Fear Of Whales

Archive for September, 2015

Literal Sense of the Text

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How do we read the bible? It is a deceptively simple question.

I believe it is all about the author. Here’s what I mean

Some teachers believe in the “Plain Reading” of the text. The most extreme plain reading theology would say that the true theology of scripture can best be determined by whatever the bible appears to mean, most obviously, on first reading, by the uneducated and unbiased reader. This is a very very conservative understanding of the Bible and it is problematic for a number of reasons (What happens when what’s obvious to you is not so obvious to me? What if what’s obvious to both of us does not make sense?). For this reason it’s seen more in little country churches than among scholars. The most talk one will hear about the Plain Reading in serious academic circles is from conservative theologians who think it is worth taking into account, or considering, but not necessarily swallowing whole.

Way on the other side of the spectrum is the Postmodern Reading. That would argue that the text itself has no inherent meaning (it’s just squiggles on a page) and that it is given meaning by the reader depending on the reader’s context. Therefore a passage about freedom for the captives is rightly read differently by the slave (seeking abolition) than it is by the slave-owner (seeking freedom from sin-guilt). This also, is very problematic sometimes, and is generally hated in fundamentalist churches. but much more popular in academia.

There are a whole bunch of other paradigms in the middle. But these two are sufficient to hang my hammock between, in order to endorse the paradigm I support, which I call the “literal sense” of the text. In a literal reading (not to be confused with a literalistic reading which would discount metaphors etc.) understands the text in terms of the author, not the reader. The true meaning of the text is whatever “the original author intended to communicate to his original audience by what he wrote” and therefore the most powerful interpretive tools are the ones that bring us to a closer understanding of that.

Do I have perfect knowledge of the author? I sure don’t! But I refuse to shoot for the wrong target just because it is easier to hit. Things like historical research, and study of original languages give me insights and clues into which particular direction or turn of phrase is more likely to belong to the author, and therefore to be the correct interpretation, but it’s all a likelihood, an educated guess. This humility with respect to my interpretation, combined with clarity with respect to my objective provides the key formula to why and how I believe most of what I believe about what the Bible says.

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September 30th, 2015 at 6:30 pm

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Coffeehouse? Try Ice House!

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Every church wants to create “community” which I take to mean they intend for parishioners to interact with one another and make friends rather than just watch the show. That’s a good endeavor I think, but it needs more brainstorming because our classic go-to is the coffeehouse. Put some tables in an alcove, an espresso machine, decorate like Starbucks BAM, Community! Right?

WRONG! Coffeeshops are not the centers of community that we like to pretend they are, I know this, because I am in a Starbucks right now writing this, and I have not talked to a single person aside from the barista. I can’t make friends here! I would like to, I can’t. It is not socially acceptable. You don’t talk to people at steakhouses do you? Why do we think we do at coffeehouses?

Bars have the same ridiculous image, although they are less popular as an archetype in church planning. Who in the world actually meets people in a bar? You might go to a bar with friends, you might see friends you already know at the bar, but you do not approach people you do not know at bars and have lively conversations unless you live in a movie. The music is too loud1.

tumblr_m1xiojWglC1rnw5qjo1_500What we need actually is something more like the Viking great hall. A big dirty building where everybody comes to get warm by the huge fire and eat a feast after the battle. A Place of gathering and camaraderie where people mingle and meet.

”That’s unfair” You will say to me. Nothing like that has existed for a thousand years. Well, If it was easy everyone would do it. The best modern equivalent I can think of would be the Jacuzzi.

westalabama0731onethumb-Years ago in the southern states there was a model I rather like. It was called the Ice House. Modern Ice Houses are bars with all the social boundaries associated with that, but back in the old days before refrigeration Ice houses actually sold ice as a main product. They got a huge amount of it from up north during the winter, and kept it there all year selling it in blocks to people who needed it. They also sold groceries and beer, because the ice would keep it cool and fresh.

Since close proximity to the huge block of ice made the patio around the ice house one of the most confortable places in Texas before AC Ice Houses became centers of community where people would come, literally, to chill.

I would love to see a church embrace this kind of “open all the time” and “comfortable place to relax” model in their planning. And if not a church, someone should. Society is missing these opportunities to meet, and it’s pretending to find them here at Starbucks!


1: Maybe you would like to insist that your experience in bars is different, but I submit to you that you only think it’s different because you were drunk. Anytime anyone has tried to take me to a chill, meet new friends kind of bar, it turned out to be a loud awkward experience and no new friends were met. I’ve done this over and over. You are in denial.

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September 23rd, 2015 at 6:40 pm

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I Was Wrong: Ahmad Did Not “Make” His Clock

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I have made a lot of posts on this blog over the years about transparency, and the importance of integrity and admitting when you are wrong. I need to model that this morning, because I accidently discovered that Ahmed’s clock is manufactured.

The story actually begins when I was a geeky 14 year-old interested in electronics. I filled my room with outdated tech and tinkered with it just like Ahmed, I took them apart and put it back together just like Ahmed, and I brought my disassembled electronics to school just like Ahmed.

My interest was less in timepieces and more in robots. BattleBots were in their heyday back then. I would take all the plastic off an RC Car and then zip tie it back together with a slightly modified (inferior) configuration and call the new creation “My Robot” which I brought to school for science fair. I didn’t realize at the time that doesn’t really count as inventing a robot.

I’m white, and I was never arrested, suspended, or discouraged from any of this in 2001.

0zgv9WlFast forward 15 years I am now less interested in electronica and more interested in making the world a better place. I am in my last year of seminary and heard a story about a nerdy kid I related to being arrested for bringing the circuits he tinkers with to school to tell his teacher. It got under my skin. Posted about the homemade clock on social media #IStandWithAhmed And I took it a step further. I brought a clock to school.

At the time no picture had been released, but a description from the police seemed to indicate that the circuits were exposed, so I took a page out of my High School Handbook and cannibalized the alarm clock in my room to make something I thought would approximate Ahmed’s clock.  (That’s My Clock Above)

The point was to demonstrate that since I am white, Nothing would happen. Nothing did

0916ahmedclockbut I accidently revealed something I did not intend to with my clock. When the photo of Ahmed’s clock was revealed, it not not look something like Ahmed’s clock, it looked nigh exactly like Ahmed’s clock in some crucial ways.

Both of our clocks feature two circuit boards, one connected to the LCD, and one with buttons. Both feature transformers and 9 volt battery sockets which prevent you from having to reset your clock if it is accidently unplugged. Both have mounts fro screws.

None of this stuff would be built into a homemade creation. This is the result of taking an existing clock apart and presenting it as a clock you built. but I must reiterate this is exactly what I did when I was his age!

I didn’t get arrested, which means I didn’t get invited to the white house or silicon valley. Which means I was not put in a position to be exposed as a fraud in the national media for something I did totally innocently, as a naive freshmen, but now surely Ahmed is going to have to answer for why the clock he “made” is a fake, when in reality it’s actually nothing more or less than what nerdy kids do.

This doesn’t change the story very much. There is still a massive problem with racism highlighted by the fact that this would never happen with a white kid, I’m proof of that. There is still a massive problem with school zero tolerance policy highlighted, perhaps even more so now that we know this is literally a clock you could buy in a store without the plastic on it. It does seem to mean that Ahmed is not the kind of genius his invitations seem to expect, and that’s tragic.

If Ahmad was a tech genius who built his own circuit boards by hand at 14 then his arrest would be unfair but ultimately societies positive response would allow him to write his own ticket to a great future. If he’s just a bright kid like me playing around both the arrest and the response will amount to stress and embarrassment he does not need. I really wish it could have been a non-issue for him.

Still I wanted to be transparent about my discovery that the “Homemade Clock” I defended was different from what I represented it to be publicly. I’m sorry too.

Picture taken by my teacher.

Picture taken by my teacher.

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September 19th, 2015 at 1:50 am

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Barriers to Faith

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This is a neat model I have come across. I don’t know where it is from, let me know if you recognize it. It states that there are basically 5 reasons (or five types of reasons) that people reject Christianity. It’s comes down to the brain, spirit, heart, gut or feet. They either:

  • Disbelieve intellectually   (Brain)
  • Don’t understand theologically   (Spirit)
  • Disassociate socially   (Heart)
  • Bothered emotionally/intuitively   (Gut)
  • Believe it does not matter   (Feet)

In my experience walking with people as they become Christians, there are usually at least two of these things at play, a primary and a secondary concern. Let’s go through each of them slowly

Mind:  Some people do not want to be Christians because they do not think the claims of Christianity are true or accurate. they believe that the evidential base for our belief in things like an extant God and a historical resurrection are wanting, or they believe something else instead. This one is the most straight forward to me.

Spirit: Some people are less concerned about evidence as explanation. They want make sense of the ideas and understand what Christianity is about. If it made sense and sounded good they would be on board but otherwise it’s just another religion. This is the churches favorite. We like to pretend that if we could just explain the cross to everyone so that they understand it they would believe it. For that reason I don’t see this often in the wild.

Heart: Christians can be awkward. And for some people their difficulty is not so much with understanding or identifying with the ideas of Christianity, it is identifying with the Christians. Often they have been hurt by a church or Christian community in the past, and their inclination is to stay away. Sometimes they just see no reason to start identifying, the church seems like no fun and threats of hell do not make us seem more fun.

Gut: Some people are primarily concerned with the moral and ethical implications of their beliefs and do not feel good about the way Christianity would jibe with their priorities. Often this position is demonized “Well you just want to sin” not necessarily! It could be that I don’t want to be judgmental or anti-gay! One young women I spoke to was afraid to consider herself a Christian because doing so would mean her parents were wrong, and that felt disrespectful.

Feet: Even with no other barriers, apathy is plenty strong to keep someone outside the faith. Would you join the “Squared Have 4 Sides Club”? Why not? Their beliefs are true, they make sense, the people seem nice. But what does it matter? Without a compelling reason to get off the couch an object at rest will stay at rest. Call to mission and social justice work wonders here.

As is the case in any helping situation “The presented problem is never the problem” so just because someone says the words “All Christians are hypocrites” does not mean that Heart is their primary barrier, it means that that was something that they felt safe enough to say to you at the beginning of the conversation and may be something they don’t believe at all but want to see how you will react to it.

I really like that about this model. I often see mind people like me treated as if their objections are nothing more than smokescreens and they really just need to sit and listen to this emotional case. But the truth is that there are smokescreens, and there are people with emotional concerns but there are also people with intellectual concerns. Some people even pretend to have emotional objections but that’s really a smokescreen to cover for their real logical doubts.

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September 16th, 2015 at 6:10 pm

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A Small Step In the Right Direction

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Karnut 6x7.0685There are a lot of homeless people who live in Austin. Some of them are Street Kids, homeless by choice (according to them) , embracing the lifestyle on the road. Some of them are down on their luck, just tying to get back on their feet. Some are mentally unstable. Some are addicts. Almost none are dangerous.

In my two years in town I’ve done a lot to get to know this community. I haven’t spoken much about it, because it feels braggy. But I have been working to grow my heart for the homeless for years. It started when Acts 3 challenged me to offer eye contact if nothing else to my brothers and sisters who dared to ask me for help. After that I started having conversations, and listening to stories. Now in Austin I often bring leftover food from banquets we hold at the seminary out to my friends who live on Congress and Guadalupe.

It can be complicated to get started thinking in this direction, but it’s worth it. As Christians we know that God loves the homeless (his son was homeless until he moved back in with his dad) We also know to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves, and we know that there are a lot of clever questions to ask about when helping hurts and assistance programs that could breed dependence. We are expert exegetes at getting out of Biblical obligations like these. But I want you to try.

0007703408041_500X500 I want to give you an assignment. The box at left is called Kar’s Sweet and Salty Mix. It costs about $7 at Sam’s Club for a box that size. You can also get it on Amazon if you don’t live near a Sam’s. It’s the best value trail mix I can find that I eat myself.

I want you to buy a box and keep it in your car and then practice Luke 6:30 “Give to everyone who begs from you” (notice that the verse does not say to give them whatever they want)

Take the time to acknowledge that anyone begging has asked you a question. Look them in the eye, acknowledge their humanity, and give them something.

If you don’t like trail mix this also works with bottled water, and it works best with both! I like trail mix because it settles all the nagging doubts in my mind “But Ryan what if they are a con artist? What if they pack that sign into a BMW at the end of the day?” I say to my cynical self “It’s trail mix, it’s for sharing! I would share trail mix with Hitler if he wanted some”

The goal is not to solve homelessness, the goal is to thin the wall that exists between you and your neighbor. It’s not that they need food (these bags are small) It’s that giving them something will make it less scary to interact. I know that it’s possible to do more. A lot of these people have dental problems and nuts can be hard to eat, some people have allergies, Sam’s is owned by Wal-Mart and the patronage is not ideal. But they are cheap and individually wrapped, and they last for a long time without refrigeration. This easy choice is a small step in the right direction.

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September 9th, 2015 at 6:01 pm

“All Are Welcome” Is a Lie

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SRS_Come-as-you-areI still remember being a small boy in the south when it was a big deal for our church to allow people to dress casually, so the “come just as you are” philosophy of church is not lost on me. Still, while that was a worthwhile corrective to a previous snobbery, it was never really true. We do not, for instance, allow people to come to church naked, and most Sunday mornings when I wake up that’s exactly how I “are”!

The same is true for the “All Are Welcome” refrain that is a popular adornment on church signs and websites. Just as “Come as you are” translates to “You could probably wear a clean t-shirt” the statement “all are welcome” actually means “we don’t think homosexuality is a sin”. It’s a sort of code.

But it’s a pernicious lie to think that if we welcome the GLBT community we welcome everyone. It’s particularly problematic when already furnished with the knowledge that condemning an identity as sinful is exclusive to welcoming persons with that identity. (I talk about why letting people come is not enough HERE) Make no mistake “All are Welcome” churches believe in sin, and around sins like chauvinism, racism, oppression, overconsumption of resources, and literalism they are often downright intolerant, they have no choice!

It’s a fact of life, a holdover from the law of non-contradiction in Logic 101 that you cannot support two mutually exclusive positions on the same issue.

You cannot have a church which is wholly welcoming to and approving of Young Earth Creationists, without excluding the vast majority of practicing scientists and science-lovers.

You cannot make a space comfortable black people and also violent white supremacists.

Heck you can’t even hold service with a young missional experimental church guy like me and a ardent liturgical traditionalist if your standard for welcome is set at the level of approval without any expressed condemnation.

Granted, any of these groups could be welcomed together to a table for discussion of their disagreements. But we are kidding ourselves if we believe that the table can be neutral ground, or that if it were it would be truly welcoming to either community.

And what of those people who are simply creepy? People who innocently or not, make everyone around them feel unsafe? When someone hits on every woman he sees, do we welcome him or the women?

VisiI say we embrace the problem. I say we tear down the misleading All Are Welcome signs and hold up signs that say “Homophobia is NOT Welcome here” perhaps with a small print that says “(homophobes permitted in a trial basis if they can keep their mouths shut)”

I saw we wipe clean the broadly meaningless church mission statements that say every church is “biblically grounded” and “Outward focused” and say things like “This church loves street evangelism” or “this church thinks everyone goes to heaven” instead.

I say we stop making plays at being welcoming to all, and get comfortable with the fact that we specialize by necessity. Because there are some people God loves who don’t feel comfortable around others, and that’s okay.

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September 2nd, 2015 at 6:58 pm