revelation and tradition

As I teach an introductory class to world religions at Columbia Bible College, I find there is much to process beyond the often-overwhelming swath of general information one encounters in the history, beliefs and rituals of religions.

I approach studying religions with the goal of understanding. I desire a perspective on others and their beliefs that develops and maintains relationships, which inevitably leads to my own personal growth along the way. For those worried about extreme approaches to world religions -  narrow-minded exclusivity (“I’m right, you’re wrong!”) or open-minded relativism (“We’re all right!”) - I’m attempting an engaged learning that sees the complexity of religious diversity and personal conviction as a relationship to be invested in, not a problem to solved.

One such area of diversity and conviction is found in the various ways religions approach their holy scriptures (e.g. the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita, Koran, etc...).

As a Christian, I take the Bible seriously. Yes, I’m aware of the tendency for evangelical Christians to idolatrize the Bible, unknowingly adding a fourth member to the Trinity in elevation of the “good book.” And at times we are so quick to claim biblical authority - “the Bible says so!” - that we forget to acknowledge the complex role and influence of tradition and history in determining how we interpret the Bible. By itself, “The Bible says so” is just too good to be true.

It’s with situation in mind that I’ve been considering the Hindu perspective on their scriptures. Hinduism splits their holy books into two categories:

1. Shruti: “revelation” - the foundational and earliest scriptures of Hinduism (e.g. Vedas)
2. Smirti: “tradition” - the additional scriptures and traditions of Hinduism (e.g. Bhagavad-Gita)

There is a dynamic relationship between revelation and tradition - both are needed to determine the meaning of Hindu faithfulness. For Hindu’s, prioritizing one (revelation) over and against the other (tradition) results in an incomplete religious expression. Considering the tendency to pit the Bible over and against tradition, the balance of Hinduism, while differing greatly from Christianity in beliefs, exhibits a revelation-tradition dynamic that is often missed in evangelical Christianity.

I asked my students two questions I think are worth continued reflection:

What are you naturally drawn towards, revelation or tradition?

How does the Hindu view of balance between revelation (Smirti) and tradition (Schruti) challenge or inform your view of the Bible?


Personally, I try to maintain a view of the Bible’s role and authority for my Christian life with a degree of openness and humility. I need to continually realize that I always bring a perspective to my biblical interpretation. As one who believes strongly that the Bible is in fact the “Word of God” and an “authoritative guide for faith and practice” such an approach recognizes the tension in discerning what the Bible actually teaches related to what I want it to teach (often derived from my own perspectives and traditions). The fact I’m a middle-class North American caucasian of Mennonite-evangelical belief and background will no doubt influence how I interpret the Bible. My tradition plays an important role in determining my interpretation of the Bible. In this sense there is a connection, and sometimes even a tension, between the Bible and tradition - faithfulness involves recognizing the dynamic connection between these two areas of our lives.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it (i.e. tradition), and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures (i.e. revelation), which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:14-17 NIV)


I explored in my previous post the way in the which we use "Christian" to describe many activities in life and how this results in an incomplete vision for what it means to be a Christian. People can end up trying really hard to make things Christian.

Not surprisingly, this video came to mind, one which I've shown several times, but never gets old:

adjective faith

Noun: a person who believes in Jesus Christ - e.g. David is a Christian.
Adjective: of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ - e.g. a Christian country.

How we typically use the term Christian can say more about our views of life, faith, and reality then we may know.

As a noun, Christian describes a person’s identity - it’s a self-forming term, that at its best, reflects a consistency of life and faith entailed with what it means to be a follower of Jesus with our whole life. In this sense, Christian is a holistic term.

As an adjective, Christian is used to describe a characteristic of a person, place, or object - it’s a clarifying term intended to sharpen or distinguish someone or something from within the diversity of our world. In this sense, Christian is a specifying term used to describe part of something in our lives.

Christian as both noun and adjective is necessary and helpful for better understanding the dynamics of faith and practice. Yet in my experience, it is the adjectival use that is employed most often.

Consider these examples related to a profession:

If you’re a plumber, are you a Christian plumber?
If you’re a lawyer, are you a Christian lawyer? (no, this one isn't a joke!)
If you’re an athlete, are you a Christian athlete?
If you’re a musician, are you a Christian musician?

Christian is used as a descriptor - an addition - to a person’s life. Such understanding and use of the term brings two examples to mind:

First, there is the little book you may find in your church foyer called The Shepherd’s Guide - “Christian Business and Ministry Directory.” If you’d rather employ Christian businesses, this resource is for you.

Second,  fans of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) have recently celebrated the success of worship leader Chris Tomlin in reaching #1 on Billboard’s 200 chart (top albums). For a CCM artist to reach such status is truly remarkable - Tomlin’s is quite an achievement. And it's clear, this story has become newsworthy because Tomlin is a Christian musician.

As I reflect on these examples, I'm troubled. An adjective faith presents a limited view of life and faith. It’s incomplete. The wholeness that Jesus invites all to embrace gets divided and differentiated into tidy categories - Christian ethics; Christian music; Christian community...People end up doing a lot of Christian things with little reference to being a Christian.

With an adjective faith, aspects of God’s good creation are less-than or better-than depending on whether or not they carry the Christian moniker. To further complicate matters, the value of the label will depend on who’s doing the labeling - likely a great number of people see Tomlin’s success as a joke rather than an achievement.

Here’s where I’m troubled: a recognition of the goodness of all God’s creation is traded for a spiritualization of certain parts God’s creation. Music is labeled "Christian" and elevated to a different, often higher, status even if it sounds much the same as other music. Similarly, the Christian plumber is distinguished from the secular plumber, even if they perform the exact same duties with the exact same quality. Yes, words and actions may differ depending on a person's religious commitment, but surely we can agree that the label "Christian" is more than outward appearance. Yet we don't.

In these aspects of everyday life, an adjective faith is incomplete at best; divisive at worst. Feelings and actions born out of a sense of superiority are of no shortage in the history of Christianity. Jesus is clear that faith is more than a label - our words reflect our hearts (Mt. 12:34-35).

Furthermore, accepting the descriptor "Christian" misses the holistic qualities of the word as a noun - to be a Christian is foremost about our whole identity, not a music genre or business marketing ploy. Faith is not icing on the cake of life - it’s the whole cake.

In terms of music, what about Bono? Or Johnny Cash? Or countless other top musicians who are/were self-professed Christians? They have also produced Billboard #1 albums - many times over! Yet there is little fanfare about their faith and their achievement, especially from Christians. Alas, their music isn’t considered Christian. They don’t fit the criteria of an adjective Christian faith. Instead, and better I would suggest, Bono, Johnny Cash and others are Christians who are musicians - and very talented ones at that. Christian is their identity, not just a descriptor of their art.

So instead of an adjective faith that categorizes parts of life, prioritizing identity as a Christian provides a foundation for all of life. And considering Jesus’s call to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” - our whole selves! - we need more than an adjective faith.

Instead of a Christian faith, we need to be Christians.

Center Church

The following is an excerpt from my latest MB Herald book review:

Tim Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City

Diversity, innovation, busyness, people, poverty, prosperity, development, density, spirituality, culture: a lot happens in cities. Cities are a mosaic of people with countless perspectives on life and culture. Cities are expanding, and along them urban culture. City culture is becoming a global culture. Called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:13–16), Christians need to engage this urban reality. Tim Keller’s latest book, Center Church, offers an inspiring vision for such engagement.

For those expecting a model for ministry based on Keller’s own Redeemer Church, this book is not for you. This is no “church in a box” program for urban ministry, but a theological vision that “is a faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implications for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history.” And for Keller, the city’s time is now.

(Read the rest here) 

The King Jesus Gospel

Following my post from earlier in the week, "Slicing the gospel pie," I think it's helpful to share this clip promoting a very helpful resource in the whole discussion: Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel.

Slicing the gospel pie

I’ve done much reflecting on the gospel (“good news”) here before - one of my most read posts is "Gospel in culture and history." What is the gospel? is an important question for Christians to reflect on in a world as diverse as ours. Knowing our core beliefs around the good news of Jesus brings clarity and direction in what it means to call oneself a Christian.

In their book, What is the Mission of the Church?, Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert offer some helpful categories for how the gospel is typically defined:

For some, the gospel is defined with a narrow approach, or a “zoom” lens view of the good news. The motivation is to determine “What is the message a person must believe in order to be saved?” The core of the gospel is defined as the “substitutionary death of Jesus in the place of sinners and the call to repent and believe.” Evangelism, then, is central to sharing the gospel - convincing people of their personal need for Jesus as lord and saviour.

Others adopt a wide approach for defining the gospel - a “wide-angle” lens if the good news. Here the motivation is driven by the question, “What is the whole good news of Christianity?”
The gospel is broad, defined by “all the great blessings that flow from [forgiveness], including God’s purpose to remake the world.” Social justice is often the primary Christian calling - participating with God’s work of renewal and restoration in all of society.

Which definition of the gospel do you prefer? Why?

DeYoung and Gilbert's project reflects a trend in evangelicalism seeking balance and clarity in defining the gospel - an attempt to define the gospel as including both of these definitions. Yet balance gets tricky. There remains an ordering of the two distinctions. For some, the narrow approach is the “gateway” to participation or experience of the broader implications of the gospel. For others, the wide definition is foundational, with the individual implications as a subset of beliefs.

But whatever the emphasis, the attempt is to describe the gospel as narrow and wide. Personal and corporate. Salvation and justice. On and on. And so it should be. With a history full of theological fracture we should welcome balance in our theological formulations. Unity amidst diversity, you could even say, is central to the gospel.

One problem: a balanced approach still accepts that the gospel can be categorized cleanly into tidy concepts. The uniting “and” of the polarizing concepts persists in perpetuating a separation or difference or ordering within the gospel. We may have both emphases, but we still slice up of the gospel pie as if there are different choices depending on your topping preference.

As a result, there is still confusion. We agree there’s balance, but then encounter great variety in defining such balance. People still look for the gospel. We want the right balance. Narrow? Wide? Individual? Corporate? Micro? Macro? What’s the core, or the right ordering of the gospel?

My answer: YES!!! Not both, but yes.

Instead of separate categories needing balance or order, I suggest we have only one category: gospel. And the gospel is the dynamic narrow-wide, individual-corporate, salvation-justice good news of Jesus revealed in history, in scripture, and in our very lives. There is no "and." There are no slices to choose. We don’t need a balanced gospel, but a full gospel - the full gospel pie.

Spirituality and Idle No More

Reading and watching some of the reports, articles and websites reveals just how complex and important the place and role of First Nations in Canada is. As the Idle No More website promotes, “Indigenous rights and [their] responsibilities” are a social reality that has to be addressed, complex as it is.

As a Canadian, I have hope that respectful dialogue and action will come out of the Idle No More movement. Our country has enough diversity in leadership and culture to exact some progress (so long as we aren’t driven by the opinion of online commenters on news blogs - sheesh!). Yes, much more can be done to address the complex issues that range from honoring treaties to honoring children. But I think there is cause for hope that something will be done.

Unrelated to the continuing news of the Idle No More movement, I’ve been doing some reading this week in the area of First Nations’ religion and spirituality. The parallels are striking.

Canada values multiculturalism and tolerance of a diversity of religious viewpoints. But as I argued in a previous post, such tolerance doesn’t always equal understanding. Canada's First Nations are a clear example where misunderstanding occurs on all levels. Rhetoric on all sides of the debate reflect stereotypes that only exasperate misunderstanding and conflict. For any progress to come out of the Idle No More movement, understanding will be essential.

At face value, one could say the debates are primarily social and political, be it addressing First Nations' governance, treaty regulation, or the overall social well-being of communities across the country. The issues are “secular” - that is, spirituality has nothing to do with it. And for some, on all sides, this is likely true.

Yet only a glimpse into First Nations’ spirituality quickly reveals just how spiritual the issues really are. As a Stó:lō member recently commented in an interview on the CBC, it’s directly because of his “spiritual and cultural connection to the natural world” that he is passionate about the Idle No More movement. The current issue absolutely has to do with spirituality. A big difference from how Canadians usually do politics.

No doubt many Canadians hold a modern secular perspective that treats the world as an object. We look around and ask, “How will this place best serve our needs?” It's a pragmatic approach to the earth. Native spirituality, on the other hand, asks a different question: “How can we cooperate with this place?” The earth is no mere object, but a subject to which we relate. Pragmatic concerns are accompanied by relationship to the spiritual realm. This is clearly a major difference in worldview, one which lies in the background of much of the Idle No More debates.

Any solutions and progress, then, requires all sides to discuss and debate these foundational questions of meaning and spirituality that too often remain in the background of our complex social issues. Again, as a Canadian, I have hope that such respectful engagement is possible. So long as we all know this: our tolerance must include learning and relationships. Only with mutual respect can we expect a Canada with mutual progress.

"Honor Everyone"

In a week when tolerance of various sorts has been in the news around the world, this clip from Miroslav Volf offers some timely wisdom reflecting on the oft-forgotten command, "honor everyone" (1 Pt. 2:17). Politically and personally, we encounter "clashes of the sacred" in many forms - we can't get away from deeply entrenched conflict in our world over truths and practices held to with strong conviction. Disagreement is inevitable. How we handle such conflict, however, can be determined. Honoring everyone, suggests Volf, is a way for everyone.


Why study world religions?

In a culture as religiously diverse as ours, where the number of “non-religious” individuals continues to increase, and tolerance is virtue above all else, a common approach to religious diversity is actually nothing more than religious ignorance - “you do your thing, I’ll do my mine.” In this way, tolerance ends up being more isolating than inclusive. We tolerate our difference, yes, but we don’t actually know each other. I’m all for tolerance, but a tolerance that strives for relationship and understanding.

Christians don’t always fare well in changing the situation or addressing religious diversity in general. Whether it’s adopting the approach of ignorant tolerance to preserve reputation or practicing a narrow-minded exclusivity that at the extreme can border on bigotry and even racism, Christians often relate to others out of fear - both fear of rejection or fear of difference - instead of loving engagement.

With this cultural situation in mind, I recently led a group of college students at Columbia Bible College in reflecting on this question: Why study world religions?

To avoid the extremes of shallow tolerance and aggressive intolerance, a healthy approach to religious diversity is integral to living a culturally engaged life from whatever religious perspective one has. Part of the Christian calling in the world, I believe, is to remind ourselves and others of where we still get glimpses of the “very good” God originally declared of this earth and everything and everyone in it. We can love our neighbors by getting to know them. We can get to know our neighbors by studying their religions. Studying other religions, thus, is integral to loving our neighbors, a concept most all religions share in common to begin with.

As an academic pursuit, studying world religions is a discipline rich with a fascinating complexity of history and culture. There is measurable intellectual value in learning about other religions and their practices. But when you add the cultural reality of religious diversity, and aim for an engaged understanding of other religions, knowledge growth is accompanied by relational growth. Differences and conflict will remain, no doubt. But engaging difference in relationship forces a level of respectful dialogue often absent in our world.

In a culture that rightly celebrates religious freedom but wrongly practices religious isolation, relationships are exactly what we need. Relationships are why I study world religions.


Here's another moving clip from The Work of the People to mark today's celebration in the church: epiphany.

2012 - accepting unpredictability

Back to work after a refreshing Christmas/New Year vacation time with family has me in the usual New Year’s reflective mood. Call it productive procrastination!

As most bloggers are doing this week, such reflection involves looking at the past year on this blog. Here’s the top 5 posts of 2012:

1. gospel in culture and history
2. facing uncertainty
3. The Anabaptist Vision—Synchro Blog
4. S is for "Submission"
5. reading between the lines: Christianity and gender

It’s intriguing to look back at a year of posts and see what’s struck a chord with readers (or at least gotten more traffic). These results aren’t necessarily what I’d expect. My posts typically reflect the rhythm of my own faith journey in relation to the culture around me. Interest drives my writing, not statistical strategy. If anything, I realize that blogging, like much of life, takes on an unpredictability that is much more enjoyable if simply accepted instead of analyzed. All this to say, blog stats should never be taken too seriously!

So my blogging will go on in 2013, unpredictability and all. Thanks for reading and commenting and emailing and encouraging. Accepting unpredictability is much better shared with others!