Always ready with an answer…

Well, we’ve worked our way through Evolving in Monkey Town, just in time to mark the one year anniversary of its release. Thanks so much for your engagement and participation. Today’s excerpt comes from the final chapter, entitled “Living the Questions":

...I’m no longer ready to give an answer about everything. Sometimes I’m not ready because I feel that an answer does not do justice to the seriousness or complexity of the question. Sometimes I’m not ready to give an answer because I honestly don’t know what the best one is. Sometimes I’m not ready to give an answer because I can tell that the person asking doesn’t really want one anyway. 

Unfortunately, saying “I don’t know” has fallen out of vogue in Christian circles, and I’m still trying to get used to saying it myself. Opinionated and strong-willed, I’m always afraid that if I remain silent or show signs of ambivalence, people will assume that I can’t think for myself, that I haven’t studied an issue or thought it through. As my friends well know, I’ll tolerate a barrage of vicious insults before I’ll tolerate the mere suggestion that I might be uninformed. I would rather people think I don’t bathe enough than think I don’t read enough. 

In a way, the same has been true of the church of late. Sometimes Christians worry that if we don’t provide bullet-proof answers to all of life’s questions, people will assume that our faith is unreasonable. In reaction to very loud atheists like Richard Dawkins, we have become a bit too loud ourselves. Faith in Jesus has been recast as a position in a debate, not a way of life. 

But the truth is, I’ve found people to be much more receptive to the gospel when they know becoming a Christian doesn’t require becoming a know-it-all. Most of the people I’ve encountered are looking not for a religion to answer all their questions but for a community of faith in which they can feel safe asking them. 

When Peter first penned the words “always be ready with an answer,” he was writing to the persecuted church during the time of the emperor Nero…This was not advice for a debate team; it was advice for martyrs! Peter asked his readers to take courage, to look into the eyes of their assailants with patience and compassion, gentleness and respect. He urged them to live lives that are beyond reproach, to follow the teachings of Jesus and love their enemies to the point of death. This passage is not about fearlessly defending a set of propositions; it’s about fearlessly defending hope—a wild, bewitching, and reckless thing that cannot be systematized or proven or rationally explained. 

Peter knew that such behavior might arouse some curiosity. He knew that his fellow Christians would be subject to interrogation regarding their radical community and unconventional lives. In preparing them to give answers, Peter assumed they’d be asked questions. Our best answers in defense of Christianity have always been useless clanging cymbals unless our lives have inspired the world to ask. 

What are you not ready to give an answer about these days? What questions are you living through? 


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False fundamentals

Just a few more weeks left in our journey through Evolving in Monkey Town. Today’s excerpts come from Chapter 19, entitled “Adaptation":

It seems that a whole lot of people, both Christians and non-Christians, are under the impression that you can’t be a Christian and vote for a Democrat, you can’t be a Christian and believe in evolution, you can’t be a Christian and be gay, you can’t be a Christian and have questions about the Bible, you can’t be a Christian and be tolerant of other  religions, you can’t be a Christian and be a feminist, you can’t be a Christian and drink or smoke, you can’t be a Christian and read The New York Times, you can’t be a Christian and support gay rights, you can’t be a Christian and get depressed, you can’t be a Christian and doubt. 

I am convinced that what drives most people away from Christianity is not the cost of discipleship but rather the cost of false fundamentals. False fundamentals make it impossible for faith to adapt to change. The longer the list of requirements and contingencies and prerequisites, the more vulnerable faith becomes to shifting environments and the more likely it is to fade slowly into extinction. When the gospel gets all entangled with extras, dangerous ultimatums threaten to take it down with them. The yoke gets too heavy and we stumble beneath it…

...Once, a guy asked Jesus about his yoke, or teaching. He asked Jesus what he thought was the most important of all the Jewish laws. Jesus, who often responded to one question with another, chose this time to answer the man directly. He said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37-40). 

Love. It’s that simple and that profound. It’s that easy and that hard. 

Taking the yoke of Jesus is not about signing a doctrinal statement or making an intellectual commitment to a set of propositions. It isn’t about being right or getting our facts straight. It is about loving God and loving other people. The yoke is hard because the teachings of Jesus are radical: enemy love, unconditional forgiveness, extreme generosity. The yoke is easy because it is accessible to all—the studied and the ignorant, the rich and the poor, the religious and the nonreligious. Whether we like it or not, love is available to all people everywhere to be interpreted differently, applied differently, screwed up differently, and manifested differently. Love is bigger than faith, and it’s bigger than works, for it inhabits and transcends both…

What false fundamentals have you wrestled with in your life?


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Idols of Paper and Ink

Today we continue working our way through Evolving in Monkey Town with an excerpt from Chapter 17, entitled “Sword Drills”

Sometimes I wonder who really had the most biblical support back in the 1800s, Christians who used Ephesians 6 to support the institution of slavery, or Christians who used Galatians 3 to support abolition. Both sides had perfectly legitimate verses to back up their positions, but in hindsight, only one side seems even remotely justifiable on a moral level. On the surface, the Bible would seem to condone slavery. But somehow, as a church, we managed to work our way around those passages because of a shared sense of right and wrong, some kind of community agreement. Maybe God left us with all this discontinuity and conflict within Scripture so that we would have to “pick and choose” for the right reasons. Maybe he let David talk about murdering his enemies and Jesus talk about loving his enemies because he didn’t want to spell it out for us. He wanted us to make the right decisions as we went along, together. Maybe God wants us to have these conversations because faith isn’t just about being right; it’s about being part of a community. 

For as long as I can remember, the Christian response to conflicts within Scripture has been to try and explain them away, to smooth over the rough spots and iron out the kinks. The goal is to get everyone on the same page, to come up with one consistent, coherent, and comprehensive “biblical worldview” so that we can confidently proclaim that God indeed has an opinion about everything, including politics, economics, theology, science, and sex. We think that if we can just have a perfect, seamless book that can be read objectively and without bias, we will have the ultimate weapon. There will be no need for a God who stays hidden up on Mount Sinai, and there will be no need for each other. Instead, we will have a physical representation of God on which to dwell, personal idols made of paper and ink. 

As much as I struggle with the things I don’t like about the Bible—the apparent contradictions, the competing interpretations, the troubling passages—I’m beginning to think that God allows these tensions to exist for a reason. Perhaps our love for the Bible should be measured not by how valiantly we fight to convince others of our interpretations but by how diligently we work to preserve a diversity of opinion. 

Funny how I wrote this long before my “year of biblical womanhood” made many of these questions and conflicts a daily reality! Have you struggled with the Bible? In what ways might that struggle be redemptive?  When did your Bible-shaped idol come crashing down?


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I Believe in Works-Based Salvation

It’s Tuesday and, ironically enough, today’s excerpt from Evolving in Monkey Town comes from Chapter 15, entitled “Judgment Day."

from page 173:

I used to think that being saved from my sins meant being saved from hell. Salvation was something that kicked in after death, like a gift that had “Do not open until eternity” on the tag…It was something that happened once but applied for all eternity—once saved, always saved. 

From this perspective, Jesus was little more than theological dues ex machina, a vehicle through which my eternal security was attained. As my Sunday school teacher used to say, “Jesus was born to die.” The whole point was for Jesus to act as a sacrifice on my behalf. Everything that happened between the manger and the cross was interesting but not necessary. It held no inherent saving value. Jesus was like the conductor who handed me my ticket for heaven but left me alone for the ride. 

from page 174:

[But] Jesus came to offer more than just salvation from hell. I realized this when I encountered Jesus the radical rabbi and reexamined my life in light of his teachings. When I imagined what it would be like to give generously without wondering what is in it for me, to give up my grudges and learn to diffuse hatred with love, to stop judging other people once and for all, to care for the poor and seek out the downtrodden, to finally believe that stuff can’t make me happy, to give up my urge to gossip and manipulate, to worry less about what other people think, to refuse to retaliate no matter the cost, to be capable of forgiving to the point of death, to live as Jesus lived and love as Jesus loved, one word came to my mind: liberation

Following Jesus would mean liberation from my bitterness, my worry, my self-righteousness, my prejudice, my selfishness, my materialism, and my misplaced loyalties. Following Jesus would mean salvation from my sin. 

What I’m trying to say is that while I still believe Jesus died to save us from our sins, I’m beginning to think that Jesus also lived to save us from our sins. the apostle Paul put it more eloquently in his letter to the church in Rome when he said, ‘For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to hi m through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10). 

If it’s starting to sound like I believe in works-based salvation , it’s because I do. While I don’t for a second think that we can earn God’s grace by checking off a to-do list, I do believe that there is liberation in obedience. When we live like Jesus, when we take his teachings seriously and apply them to life, we don’t have to wait until we die to experience freedom from sin. We experience it every day as each step of faith and every good work loosens the chains of sin around our feet. It’s hard, and it’s something that I fail at most of the time, but it’s something I’ve experienced in little fits and starts along the way, enough to know that it’s worth it. Jesus promised that his yoke will be light, because he carries most of the load. 

How have your views on salvation shifted through the years? In what ways can we experience salvation in the day-to-day?


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"God Things"

It’s Tuesday.. Time to discuss Evolving in Monkey Town. Today’s excerpts come from “God Things”—one of the most talked-about chapters in the book. 

From page 147: 

The first time I heard someone call something a “God thing” was in 2005, the Saturday after Hurricane Katrina hit. A friend of mine was getting married in Dayton and expecting family from all around the country to attend the wedding. At the reception, I spoke with a member of the family who expressed thankfulness that the entire family had made it to the ceremony, despite some major airport delays across the South. 

“It was such a God thing,” the young man said as we waited in line for a piece of the groom’s cake. “It was like God had his hand on the weather. Clearly, he intends to bless this union.” 

I’d just spent the entire morning watching news footage of desperate families trapped on their rooftops awaiting rescue, so I couldn’t help but bristle at what he said. God had his hand on the weather? If God had his hand on the weather, then why didn’t he stop the hurricane from coming in the first place? Why didn’t he keep t he levees from breaking? Why would he go out of his way to help this family get to a wedding on time but leave thousands of people stuck in the Superdome without food or water?

Over the years, I’ve heard all sorts of things described as “God things”—scholarships, job opportunities, new cars, remodeled kitchens. Appealing to God things has an effect similar to appealing to “God’s will.” when a friend tells me that it’s God’s will for her to date a certain guy or buy a new car or go to a specific school, it’s difficult to object or ask questions without looking like I want to pick a fight with the Almighty himself. Similarly, when a friend hails her low interest rate or her airfare or her concert tickets as a God thing, it’s nearly impossible to get away with asking if she really needs a new house or a vacation or yet another Dave Matthews experience without seeming to rain on God’s parade. Every good Christian knows that the best way to insulate yourself from criticism or input is to say that God wants whatever you want. It has been done for centuries, from Constantine’s military conquests, to America’s ethnic cleansing in the name of Manifest Destiny, to the televangelist’s “love gifts. 

Dan says I’m far too cynical. He says that Christians talk about God things in an effort to show sincere gratitude to God, to remind themselves and others that the good things in their lives are not earned or deserved but are gifts…

I know he’s right. I know that, deep down, my problem isn’t with Christians who celebrate their blessings but with a God who seems to bless arbitrarily. What bothers me about God things is that they remind me of the cosmic lottery—that sobering dichotomy between the world’s rich and the world’s poor, between the lucky and the unlucky—which has always been a sticking point in my own fitful walk with God. If God’s goodness is qualified by how much stuff he gives out, I reason, then he’s not especially good. He might be good to that family that made it to the wedding on time, but he’s not especially good to orphans like Kanakarju.

I couldn’t quite piece it together at the time, but in India I began to suspect that the problem lies not in God’s goodness but in how we measure it. Laxmi and Kanakaraju and the women and children at the AIDS ministry, they prayed for basic things—food, shelter, health, peace—and they did not always receive. Yet I saw in their eyes the kind of joy and spiritual connectedness most Christians I know long for…

Maybe we aren’t the lucky ones after all.

From page 151:

It seems that in the kingdom of heaven, the cosmic lottery works in reverse. In the kingdom of heaven, all our notions about the lucky and the unlucky, the blessed and the cursed, the haves and the have-nots are turned upside down. In the kingdom of heaven, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16)…

To be present among [the least of these] is to encounter what the Celtic saints called “thin spaces,” places or moments in time in which the veil separating heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material, becomes almost transparent. I’d like to think that I’m a part of this kingdom, even though my stuff and my comforts sometimes thicken the veil. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—these are God things, and they are available to all, regardless of status or standing. Everything else is just extra, and extra can be a distraction. Extra lulls us into complacency and tricks us into believing that we need more than we need. Extra makes it harder to distinguish between “God things” and just things [read more].

Have you encountered the expression “God things”? What do you make of it? 

How can Christians talk about the good things in our lives without confusing temporal stuff with true blessings?


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