approaching mob of men. And later, aboard the ark, Noah is faced with an even more impossible choice in his commitment to carry out the task he believes God gave him.
There are, of course, several parts of the film that have caused contention among Christians. However, I had no qualms with the liberties Aronofsky took with the source material for two reasons. First, poetic license is inevitable. Not only is the biblical story of Noah quite brief, I found through reading various articles that no major detractions from the Bible story were spun purely out of the director’s imagination. Other, non-canonical ancient manuscripts such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilee were also used as source material for the film, and it is from these manuscripts that characters such as the fallen, rock-encrusted angels are derived. For an analysis of how these manuscripts were used in the film, check out this article.
Other viewers were accepting of the film’s deviation from the biblical account, but took issue with Noah because of the way God was depicted. Instead of a loving Father who is grieved at humanity’s wickedness and in close relationship with his servant Noah, God is depicted as cold and distant, relentless in his judgment of humanity.
I disagree with this analysis, and that is the second reason I found the film to be a fair and faithful representation of the biblical account and the nature of God. In the climax of the film, when Noah is faced with the most difficult decision of his life in which he must choose mercy or judgment, he chooses mercy, and listens to the compassion in his own heart rather than what he believes is the divine, wrathful edict of his Creator. And Ila, Shem’s wife and the recipient of this mercy, suggests that God chose to save Noah because he knew his heart, and he knew that in the end when faced with the choice between judgment and mercy, Noah would choose mercy; Noah would choose love.
In conclusion, I found the film to be a remarkably profound adaptation that explores the deepest questions offered by its source material: Is humanity worth saving? Is God’s character one of love or judgment? Are human beings inherently evil or good? At the end of the day, which characterization will win out? Noah asks all these questions and more in a manner that is bold yet tactful, urging the viewer to think beyond the basic frame of the story. And an adaptation that accomplishes that is, in my opinion, a faithful one.
If this is the first entry you’ve read about the conference, it might be helpful to go back and start with Part 1.
After a short break for lunch, we all gathered in the worship center for our next keynote speaker: Mike Slaughter, the pastor of Ginghamsburg Church. His discussion expanded upon the points made in the morning’s breakout about building a church that works from a bottom-up system, rather than an hierarchy that puts all the pressure on a pastor. He had a lot of informative things to say, but more than anything else, it was Mike’s stories that kept me entranced.
He told the story of his own church, which had been founded in the mid 1800s but had never been very large. When he was appointed the pastor of Ginghamsburg Church, it had only 70 people attending. When he arrived, the changes he implemented were so drastic that within a year half his congregation left, and the church was dying.
Mike’s heart for serving the Lord was so apparent throughout his talk—he wasn’t afraid to challenge the status quo, and look critically at how church is done, and how it ought to be done, which is why so many people left in his early years. Over time, however, as his heart for seeing Ginghamsburg Church be transformed into a mission-minded church began to manifest, his church grew, and grew, and grew.
Now, over 3,000 men, women, and children attend Ginghamsburg Church.
Mike talked about how the testimony of his church is a story that parallels Jesus’ parable when he said the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—it is the tiniest and most insignificant of seeds, but when it is planted, watered, and cared for it matures into an enormous, towering tree. And this is just what happened with Ginghamsburg Church.
Mike told other stories of churches that saw similar growth, and I think it is a sure indication that people are drawn to the Light, drawn to a place where God is reigning, and He is the one church leaders seek to please, not each other. He told a story about a church in Philadelphia that experienced similar growth. It was led by a pastor with no college degree—certainly no seminary degree—who sensed God’s vocation and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit answered God’s calling. Mike called it a “grassroots movement”, where there is no stipulation for shepherding a flock of believers except the anointing of God. It was such a wonderful testimony.
After Mike’s keynote, we split up again for break-out sessions. I chose to attend a session called “Mission that Helps, Not Hurts,” which is about missions trips–both short-term and long-term—and what we can do to transform our outlook on the purpose they serve. The breakout leader was Elizabeth Heft, who is in charge of missions at Ginghamsburg Church.
I think that, of all the speakers I listened to at this conference, Elizabeth’s was the most challenging and convicting to me. She critiqued the way we ordinarily do missions in a way that was tactful yet bold, and I learned a lot from her. Most of the time, when churches send out short-term missions teams, they send them with a problem to fix. I thought of so many examples from my own experiences—going to Mexico and building a home for an old woman, going to Toronto and helping in a soup kitchen, things like that.
While aid of this sort does fix a short-term problem, it is not sustainable. Building a home fixes one woman’s problem and gives her shelter, which is great, but it doesn’t help her improve her own quality of life; we improved it for her.
To illustrate this problem, Elizabeth used the illustration of a tree as metaphor for a particular culture. Each part of a tree represents a different aspect of the culture: the roots represent a people’s beliefs. The trunk signifies what they value, and the branches represent their behavior. The fruit–the most apparent part of a tree–represents the results.
So building a home in Mexico is a result of the missions trip. But Elizabeth likened this sort of result to looking at a dead tree in need of care, pulling down all the rotten fruits, and replacing them with artificial fruit. The result looks good, but the tree’s branches, trunk, and roots are still withered. Instead, we need to find ways to water the roots of a tree and generate sustainable life that will filter out into its trunk, branches, and eventually produce real fruits.
Elizabeth also talked about changing the language we use. Instead of missionaries going to help the poor, which implies a tilted sense of superiority and inferiority, she suggested referring to those who go to the mission field as “goers” and those who receive them as “welcomers”. When you think of it this way, you see that each group has a role to play in learning from the other, and supporting the other. It’s such a great way to think of missions.
After this talk, we walked through a diagram of how to consider ways in which we can make missions sustainable. Elizabeth drew a T chart on a whiteboard, with two columns labeled “benefits” and “costs”. She offered us a problem that a community might have—like malnourishment—and what solutions we might have to alleviate hunger in a particular area. Then, we wrote down the costs and benefits to each group—the “welcomers” and the “goers”. Working through this exercise helped us see ways in which the solutions we offered might be beneficial on a short-term basis, but failed to be sustainable.
In all, this discussion was probably the most enlightening for me. After it was over, I started talking to a couple I had done an exercise with. The man started telling me about a soup kitchen he and his wife ran in their home town, and how over the course of several years it had grown to about 3,000 people coming to be fed on a weekly basis. I was in awe, and I started to think about what a fantastic ministry this was.
Then, I realized it wasn’t. The man went on to talk about how frustrating it was for him that now multiple generations of families were dependent on this soup kitchen for their daily bread, and how the ministry had turned into an example of “artificial fruit” that is not sustainable and would have no long-term benefit to empowering these people to earn their own food. I had never considered things in this way before this break-out, and it was definitely an eye-opener.
Wow, that was another long one! I hope you were willing to stick it through to the end. I just learned so much, and even everything I’ve shared here is but the tip of the ice berg. Keep an eye out; I’ll continue with Parts 3 and 4 soon.
When I slid into my car yesterday for the drive to Tipp City, OH, I was feeling equal parts nervous and excited. I’d been anticipating this trip for two months now, ever since I ordered the ticket online. And now the moment was upon me: I was on the road, traveling towards Ginghamsburg Church and the two-day Change the World Missional Conference.
I didn’t really know what to expect; after all, their website didn’t give a lot of information about the conference, except to say that it is designed to equip church leaders with the tools they need to develop their churches and transform their fellow Christians into leaders. I’m not a Christian leader, and I’m certainly not a pastor, nor do I feel I am called to either of those vocations. Would I learn anything of value at this conference?
Oh my goodness, the answer is yes!!
I can’t even begin to describe the incredible feeling of being surrounded by Christians—and not just Christians, but Christian leaders—who are interested in having the same conversations I’ve been wrestling with over this past year and a half. This experience was liberating and encouraging to me on so many levels, and I’m so excited to share why.
The conference kicked off to a fantastic start with keynote speaker Adam Hamilton, who pastors an incredibly large UMC church in Leawood, KS, and has authored 14 books. He spoke the words I’ve been dying to hear from a pulpit for so, so long: the Bible is not infallible. It is written by men and women who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that is a very different matter than claiming that God himself wrote it.
Hamilton talked about how it is okay to wrestle with the Bible, and it is okay to ask difficult questions. All of scripture, he says, must be viewed through the lens of the Gospel, through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the very living Word of God.
I’m telling you, I was about ready to leap out of my seat with excitement.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed Hamilton’s speech, I know many Christians, especially conservatives, would have found it to be inaccurate, and even heretical. After all, he talked about the story of creation and Noah and the flood as archetypal myths meant to communicate the nature of God to us, but not necessarily to recount historical events. So while I found this talk to be fascinating and discerning, I understand that some would take issue with it.
After the keynote, we broke up into smaller sessions. I attended a session entitled “Fanning the Fire”, which was led by one of Ginghamsburg Church’s small groups coordinators, Tony Miltenberger. This discussion was utterly fantastic, and I found myself wishing I was a church leader so I could implement what he taught (actually, scratch that. Something tells me it would be a thankless task!).
Basically, Tony talked about how most churches today are generally structured as an institution or a corporation, in which the pastor as at the top of a chain of command, and he delegates a portion of his responsibilities to committees, who then coordinate church activities. This structure, which he called the traditional model, often leaves pastors utterly burnt out from the weight of responsibility, and committees in charge of chaining concregation’s ideas to a strict and tight set of stipulations.
Under the guidance of Tony, Ginghamsburg Church decided to abolish this model in favor of a new way of structuring church programs. He labeled this method the missional model. Instead of an hierarchy, Tony suggested involving church attendees in a way that makes them accountable for doing Kingdom work and investing in each other’s growth as disciples of Jesus. He suggested training individuals as “life group” leaders, which would range in size from 10-15. These groups would collaborate to accomplish a collective vision, whether that be a Bible study, serving in the community, or just fellowshipping together in an informal manner.
There would be no red tape to walk through to get these groups rolling, except the approval of one of the coordinators. Instead, the leaders of these groups would need to meet three requirements before being allowed to start a life group: become members of the church, participate in a 12-week training course, and commit to praying individually for each of their life group members daily. After that, the sky is the limit, and any creative vision could become a reality for that particular group.
This model takes the pressure off the pastor, and fosters a committed, involved church body that has accountability among themselves and is united in a particular goal. Instead of the pastor and committees being responsible for most of the church’s mission work, the congregation themselves are carrying out this very important work, which accomplishes volumes in transforming the Church into a body that is thriving and growing together instead of passively sitting in pews each Sunday morning—essentially, congregations become producers instead of consumers.
Wow. I can’t believe I’ve written so much already, and so far I’ve only written about the morning sessions of the two-day conference! Stay tuned for a separate blog post about Thursday afternoon. Later, I’ll also write about Friday’s sessions, after which I’ll probably write a summary post collecting all my thoughts in cohesive whole. I suppose this is is a mini-series of sorts, and I expect to write a total of five posts about this conference. There is just so much to share.
So stay tuned for more!