The Violence of Understanding

One hangover our culture has from modernity is the belief that the only way to achieve positive things in the world is by having an accurate view of the way things really are.* It seems like our churches, educational systems, and even the worldview of the so-called New Atheists all rely on this image of thought. Again, I find it ironic that Church Leaders and the New Atheists seem to obey the same logic.

To put it in Zizek terms, understanding the world as it really is, is the fundamental objet petit a, the “if only,” of American life. With a commitment to the view that “if only we understood as it really is,” the world would be better, comes “the world won’t be a better place until we reach the top of the mountain of understanding.”

This seems to be why New Atheists are so angry at religion. Religious people’s faulty understanding is keeping us from a better world. But that presupposition privileges the solution in a way that doesn’t seem warranted, cutting off all possibilities to see the multiplicity of solutions that are by-products of the process itself. It makes understanding some sort of savior.

This is why we privilege truth, as though it, and only it, will lead us to freedom. But propositions necessarily always and already inhere within the mind only. It is poor logic to assume that just because we understand the world, that something happens to make that world a better place. That is, there is an assumed mechanism between the truth of a proposition and a corresponding reality, one that has ethical implications. It’s like putting a quarter in a vending machine. The proposition is the quarter. The getting what “is best” (in reality, what we want or think is best) is the product that comes out of the vending machine, “in real life.” But where is the button? And where is the finger that pushes the button? People often assume that a propositional statement has within itself this mechanism, that it is the quarter, and the button, and the finger, and the relation, all in itself.

But that has not proven to be the case. Instead, our understanding is an insatiable appetite, a quest for control that limited human beings will never conquer.

So my, along with many others, modest request is that we must abandon the project of understanding the world as it really is, a violent project by definition, and begin to relate ourselves to the world, so that understanding is subject to a higher goal, that of the relation. The most important thing we can do as humans is not understand the world, but relate to it.

What do you think?

*Warning: heavy philosophy language. I am working at being less critical and more constructive. But in so doing, I have to go through the process of working it all out in philosophy-land before I begin translating it into everyday-speak. These ideas will show up again again but hopefully they will be more and more clear as I process. Thanks for bearing with me!

Help for the Bohannon’s

I studied at Westminster Seminary with Steve Bohannon. We were there during a pretty polarizing time with people taking sides and politics superseding friendships at every turn. Steve, on the other hand, was incredibly generous and gracious, even to those with whom he disagreed. He was always an attentive listener and quick to lend a hand.

But what amazed me more, was how he still lived out these things in the midst of a tough situation at the Seminary and an even tougher situation at home. His wife had been battling brain cancer. Since 2009 April Bohannon has had 4 occurrences and has defied the odds and beaten them all. She was just diagnosed with another occurrence and plans to beat it again, but they need our help. Their insurance doesn’t fully cover the procedure she needed and now they have medical bills they can’t pay.

Many of us who know Steve & April, including my friend Peter Enns, are doing what we can to support them through this time. If you’ve been looking for ways to help fellow Christians or just fellow human beings, I hope you’ll consider it as well. Just go to the link below, read more about their story, and donate if you can. Thank you all and I hope to get back to writing soon!

Sunday School Observations*

I teach Old Testament at a university. My kids are now old enough to be in Sunday School on Sunday mornings. Add those two things to my own years of experience being a kid in Sunday School and I have noticed a few things about the Sunday School system that worry me (as I have experienced it in my own evangelical tradition). Specifically, there are three common themes I see in many Sunday Schools that seem to give kids a distorted view of the Bible and the Christian faith, a view they carry with them through college and into life. I will call these The Noah’s Ark Problem, The Goody Two-Shoes Problem, and The Disney Problem. Now, perhaps I am overreacting (it’s my job as a parent and perennial over-analyzer). Or perhaps I am just reading things wrongly. But perhaps I am not doing either.

The Noah’s Ark Problem

One of the more disturbing things about Sunday School is that it teaches kids to view Bible stories in a way they were never intended. If left to many Sunday Schools, my kids are going to grow up thinking Noah’s Ark is about cute animals getting on a boat made by Fisher Price. We always seem to leave out the whole ” torturous death by drowning to all living things as a judgment for humanity’s utter wickedness” punchline. In fact, we just change the punchline to be about a rainbow and how God keeps his promises. Considering much of the Old Testament is filled with sex, violence, and concepts difficult for kids to grasp, I am not sure how much of it is suitable for teaching to kids in a group setting. But we do anyway. And in our attempts, we inevitably water it down to the point where our kids leave thinking the Bible is like a fairy tale or Aesop’s Fables. And when we do, not only do our kids grow up missing out on what’s really going on in the story, but we teach them to read the Bible as an edited collection of stand-alone moral stories, looking for that story’s “valuable lesson” to me, rather than teaching them the entire story so that they find themselves in its ebb and flow, context and all.

The Goody Two-Shoes Problem

When I was a kid, the point of Sunday School seemed to be to teach me how to be a polite American citizen who doesn’t cause trouble. The lessons were all geared toward my behavior: “Jesus wants you to be happy. And to be happy you need to be nice to your sister, clean your room for your parents, and register to vote (<–that’s hyperbole for dramatic effect).” There was no emphasis on how strange the Bible can be or how counter-cultural it shows Israel and God to be. We never focused on Israel or how Jesus was related to that story. And no mention that sometimes God wants us to be troublemakers by standing up to authority and our culture. No, the lessons were all about me. And more specifically, they were about me being good. Well, I don’t want my kids to just be polite. I want them to be wise and courageous. I want them to learn to think for themselves and be confrontational when such is called for. I don’t want them to be good. I want them to be faithful. And I don’t think those are at all the same thing.

The Disney Problem

This is probably the thing that makes me cringe most when I hear Sunday School lessons. They often focus on external cultural influences rather than how culture is internally influencing my kid’s identity, goals, dreams, and expectations. How many Sunday School teachers advise their children not to watch certain Disney movies because they objectify women and portray the object of life as finding your soul-mate? I have never heard of it. But I have often heard that my kids need to steer clear of listening to lyrics with bad words or watching movies that portray violence. Now, perhaps both aren’t advisable for impressionable young kids. But for our family, Sarah and I have decided that we will screen our movies based primarily on how it presents what we should aspire for and how it presents the roles of women and men.

I am much more concerned that my boys learn that love does not end after 10 minutes of emotionally charged music when the credits roll, that there is more to life than women, and that their princess doesn’t need to look like a Barbie doll than I am that they hear a few shit’s or damn it’s. Those aren’t shaping my kids identity, just their vocabulary.

I see this in my college students all the time. They strive so hard to be non-confrontational, to behave in the right Christian ways, to not say curse words. But it’s not until we discuss cultural influences that they begin to see how much the movies they watch and the music they listen to influences something much deeper than silly curse words. They shape the overall trajectory of their life, the things they desire and believe will lead to a happy life, the things they strive for and the things they try to avoid. I recommend Rated R Braveheart over Rated PG-13 “Insert Almost Every Romantic Comedy Here” any day.

What would I do differently? I have no idea. And I do not blame Sunday School teachers. I was blessed by many wonderful teachers as a kid. They have inherited it from others. And others before them. I have volunteered in the past to teach large group at my son’s Wednesday night church group and recently volunteered to teach my son’s Sunday School class. Did I or will I do things differently? I hope so. My only hint for how to move forward is that perhaps Pete Enns is right, we need to spend our time focusing on the life of Jesus so that when they are older, they are anchored in the person and work of Jesus rather than a list of moral stories. Sounds like a good first step to me.

3 Ways Human Jesus Saves Me*

We all have different pictures of Jesus in our heads. There’s White European/American Jesus who generally just creeps me out. And I have sweet Baby Jesus, who I admit, hasn’t done much for me spiritually, but did great things for my toy collection as a kid. But then there’s Human Jesus. Human Jesus changed everything.

I used to be afraid of Human Jesus. Not in the same creepy way as European/American Jesus, but because of what having a God-who-became-human might mean. Of course, I was taught to admit there was a Human Jesus . . . just make sure to quickly add that we all agreed God Jesus is what’s really important. After all, we had to admit Jesus was human, but that didn’t mean we had to like it. I mean, liberals, progressives, and even secular ego-driven, anti-god academics admitted to a Human Jesus. It’s God Jesus that really makes a difference. But in seminary, Human Jesus moved from being an embarrassment in my life to being a savior.

Human Jesus saved me at a time when I needed saving. I had come to the place where I was about to divorce God altogether. Once I started admitting to myself that Jesus didn’t make me a super-human, that most of the world couldn’t care less about theology, and that I was still just as broken (if not more so) than my non-Christian friends, God and I just didn’t seem to have anything in common anymore. He seemed too distant, so intolerably perfect and Stoic. I couldn’t even relate to Jesus, what with all his white clothes that never seem to get dirty, Buddhist monk-like poise and patience, and I-know-everything attitude.

I desperately needed a Human Jesus. And thankfully, while in seminary, I got him. And I’ve never looked back. Over the years, Human Jesus has helped me undo a lot of the fantasies I had constructed about Christianity. Here are a few things Human Jesus has taught me:

God gets that we are a mess. Jesus entered into the shit and the beauty of human existence. He was able to experience the love of his mother and the betrayal of his best friends, the beautiful sensuality of getting his feet wiped with the hair of a young woman and the tortuous pain of getting his feet nailed to a cross. It was through seeing Jesus as unapologetically human that I was able to see that God doesn’t want me to become superhuman, he accepts me for me. He doesn’t expect me to be anything but human and he demonstrates this by becoming human himself. Christianity isn’t a rulebook for how to be perfect like God, it’s a story about how God became like us. And that’s an important difference.

We have a very human-looking Bible. Human Jesus shows me we have a God who doesn’t mind “looking bad” for the sake of humanity. If the same God that came as Jesus also gave us a book, I would expect it to look very human. It would have to speak, as Calvin would say, in baby-speak — imperfectly, through language, culture, and customs we as very limited humans understand. Does it run the risk of looking, well, ordinary, unrefined, and altogether human? Yes. And that’s the point. My Bible looks a lot like Jesus.

Love is not about fixing people it’s about being with them. If you want to truly relate to and talk to broken humans, you run the risk of looking broken yourself. Get over it. The streak I see in Human Jesus and Human Bible is this: the One in power giving up that power to become one of us. It is not the rich “helping out” the poor, but learning to be with the poor. It is not the holy instructing the unholy, but the holy becoming so involved in the lives of the unholy that people are uncomfortable with how, from the outside, it’s hard to tell the difference. The God I see in Jesus is a God who threw caution to the wind in the name of love. Damn it all! For the sake of love I will throw off my royal robes, my power, and my reputation, and instead be called a glutton and a drunk, a nobody who dies without notice, a traitor to my state.

That Jesus saved me once and continues to save me almost every single day.

Forsaking Love for Truth

As some of you know, I am in the middle of finishing up my second writing project. The point will be to say that if we are going to be unified, as Jesus tells us is his vision in John 17, then we need to first understand what we mean when we talk about “truth” and then to let go of our idolatry around “Absolute Truth.” Part of this book will be to give voice to people who feel like they were shunned, outcasted, belittled, or shamed from their church because they held a particular belief that was considered “non-negotiable” by the church.

Over the past few days I have been soliciting stories from folks who have gone through this experience. It’s been a painful but eye-opening experience. I wanted to extend that invitation to anyone who reads my blog as well. All stories will be anonymous (having your name changed and no Proper Names being used) and not all stories will make it into the book unfortunately. But please let your voice be known.

The amount of stories might require another project soon, just to let everyone out there know they aren’t alone and they aren’t bad, not as corrupt as they were made to believe.

If you have a story to tell please email me. My email is jaredbyas [AT] gmail [DOT] com and can also be found under the “About” section of my website.

Celebrating Enough

I’m not interested in a Christian message that says you’re worthless or one that says God’s plan for you is to be the next American Idol. They both seem damaging to human relationships, both caught in an economy of comparison & competition. I think the Christian message is that you’re enough & that we are called to love each other as human beings, not as people who accomplish, or do not accomplish, well, anything.

In the first message, where we are deemed worthless, we compare ourselves to others and find that we are not good enough. We are told that God has a better plan for us, that if we follow his guidelines, we will be winners, not losers.

In the second message, where we are destined for great things, we compare ourselves to others and find that we have won. We thank God for our win even though our thankfulness implies God is behind everyone else’s loss (see above).

So, when I win, God made me win and therefore God wanted everyone else to lose. Which means, when I lose, I’m not good enough for God to make win.

This cycle is endless. Every person who thanks God for a win is implicating God in the pain and loss of others. My belief is that the message of Christianity is not contained in individual accomplishment at all, but in the connections and relationships between individuals. That is, it’s not a question of winners or losers, it’s about playing a different game altogether.

Or, to put it more bluntly, I honestly don’t think God gives a shit about our accomplishments. He doesn’t care who wins the Super Bowl or the little league championship, who gets the raise and who successfully starts their own business. Against the backdrop of embrace, belonging, exclusion, and shame, I think our accomplishments are white noise, a figment of the American imagination, used more often to use people in the name of God than to support them.

The key word in this new economy is “enough.”

Enough calls us to love ourselves.

Enough calls us to love each other as human beings, not as people who accomplish.

Enough calls us to love greatly, not to be great.

We Are Not Busy

I have a confession to make: my family isn’t busy.

We don’t have “lots going on.” You won’t really ever catch us “running all over town.”

Sometimes when someone assumes this and I respond with, “No, you know, we aren’t really busy at all,” I get a blank stare like I just said something in a foreign language. And sometimes I wonder if people think it’s because we are lazy or because we are hermits. But for anyone who knows us personally, I am not sure those labels apply. For us, it has been a very intentional spiritual practice.

A lot of Christians believe “keeping themselves unstained from the world” is found in not saying four-letter words, drinking wine, or listening to secular music. And I applaud such conviction and fidelity. But for our family, in a culture where being busy is not only the norm but also the get-out-of-jail-free card for any responsibility (e.g. “I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you, you know how it is, we’re just . . . so busy.”), we take seriously the call to make room for other people in our lives.

It was not always this way.

It was not long ago that I was, ironically, a pastor, expected to work 50 hours a week, leading two small groups and a worship band on top of that. It was not long ago that we ate breakfast quickly to make sure we all got out the door on time, rushing to grab last minute snacks and pacifiers as we raced to the car.

But then we decided that Jesus (and the rest of the Scripture), it seems, values hospitality. And this hospitality was not just about opening your physical space, but just being open. Open to people who want to come & celebrate. Open to people who need to come & cry. We wanted a life where friends do not have to put each other in the schedule and where each meal was an intentional time to connect with one another.

Like the person who would love to give to charity but can’t because they are in too much debt, we were slaves to our calendar and the busyness of life.

We saw that people always seem stressed out, frantically racing to find their purpose or happiness or whatever it is they are seeking. And we had the strange feeling that all that racing was a little ironic, that maybe purpose is not at the end of some task but in finding every mundane task meaningful by including others in it.

So we began the painful process of letting go of signing our kid’s up for 3 different time-bound activities at the local gym, letting go of small groups and bible studies, jobs that provide steady and comfortable income but require too much time away from our home. We began getting up early enough to make sure we have breakfast and morning tea together, making our meals together, and being willing to be open and available to others almost every night of the week.

And for us, that process was painful, as we let go of narratives that said if you weren’t busy you were selfish or lazy. Or narratives that said we were overreacting or that Jesus really only cares about saving souls not wasting time living out an open life. But over time, we have come to see this rhythm as an invaluable spiritual practice.  For us, we are enacting our very small, and very subtle, piece of the Kingdom.