Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rewriting Holy Week (Sunday Reflections for April 3, 2011)

In two weeks we begin Holy Week, the church’s observance of the death of Jesus. Various events recounted in the gospels will be commemorated at services during the week, including Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, his last supper with his disciples, his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial before the priests and Pilate, and his crucifixion.

Most Christians, as well as many people outside the church, will regard all this as the remembrance of historical occurrences. They would likely be surprised, and perhaps dismayed, to learn that most biblical scholars today (excluding fundamentalists, of course) regard little if any of it that way. “You mean someone made this all up?” a person might ask. Well, many people were likely involved but, basically, yes.

What we might call “scientific” biblical scholarship has been going on for a little over two centuries. Throughout this time most of these scholars have felt at least some restraint reporting their findings out of fear of how they would be received within the church. One result is that their work increasingly went “underground.” Scholars discussed their work among themselves but only a small portion leaked out to the general public.

After about World War II, critical biblical scholarship became standard fare in seminaries and theology schools. Nonetheless, pastors-in-training were usually directed to keep most of this to themselves or intuitively knew to do so. The bizarre result was that pastors became the only trained professionals I know of who were encouraged NOT to use a significant portion of their education in carrying out their work. Why this wasn’t recognized for decades as a sign that the church was in serious distress, I still haven’t figured out. I’m not sure it is yet today.

Much has changed in the church over the past 200 years and finally we may be able to tolerate some biblical honesty. The biggest change is that most people in the Western world will not pass through the doors of a church at all during Holy Week, nor on Easter for that matter. The culture’s emotional attachment to these stories is significantly weaker that it once was. Frankly, not many people even know these stories anymore except in vague outline. This may, however, give the church some much needed freedom and fresh air.

As we discussed at this past week’s “Living the Questions” video session, the biggest problem with reconstructing the life of Jesus is that we simply have so little reliable information. The earliest writings after Jesus’ death are the letters of Paul, and for reasons still not understood, he tells us little if anything about the historic Jesus. The canonical gospels were written from 40-80 years after Jesus (some scholars would argue for even later dates) and are not eye-witness accounts. In fact, it is entirely possible we have nothing in writing from anyone who actually knew or even saw Jesus.

While this might seem surprising, it really isn’t. As I told awhile ago, I recently read the new biography of Cleopatra, who lived about a generation before Jesus (she knew Herod the Great and it was the Roman Emperor Augustus who defeated her and Mark Antony). At the beginning of the book, the author laments how fragmentary are the sources for Cleopatra’s life. At the high point of her reign, Cleopatra was one of the most powerful persons in the world. Her life intertwined with the greatest of Rome’s rulers, yet no one at the time wrote an account of her life. The information we do have is written many years later, almost all by people attempting to discredit her. Indeed, reconstructing the life of any historically significant person of antiquity is almost impossible in detail and often difficult in even broad outline.

The difficulty in reconstructing the life of Jesus isn’t surprising then, given that he was a virtual social nonentity. Scholars today agree that Jesus came from the furthest margins of society: a Jewish peasant who lived in the backwater of a backwater: the region of Galilee on the fringe of Rome’s despised province of Judea. To observers of the time, Jesus would have been one of “a dime-a-dozen” wandering mystics, teachers, holy men, and miracle workers common to the region and the time. If Cleopatra could barely get her story told, Jesus didn’t stand a chance.

Which, in brief, is the main reason the biblical events of Holy Week are now seen as literary fiction. The basic plot is certainly plausible. For whatever reason, Jesus may have gone to Jerusalem (perhaps for the first time in his life), gotten himself in trouble by creating a commotion (in the temple?), which then led to his arrest and execution. But someone as insignificant as Jesus would never have rated the tumult or attention depicted in the gospels.

The details of that story are now viewed as the product of early church evangelists and writers. Their source, rather than eye witnesses, was primarily the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. Following a long and respected religious tradition, its stories were used to provide the interpretive framework for this new religious event, the life and death of Jesus the Christ.

Whatever its cause, Jesus’ arrest would have led to a minimal legal proceeding followed by a quick execution. It certainly wouldn’t have rated a hearing before the Roman governor. Public crucifixions were literally almost everyday occurrences. It would have been normal if repulsive to pass rotting bodies hanging on crosses as one entered Jerusalem. This was ancient state terrorism and crowd control. Most victims were not buried because wild animals and the elements quickly disposed of the bodies.

Nor is it clear that Jewish authorities would have ever been involved given that Jesus did little if anything to merit their intervention. Calling yourself the messiah (if Jesus even did that) might get you labeled as crazy but it wasn’t a capital offense. And Jesus almost certainly did not call himself the son of God. That was an identity given him after his death by the early church, to contest the Roman emperor’s claim to that title.

As we read a novel or watch a movie, most of us easily enter the story as if it is real, and temporarily suspend our awareness that what is being depicted is the creation of the writer or director. The same is true for our hearing of the Holy Week narratives. Nonetheless, it is likely that the gospel writers and early church knew nothing about the events surrounding Jesus’ death. What is hinted at in the gospels themselves may have been truer than we realize: Jesus may well have died alone and abandoned—and unnoticed.

The earliest years of the church after Jesus’ death are essentially a blank slate. We know next to nothing about them. What we can surmise, though, is that some of his followers had experiences which convinced them that Jesus was yet alive (and the first of these may well have been women). “I have seen the Lord.” He lived now in God’s heavenly realm, yet somehow his Spirit also remained with his disciples on earth. As the church spread, and after most of his original followers had died, the story of Jesus was fleshed out, not to reconstruct the chain of events, but for evangelistic proclamation purposes.

For us a narrative like Holy Week now hides as much as it reveals. We are distracted by its over-the-top dramatics and flagrant anti-Semitism. Biblical scholars are helping us regain some perspective, shifting our attention from his death to his life as what is most important for us today. Yet this is something that perhaps even Mark, the earliest gospel, understood. For at its very end the angel at the tomb directs the women to go back to Galilee, the place of Jesus’ life and ministry. “There you will see him.”

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bell's hell (Sunday Reflections for March 27, 2011)

I talked in my sermon a couple weeks ago about the current tempest in the evangelical teapot. The dustup is over a new book by Rob Bell, an evangelical pastor of a megachurch in Grand Rapids. Bell is considered a leader in the “emerging Christianity” movement which has been popular with many younger evangelicals, as well as some mainline Christians.

In the book, Love Wins, Bell continues to push the envelope of traditional Christian doctrine and theology. What has created controversy this time is his questioning of the meaning and reality of hell. The latest wrinkle is a story picked up by multiple news outlets. It seems a young Methodist pastor posted an article endorsing Bell’s book and this proved the last straw for his church’s members. As a result his rural North Carolina congregation fired him. They didn’t want a pastor who wasn’t a firm believer in hell.

In its summary of Bell’s book, the news story says:

Bell criticizes the belief that a select number of Christians will spend eternity in the bliss of heaven while everyone else is tormented forever in hell. "This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear."

In a video introducing the book,

[Bell] describes going to a Christian art show where one of the pieces featured a quote by Mohandas Gandhi. Someone attached a note saying: "Reality check: He's in hell." "Gandhi's in hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure?" Bell asks in the video.

Bell is right in seeing that the Gandhi example goes to the heart of the dark side of the black-and-white nature of evangelicalism. Historically, of course, most of Christianity has tended in this direction at one time or another. “Who’s in and who’s out” is a question the church has often obsessed over and sometimes wielded like a club (as the Methodist pastor rediscovered).

Personally it’s hard for me to take any of this very seriously as I can’t remember ever accepting the idea of hell as a literal place. Indeed most of mainline Christianity has treated hell as a metaphor for a long time. I remember a seminary professor saying thirty years ago, with a wry smile, that while he might believe there was a hell, he didn’t have to believe anyone was in it.

The repeated refrain of Bell’s evangelical critics is that he ignores God’s righteousness. The article summarizes a Baptist theologian’s assessment that “Bell errs in a conception of a loving God that leaves out the divine attributes of justice and holiness.” Ironically this rarely seems to be a concern of Jesus (as in Sunday’s Gospel story from John of the woman at the well). Rather, Bell’s critics sound much more like the Pharisees with whom Jesus so often jousts.

Probably the best takedown of those concerned for God’s justice, however, is the book of Jonah. After his detour with the fish, Johan finally goes to Nineveh to preach as God had asked him. When the city almost instantaneously repents, Jonah goes off into the wilderness to sulk, wanting to die. When God asks him what his problem is, Jonah complains that this is exactly what he knew would happen. The evil Ninevites would repent and get off the hook, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Hell - Deriec Bouts 15th c.
This has been the secret fear of righteous Christians all along: that the God of Jesus really is a big softy. In their distaste for evil and evil-doers, they want to see some hellfire and brimstone. They don’t want to belong to a club that lets everyone in. Isn’t part of the pleasure of heaven knowing that you didn’t end up in hell like those “other” people? What value is a prize if everyone gets it? Does the carrot really work if there isn’t also a big stick as a threatening alternative?

This debate goes to the heart of Christianity, of the Bible, and of religion generally. Indeed, it is a debate within the Bible itself, as the book of Jonah and Jesus’ arguments with the Pharisees show. Many clearly want a God whose primarily role is to establish and enforce the rules. Historically this has been the god of official state religions, which then sanctioned the king as god’s earthly representative. It was his divinely authorized job to keep order and punish law breakers.

This, however, seems nothing like the God of Jesus. He is the one the church calls the Son of God just like Israel’s ancient kings, yet as we will see again in a few weeks rides into Jerusalem not on a war horse but on a donkey. He is the one who turns away an angry justice-seeking crowd with the disarming words, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” He is the one who looks on those who have hung him on a cross and says, “God forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

In one of my favorite movie lines, Groucho Marx says with typical self-deprecating irony, “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” Somehow I have the same feeling about the heaven imagined by those who so fervently believe in hell. That’s a club I don’t think I would want to belong to.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"But God was not in the earthquake" (Sunday Reflections for March 20, 2011)

"But God was not in the earthquake..." 1 Kings 19:11

There has been one remarkable thing about the theological reaction to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan: there hasn’t been any. The one exception I’m aware of was Glen Beck’s vague observation on-air that “perhaps” God was trying to tell the world something, like it needs to change its ways. Apparently even Beck realized how vacuous this sounded and dropped the subject.

A catastrophe of this magnitude begs for some kind of interpretation. In the past, such events inevitably led to sermons and theological treatises on the ways of Almighty God and humanity’s weakness and sinfulness. This time by implication, the theological silence is rendering a different judgment: God had nothing to do with it.

Today in our world of instant communication, we are aware of natural and human-made disasters within minutes of their occurring. We’re also aware of more of them, prompting some to mistakenly think such events are happening at an increased rate. Scientific evidence doesn’t support that, however. Rather, the ballooning human population just means people are more often impacted by such events.

Science has given us an awesome but also disturbing picture of our world. As beautiful and bountiful as the earth is, it can also be amazingly and capriciously violent. Or at least so it seems to us, for on a global scale such events are barely a ripple. The Japanese earthquake was one of the strongest ever measured yet it caused the world’s rotation to increase by only a fraction of a second and changed its axis by a fraction of a degree.

Understood in the context of the earth’s geological history, all this is barely a hiccup. And yet it is just these “hiccups,” multiplied over hundreds of millions of years, which have made the planet what it is today. We marvel at the beauty and scale of the Rocky Mountains yet they didn’t get that way by being modeled out of Play Doh. They are the result of countless instances of just the kind of violent moving and shaking northern Japan experienced.

And this is true of most of our world’s features. We can multiply the examples endlessly. Meteorologists are beginning to understand how hurricanes keep the world’s atmosphere in balance. The Gulf of Mexico is likely the result of an enormous meteor or asteroid collision. Indeed, we probably are only here now because of that “catastrophe,” which was the likely cause of the huge “die-off” that wiped out the dinosaurs and 90% of the rest of animal life. It was the dinosaurs’ untimely exit which allowed the mammals to come to dominate the planet.

In 1755 a huge earthquake and tsunami nearly destroyed the city of Lisbon, Portugal. For Europe, at least, many historians view it as the turning point of Christianity’s cultural domination for it was an event that left theologians speechless. They had no explanation for it because Lisbon was seen as a beautiful and truly Christian city. If any place was deserving of God’s blessing and protection, it was Lisbon. Clearly, it didn’t get. Instead, the event came to be viewed as a confirmation of the new Enlightenment understanding that the world operated according to natural laws rather than divine ones.

God didn’t cause the Lisbon earthquake or the most recent one in Japan. Nor does God cause any other natural phenomenon which we humans may judge to be disasters because we were in the way when they occurred. All of them are simply part of the natural rhythm of events on our churning and heaving planet.

In our last Lent midweek "Living the Questions" video, it was suggested that we need to get rid of the notion of God as “almighty.” Events like these underscore that idea. It isn’t helpful, it isn’t (as the video correctly says) biblical, and experience just says it can’t be true. Life is full of events that are beyond anyone’s control. Most of them are benign and we hardly notice them. Occasionally they are beneficial and sometimes they are catastrophic. Where God enters the picture is in challenging us to decide how to react. If we are blessed at such moments, how will we use that blessing? When disaster strikes, how will we respond to our own needs or to those of others? These are often the crucial moments that define our character and who we are as human beings.

As much as science has done for us, it is highly unlikely we will ever tame our planetary home. Nor for that matter should we, according to what science has shown us. These natural churnings are essential for what has made the earth the planet that it is. Science can help us learn how to better co-exist with our planet’s shakes and rolls. Wisdom should cause us to heed their warnings and counsel. Compassion is what should move us to aid whoever suffers in such disasters wherever our knowledge and wisdom haven’t been enough.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Youthful enthusiasm (Sunday Reflections for March 13, 2011)

A couple church colleagues of mine recently linked enthusiastically to a blog post by the Episcopal Bishop of Arizona, Rev. Kirk Smith. Bishop Smith says that he is frequently asked what can be done to get more young people to come to church. In response, he quotes from the post of a young woman, Tamie Fields Harkins, who used to be a college chaplain in his diocese. In the post she gives a 20-point “fool-proof plan” for attracting young people to church.

I like many of her ideas but on one major issue I think she is dead wrong. I’ll come to that at the end, though. Here is Ms. Harkins’ plan for your reflection:

1. Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.

2. Stop pretending you have a rock band.

3. Stop arguing about whether gay people are okay, fully human, or whatever else. Seriously. Stop it.

4. Stop arguing about whether women are okay, fully human, or are capable of being in a position of leadership.

5. Stop looking for the "objective truth" in Scripture.

6. Start looking for the beautiful truth in Scripture.

7. Actually read the Scriptures. If you are Episcopalian, go buy a Bible and read it. Start in Genesis, it's pretty cool. You can skip some of the other boring parts in the Bible. Remember though that almost every book of the Bible has some really funky stuff in it. Remember to keep #5 and #6 in mind though. If you are evangelical, you may need to stop reading the Bible for about 10 years. Don't worry: during those 10 years you can work on putting these other steps into practice.

8. Start worrying about extreme poverty, violence against women, racism, consumerism, and the rate at which children are dying worldwide of preventable, treatable diseases. Put all the energy you formerly spent worrying about the legit-ness of gay people into figuring out ways to do some good in these areas.

9. Do not shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music. By "extraordinary music" I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music. Original music. Four-part harmony music. Funky retro organ music. Hymns. Taize chants. Bluegrass. Steel guitar. Humming. Gospel. We are the church; we have an uber-rich history of amazing music. Remember this.

10. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

11. Learn how to sit with people who are dying.

12. Feast as much as possible. Cardboard communion wafers are a feast in symbol only. Humans cannot live on symbols alone. Remember this.

13. Notice visitors, smile genuinely at them, include them in conversations, but do not overwhelm them.

14. Be vulnerable.

15. Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn't going to die even if there are no more Christians at all.

16. Figure out who is suffering in your community. Go be with them.

17. Remind yourself that you don't have to take God to anyone. God is already with everyone. So, rather than taking the approach that you need to take the truth out to people who need it, adopt the approach that you need to go find the truth that others have and you are missing. Go be evangelized.

18. Put some time and care and energy into creating a beautiful space for worship and being-together. But shy away from building campaigns, parking lot expansions, and what-have-you.

19. Make some part of the church building accessible for people to pray in 24/7. Put some blankets there too, in case someone has nowhere else to go for the night.

20. Listen to God (to Wisdom, to Love) more than you speak your opinions.

In conclusion, Harkins says, “This is a fool-proof plan. If you do it, I guarantee that you will attract young people to your church. And lots of other kinds of people too. The end.”

Well, this may be Harkins way of saying that she is presenting this “plan” at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. In short, she is urging the church to resist the temptation to “faddishness” and following what secular culture says is popular. She is telling the church: Be honest. Be who you are and don’t try to be something else just because you think that’s what other people want you to be. Also, get rid of some baggage the church has accumulated over the years (e.g. prejudice towards women and gays, biblical literalism) which isn’t intrinsic to Christianity and has now become an impediment to its true mission.

So I would agree that doing most if not all these things would make a church better. I don’t think there is any guarantee it would make a church grow, however. Again, Harkins may be more aware of this than she lets on. But for argument’s sake, at face value her plan has one major flaw, which is a common one in the church. It makes the assumption that church is inherently and obviously attractive.

In this way of thinking, the church’s main problem is execution. It has a really good “product” but falls down in quality control and/or marketing. If the church would just be the church, people would come flocking in. Uh, no. For a young adult already inclined to joining a church, these ideas could well attract him or her to a congregation using them rather than to another. Unfortunatley, however, the reality is that church is just not something most young adults are looking for. A congregation could fulfill every one of Harkin’s points but many would still say, “That’s great but I’m just not interested.”

If you’ve read me before you may recognize this as another example of “buggy-whip” thinking. “If sales are falling then we just need to improve our quality or marketing,” this attitude says. It ignores the possibility that people just don’t need or want buggy-whips anymore, no matter how good they are.

Notice, however, that I am not criticizing Harkins’ proposals. Most of them are spot on, I think, and would indeed lead to a more genuine and healthy congregational life. For better or for worse, however, congregational life itself is simply appealing to fewer and fewer people. So by all means, I think congregations should adopt Harkins’ plan if it appeals to them. But do it for yourselves, to improve your mission and the quality of your life-in-community. Just don’t do it to refill your empty pews. That’s something you probably have no control over.

The Maccabeats are back for Purim

With thanks and/or apologies to Pink: Raise your glass!

If you missed it, be sure to watch their Hanukkah song "Candlelight."

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Lessons from a funeral (Sunday Reflections for March 6, 2011)

A funeral this past week provided me with an interesting view of “religion in America.”

A little while ago one of our members called to ask me to visit someone dying of cancer. She was his daughter’s mother-in-law and I said I would be glad to. Over the course of a few visits in hospital and then in hospice I got to know Lynne and other members of her family. She was already seriously ill so my interactions with her were limited. Nonetheless, I found Lynne and the rest of the family very enjoyable. My attention to them seemed genuinely appreciated, including conducting Lynne’s funeral.

Lynne had some church involvement in her past and considered herself Christian but had not had any affiliation with a church for quite awhile. This seemed true for most of the rest of the family, with the exception of a daughter and her husband who were very committed evangelicals. From the size of the crowd at the funeral home it was obvious Lynne had many friends who would genuinely miss her. It was repeated again and again what a kind and gracious person she was. She was a good person, who had lived a good life, which ended too soon.

I appreciated the opportunity to meet Lynne and members of her family, who obviously shared many of her fine qualities. I was glad to be of help to them in a difficult time of need. I have done similar things many times before and they are always rewarding experiences for me. Nonetheless, on almost every occasion I find myself wondering at some point what it is I’m doing. Officially I represent the church but that’s not really the capacity I’m exercising, since these are not church members I’m dealing with.

No, I’ve come to understand that I am there as a kind of generic “God- or spirit-person.” In such situations, I guide and assist people through life transitions that we recognize as spiritual events, which include things like birth, marriage, personal crisis, as well as death. On such occasions neither they nor I assume any particular religious beliefs or commitment. We relate to each other simply on the basis of our common humanity. I’m brought in because I have some training and experience in these things and—since I’ve thought about them more than most people do—presumably have something worthwhile to say at such times.

What’s become obvious today is that this is where most people are at in regards to their spiritual life and needs. As we discussed this week at our first “Living the Questions” video session, we all now understand our life as a journey, which is an inherently spiritual idea. Observing this, British theologian Don Cupitt has said that a “religion of everyday life” is rapidly replacing the old traditional religions in the modern world. (He has done some fascinating studies to show how often the word “life” is now used in everyday speech where “God” used to be, e.g. “Right now I’m just going wherever life takes me.” You’d be surprised how easy it is to come up with more examples.)

What has yet to find a place in this religion of everyday life, of course, is the church. What role does this global institution with two thousand years of history, and more tradition than any person could possibly understand or appreciate, have to play anymore? With such a religion and spirituality, why would people belong to an organization with rules, budgets, buildings and staff?

As I talk to people about belonging to the church I hear very similar responses. Most people consider themselves spiritual, believers in God (however they understand that), religious even, and often even identify with a particular denomination. When pressed, many say that they would like to go to church, that it would be a good idea, but they are just too busy or just doesn’t fit into their life right now.

I take such responses as sincere and honest. What it says to me is that church has simply dropped down people’s priority lists. People only have so much time and have certain things they want to do with that time. If we arbitrarily say that there are 20 significant things we can do in our daily life (family, work, sleep, eating, exercise, friends, entertainment, etc.), then on average church is about #23 on people’s lists. Belonging to a church, worshiping regularly, participating in its other activities, and supporting it financially—people just find themselves asking, “Why?”

As I said, I didn’t get to know Lynne very well but this church question came to mind as I thought of her. All indications are that she was a good and lovely person. She had many friends and belonged to a variety of organizations. She was surrounded and supported by a loving family, especially during her struggle with cancer. As a pastor, I was invited into her life at its end as a sort of spiritual adviser. Though I think I could have been of more help if I had been there sooner, she certainly seemed to end her life with peace, maturity and grace.

Her story is not uncommon: a good person with a real spiritual life, who does not “belong” to the church, yet has occasional need or desire for what we might describe as “religious services.” Frankly, I think this is becoming the norm but the church is having greatly difficulty adjusting to this situation or even accepting this new role. With its history and tradition, the church can’t imagine itself except as a great, divinely instituted organization, wrapped up somehow in the fate of the world. I’m afraid those days are long gone and never to return.

People’s lives today are remarkably free and, consequently, remarkably complicated. Navigating this journey called life is at the essence of spirituality, and we all seek help and guidance for it. Most of us appreciate ritual markings of special moments in that journey: birth, entering adulthood, marriage, death. In this there is a real opportunity for the church to redefine itself and be of genuine value in people’s lives. The question is whether the church can see this, not as a comedown from past glory, but as a new way to continue to enrich people’s lives and make the world a better place.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Blessed questions (Sunday Reflections for February 20, 2011)

Timothy Beal is Professor of Religion at Case Western Reserve University and author of the just-published book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. He concludes an essay this week on Huffington Post on the book’s theme saying,

The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. As such it opens up space for us to explore different voices and perspectives, to discuss, to disagree and, above all, to think. Too often, however, that's not what happens.

I agree with Beal but that first sentence also that points to why this view isn’t often followed, as he himself recognizes. At bottom, most of us prefer answers to questions. “I don’t need more questions,” I can hear someone saying; “I’ve got enough of my own. What I need are answers.” What we want, as the 19th century evangelical hymn say, is “blessed assurance.” Questions don’t suggest assurance.

And this dichotomy in how we view the Bible is true for religion in general. Are religion and faith primarily about questions or about answers? You could say this is the main division within religion today. In fact, it is a fault line that has probably run through religion throughout human history.

It’s pretty obvious that fundamentalist religions are all about having answers, and this has been the irony of modern fundamentalism. In terms of their frame of mind and how they look at the world, fundamentalist Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, etc. are pretty similar. For this reason they often espouse very similar views on moral issues (generally very traditional and conservative). In terms of their actual religious beliefs, however, they would each condemn the others as wrong and in error. Theirs is the true religion and theirs alone.

In our shrinking world, however, such black-and-white theology is becoming increasingly difficult to defend. Such religious purity is mostly the concern of the clergy leadership. Average lay people often have a more open attitude because they are increasingly familiar with people of other religions and beliefs. Interestingly, fundamentalist leaders rarely debate other religions about their beliefs. They reserve most of their energy for fighting liberals within their own religion, seeing them as the bigger threat.

Just a brief look at the history of Christianity’s unending theological squabbles and divisions shows that Beal is, of course, absolutely right. He would probably accept rephrasing his sentence above to “The Bible is a book of answers and a library of questions”—too many answers because they don’t agree with each other.

A perfect example can be found in the Gospels of the past few weeks, which have been from the so-called Sermon on the Mount. A repeated phrase of Jesus is “You have heard it said ______ but I say to you ______.” Here and elsewhere Jesus joins in the already long tradition of debating about what scripture means. Nothing has changed in the two thousand years since.

It’s understandable that in the turbulence of the modern world many people are looking for concrete answers to life’s challenges and problems. This is especially true when that turbulence disrupts people’s lives very personally. But the black-and-white certainties of fundamentalism are really not answers at all because they refuse to acknowledge the genuineness of the questions. We really have learned new things; our world really is different now; we really must live our lives differently than our ancient ancestors did.

One of the biggest changes is in how we view our own lives. In the past most people, in most situations, simply followed cultural tradition. Modern people, however, experience their lives as remarkably free and open. We have choices previous generations never dreamed of. Where they were essentially given most of their identity, today we create ourselves. “Here is your life: now, what will you do with it?

Many people, and probably all of us at some time, can feel overwhelmed at such responsibility. Freedom can be scary and is certainly hard work. I think a lot of people have problems with this because we aren’t doing a very good job of preparing them for it or even helping them understand it.

I believe this is the new calling of religion: not telling people what to do with their lives but helping them understand life’s questions and finding answers that are good for them. I actually think this is what Jesus was up to. It’s what made him unique at the time and what got him into trouble. Rather than interpret old rules and traditions, Jesus confronted people with the opportunity and responsibility of their inherent freedom. Needless to say, it was too much for some people, especially the ones charged with enforcing the old rules.

It could be that only now have we become able to fully appreciate what Jesus was saying and doing. That suspicion may be what has been behind the recent attempts by scholars to get back to the genuine historical Jesus, freeing him from centuries of encrusted layers of church tradition and re-interpretation.

I think this also makes it more intriguing that the description adopted by Jesus’ earliest disciples was “followers of the way.” It seems they thought of themselves not as people who had arrived at some ultimate truth but as people on a journey, the term we now commonly use to describe our own lives. Religion’s traditional answers increasingly look like detours that take us off our journey. Religious questions, however, can give us the insight and the courage to continue on our journey, however difficult it might be and wherever it leads us.