Jesus, Apologetics, and SnapChat

I currently teach two different courses: Apologetics and New Testament.  I came into the year convinced that I would love and be refreshed by the New Testament course.  I mean how can you read through the Gospels and not be overwhelmed by the love and beauty of Jesus?!  I think Apologetics is a worthy and necessary class, but it is quite a different animal.

But something unexpected happened….this year I have enjoyed teaching Apologetics much more than the New Testament.  I think this largely has to do with the overwhelmingly positive response from my Apologetic’s students and the surprisingly negative response from my New Testament students.  I should add that I still enjoy and get pumped over my New Testament material, but it’s hard to not let my student’s responses affect me.  This has made me ask the question why?  Why do high school students seem to enjoy apologetics more than reading the New Testament?  Here are some theories I have come up with:

1) This is more of a disclaimer — Every new batch of students is different.  I always have to be cautious generalizing my limited experience and applying it to all high schoolers everywhere.  I know that there are many of my students who enjoy the New Testament class, but at least this year they seem to be in the minority.

2) High schoolers hate reading….period.  My Apologetics class has significantly less reading, but you cannot get around reading the New Testament if you want to know Jesus.  The Bible is largely viewed as boring and unfortunately familiar.  However, as soon as I try to make the Bible a little strange to them I am quickly met with animosity.  This is most clearly seen when we read through Jesus’ commands against violence.  My mere suggestion that Jesus’ commands should be wrestled with are quickly rejected in favor of the image of a warrior God.  A close second is pointing out that Jesus’ views on money tend to fly in the face of free market capitalism.  The cries of protest are so quick and loud that its almost counterproductive to mention them.  The Bible is strangely revered by young Evangelicals, it is the book that they both love and hate.  It is where they get their assurance (or their foundation for being right) but they edit or miss out on all the challenges it has for their lives.  (I should also add that this is not solely a problem with high schoolers, but with fallen humans in general).  Again, this is largely due to the very mundane fact that they simply don’t want to read it.  I feel like I finally understand what Jesus was getting at in John 5:39-40.  They search the scriptures and yet miss that they are pointing to Jesus.  Je

3) Apologetics is a battleground.  The course focuses on articulating arguments and demands quick thinking from my students.  This is an exciting break from their typical day.  I honestly think they like being kept on their toes.  Apologetics creates a relatively safe space for a discussion and high schoolers love to debate.  And who wouldn’t get a thrill out of getting proven right through some rigorous argumentation.  Apologetics is attractive because the students feel like they are finally getting to think for themselves.

4) Clobber Texts:  The New Testament is scripture and as such it contains information that we don’t get to make up, we simply need to have ears to hear.  Unfortunately, many people like to shout scripture at others without ever listening to the text themselves.  I get the sense that my students feel preached at or judged when we go through the New Testament.  In one sense they are understanding the role of scripture, which is supposed to examine our hearts through the Spirit.  But this is of course not the only role of Scripture. Scripture also tells us who God is so that the more we know about him the more deeply we love him.  The problem is that it is hard to convince my students of this truth when they see so many Christians in the pulpit or on tv using scripture to beat someone up.  It is to the point where they almost mistrust anyone who claims to be an authority on scripture because that is what they expect them to do with it.  This is why I think many of them shut down when I try to get them to wrestle with the radical commands of Jesus.  They are viewing these texts as just one more reason why God or Christians are judging them, waiting for them to make a mistake.

So now what?

What can I do to cultivate a love of reading slowly in a fast-paced world?

How do I show them that the purpose of reading scripture is ultimately to enjoy God and to be conformed to his image?

How in the world can I compete with Netflix, Tumblr, and SnapChat?

I know that the one thing I have to resist is trying to make the Bible like Netflix, Tumblr, or SnapChat.  If the church is to have any future at all it must learn that what it has to offer is distinctively different from what the world offers.  And one of the things that is distinctive about the Christian faith is the God we come to know through Jesus. If we resist making the Bible like Tumblr we also must resist turning the Bible into a tool for power.  This resistance can only be assured by meditating on our crucified Lord.  One of my fears with an emphasis on Apologetics is that it is used in a way that makes Christians feel superior.  I don’t think this is a problem with Apologetics itself, but that modern Apologetics has unfortunately been co-opted by the Enlightenment project (that is a topic for a whole other blog post).  So while I may not have many practical solutions to my current dilema, I will continue to trust that as my students keep reading the scriptures they will also deepen in their knowledge and love of the One revealed in its pages.

Reflections after an Extra Spiritual Week

The school where I teach just had their Spiritual Emphasis Week.  The week’s purpose is pretty clearly outlined in the title.  It is meant to be a week where the entire school attempts to slow down and draw close to God.

As a Bible teacher at a Christian school it is safe to assume that I am a fan of Christian education.  If I could afford it, I would want my future children to attend a Christian school.  Both my husband and I went to Christian/College Prep high schools, and we were both very blessed by the experience

But after this week I am starting to see some of the limits of Christian education.  And the limitation is mainly one of identity.

Our school is not a confessional school, which means you do not have to be a Christian in order to attend.  I think this is actually a good thing.  It provides a very interesting challenge in my classroom that I believe on the whole has been both very rewarding for the students and for me.  My class is unapologetically confessional, but since it is a classroom environment I am able to weave my confession into a conversation.  I am able to show my students that even though this is my confession it is okay to disagree with me.  My classroom is clearly not the church and there is no possible way to confuse it with one.  My classroom, put maybe too simply, is the world.

But the lines between the church and the world start to blur when we go to chapel on Thursday.  Chapel consists of the liturgical acts of worship, prayer, and reading scripture.  A message is preached and some kind of a response to the homily is expected.  This would be a wonderful thing if the school was actually a church.

The church consists of a community of believers who come together once a week to celebrate the same confession: Jesus is king.  The church by its very nature crosses boundaries of age, race, and socio-economic status.  The church is a sanctuary, a safe place for those who may have taken a beating during the week, and have come to hear God’s word read over their lives.  This word acts as both a balm and a fire so that they may then go out and be witnesses to the world once again.  This is what my church is to me, and while I love my school where I teach, it will never be able to do this.  Because a Christian school is not and can never be a church.

Chapel on Thursdays is structured like a church service.  It is structured as a confessional act.  But what happens when you bring non-confessors into a confessional environment?  Should we really be surprised when they don’t join us in a celebration that they do not even recognize?

This is why Spiritual Emphasis Week is traditionally a very hard week for me.  I feel like the worst Bible teacher in all of history because after almost every chapel I don’t feel like I have celebrated with my family.  I feel a little beaten up.  I look across the aisle and see students sleeping in their chairs or making a bee line for the bathroom.  I can handle this for one hour, once a week, but after four chapels my spirit has usually been broken.  Again, I’m not saying that I blame the students or that I’m surprised when teenagers act like teenagers.  But four consecutive chapels at a Christian school make one thing abundantly clear.  We will always become frustrated when we try to force the world to act like the church.

Why the Left Behind Series Should be Left Behind

With the upcoming Left Behind movie, I thought I’d resurrect one of my old posts on the topic. Happy watching!

Cruciform Theology

As promised, here is my follow up post on the apocalyptic imagination of second temple Judaism. 

A common assumption found in Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind series is that the ultimate aim of apocalyptic texts like Revelation and Daniel is to provide a detailed, if coded, blueprint of future events.  Prophecy has no other purpose than this.  This becomes problematic when we start reading both prophetic and apocalyptic texts.  The major and minor prophets in the Hebrew scriptures seem to have a different goal.  The aim of these texts is not primarily in providing a detailed forecast of events, but to present a possible future based on Israel’s repentance or lack thereof.  The goal of Biblical prophecy is to encourage the faithful and challenge the wicked to repentance. 

If you are fans of the Left Behind series, you may interject here that this is indeed what Tim Lahaye is trying to…

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Comedians and Curbside Prophets

It was in N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, where he observes that both laughter and tears clue us into the fact that something has gone wrong in the world.  This statement came alive to me while reading a recent blog post.  The author came up with 15 episode ideas for Seinfeld if it were still running today.  The beauty of Seinfeld was that it took scenarios that we would describe as common, mundane, and typical and would point out their insanity.  The show subverted our values/neurosis with brilliance and seemingly lack of effort.

In this way, comedy actually plays a prophetic role in our society.

Now by prophecy I am not talking about a power to predict the future, but prophecy in terms of the ancient prophets in the Hebrew Bible.  Prophets were given a special kind of authority by God, usually empowered by the Spirit, in order to urge their people to see the error of their ways and repent.  Prophecy is truth telling through powerful, symbolic acts with the goal of righteousness and justice.  Prophets had a heightened sensitivity to the injustices around them, which usually led to their own despair (i.e. Jeremiah).

Comedy is a gift because it is one of the few forms of truth telling that our society is willing to hear. And the truth it is trying to tell us is that something has gone drastically wrong.  Comedy depends on this for every punch line (okay, maybe not knock, knock jokes).  Think of the following as prime examples of this: Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live, Stuff Christians Like, Stuff White People Like, The Onion, and the list goes on.

Through the guise of shallow entertainment we have invited these comedians into our hearts.  They’re clever lines aim right for our subconscious and consciences.  Now sometimes they miss and go straight over our heads, but for those with eyes to see and ears to listen we start to hear the cries of the victims of our broken world.

I wish the American church had half of the prophetic power of these comedians.  Truth telling is a vital role of the church, but we have warped it in the same way we have a warped our understanding of prophecy (Left Behind…need I say more).  We are so obsessed with assigning blame for the evil around us (i.e. “Thanks, Obama”) that we miss the evil that resides within us.  Truth telling has become a power play– a way to fill up the seats.

So what has made these comedians so successful and what, if anything, can the church learn from them?

1. Comedians consider their audience.  A good comedian knows what kind of demographic they’re going to attract and tailors their material accordingly (Jeff Foxworthy comes to mind).  This is rhetoric 101.  If you want to move or stir your audience, you have to consider what they value and how they think.  This does not mean that we change what the gospel is, but that, as Paul says, we become “all things to all people.”

I was at an assembly where an elder stood in front of a largely teenage audience and said that America was going to fall into ruin because of its tolerance of homosexuality.  Here is a classic example of the church thinking they are taking on the role of a prophet when in truth they’re just being a jerk.  Truth telling is not bullying, and if you’re not sure of the difference I recommend befriending a homosexual or any other person who has been marginalized/victimized by the church.  The American church for far too long has played the victim, when they are more often than not the bully.

2. A Comedians’ worldview is shaped by their task.  I loved the show Everybody Loves Raymond. One of the writers came to work and shared that he had accidentally recorded over his wedding video.  On the night of their anniversary he popped in the video and to his and his wife’s horror, their wedding day was now a football game.  The writers knew that his unfortunate mistake was a goldmine for the show and immediately started writing the episode for it.  They confessed at the end of the series that many of their episodes were drawn from their own lives.

A comedian is never off the job.  Every experience could be a potential punch line or sketch.  They can’t afford to turn off this part of their brain because they might miss something.  Most comedians are saturated in their craft, which means that they can’t help but think a bit differently than the rest of us.

Christians need to adopt this kind of transformative thinking.  Our minds need to be saturated with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, the cries of Lamentations, and the prayers of the saints.  Perhaps when we have become so saturated our truth telling will seem more authentic and feel less like a party line.

Unlike these comedians, the prophets of Israel were not very popular with their audience.  Speaking the truth confronts injustice and so it will always ruffle some feathers.  Nevertheless, the church has a vital role to play by simply speaking the truth.  This is why we must constantly examine our hearts to fight against any hidden agendas or desires for power.  Truth speaking is always cruciform (cross–shaped).  The church will never be the city on a hill by casting stones, but by taking sin’s weight (with all of its guilt, shame, and despair) off of the world and placing it on its shoulders.  For when we take on the wounds of the world we start to look a whole lot more like Jesus.

The Difference a Trinity Can Make

I grew up in an evangelical, Protestant church, which meant that much of the focus of my Christian upbringing was on the importance and study of scripture.  I am very thankful for this background.  It has given me a great appreciation for the accessibility of scripture and fed my thirst for knowledge.  But there was one thing that was hardly ever mentioned, the Trinity.  Of course the belief in the Trinity was affirmed, but you would be hard pressed to find one sermon or class on it.  So in honor of Trinity Sunday, I thought I would write a short reflection on what a robust Trinitarian theology can do for our everyday spiritual formation.  This is something I have come to appreciate more recently due, ironically, to some very Catholic–leaning Protestants that have helped widen my perspective.

Before I move into the specifics, I want to add that my increasing study of the Trinity came alongside with an increasing study of church history.  The glaring gap in the Protestant church today is our lack of understanding of the Church Fathers before the Reformers.  I believe this gap will continue to be detrimental to the continued survival of Protestantism.  If it does survive in a post-Christian America, it will be severely weakened because it has denied itself of a primary source of nourishment.  We do ourselves a disservice to no longer know the works of Athanasius, Irenaeus, and so many others.  Our faith is not something we have made up.  It is an inheritance that has been passed down to us, protected and articulated again and again by each generation.  It is these early Church Fathers who gave us the language of Trinity, and hence why most Protestants hardly ever talk about it or even know how to explain it apart from analogy.

So why does the Trinity matter?  Isn’t it just a product of the philosophy of the day and nothing more?

Here is what I have come to learn and appreciate through study and contemplation on the Trinity.

1. A deeper understanding of salvation.

Salvation has always been explained to me very simply as “justification by faith.”  I was a sinner, I couldn’t pay the necessary price, but God paid it for me by sending his son to die for me.  Salvation was described as a legal action with God as my judge.  This is not to say that God is not a judge or that justification is not used as an image for salvation.  But it is not the only image used and God is more often referred to as my Father than my judge.  The image of the Trinity is one where  the Father and Son are eternally passing back and forth a love that spills over into creation.  All life and existence are possible only because of their connection to the source of existence.  This means that salvation, and the only possibility for life and existence, is to be drawn into the source, which happens to be an eternal relationship characterized by love.  It is not just the cross that makes this possible, salvation begins at the incarnation.  Jesus is sent not just to die, but to share what is his: sonship and knowledge of the Father.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that salvation is to know the Father.  This sounds very different from the justification analogy or the Roman road.  It also reveals that salvation is a process of continued and deepening knowledge of God.  I think more Christians can relate to salvation as a process than a “Damascus road” experience.  This creates both humility and excitement, for we learn that we will never be able to know all there is to know, at least not this side of eternity.

2. A greater appreciation of the Holy Spirit

My evangelical background was very Jesus–focused.  Again, that is not a bad thing, but it left out a pretty key player, the Spirit.  The more I learned about the Trinity, the more I realized that my liturgy and prayers essentially had only been addressing Jesus.  Once I started paying more attention to the Spirit, I started to learn about its crucial role in new creation and my own spiritual journey.  I knew those things before, but I started to address the Spirit directly.  Our actions matter, even the small adjustment of closing my prayer with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It helps me keep all three persons on the forefront of my mind.

3. A healthier view of the Bible

Many Christians in my context growing up came dangerously close to replacing the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit, with the Bible.  I believe Cessationists actually do this when they say that the gifts of the Spirit are no longer available post-canon.  The Bible is given a god-like status to the point where even the Bible has become an idol.  Yes, even the Bible can become an idol, in fact Bibliolatry is characteristic of many of our “Bible wars.”  I always grew up learning that the Bible was my foundation.  Again, I have a very high view of scripture, but the Bible cannot be my foundation.  The Bible is ultimately a revelatory tool that is used by the Spirit to form us.  But our foundation must be the Father, Son and Spirit, any other foundation is idolatry. (I can already anticipate the angry comments to follow that statement).  Again, let me clarify, I believe that the Bible is inspired by the Spirit and is vitally important for figuring out who God is, but the Bible is not God.

So it turns out the a deeper look into the Trinity has changed quite a lot in my own spiritual journey.

What are some other areas you can think of that are impacted by a robust view of the Trinity?