"My husband is not my soul mate"

I came across an article recently that illustrates the limits of proof-texting and improper application of the Bible, applying such methods to how we understand the often-used phrase, “soul mates." It's well worth the read.

It might seem odd that on this, our one-year anniversary, I am beginning a post with the declaration that my husband is not my soul mate. But he isn’t.

I wouldn’t want to imagine life without James. I enjoy being with him more than anyone else in this world. I love him more than I ever thought you could love someone, and I miss him whenever I am not with him. I wouldn’t want to married to anyone else other than James, which is good, because I plan on being married to him forever, and he has to die first.

But I reject the entire premise of soul mates.

Do you remember those awesome Evangelical 90’s/ early 2000’s where Jesus was kind of like our boyfriend and we all kissed dating good-bye because we just knew that God was going to bring us THE ONE and then life would be awesome? And THE ONE would most likely be a worship minister, or at the very least a youth pastor, and we would have to be in college when we would meet at some sort of rally to save children from disease or something. We would know that he was THE ONE because of his plethora of WWJD bracelets and because (duh) he had also kissed dating goodbye and was waiting for me, strumming Chris Tomlin songs on his guitar as he stared into whatever campfire was nearby. We would get married and it would be awesome FOREVER. If you were like me, in devote preparation for this moment, you wrote letters to your future spouse, preferably in a leather bound journal dotted with your overwhelmed tears. Yes, I actually did that.

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Background posts:

Performing Scripture

My previous post explored the challenge of biblical interpretation and focus on learning to “think biblically.” In an age when information and answers are at our fingertips, any approach to truth that accepts even a small amount of ambiguity or difficulty - however honest - can be a hard sell.

Part of the challenge is that much of biblical interpretation these days faces the great need and desire to make the Bible applicable, relevant, practical, personal, etc...If the words of scripture aren’t connected to the rhythms of everyday life, they quickly maintain the irrelevance they are so often perceived of having.

As a result, the Bible is read like a self-help book, scoured for quotable tidbits of wisdom that fit into the cultural desire for quick fixes. Preachers know this as the pressure to arrive at a clear application (e.g. “Let me leave you with three points”). Woe to the pastor who doesn’t produce such relevance for every single passage of the Bible.

Yet much of the Bible isn’t adaptable to such reading. Supposedly clear application isn’t so clear and to force application out of a passage creates a problematic separation between the biblical context and our own. And the results are troubling. One, the Bible gets misinterpreted. Narratives and complex theologies get boiled down to one-line summations that cannot possibly do justice to the mysterious work of God in Scripture and history (e.g. “just trust God”). Or two, the Bible gets ignored. Faced with the complexity of the Bible, it gets tossed aside as culturally irrelevant, outdated, and unable to address the realities of modern life. God’s word in that history has nothing to say to our history.

Click to read the inspiring story behind this picture
Part of the task of learning to think biblically, as I suggested in my previous post, is to explore alternative ways of reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible. One such approach is to view our response to the Bible as a performance - performance not in an artificial, acted-out manner, but in the integration of the overall story of God in our lived-out - ”performed” - lives. Sharing on the connection between Nehemiah and urban contexts, Mark Gornik suggests the task for Christians is to read this ancient account “as a story with a distinct ‘narrative world’ that interacts with the contemporary urban narrative world...Imaginatively indwelling the drama of Nehemiah enables community members to bring similar perspectives, responsibilities, and visions to the narrative spaces of the inner city...Such an approach helps safeguard the text from being read outside of its context as Israel's history while at the same time enabling it to creatively serve particular opportunities in the present...Rightly reading Nehemiah, respecting its authority as Scripture, entails in some way its performance. In performing Nehemiah, the priority is in point to the God who rebuilds.”

Application seeks to separate wisdom from biblical texts in order for us to live it out. Performance, however, seeks to participate with or enact the biblical text - a way of living in connection with God’s way in the world. Application, at its worst, uses the Bible as a means to an end. Performing scripture engages the Bible as an end for determining our whole lives.

This is one type of alternative reading of the Bible that can help us shift from using the Bible to think to beginning to think biblically.

**For a fascinating read on the connection between the bible, narrative, and living out our faith, see these two articles by Stanley Hauerwas:
1. “A Story-Formed Community”
2. “Performing Faith: The Peaceable Rhetoric of God's Church” (w/ James Fodor)

"But the Bible clearly teaches..."

“‘But the Bible clearly teaches...’ How often have I heard or read that line’? The sentence is then completed with the supposedly clear biblical teaching.”

Have you encountered this approach to the Bible?

New Testament scholar Tim Geddert offers this reflection describing what he calls “the concordance method” to biblical interpretation. People use a concordance (Bible word search) to compile as many verses as possible that reference a particular topic (e.g. gender roles) and then like a puzzle, try to put the pieces all together to provide a coherent Biblical teaching to apply to all situations. The goal is to arrive at the “correct biblical view.” As Geddert elaborates (tongue firmly in cheek),

“Some Christians imagine that somewhere in heaven God has a special bookshelf. Alongside the Book of Life and other books mentioned in Scripture, there is no doubt God’s original copy of the Bible, the one God dictated so that we could have a copy of it on earth as well. Among the other books would be one entitled The True Theology Book, another called The True Ethics Book, and so on. These books contain the ‘right answers’ to all the questions we ask. We do not copies of these books, but we do our best to reconstruct what must be in them.”

Stated as such, the approach seems absurd. As Geddert concludes, “Does anyone seriously believe that this concordance method is a helpful way of learning anything important in the Bible?”

Such simplification of the Bible doesn’t address the reality that equally passionate people can arrive at wildly different conclusions when relying on the concordance method. It also doesn’t address the complexity of the Bible itself - different genres, different contexts, different teachers, different motivations. Many times, one “biblical answer” doesn’t exist.

And here is where I don’t think the alternative is to suggest the Bible is now somehow irrelevant. Difficult interpretation should not cause us to discard interpretation altogether. Facing this challenge of biblical interpretation, Geddert offers a compelling alternative:

“The goal is not to find one always-valid answer. The goal is to learn to think biblically.”

In this approach, the Bible is as much about intellectual and theological formation (i.e. finding the “correct biblical view”) as it is about character formation. The Bible remains important and relevant for Christian faithfulness in a way that addresses our whole lives. Jesus speaks of faithfulness as involving our heart, soul, will, and mind (Lk. 10:27) and Paul describes the scriptures as “equipping” us to live good lives (2 Tim. 3:16-17). In our search for biblical answers, the concordance method falls short - we need the biblical life.

How We Remember Trayvon Martin

As a Canadian, it’s hard to understand what America is going through this week with the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. All I can say is I lament the lingering (rampant?) racial tensions and pray for peace and reconciliation amidst so much senseless violence in our world."How Long, Lord?" rings in my hears.

Meanwhile I’ve been doing a lot of reading in preparation for my fall teaching, some of it history. One of the books - Moral Minority - traces how evangelicals navigated politics in the latter half of the 20th Century. Included are stories of how evangelical Christians engaged (and didn’t engage!) the civil rights movement in the 60’s and 70’s.

Sadly, I read these accounts of America in decades past I realize how far this culture still has to go. Comments I’ve heard and read this week could be inserted into the contexts of the 60’s and 70’s, and vice versa. And I wonder, do people not remember?

I actually think many people do remember the past. I’ve heard several references this week to how we need to look back and remind ourselves of the social progress of past generations, not repeating prior mistakes. These are important reminders when history seems to be repeating itself.

For some, however, remembering only hinders progress. Response to the racial implications of this tragedy are simplified to a plain “get over it” (forget) or a more nuanced “get on with it” (move on). The former is insensitive to the issue of racism altogether while the latter is insensitive to the painful process of healing. One only has to read a few article comment sections to see these responses illustrated.

But if we only remember the past, or ignore the past, or get past the past, we can fail to recognize just how influential history continues to be, both in our lives and in our world. My favorite theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, describes Christians as a “story-formed community.” I would suggest this extends to humanity and history in general. We don’t just remember history, we are shaped by history. Therefore, how we engage our past as communities shapes our identities in the present and the future. This is true for Christians. It’s true for Canada. And it’s definitely true for the issue of racism in America.

Remembering Trayvon Martin is important (and the countless other similar tragedies). But how we remember is just as important.

May we remember Trayvon well.

Participants in Peace

"Shalom" - Raquel Egosi
One of my favorite biblical terms is “shalom.” Peace. Wholeness. Unity. The complexity of creation and diversity in a mystery of collaboration. Shalom expresses God’s heart for this world, and thus the heart of Christianity in the world as we are bearers of the “shalom of Christ” (Col. 3:15).

To recognize and strive for shalom is a worthy endeavor for anyone, particularly in a world rife with conflict and disunity. We know shalom mainly by its absence.

It’s interesting to see different ways we can describe how shalom is to be realized in our world.

For some, seeking shalom is the primary task of humanity, a hallmark of following the way of Jesus as we faithfully live out our call to be peacemakers (Mt. 5:9). Made in God’s image, our task is to extend shalom in all we do. Shalom is primarily about us.

For others, the perfect peace of shalom is solely God’s doing, beyond our ability to achieve as ones prone more to sin than shalom. Peace is always a gift of God’s work. Israel, after all, only experienced shalom in the context of God’s deliverance from Egypt and the blessing of the promised land. The blessed life was one which received the gift of shalom (Nm. 6:26). Shalom is primarily about God.

Both examples are right. But by themselves, both examples are incomplete. They accept the tendency to overemphasize one or the other - either God’s role or our role. And sadly, such distinctions only fuel the polarizations among Christians.

Another one of my favorite theological terms is “participation.” It can help in how we understand the “how” of shalom. We share in - participate! - the seeking of shalom in our world. Participation implies a togetherness, a partnership - we are “co-workers” with God (1 Cor. 3:9). It reflects our fellowship with God and others (1 Jn. 1:1-4). We aren’t alone. God isn’t alone. Thus where we are prone to distinction - God
or us - the reality of participation refuses such a choice. Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff sums it up well:

“Shalom is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling. Even though the full incursion of shalom into our history will be divine gift and not merely human achievement, even though its episodic incursion into our lives now also has a dimension of divine gift, nonetheless it is shalom that we are to work and struggle for. We are not to stand around, hands folded, waiting for shalom to arrive. We are workers in God’s cause, his peace-workers. The misso Dei is our mission.” (Quoted by Mark Gornik in To Live in Peace)

God. Humanity. Participants in peace.

community and presence

This week I had the pleaures of hearing Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove speak in Vancouver. Hailing from North Carolina and founder of a place called Rutba House, Wilson-Hartgrove lives and breathes community. Influential in the popular New Monastic movement, Wilson-Hartgrove brings a refreshingly humble and prophetic presence to evangelicalism in North America.

The topic for discussion was "Somethings Old, Somethings New: Ancient Wisdom for Communities Today."

Wilson-Hartgrove did well to highlight the various dynamics of faith, community, and culture. Based on my blog's descriptor, the talk was taylor made for me.

He outlined some of the problems of community in our culture. In a time when people yearn for meaningful community, we've "lost the practices of knowing one another." And in community's absence, we're left at the whim of marketers, where the primary solution to the absence of belonging is to sell community (local example: "We are all Canucks").

This reality reveals the paradox of community. As Wilson-Hartgrove elaborates, "We're always disappointed with how community is promised but it never works out...What we want most we have the least skills to get."

At first glance, Wilson-Hartgrove summarized, Christianity seems to have so much to offer in terms of community. A God defined by relational love; a church defined by diversity and Spirit-infused acceptance; a mission of justice and enemy-love. Yet history shows such examples are the exception rather than the norm. What do we do?

This is what Wilson-Hartgrove's topic - Somethings Old, Somethings New - addressed. He suggested we need to look to examples in the past, glimpses of hope in the Christian story (in Scripture and in history - e.g. Benedictines). But also recognize the necessity for such hope today amidst the reality of our culture. Rather than retreat from pluralism and globalization, Christians need to "commit our struggles to the story of God," past, present, and future. This is the "liturgy" of community that creatively engages faith today (the point of Christian liturgy is far beyond times of worship, but essential to community formation).

To summarize, Wilson-Hartgrove reminded us that to find and experience authentic Christian community in our times requires the dynamic view of faith and culture that engages, as Jesus taught, "new treasures as well as old" (Mt. 13:52).

All of this content was inspiring enough - much to think about and reflect on. Yet the talk was inspiring mainly for another reason.

In his presentation, Wilson-Hartgrove went beyond talking about community and was present in community. He had us sing together (black spirituals!). We interacted. We prayed. His engaging style of story and wisdom, inspired us, no doubt. But more importantly, his very presence invited community. The listener didn't hear about community; the listener was part of community. Wilson-Hartgrove's talk on community carried the presence of community.

We can get carried away with all sorts of things when it comes to articulating and practicing Christianity in the 21st Century. And boy, do we like our celebrities! Wilson-Hartgrove, a somewhat significant figure in North American evangelicalism, would have been completely justified to focus on his areas of expertise, to share his wisdom of leading community in a variety of contexts. He's an "expert" in community after all! No one would have noted a problem with such an approach. But he didn't present as an expert. He didn't focus only on ideas. He didn't even name drop! No, Wilson-Hartgrove chose instead to talk about community by being present in community. And for this I learned far more than any lecture.

paying attention

I’m trying to develop the practicediscipline of paying attention. Easier said than done.

As part of my role developing PRAXIS I’ve been connecting with friends, churches, and ministries in Vancouver. In the frenetic pace of the city it’s easy to move around with whatever agenda is driving the day, not ever really noticing who or what I’m surrounded by.

Walking or taking transits shifts the pace a little, allowing me to pay more attention to my surroundings. The danger, unfortunately, is that I find myself consuming the city, always looking for object lessons or profound insights - I am supposed to be a developing “urban expert” after all. As a blogger, I see the world through the lens of "what would make a good blog post?" And as an Instagram-er, paying attention only serves my desire to get attention.

But something doesn’t feel right as I treat my surroundings only as an object of study. Something is missing.

There is no connection.

On a recent foray into the city, I took a different approach. Instead of observation for my purposes, I just paid attention - no agenda. I listened. I looked. I smelled. I walked. I rode transit. Nothing spectacular happened. No profound original insights. Just observation.

I took a few random notes. Here are three scenes I observed (in no particular order or purpose or meaning): 

Scene #1
Kids voices.
People walking.
Destination clear for some;
Others the wandering only a vacation can bring bring.
Bells, birds and buses are the soundtrack.
It’s morning in Vancouver.

Scene #2
Up the moving steps
People parade onto the street in a sort-of urban march
Choreographed to the tune of city life.
Colors. Light. Prestige.
And dogs. Lots of dogs.
A girl learns to ride a bike amidst it all.
Such is the city.

Scene #3

Lots of books.
7 floors of books.
Some read;
Most not.
Are those kids I hear crying?
Or lonely books?

The library seems to tell its own story...

beyond polarizations

I’m currently reading James Davison Hunter’s insightful book on Christianity and culture, To Change the World, in which he describes well how much of our interaction in culture is a form of politics. His analysis of Christianity and culture only deepens the discomfort I described in previous post about being a “moderate” in a culture full of polarizations (while Hunter writes from an American context, I think his words are relevant beyond America, particularly in the realm of evangelical Christianity):

Most people think that what matters is the ideological direction of one’s politics. Are you conservative? Are you liberal? These differences occupy most of our attention and argument. What is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms. This proclivity today has been both ubiquitous and unquestioned for a long time. Precisely because our culture is always most powerful when it is most taken for granted, it brings into relief just how powerful a force politicization is in our time. For all, the public has been conflated with the political. Despite their wide ideological and theological differences, then, Christians have been assimilated to the deeper movements of our culture in remarkably similar ways.”

Unquestioned, a culture of polarizations (“politicization” as Hunter puts it) is one in which it is nearly impossible to find unity or common ground amidst our differences. And a big part of the reason is something else I’ve observed among Christians in our polarizing debates - everyone thinks they are the victim. Hunter describes this as the “narrative of injury” or “ressentiment” - each party has “a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged.” One sees this in Christians’ debates over homosexuality and gay marriage. Conservatives rally around their culturally unpopular opinion on traditional marriage and sexuality as they “suffer” for the Truth of Scripture. Liberals, likewise, unite to oppose judgemental attitudes as they “suffer” for unity while excluded by Conservatives. The opposing sides share in what Hunter pinpoints as a rooted “sense of entitlement.” He elaborates,

The entitlement may be to greater respect, greater influence, or perhaps a better lot in life and it may draw from the past or the present; it may be privilege once enjoyed or the belief that present virtue now warrants it. In the end, these benefits have been withheld or taken away or there is a perceived threat that they will be taken away by those now in positions of powers...The sense of injury is key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity.

Not only do we ostracize and exclude one another in our diversity of Christian faith and practice, we now feel justified in our position, victimized by the perceived power others. What we don’t realize, however, is that we aren’t victims of each other. The irony amidst diversity is that Christians together are captives to this culture of polarizations. 

These observations, while bleak in description, actually give me hope. We don’t need to be blind to the politics of our culture. And we don’t have to accept our often self-imposed victimization. It may sound simplistic, but this is a case where a collective self-awareness on such themes could go a long way in developing and sustaining an alternative experience of unity. And again, such a way would be good news for world full of division.

beyond moderate

Several times recently I've had discussion or reflection on the term "moderate." I'll admit, I struggle to define what it means. A moderate person is someone who avoids extremes, adopting a more reasonable approach as opposed to radical opinions. Part of my struggle comes from being someone who often finds myself caught somewhere in the middle of two extremes on a variety issues. Yet I’m uncomfortable as a moderate. Such a place can  be difficult to remain.

Our culture is FULL of polarizations, and Christians are no exception in this trend to distinguish extremes, with the Conservative-Liberal spectrum being the prime example. Polarizing labels - Conservative or LIberal - groups people into like-minded enclaves. You are either for us or against us. Never both. Moderate, it feels, isn’t even a viable option.

Often lost in the discussion is how to apply the New Testament teaching of unity in diversity (cf. 1 Cor. 12, 1 John 4, Gal 5:22). We polarize in the name of Truth (i.e. Jesus) neglecting the reality of said Truth (i.e. Jesus). Does this not suggest an inherent tension that resists clear polarizations? But again, such a place can be difficult to remain.

With my dislike of polarizations, I do try to choose an alternative that wrestles through the unity in diversity biblical teaching, while at the same time not just glossing over glaring differences that can and should be addressed (e.g. defining leadership). More often than not, I find myself ending up somewhere in the middle of the polarizations. Maybe I should just accept that I’m moderate.

Or maybe not. Here’s why:

First, a moderate position accepts the polarizing framework as normative. If I accept my place in the middle of whatever spectrum I’m still adopting the premise that the labels are helpful to begin with. What if our labels are the problem!?!

Also, my attempts to articulate the important both/and aspects of Christianity don’t always work. For example, I think it’s great Christians are recognizing the need for evangelism and social justice, as these are often polarized aspects of faith and practice. Yet such a view can oversimplify, as if somehow you just sprinkle a little evangelism with a dash of social concern and you end up with the recipe for holistic mission. The two extremes are brought together, yes, but they remain two different activities. Unity exists, but only within the categories of the polarization (i.e. evangelical and social justice). As many have experienced, these lingering polarizations don’t take long to reappear. The framework remains.

Finally, my moderate (or to quote a popular phrase, my "Third Way") can end up trying so hard for solidarity I end up saying nothing all. The middle ends up being nowhere. This is fence sitting at it’s worst.

All this to say, I’m not convinced my moderate tendencies are all that helpful. I feel stuck. As I said, to be a moderate is to accept the system of divisive polarizations. I’m looking for more. I need more. Our world needs more.

But we don’t need more moderates. Or a Third Way. Or a middle way. Or a balanced way.

We need a different way. An alternative way. Perhaps even a subversive way.

To this I ask: Is such a way even possible? A way that doesn’t accept the polarizing labels promoted by those in positions of power and influence? A way that doesn’t settle for easy answers for the sake of unity, but also doesn’t require complex answers to maintain unity? A way that prophetically challenges extremes while leading beyond the moderate middle?

If so, such a way would be good news for our world. Our world could use some good news.