Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The incubation continues...

With Judi getting established in her Ph.D., and with me back in an engineering environment, it feels like ideas are beginning to percolate again. Will this produce results? It remains to be seen. But when I get a text from my wife that says "We really need to work on our book" I do begin to wonder what the future holds.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Revealing the Unknown by the Known: NT

By now you can probably see how the ideas Micah and I were grappling with at the time sort of overlap and complement each other. In fact, when he and I actually sat down to talk over some of what we'd been pondering, it was like finding out you've each been working with half of a puzzle. Everything one of us said sent the other on a tangent of "Oh, here's how this connects all these things I've been thinking about!" It was a fun conversation . . . and probably, now that I think about it, one of our long car trip conversations. Always the best.

So now that Micah's introduced his idea of divine change management, let me take you back to my half of the puzzle, and talk about how God continued in the NT to reveal the unknown (himself and his ways) through the known (what we know or accept to be true about the world, God, and how God works). My favorite example of this is the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount is the name people have given a long teaching section in the Gospel of Matthew. It's found in chapter 5 with the Beatitudes (the "blessed are . . ." sayings), and moves from these straight into a discussion of the Mosaic Law that sort of frames the rest of the sermon. If you haven't read these chapters, do. They're a fantastic snippet that catches the heart of Jesus' teaching on ethics, lifestyle, and godliness.

The Sermon can be a bit confusing at first read, though. It feels like a list of impossible rules and ridiculously high expectations. In fact, it feels so much like a list of laws that Jesus' introduction feels false: "I have not come to abolish [the Law and the prophets] but to fulfill them." How can he call it fulfilling the Law when he spends just about the entire sermon telling his audience to follow his laws and not the old Laws?

Well, it might help to look at how Jesus' contemporaries thought about the Mosaic Law. The whole point of law, regardless of your religion or legal system, is to create a code that carries penalties for breaking it--penalties harsh enough to "encourage" people not to break it. The focus of law, then, is to prevent bad behaviour. The Pharisees took this one step further. They were so concerned about inadvertently breaking the Law that they created a whole host of extra rules and traditions that built, as they said, a "hedge" around the Law. In other words, the Pharisees had created an incredibly complex, elaborate, and ever-growing system of rules that focused on keeping you from even coming close to breaking any of the Laws of Moses.

At first glance, Jesus' approach doesn't seem that different, except that his standards are even higher and more impossible than the original Mosaic Law. His statement, then, that he's come to fulfill and not abolish the Law demands that we take a closer look at what he's doing. And here is where I have to credit a lot of my thinking to a class taught by Tom Thatcher, and to a book I read a year or so later, Kingdom Ethics.

It helps to look at how Jesus frames the Sermon on the Mount. He starts with a nifty little poem describing ways of being, of living and thinking, that move one toward godliness. He doesn't waste any time setting up boundaries between good and bad behaviour, suggesting that prohibiting bad behaviour is not what he's trying to accomplish here.

Instead, Jesus is looking to see what a person produces--actions and words--to tell him who that person is. Again, this is not like the Mosaic Law, prohibiting bad behaviour. It's about becoming the kind of person to whom the behaviour Jesus describes comes naturally. The point is that Law can never on its own produce people who just do the right thing. It can only produce people who don't do wrong things. Jesus' point is summarized in Matthew 5.48: "So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." This isn't about some ridiculously impossible standard. What a lot of translations fail to communicate is that the Greek word for "perfect" is the same word used for "complete, finished." Jesus isn't demanding perfection before he'll accept anyone. He's calling his followers to continually seek integrity between their beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions: to be complete, whole, and true in the focus of their lives. He's calling his followers to a revolutionary way of thinking about words and actions as proof of your allegiance and identity.

It's about practicing your way into right behaviour and godliness. Every thought, word, and action is an opportunity to demonstrate who you are and to reflect God more and more truly.

If you read NT Wright, it's what he would call reclaiming your original calling as God's image-bearer: to be and live out in this world the image of God's perfect, complete, holy being.

So what does this have to do with known vs unknown? Well, Jesus took the accepted understanding of Law--prohibiting negative behaviour--and used it to explain the unknown--a new way, a way that reflects God more clearly and opens our eyes to a new understanding of how God works. Jesus took the known--the Law of Moses--and stepped it up a notch, injecting an unexpected element that would cue his audience to look a little more closely at what he's really saying. The sheer impossibility of complete perfection, as we see it, combined with Jesus' claim to fulfill but not erase the Law, cues us to study his words a little harder to see the unknown he's trying to communicate. And the result is that we see a new way of being, a way of becoming who we were created to be, reclaiming our heritage one step at a time toward godliness.

And we as Christians have an extra boost in our quest: we have God's own Spirit living in us to provide the guidance, strength, and even power to pursue this amazing agenda of kingdom living.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Let's Get it Started: The Gospel as Change Management

For the sake of discussion, let's make a few more assumptions. With this post, we're basically done with the "fundamental assumptions" part and ready to dive into the meat.

There are a lot of books out there on organizational change. You can get doctoral degrees in the subject, actually. It's a relatively recent topic of study, but it's growing quickly and is immensely interesting to lots of smart people. That's not an assumption, that's just a lead-in.

God is omniscient. By that, we mean that God knows all propositional truth. There's some debate over "experiential knowledge," but that's not immediately relevant. For the sake of this discussion, let's go with omniscience meaning "God knows every fact that exists." He knows every fact about science, about technology, about history, and about human behavior. Including behavior such as how we react to change.

My dad has a lot of leadership maxims. One of his favorite is "One step ahead is a leader. Two steps ahead is the enemy." The idea is that if you want to lead people, you have to stay close to where they're at. Too far ahead and you stop being somebody they follow and start being somebody they shoot at. It's true in wilderness hiking trips and it's true in transitioning multi-million-dollar companies.

So here's something to ponder.

What if God is using principles of organizational change management in order to transition humanity from a rebellious state into one that is more receptive to him?

I'm not saying that God waited until some 20th-century business consultants figured this out and then He used their ideas. Quite the reverse... that the stuff we call "organizational change management" is just an a rediscovery of the what God's been doing with us for the past few thousand years.

Many people are bothered by the fact that, at least superficially, God looks different in the Old Testament than in the new... and yet God himself declares that He doesn't change. So what if it's not God that changes? What if humanity has been changing a little bit at a time over the millenia, and God always reveals himself in a way that's one step ahead of where we're at?

What if God is carefully walking with his creation in order to always stay just one step ahead? Close enough to reach out to, but never stationary? Always within reach, but never within our grasp?

What if this process is still going on?

This is a significant part of what Judi and I call "The Tweak." Among other (related) things, we'll be exploring this idea in the Old and New Testaments.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Fundamental Assumptions, pt. 2

The second of these basic assumptions is that God reveals the unknown by the known. I know, saying it that way's not too helpful, because it doesn't mean anything yet. So another way to say it is: God starts with what you know or accept to be true, and moves you from there a step at a time closer to himself.

God works within the context--cultural, temporal, spiritual--of his people, and draws what is true about that context, about his people's beliefs about their context, and uses those to move them a step at a time closer to him.

For example, in Abraham's day, there was a certain formula you followed when you made a formal agreement with someone. Basically, you symbolically called down nasty things on yourself if you broke the agreement. This was frequently in the context of someone swearing to a certain action, etc. to someone more powerful. The less powerful one, of course, is the one agreeing to the actions with dire consequences for failure.

When Abraham swore a covenant with God in Genesis 15, this would have been his expectation, too. Abraham gathered up the animals and set the stage for this amazing covenant he was entering into with God, and God with him. As gory as it is, the animals actually symbolize the consequences of breaking the covenant: death. And so Abraham had it all set, ready to swear to the death to follow God, and then falls into this weird sleep. God gives him a phenomenal set of promises, and then an invisible spectre apparently takes Abraham's path between the dismembered animals. In fact, God very symbolically and poignantly put himself in Abraham's place, swearing the covenant against his own person, and in the process making his promises inviolable.

So here God took the known (Ancient Near Eastern covenant practices) and inverted them, revealing his unknown attributes of humility, disdain for power plays, and utter trueness of nature and character. Abraham must have spent weeks playing that evening back in his head, trying to make sense of it!

Another good example is Jonah. When Jonah runs away from God in a ship, today's readers think, "Wow, what an idiot. Everyone knows you can't run away from God." But the truth is that at the time, many Israelites still considered God to be a sort of tribal deity. That sounds terrible, but read through Judges some time. God may be the Superman of tribal deities, but he's still Israel's god in the same way that the Hittites had gods and the Assyrians had their gods. Israelites were odd in that they only followed one God. I mean, really, folks! Didn't your mother ever tell you not to put all your eggs in one basket? A lot of the battles between Israel and other nations were cast in the Old Testament (see the prophets, especially the Minor ones) as battles between God and the other nation's most powerful deity. Sure, my god can kick the pants off of your god. It took a little while for Israel as a whole to come to the "God is the only true God" conviction. And now I'm getting ahead of myself.

Because Jonah jumped into a boat to take him across the Mediterranean to get away from God. After all, if your God is Israel's God, and you go live among another people, God can't get you, right? So that's a big part of the message of Jonah: God isn't just a tribal deity. His power extends over the Meditteranean and all the way to the most powerful city of the most powerful people of the time: Nineveh of the Assyrians. The double whammy in this is that the strength of a deity was directly connected to the martial prowess and victories of his people. So by that logic, the Assyrians had the strongest gods. After all, they controlled a huge empire and eventually led Israel off into slavery (not Judah, which was a separate little kingdom at the time).

God's complete sovereignty over the sea (which symbolized some of the greatest natural powers and was symbolized by some of the most powerful deities of the peoples around Israel), and the Assyrian king's repentance and submission to God's commands both hammered in the point that God is God over all places and all peoples, no matter how powerful, fierce, and frightening they are. God demonstrated the unknown--that he is the Only True God--by inverting and exploiting the known--the common belief in tribal deities. Whether you're an Israelite or an utter pagan, the story of Jonah was a loud and clear message of God's complete sovereignty over everything and everyone. Pretty profound stuff.

And this post's already too long, but I wanted to get in a couple of good illustrations I've been thinking about. You'll see this pattern repeated over and over again in the Old Testament, and then it amps up a notch to cycle through the New Testament, too.

And I guess I'll have to save the NT for another post.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fundamental Assumptions Part 1: The God Who Salvages

The hard part about our Tweak Theology is that it has so many self-referencing assumptions that it's hard to articulate where the starting point is. It's basically turtles all the way down. But there are a few bedrock beliefs that I think can stand on their own before we get into the meat of it.

The very first is that our God is a God who salvages. Joe Boyd told me last year that Wall-E was the most spiritual movie made in 2008, and I couldn't agree more.

Look, we Christians have created all kinds of baggage around the word "saved." It's not really meaningful to us. Does the word mean remotely the same thing when saying "I got saved this weekend" and "I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance?" Obviously not. Forget the comparison of spiritual life and car insurance... aside from that, the word is still being used in totally different ways. Try this on for size, though:

Salvage: to rescue or save especially from wreckage or ruin

Catch that? Synonym for "save" is "salvage" when referring to "rescuing from wreckage or ruin." That's a pretty good explanation of what it means to enter a relationship with God... what if instead of saying "I'm saved" we instead said "I'm salvaged?" I don't know if our egos could handle it ("I don't need salvaging!") but it would be a lot more theologically accurate.

But WAIT! There's MORE!

I'm not going to spend a ton of time defending this (it's a blog post, and it's already too long) unless somebody objects, in which case I'll dive in and tackle it more thoroughly. But here it is:

God's goal is to save the world. I don't mean that just in the soteriological sense, but also in the practical. God's desire is BOTH to offer salvation (saving relationship, eternal life, etc) to every individual, AND to salvage our relationships, our culture, our work, our institutions, and our planet. These things are broken, usually as a result of our own brokenness. God is a fixer by nature, and each broken thing he desires to fix. I'm positing that half on Scripture and half by extrapolating from his character. If you have a great verse I should know please stick it in the comments.

But that's a quick writeup on one of my most basic understandings about life, God, and theology. It's not one that everyone shares (at the very least, it's fair to say that every 5-pointer has already written me off as a heretic) but this is the absolute bedrock of my understanding of God.

Fundamental Assumption #1: God is a Salvager by both nature and choice. It's a fundamental character trait to fix what is broken, which means that His goal is not only to redeem individuals from their brokenness but also to redeem the world: both nature's beauty and human society are fit recipients of his attention.

Or, more simply:

Our God is a God who salvages.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Introducing the Tweak

I first ran across the idea of "tweak" theology in NT Wright's Christian Origins series. I read them as a senior in college, and was captivated by Wright's description (I think in Jesus and the Victory of God) of how Jesus took forms of stories, traditions, even historical accounts familiar to first-century Jews and invested them with new meaning, even new content. He stood their expectations upside-down and forced them to look at the world, at everything they'd taken for granted, through new eyes.

For example, Wright describes the parable of the Prodigal Son as one that would have been very familiar to Jesus' audience, but Jesus makes the hero of the story the prodigal instead of the righteous older brother. In the same way, Jesus retells Isaiah's story of the vineyard, but makes the religious leaders out to be those who'd forsaken God's vineyard (Israel).

Like I said, I was fascinated by this idea of Jesus taking familiar forms (familiar story arcs, etc.) and investing them with new content. Basically, Jesus presented the same old story, and then tweaked it to bring his listeners one step closer to understanding his message and God's character. Having seen it in Wright's book, I suddenly saw Jesus working this way throughout the Gospels, constantly tweaking people's expectations of the Messiah, of the Son of Man, even of Israel's King, to fall more in line with God's idea of what these should be are truly are.

Then I started seeing tweaks throughout the NT, not just in the Gospels, as Paul took the familiar and invested it with new meaning for both the Greeks (Acts 17, the Areopagus) and for Jews (all the way through Romans, especially looking at who are God's people; also pretty heavily in Hebrews, taking figures and events from the OT and reinterpreting them, investing their roles with new content/meaning for the Jewish Christians). In other words, God, through these authors, moves readers from where they are and what they currently understand about God and the world to a new understanding of how God works and what his plan is for the world--and he does this by taking what they accept as true and tweaking it one step at a time closer to his view of reality.

Then Micah took a class on Elijah/Elisha and on the book of Jeremiah. From those he took the idea that God is continually moving his people toward greater holiness, greater knowledge/understanding of himself, greater responsibility as his people. And again, he does this by starting from where they are, tweaking that, and moving them one step at a time toward himself.

We began talking about the idea of "evolutionary theology"--an incendiary phrase for some, to be sure. But by this I meant the idea that God was, and is, constantly in the business of refining our theology to actually look more like himself. So what the early Israelites understood and thought to be true about God is different (less full, complete) from what later Israelites under the monarchy understood, which would be less than what exiled Israel understood, and etc., etc., etc.

The key is, God never changes. But in his understanding of humanity and his patience with us, he starts with what we can understand--as little as that may be--and moves us one step closer to full vision of himself. Thus God's disturbing demand of Abraham that he sacrifice Isaac, and his silence about the patriarchs' problems with polygamy, and all the other little (and not-so-little) inconsistencies we find in how Israel related to and thought of God. Each generation was a step further than the last, because God took their best understanding of him, tweaked it, and handed back a new vision to pass on to the next generation, and so on.

Stephen Lawhead, in his Pendragon Cycle, creates a vivid image of the coming darkness that Taliesin, Merlin, and Arthur would experience. The key to this image of darkness is the brightness of the light that will shine through it. Expand that a little, and you see the people of God as the light in the darkness. The job of the light is to shine brightly. The brighter the light shines, the less dense the darkness around it. Yet the light must continue to shine more and more brightly, or it will no longer illuminate the darkness as effectively (in the same proportions). So the church must reflect God more and more clearly to the world around her, infecting the world with light and yet not getting lost in the growing twilight. We shine in the darkness as we wait for the sun and the full light of day. When the sun comes, there will be no more darkness.

These are all outlines of ideas that feed into each other. A big part of what Micah and I would like to do is trace how they intertwine, test them against Scripture and against each other, and by the grace of God come up with an articulated worldview (paradigm, if you will) that resonates with truth and (even!) makes sense.

Micah, have at it. Your turn!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

An Experiment in Collaborative Theology

Like most married couples, Judi and I use shorthand in certain conversations. Because we're both divinity students and because I'm a pastor, a lot of our conversations end up being about the Bible. And over time, we've started using this phrase "The Tweak" as shorthand for a certain pattern we see repeated over and over again. Unfortunately, we've never really worked out EXACTLY what we mean by the tweak, or listed the places where we use it.

This seemed like a fun way to work that out. Blogspot's format seemed like an ideal way to have a continuing conversation back and forth, and it seemed like it might be fun to experiment with this as a way to lay out different ideas. It's not really intended for public consumption; instead it's really just for the two of us. If you enjoy it, then more power to you. But it's basically a way for us to have a recorded conversation in a different way than email.

Will it be worth reading? I have no idea. But we'll play with it and see!