Movie Bible

Is it more faithful for Christians to have a “high” view of scripture or a “low” view? Consider the differences between watching a movie and being part of the cast.

To watch a movie is to be presented with a finished product that cannot be changed or influenced in any way. A moviegoer buys a single ticket for a single, completed show. They enter a passive environment in which the story moves from screen to viewer and never the other way around. Viewers can see all aspects of the story as presented, but none of what happened behind and between the scenes. The moviegoer may very well learn concrete lessons from the movie – at times the lessons and information may be so good and beneficial that the moviegoer changes what they do and prioritize in life. That change may inspire the person to go forth from the theater and sing the praises of that story or even teach the vital life lessons learned to others in their life. Those who hear about the movie may be influenced to go and watch for themselves – their experience of watching the movie and the lessons they take may even be shaped deeply by what they heard before watching for themselves. But the movie itself will always be a final, self contained product that remains entirely separate and distinct from its viewers. 

To be part of the cast, on the other hand, is to play a vital role in the story being told. Every scene is a world unto itself even when it is part of a seamless whole. The actions of any given actor are influenced deeply by the script, the director, every action and choice of a prior scene, and all those on camera in the present shot. Each member of the cast and crew then influence and change what’s being produced even though they can never dictate or determine the final product. Every actor intimately knows their part of the story and far more of what it took to make each scene than can be found in the final product. The information in the script can certainly offer lessons, but it is the experience of acting that shapes and transforms both actor and story. To tell even the exact same story using the exact same script with a different cast and different direction can produce a dramatically different movie, which may result in a radically different experience for an audience. Everything that is true about a moviegoer may also be true about its cast – from lessons learned to singing praises, a cast member may, after the movie’s launch, be indistinguishable from a mere moviegoer. But there is no movie without a cast and no cast without a movie. 

When I hear Christians speak of a “high” view of scripture, I cannot help but imagine the experience of reading the Bible like that of the moviegoer. The Bible is God’s final, authoritative word, subject neither to alteration nor deletion. The Bible must speak with one voice and remain one whole no matter how different or disparate any particular part may seem. We may try to imagine our lives as some sort of sequel or next chapter to the Bible, but to even imply that we could change the Word of God is blasphemous to its core. There is often an almost willful blindness to the extent to which history and contingency are essential features rather than accidental aspects of the words we read on the page. The Bible has a message that is timeless and unchanging – learning and memorizing that knowledge may teach us vital lessons that apply to every aspect of a life. The story we find in the Bible compels many people to go forth to sing God’s praises and invite others to read the story for themselves. Though the words on a page never change, the people with whom we first encounter the Bible deeply shape how we read those words and the meaning and purpose we take from them. But the Bible is also, distinct from any community we join or part we play, a final and self contained product to which we can never add even a word. 

When I hear Christians speak of a “low” view of scripture, I cannot help but imagine the experience of reading the Bible like that of being in the cast. The Bible is like a script that is both a finished product and yet not complete without us to act it out. Every different book is both a world all its own and also an integral part of the whole. Every time and place in which the Bible is read is like a different cast and crew that have to work out their unique way of bringing the script to life – the message of scripture is the messenger as Christians and communities both embody and transform the Kingdom of God here and now. The making of the Bible is as central to the Christian’s experience of the story as what is written on the page – historical study and literary analysis are like learning the prior versions and adaptations in ways that also clarify the director’s choices for the present telling. No matter how impactful and meaningful the words and messages of scripture are, it is not words on a page but habits and practices of community that transform the world. The choices each Christian makes obviously affect those inside the cast we call church and those outside alike going forward, but later choices can also dramatically affect everything about how an audience will rewatch the opening scenes. A “low” reading of Scripture may result in every response and action emphasized by a “high” reading – from singing praises to encouraging others to read – the practical implications may be indistinguishable to a stranger on the street. But, in this view there can be no true distinction between the story and cast – reading the Bible is always an invitation to take part in a story that is still being written. 

Neither approach to reading scripture is exactly right or wrong and no one does one to the complete exclusion of the other – but, to claim that a conservative “high” view of scripture grounds the church in biblical authority whereas a progressive “low” view of scripture leaves us subject to the whim and fancy of culture is a categorical mistake. In my experience and understanding of the Christian faith, the deepest, clearest call of Jesus is for us to take part in the story of God’s people; not to take lessons from a finished book. We can no more hold the Bible like an object at arms length than we can come to know Jesus without being changed as we change the world. If a ‘high’ view of scripture means treating scripture like an object we hold in our hands rather than a world we inhabit with all God’s children, then consider my view of scripture as ‘low’ as they come. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Law is like parenting

In the midst of our broken and divided moment in the life of the UMC, one of the talking points that so often frustrates me is the implication that how we are supposed to live never changes. While I believe that we have been and always will be called to embody the love of God, I cannot help but think that living out that love ought to look different in different seasons of life and at different moments in time. The question should not be “do we do the exact same thing always?” but “do we seek to embody the exact same kind of love for our time and place?” 

To assume it is a given that we should do the exact same thing is as absurd as assuming there is exactly one right way to parent for your child’s entire lifetime. Tucking your kid in at night and saying I love you at the end of every goodbye might both be vital ways of conveying love to your child. But one only makes sense for a season of life and the importance of the other endures. 

We should always be striving to ask what the shape of God’s love looks like here and now rather than assuming that the specific practices that constitute a faithful life will never change. That we only ever seem confident about what counts as sin rather than what embodies love is a reminder of where our true brokenness resides.

Sin and Trust

Sin is secondary to community within the Christian life in the same way that fights and hurt feelings in a relationship are secondary to a lack of trust. In any relationship, specific words and actions are not nearly the most determinantal factors in whether that relationship is built or broken. If your assumption about everything the other person says and about how they treat you is that they love you and are trying their best, then the exact same actions will feel entirely different than if you assume that they’re being mean or condescending or don’t actually care about you. To build trust, it is not sufficient to stop saying or doing particular things; it is necessary to develop the emotional intimacy by which you once again see the positive intent behind the actions of an imperfect person.

Often we treat sin as a first order concept; we act as if we get the list right of what counts as sinful words and deeds, then all we have to do is stop doing and saying those things. And, we assume, if we can take that step then Godly community is sure to follow. But, if we first understand the kind of community that sin breaks and the kind of love that God has for us, then no word or action will have the same reality in our lives as it would without the experience of love and community. What makes all the difference is not that we define sin right and stop sinning (both of which would be impossible anyway) but that we are perfected in love in such a way that no word or action overcomes our intimacy with God and one another.

Prayer Like Marriage

The idea that one can say a sinner’s prayer and in so doing become a Christian is a lot like the idea that one can get married and in so doing initiate a solid a relationship. Marriage changes everything…and nothing all at once; just like a momentary prayer of repentance or commitment changes everything and nothing. In reality, there is nothing so practical, simple, or concrete that you can do to ensure a strong relationship. To assume such a transactional result is to assume that relationship is based on control rather than trust. Requiring trust may seem to place faith on shaky ground, but that requirement is also fundamental to the way life, love, and relationship work. In reality, the more we imply that certainty is possible because of some simple prayer or act, the more anxiety we produce. Experiencing the certainty of love comes first and leads to action, never the other way around.


OT NT Parents

To say the New Testament matters and the Old does not is about like saying that your parents matter but your grandparents don’t. It is entirely nonsensical to make that claim. Not only would your parents, and thereby you, not exist without your grandparents, but so much of why your parents are the way they are comes from their parents. That is usually true in a variety of ways even if those parents weren’t around.

We are who we are made to be long before we have any influence or response to the stories that write us. Only then do we get to accept or reject various parts of those stories and begin writing our own. In the same way, the New Testament is what it is precisely because it is born out of the Old Testament story and only then begins to push that story in a new direction.

Theological aim is like golfing from a boat

The task of theology is always to point from where we are to where God stands. In what we say and do we seek to catch a glimpse of the reality of God so that our journey in faith might take us closer to the source of life. The problem is that the world beneath our feet is constantly shifting in ways that we cannot fully understand. Pointing to God is like aiming a golf ball off a boat that’s floating down river in and out of the fog – you may have just the right aim to start, but that aim can never be set in stone as long as the river flows. When the river moves fast, your shot can easily wind up in the bunker in just the amount of time it takes to complete your swing. When the fog is dense enough, you can’t even tell if the boat has moved at all.

It is deeply problematic to say that we shouldn’t care about shifts in culture and we should simply hold scripture to be our anchor in the midst of life. We are often pushed by culture in ways we cannot know and to an extent that we cannot define. As we are pushed, the way we talk about God has to shift or else our aim will be off without our awareness that we have in fact changed. Even the most faithful efforts to keep scripture as the sole foundation of our faith will fall short simply by the fact that we don’t know ourselves well enough to recognize if we’re still pointed in the right direction or if the boat beneath our feet has moved. We need God to constantly reveal Himself to us like a break in the fog that keeps us aimed not towards words of scripture but towards the Word revealed through scripture.

Piñata Feelings

When tragedy strikes, using catchy sayings and trite moralisms is like throwing up a piñata and seeing what happens. As with every piñata, someone will eventually hit it with a bat, which makes the idea of exposing our actual selves terrifying. Watching the attack on what has already been said makes it nearly impossible to ever expose our deepest feelings and hopes. To expose our actual self by saying “this is me, these are my fears and failures” runs the risk that we’d be hit with a bat anyway. For change to occur, we have to be allowed to feel what we feel. Giving someone the space to feel is one of the greatest gifts we can offer one another.

Evangelical Bricks

Sharing Jesus can come across like hurling bricks at a stranger.

Imagine that we who have found faith are walking upon a solid foundation through life. The ground at our feet is like the roads paved with gold in Revelation. That road is like a perfect set of golden bricks, laid out in neat little rows. Those who have not yet found the sure foundation of the love of God are like people wandering about on sheets of ice all around the road. Why they have not yet stepped foot on solid ground may vary – perhaps it is fear of the unknown or maybe they just have not found it yet.

Evangelism in the church tends to look one of two ways. On one side, some don’t want to bother others with what is clearly our own preference – maybe others like slipping and sliding through life. It’s not for them to push an agenda if others don’t want the path for themselves. On the other side are those who take seriously the call to welcome all to the path. And, seeing the struggle that others go through, they take a brick up from the road, hurl it through the air, and thereby show those on the ice how much more solid the path is than the ice. Of course, plenty of people will be blindsided by flying bricks. Even those who try to catch that one small piece of foundation are pretty likely to face plant in the midst of the attempt. The motivation may be good, but the likelihood of positive change is tiny.

The message of the cross is that Jesus left the path for our sake. He came to us when we had no sure foundation on which to stand, invited us to climb on his back, and carries us for as long as needed to trust that we have been brought to solid ground. Evangelism for Christians can never be ignored, but it also cannot be a means of shouting words at others like hurling bricks in the air. Evangelism properly conceived is the process whereby those on the sure foundation venture onto the ice and offer whatever it takes until all have found that the foundation is sure and the ice is no more.

Nail in the Head Theology

This has to be one of my all time favorite videos –

It also helps illustrate a profoundly important point in my theological formation.

I’ve long had a problem with the form and nature of most Christian theology, but am still working to figure out how to express that problem. I’ve tried twice to say that theology is relationship, full stop (see here and here). I’m also convinced that there is no “I” to do theology prior to or apart from the community and stories that wrote us – which means that any coherence or truth that comes from theological thought is at least as much a function of the time, place, and especially people that gave shape to the life that produced the thought that may in some part correspond to the truth of who God is.

“Nail in the head theology” seems like a more accessible and memorable way to make the same point. Human mortality/sin/brokenness/limitation/finitude affecting a relationally created rationality/language/meaning/life/being is like saying that we can only ever think through the perspective of someone with a nail in the forehead. Most prominent, historically male, mainline/evangelical Christian theology employs words that function analogously to the guy in the video. Defining the nail or strategizing to relieve the pain aren’t bad goals, but, as long as we are not God, doing so can never remove the nail – we can never fix ourselves.

The caricature of feminine relational focus is, almost by default, discounted in search of ‘true’ theological knowledge. But the most important function of Christian faith and life is not to get the words right, but to experience/know/share/witness to the love that God is. If this claim is true, then no amount of words/logic/thought can ever be sufficient for the formation of the god-words that theology seeks to convey. Emotional connection is not secondary to truth; emotional connection the only soil in which words can ever be planted and spring up toward truth.

The deepest call of Christian theology is to find new ways to stare into the reality that we are not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, faithful enough, and whatever-else-it-would-take enough to fix ourselves and remove the nail. But in those moments when we finally learn to give up control and stop thinking we can fix it all, the voice of God utters words of hope and grace – I am yours, you are mine.