When sensitive and thoughtful people begin to doubt

Do you know someone who appeared to be a strong christian, and then began to doubt the truth of the whole thing?

I’m guessing they were likely someone in their twenties, brought up as believers but suddenly facing questions they didn’t have answers for and issues they couldn’t easily resolve. And I’m guessing many of them ended up either giving up their faith or radically changing what they believed.

It seems to be a frequent occurrence these days. Maybe we can learn something from these musicians who have gone public on their doubts and how their beliefs have changed.

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Jesus: wise teacher, apocalyptic prophet, son of God?

How much do you and I know about Jesus? How much of it is really the truth about him?

The obvious answer is that we know more about him than most ancient figures, because we have quite a few accounts of his life and teachings. But everyone seems to read them differently.

In my previous post, Which Jesus did you worship this Christmas? I outlined a number of alternative depictions of Jesus common today, and suggested we should be wary of fully embracing any of these pictures of Jesus, for they all seem to be slanted in some way.

So can we know the real Jesus?

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Which Jesus did you worship this Christmas?

Jesus is such an important and admired character in world history and western culture that everyone seems to want to claim him for their tribe. So there are many different versions of Jesus for us to believe in.

Shopping mall Jesus

This is the most obvious Jesus, and the easiest to see through. Two months before Christmas, supermarkets and shopping malls began stocking Christmas goods and playing the infernal muzak Christmas carols, and it isn’t long before nativity scenes begin to appear. A cute baby, a beautiful madonna mother who can’t find a room at the inn, lots of fluffy animals and a cast of rich kings and poor shepherds – what’s not to like?

This Jesus wouldn’t say anything against the commercialisation of his fake birthday, and he is apparently happy to help move product off shelves and maximise end-of-year profits.

Most of us buy into this monetary worship by spending up big buying presents which are generally in excess of needs, but while we like the story, we know the real story in the gospels has nothing to do with profit. This Jesus is only a faint shadow of the real person.

Cosmic sacred Jesus

The carpenter Jesus of the gospels becomes in Revelation a cosmic Jesus to be worshiped. This Jesus is perhaps best “seen” in grand Medieval cathedrals, with their soaring spires emphasising how far God is above us mere mortals. Inside, the same point is made with the cathedral clearly divided into “God’s end”, where only the priests can minister, and the people’s end.

This Jesus has risen far above his humble earthly beginnings among farm animals, and is now so distant that many Catholics seem to think that his mother is more likely to hear them, and some Protestant televangelists and megachurch pastors seem to think he isn’t watching their sleazy and materialistic behaviour.

This Jesus certainly reflects some important Biblical teachings, but he’s a long way from the Jesus of the gospels.

Cosmic hippy Jesus aka progressive Jesus

Cosmic hippy Jesus used to be popular, and he still puts in an appearance sometimes today in a new guise as progressive Jesus. This Jesus is all about love, though not always the sort of love described in the Bible; he accepts everyone and condemns no-one. He’s definitely left wing politically, caring for all the alienated and repressed people, such as refugees, the LGBTQI community, oppressed indigenous communities and victims of war and violence. He is much admired by people who are spiritual but not religious. In fact, he never enters a modern western church, and if he did, they wouldn’t recognise him.

The new progressive Jesus is not as extreme as cosmic hippy Jesus, and built on a better understanding of the New Testament. But he still definitely emphasises love and acceptance over judgment.

I have a lot of affection for this Jesus. I share a lot of his values, including most of the ones I’ve just mentioned. And this Jesus can be found in the pages of the gospels. Sort of. But the Jesus of the gospels did judge and criticise, and his love was often a tougher love than cosmic hippy Jesus ever exhibits.

Reformed evangelical doctrinal Jesus

This Jesus is almost the opposite of cosmic hippy Jesus. Sure he loves everyone, but he sends many of them to hell. Yes he loves everyone, but good doctrine matters, and he’s not going to accept any sloppy doctrinal thinking.

This Jesus came for just one thing – to die on the cross to divert God’s righteous wrath from our sinful rebellious selves onto himself, and you might well wonder what the rest of his life was all about – why did he bother with all that teaching about the kingdom of God? He’s a stern and serious Jesus and you’d better get on the right side of him if you want to go to heaven. And it would probably help if you were politically conservative and ignored all that historical Jesus talk against materialism and about non-violence and caring for the poor.

Reformed evangelical doctrinal Jesus is closer to the Jesus of Paul than to the historical Jesus of the gospels. Somehow, this Jesus seems true up to a point, but very truncated and missing so much.

Jesus the apocalyptic prophet

This Jesus is the one believed by many New Testament scholars. He’s based on historical study and is right at home in first century Jewish religion and culture. He fanned the hopes of many repressed Jews that God was finally going to remove the yoke of the hated Romans and bring in his kingdom on earth. And of course this meant the king would be a Jew and rule in Jerusalem, and the Jews would be top nation.

This Jesus envisaged this massive reversal of fortunes happening very soon, within the lifetime of his followers. But it didn’t happen – he failed – and his followers had to invent a new story of atoning death, resurrection and a spiritual kingdom to make sense of this failure.

This Jesus is built on historical facts and makes sense of much of the gospels, but it misses some key gospel hints and is built on naturalistic assumptions – understandable for secular historians but surely an unsafe basis for understanding someone like Jesus. When a man establishes a religious community that goes on to cover a third of the world, you’d want to think twice before you call him a failure – perhaps it is your understanding that has failed.

Will the real Jesus please stand up!

Which of these, if any, is the “real” Jesus?

I want to suggest that all of them contain some truth, but all miss some very important things.

I want to suggest we need to go back to the historical Jesus and understand why so many scholars see him as an apocalyptic prophet, and to find that there is good reason to think he was all that … and much more.

I suggest we all need to see whether the Jesus we worship, or reject, is consistent with the historical Jesus of the gospels, or lacks that fundamental foundation.

Next post I’ll suggest some things we should learn from the scholars, and a few places where we can legitimately and truthfully go beyond their somewhat limited and careful picture of Jesus. And learn why we should be wary of fully embracing any of the pictures of Jesus I’ve outlined here. And hopefully also see a few ways we can each have a more accurate picture of who Jesus is, and can be for us today.

May you ponder these things and grow in understanding this Christmas, so that we may all “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly”.

Graphic: Wallpaper cave

Is this the most important thing you could do as a christian?

Thirty five years ago my life was changed after listening to a talk on prayer and spiritual warfare.

I had been converted as a teen in a Presbyterian church where doctrine was regarded as the most important thing and God was known to be sovereign, ordaining everything according to his good purposes. But this doctrine left little place for prayer. After all, if God knew everything, he already knew what was best without me advising him, and if he was good and all-powerful then he would assuredly do the good thing whether I asked or not.

So I rarely prayed in my everyday life. Until 35 years ago, that is.

This blog is mostly about better understanding the Bible and postmodern culture, following Jesus in a world far removed from when he lived, and being a better and more faithful church. But all of these are means to the end of “seeing Jesus more clearly, loving him more dearly and following him more nearly”, and so playing our part in his mission of seeing God’s kingdom established on earth.

And for me, what I am writing about here is the most necessary aspect of that mission.

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Letting go and hanging on ….. and flying!

Who doesn’t enjoy flying a kite? There’s something special about seeing a colourful kite soaring higher and higher while we hold onto the string, feeling somehow in command (even if we’re not).

We need at least three things for a kite to fly:

  1. We need to let go and allow it to fly. It can’t fly if we hold onto it.
  2. It needs a string to hold it and maintain an aerodynamic position in the wind. Without the string, it will be blown randomly downwind and just gradually flop to the ground.
  3. There needs to be a wind. In still air, we can run to get it aloft, but there is a practical limit to that, and it will soon fall to the ground again.

Following Jesus is like being a kite

The parallels are clear, and I guess obvious.

We were made to fly

Human beings have aspirations to do more than just exist. We want to find meaning, we want to be valued. We want to achieve great things, or at least something worthwhile. We long for adventure or at least a life that transcends the mundane.

And Jesus calls us to follow him in a life lived for others, and for him. If we try to hang on to our own lives and our own selfishness, we will lose out, he tells us, but if we let go of safety and follow him out of our comfort zones and into life with him, we will be fulfilled.

Staying safe isn’t an option. Holding onto the past isn’t an option. God is always doing new and unpredictable things, and Jesus calls us to let go of self and join him in the adventure of the kingdom of God on earth. Nothing less than that.

We were made to fly like a kite.

We need to hold on

We are not in this adventure alone and we cannot do just as we like. Without him, we can do nothing, Jesus said.

Like kites, we need to stay grounded. We need to stay connected to reality and truth. We need to stay connected to him. We need to hold on even when the currents around us are strong. Especially then.

We won’t fly for very long, and we won’t achieve our potential, if we let go of the way, the truth and the life.

We were made to be tethered like a kite.

It isn’t a choose your own adventure

How do we know when and how to hold on, and when and how to fly? What gives us the impetus and motivation to keep flying when we are tired and buffeted?

The Holy Spirit is the wind beneath our wings. The Spirit motivates us and empowers us. The Spirit is the wind that sends us this way or that.

But unlike a kite, we have a choice. The kite is passive in the wind, and cannot fly upwind. But we can ignore the Spirit or welcome him. We can choose to invite him to guide our direction, or we can go our own way.

But we’ll only truly be the kite God wants us to be if we invite (daily) and welcome the wind of the Spirit to lead us into new adventures, flights to places we’ve never been before.

We were made to soar on the wind, like a kite.

Like a kite

The Holy Spirit can lead us in so many ways.

  • To begin new things that build God’s kingdom. They may be really new, or just new to us.
  • To learn new things from him and the scriptures. Our understanding of God is necessarily so incomplete it is rudimentary. The world and human culture are always changing. There is always more to know. There may be new things that are crucial for our lives and the kingdom.
  • To speak to this person or that, to say this and not say that.
  • To hold on to this truth and to let go of that thing we thought was truth, but is not, or is no longer applicable.
  • To apply for this job or that, to live in this street or that, to marry this person or that, or not at all.
  • To correct us and convict us when we need it, if we are listening.

We needn’t be afraid or worried about all this. The Spirit of God doesn’t lead us to be fearful, but leads us into truth and peace.

Let’s be like kites, lifted and driven by the Spirit of God and anchored to Jesus.

The analogy that following Jesus is like being a kite came from reading the first few pages of Bruxy Cavey’s (Re)union.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

“Just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to say it!”

I was raised in a family of four noisy boys. As we grew up, we became quite opinionated, and often argued, quite amicably but noisily, about religious, political, ethical and a thousand more trivial issues that interested us.

When each of us found girlfriends and eventually wives, they didn’t always find our loud and rambunctious conversations easy.

And it didn’t always stop there. As an idealistic and articulate youth, I found it easy to argue with just about anyone. Fortunately, my wife had good advice for me.

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The Underground, Florida – a better way to be the church?

Did Jesus mean it to come to this? Yes!! I think he did!!

One common theme of this blog is that the 21st century western church too often seems to have lost the vision of the mission of Jesus, and settled for something far less noble.

So it is a great pleasure to be able to wholeheartedly recommend a branch of the church which seems to have kept central Jesus’ vision to love God and love our neighbours.

If you haven’t heard of it before, let me introduce you to the Underground in Tampa, Florida.

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The power of forgiveness

Some readers may recall, 18 months ago, two posts about the long distance endurance cycling race, the inaugural Indian-Pacific Wheel Race, which tragically ended in the death of one of the leading contestants, Mike Hall.

At the time I spoke of the grief many participants and followers of the race felt, and the very sensitive and admirable way in which the cycling community dealt with the tragedy.

Today I can report something even more admirable – how forgiveness can show love in the midst of tragedy.

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“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26)

Did Jesus mean it to come to this?

It is too easy to put words into Jesus’ mouth and say what he would or wouldn’t approve of. I won’t fall into that trap, but I will ask some pointed questions.

If Jesus could have foreseen twenty-first century western christianity, what would he think? For instance, what would he think of some of the buildings we construct for churches?

What would he think of the money spent on large ornamental gardens, lakes and fountains?

Would he think large megachurches become impersonal and dehumanise ordinary people while raising up the megapastors until they become greater than their master?

I can’t answer those questions, but I can say that these church edifices make me feel uneasy. I can’t help feeling leaders who are servants should also feel uneasy about them.

Photos mostly taken from the video Underground People, which I will be reviewing next post.