The Future of Jbyas.com

As I’ve mentioned before, the transition from critique to creation has been a difficult one for me. Over the past 2 years I have been so grateful for your encouragement, feedback, push-back, & openness. This blog took shape as I departed from pastoral ministry to become a professor, writer, & business adviser. There was much pain to be processed, much dissonance to be digested, & much ground to cover as I journeyed to a new place.

Well, I’ve come to a new place.

But because of my passion for church unity & thinking deeply about the philosophical & hermeneutical grounding for Christianity in an increasingly post-Christian context, I will continue to write.

However, for many reasons that I would be happy to share privately with anyone I consider a friend, I will no longer be writing these things at jbyas.com. My ruminations and palpation will now be at http://dominickdodgson.com/ and it is under this name that all my future publications will be released. Even as I have a few books likely to come out in the next few years, they will be released under this name.

If you would like to continue the conversation we started 2 years ago, I would be happy to do so there. As for jbyas.com, this will gradually be converted into a space for my day-to-day work. But know, ironically, that this too is a continuation of the conversation we started 2 years ago.

For me, there is something to the maturity of theology that stops talking about theology.

Thank you.

“This man takes pleasure, takes part, in everything, and whenever one catches him occupied with something his engagement has the persistence of the worldly person whose soul is wrapped up in such things . . . No heavenly glance or any other sign of the incommensurable betrays him; if one didn’t know him it would be impossible to set him apart from the rest of the crowd.” – Johannes de Silentio.

The Problem with Being Positive

I just wanted to say, I haven’t been neglecting my blog on purpose. The truth is, 2013 was meant to be a turn to the positive. I have gotten all my Evangelical critiques out of my system and am ready to being building bridges and championing the unity of the Church. But to be honest, it’s SO much easier to write critiques than to start letting your own thoughts out into the world.

Firstly, because it’s hard to be articulate. When you tear down a house, the goal is clear. When you’re building it, it’s hard to get started without the finished blueprint. And I by no means have a finished blueprint.

Secondly, because it’s hard to be vulnerable. Critique keeps you safe since you’re not saying anything positive, just being a parasite on what already exists. Once you put your own thoughts out there, you are sure to get your own parasites. Not sure I’m ready for that yet, though I’m close.

All that to say, I hope to write again soon but it’s just hard to know how to start this new chapter! Any suggestions are welcome!

J

Not Being Alone

As I walk the streets of Chicago, I wonder.

I wonder how many hearts have been snared by a narrative of accomplishment, which wraps up to our ear whispering, “only accomplishment makes one worthy of attention.”

I wonder how many are taken to the brink of madness because of the paradox: the more I do, the more attention I will get and yet the more I do the less time I have for the connection I crave. When the calculus isn’t adding up . . . I must be more of a failure than I thought.

I wonder who has deceived us into believing that people only want the work of our labor and not someone to labor alongside. I do wonder these things.

But I also I wonder who has the courage to admit that they are worthy of intimacy simply because they are human.

I wonder who has the courage to admit that what they really long for is not to be accomplished but not to be alone.

These are the leaders I want to follow. These are the outliers who have never fit in, who have given up on glancing from side to side to see what is expected and how they can live up to it and so have cut through the whispers to scream: I AM ENOUGH, COME ALONG.

Homeward Bound

“Go. The world awaits.”

This has become the dominant narrative for Christian leaders trying to inspire young people. Just flip through the advertisements in a magazine like RELEVANT, whose primary audience is 18-29 year old Christians.

Since this is a dominant narrative in the broader culture, it’s also a great way to sell your product, be that a college education, a social good enterprise, or simply a story.

“Go. The world awaits.”

My fear is that this narrative can do three unhelpful things as it relates to the Gospel as I see it:

First, it provides justification for abandoning those closest to you for the possibility of something great. Loving the “nameless needy” is much easier than loving my 5 year old who insists on not wearing a pull-up but then still pees the bed at least 3 times a week. Being generous and loving to a stranger in a 3rd world country is, for me at least, much easier emotionally and spiritually, than engaging in a healthy conflict with my neighbor when he tells me that my kid’s chalk-art makes the neighborhood look trashy. But the Gospel is about incarnation, that is, diving deeply into the present time and present place. Jesus wasn’t a world-traveler and to be frank, he didn’t go change the world. He was a Jew who lived in a small village and taught the people who were there. No products, no grand vision that required him to abandon the insignificant location he found himself in.

This leads to my second concern, that by not rooting ourselves in a particular location for a long period of time, we can easily escape the hard internal work we need to be doing on ourselves. That is to say, it’s easy to be distracted by the flashing lights of new external environments to the point that I neglect my internal development. In a new context, there are plenty of things to keep me busy: get to know people, places, cultural trends, etc. In the midst of this excitement, personal spiritual disciplines are harder to focus and develop.

And finally, this narrative that the greatest things in our lives happen “out there,” is what Zizek (after Lacan) would call an “objet petite a,” it’s like searching for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If it’s always “out there” then it’s never, by definition, “right here.” There is always a place that better fits you and your dreams than where you are. And that seems related to number one above, but also seems irrational as a story that we live our lives by. It leads to us finally “giving up” and “settling” somewhere because the story that great things happen “out there” is, by definition, a story that can only stop but never be resolved.

These thoughts began last summer as my friend Caleb told me that he asked his parents for forgiveness. He went to them to apologize for buying into the idea that the Gospel inherently involved “going,” with no option of “staying.” He apologized for leaving his hometown simply because “that’s what you do if you want to make an impact.”

So this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t move or that there aren’t locations that are better fits for us and how we pursue a Kingdom life. It’s just the beginning of a conversation. About staying home to do great things for God. About committing to our hometowns to find ourselves. About learning what it means to be connected to places like Jesus seemed to be.

Jesus as the Only Way to True Happiness?*

It’s a classic scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, one man trying to convince another man he is dead. When this fails, he finally gets the job done himself. Surprisingly, this is an interesting commentary on the system that underlies how many of us “do evangelism” or “tell people about Jesus” today. What underlies our motivation for “telling people about Jesus” is this story: only Jesus can make you truly happy/fulfilled. This is an incredibly meaningful story for people who are not happy/fulfilled and it is incredibly motivating for those who are doing the telling.

But what about people who do think they are happy without being a Christian? This is where the cracks of this system come to the surface.

To say that only Jesus can make you truly happy/fulfilled implies that everyone who is not a Christian must necessarily be unhappy or unfulfilled, even if they deny it. And it’s in this awkward encounter of Christians trying to convince non-Christians that they aren’t happy, even if they think they are, that something significant is revealed.

Underneath the seemingly innocent statement: “only Jesus can make you truly happy” is an entire economic system wherein Jesus is a product and we are his advertisement. If we believe that Jesus’ primary purpose is to make us “fulfilled,” satisfied,” or happy,” then our paradigm for the Gospel cannot tolerate someone being truly happy without Jesus. It would render the work of Jesus impotent, the product dysfunctional, and more importantly—if we want to psychologize a bit—our very reason for being Christian is compromised, since we too bought the product from someone else.

So in order to maintain the belief that true happiness/fulfillment only comes from Jesus, we often do two very harmful things. First, we pretend we are happy when we aren’t. After all, if Jesus is the product that gives me happiness and I’m not happy, I have only three choices (1) say the Jesus product is broken (2) user error or (3) pretend I am happy so I can avoid numbers (1) and (2). Secondly, we have to create a need in those who do not feel they have one. We have to either (1) tell everyone how sinful they are or (2) tell everyone how unhappy they are. Only then will be people “discover” that they “need” to “buy” our product. That is, we are arguing with people about whether they are dead yet. . .

But for many this discussion begs the question, “If Jesus doesn’t do something for you, why would anyone want to become a Christian?” And to ask that question is to still be participating in that same economy, to be trapped into posturing Jesus as a product.

But the economy of Jesus is not one that creates need to sell product but that encourages generosity out of abundance, it is not one where Jesus makes you happy/fulfilled but where he makes you faithful. God is not the product, he will not be sold and bought. He will not be named and he will not be tamed. The story is his and we are invited to participate.

________

Note: I must admit that perhaps there is a sense in which this is an appropriate way of speaking of Jesus. After all, doesn’t the Bible itself participate in this economy? What’s the difference between talking about a savior who saves us from our sins and a product who makes us happy/fulfilled? I have no idea but it seems to be a fine line indeed. . .

You Do Not Take The Bible Literally*

While this could easily be a rant against the improper use of “literally” in pop culture, The Oatmeal has already done a wonderful job of that. So instead I will briefly address the train wreck that is the Evangelical use of “literal.”

As evangelicals, we have three phrases that serve as trump cards in every conversation. For instance, if you go to a friend for advice on a life-changing decision and you don’t like their advice, you can just say, “well God is leading me in this direction.” Show stopper.

But as it relates to more serious beliefs the major trump card is “liberal.” If you want to dismiss someone without actually engaging with what they are trying to say, simply call them a “liberal,” which is the evangelical equivalent of the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s. It’s shorthand for “the ‘world’ is a zombie and you have been eaten.”

But related to this trump card is the more specific, “You don’t take the Bible literally!? (audible gasp)” trump card.

But, in the words of famed linguist Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The fact is, everyone I know reads most of the Bible literally. And no one takes all the Bible literally. So when you say that you “read the Bible literally” you are saying nothing important at best, nonsense at worst. So if we are going to get somewhere in our discussions about the Bible we have overcome our tendency to throw out trump cards and catchphrases and start speaking accurately about what we mean.

First, everyone I know reads most of the Bible literally. The opposite of literal is figurative. If we don’t take the Bible literally, the other option is that we take it figuratively. But I don’t know of anyone who thinks the whole Bible is a giant metaphor (what would it be a metaphor for?) or that it’s hyperbole (an exaggeration) or that it’s one giant instance of sarcasm. So, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t take most of the Bible literally. Atheists, Buddhists, and Christians all read most of the Bible literally. I am not even sure what it would look like to take it figuratively.

Second, while everyone I know takes most of the Bible literally, no one I know reads all of the Bible literally. Why? Because not all the parts of the Bible are the same. For instance, when the Psalmist says “God is my rock,” we do not “take it literally.” That is, we don’t think that the God we worship is a literal rock. That would be weird. Instead, we (rightly) read it figuratively. The same goes for Jesus’ parables. No one thinks that the Jesus was referring to an actual son who ran away from an actual father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. No historian is spending time trying to find the money that the wicked servant buried in the ground. We (rightly) read those as parables or allegory. What’s more, if it is allegory or parable, then we would actually be wrong to read it literally. On the other hand, when we read, “Then David became king of Israel,” we read that literally. We do not think that’s a metaphor for something. We think that the story is trying to say that a man, named David, became a king over a nation called Israel. That doesn’t mean we all agree that this actually happened – but that’s not what “literally” means.

So, what’s the point? Learn to say what you mean.

Most often when someone says they “read the Bible literally,” what they actually mean is one of two things:

  • I read this particular section of Scripture as a historical account and believe the author intended me to read it as historical.” So, when you want to “defend the Bible” and dismiss someone who does not read Genesis 1–3 in the same way your tradition taught you, don’t say, “I read it literally,” say, “I read it as an historical account of what actually happened when God created the universe.”
  • I read this particular section of Scripture in the way it seems obvious that the author wanted me to read it.” The implication underlying “I read the Bible literally” usually is “The Bible is pretty clear about what it’s saying so if you make it complicated it’s because you don’t want to believe what the Bible plainly says.” It’s very clear when the Bible is talking about history and when it is talking in metaphor. If it is not clear to you, you are resisting what the Bible is saying, either because you don’t think God can do supernatural things or because of some moral failing in your life that you are trying to justify. Now, I think this implication is completely naive to how complex reading literature can be. But if that’s what you think, then just say that. Because when you say “I read the Bible literally” you are not saying that, you are saying something completely different.

The sooner we can leave off with labels and catchphrases, the sooner we can begin engaging in useful dialogue about what the Bible is, what we can expect from it, and then how we should be reading it.

“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’”
-Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

An Honest Look

I am very intentional about how I “speak” online. I tailor my writing to a specific audience and rarely waver from it. However, for the interview with CFT I let out a little more of my own personal “voice” as Marg asked some really great questions.

Here is the interview.

I would love to interact with you on the ideas I’ve presented so feel free to leave questions or comments!