It Isn't Ours To Change

I've been thinking a lot lately about truth. Biblical truth to be exact, in this truth-allergic age.

I just finished another edition of the comparative worldviews course I teach at George Fox University, and this group of adult students was interesting. They were a very bright and active group and they had a wide variety of beliefs. And just like a lot of people these days, this group really struggled with the idea of truth. I mean, really struggled. Many of them just couldn't get their heads around the idea that any one way of looking at the world might be more accurate than the other ways. In other words, these intelligent and hard working people just couldn't understand how one view of life - any view - could be true.

But many Christians seem to be in the same boat. Truth just doesn't compute these days, and maybe that's what so many evangelical Christians are responding to. There seems to be this all out rush to redefine Christianity; to get our truth-allergic world to see Christianity as not "truthy." We're pouring forth a nearly endless stream of books, blogs, and videos proclaiming "Hey! Check us out! Jesus is allergic to truth as well!"

Increasingly, Christians are down on the church, down on doctrine, and down on religion (even though that's what following Jesus is, contrary to popular opinion). These days we love questions, but we hate answers. We celebrate ignorance (mistaking it for humility), and despise knowledge. We're up on the journey, but down on the destination. In fact, it is now so popular to bash religion within Christian circles that one of the quickest ways to become influential with today's Christian generation is to write criticisms of theology, church, and Christianity itself.

What is this all about? Christians working hard to define themselves as not Christian? This isn't crazy, we're assured. In fact we're told that Jesus himself was down on truth and religion. We have drunk deeply at the well of this idea. for example, I recently saw a Christian describe their faith by saying "I rejected Christianity in order to follow Jesus."

Huh? Respectfully friends, I think we're confused.

It's one thing to critique how we run our churches, do our theology, and practice our religion. There is much to critique, as I've written here and here for example. To a point this is healthy - even necessary. But often I think we're identifying the wrong problem. Whatever the church's faults, being the church and standing for revealed truth are not among them. We're constantly taught the value of truth (Proverbs 23:23), of sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), and of the word of God (Matthew 5:17-18). And we're taught that Jesus is the Lord and head of the church (Ephesians 4:15-16), so apparently whatever its faults, it means something to him.

And that's what I'm really driving at, and what I think so many Christians these days are missing. To follow Jesus means to follow him his way. To be a part of his kingdom means he is the king. He makes the rules, calls the shots, and determines what matters. Being his follower means learning to accept this from him whether we like it or not. Actually, it means more than that: it means learning to like it too.

Our efforts to redefine Jesus as non-truthy and following him as non-religious are not only misguided, they are also overstepping our bounds. We're not free to change Christianity. It is the Way of Jesus. It is living life by his rules, traveling the road he marked out, for his glory. If we abandon this road, we have abandoned him.

We can't change Christianity. It isn't ours to change.

Why We Read

Are You Listening To Me?
Ever had the experience of talking with someone who isn't really listening to you? You know, they hear your words just long enough to form their own thought or their own idea, and at that point they disengage from what you're saying and just wait for a chance to jump in and talk about their thing. And of course you know they weren't really listening to you. They weren't interested in trying to follow your train of thought, or connect with your heart or your mind. They're only interested in making public the private goings-on of their own little mental space.

Amy and I talked about this just the other day, and we've had similar conversations with a Filipino friend named Lidj who writes a reflective, heartfelt blog called Crown of Beauty. There are those who listen just long enough to look for an opportunity to make their own point, or to get a quick shot of inspiration themselves. They hear only in order to speak, not in order to listen. On the other hand there are those who listen in order to connect with the heart of the speaker. They invest themselves in following another's flow of thought, and seek to get out of their own shoes as best they can to walk in the speaker's shoes. I have learned the value of this from people like my bride and our friend Lidj.

You know, I find it telling that ours is a world full of lonely people. And at the same time it is also a world full of people who are not great listeners. Coincidence? I think not.

Blowing Out Mental Cobwebs
C.S. Lewis applied the same thinking to what - and how - we read. He once wrote that we should all make sure that we read some old books; books that were written in a totally different time period than our own. The benefit is that these books can help us not get stuck in the thinking of our own time. Old books, Lewis wrote, are like "the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds." Reading books from people who lived long before us, and who saw the world differently, gives us perspective and stretches our understanding. In this way, old books help us grow as people and allow us to see things we wouldn't have seen if our thinking was limited only to the vantage point of our own times.

What Lewis was getting at is a problem common to all people: we're comfortable with what we already know. Because of this we're often not terribly interested in entertaining new thoughts or new ideas. After all, being stretched or challenged takes energy, work, and the willingness to tolerate a bit of discomfort. Left to ourselves, we sometimes feel very little incentive to want to change.

What Did He Say?
I find it telling that ours is a world full of people who increasingly know no perspective but their own. And at the same time it is also a world full of people who do not read for an author's meaning. Coincidence? I think not.

When we read, we tend to read for what we want to get out of it. Does it inspire me? Intrigue me? Entertain me? If so, I call it good writing. If not, I don't. In either case the author's intent has not registered as something of significance. We're focused on what we received, not necessarily on what the writer was saying. After all, if it doesn't inspire or benefit me in some immediate way, why should I care what an author wants to say?

Understand First, React Second
When I teach Christian Worldview to adult undergraduate students, I tell them that if they want a good grade from me they have to do two things on every assignment in the following order: first, understand what the author/speaker is saying. Comprehend his flow of thought well enough that you can give it back to me in your own words accurately. Then, and only then, may you move on to the next step, which is to evaluate what he is saying and agree or disagree.

Why do I make such a point of this? Because it doesn't come naturally to us. We tend to quickly get wind of where an author or speaker is going, and we immediately begin making judgments about it before we've even heard him out. We know what we're comfortable with and we have little interest in being stretched beyond it. So we prejudge what others say before they've even finished saying it, which is a defense mechanism of sorts in that it gives us permission to stay comfortable, and to prevent new thoughts from challenging us.

The challenge for the students is a difficult one. I issue this challenge in part to get non-Christian students to at least understand Christianity on its own terms, not just some popular misconception of it. But you know what? The Christian students in my classes are just as bad at this as everyone else. Throughout the course we look at some non-Christian worldviews too and I tell them the same thing: learn it first, fairly and accurately. Then you may respond. But this is hard for many of them to do. The moment they get wind that an idea came from somewhere other than the Bible, their brains shut down and all the emotional defenses go up.

The students who do take me up on the challenge all end up saying the same thing, whether they're Christians or not. They tell me the class was informative, challenging, and they'd never thought about their beliefs in this way before. Many of them go so far as to say they weren't even aware that they could think about their beliefs this way. Because they accepted my challenge to understand first, they leave the class with a whole new set of tools to process what they believe and why. They're better people for having been stretched. For having listened.

Sacred Stretching

And all of this affects our relationship with God. Too often, I think, Christians approach the Bible or the Sunday morning sermon with exactly the same mentality. How often do we open the Bible looking for good advice, looking for a nugget of truth to carry us through our day, or looking for feelings of inspiration, pure and simple? We come to the Bible with our questions, with our felt needs. We come with our agenda. And we may not be listening.

But what of God? What is his agenda? What's he trying to say? What did a Biblical author have in mind when he was writing the text we're looking at? What was his point, what was he trying to get across? Do such questions even occur to us?

God has given us his word to increase our understanding. He does not merely offer us comfort, inspiration, and warm feelings (though these things are sometimes part of the package). Rather, the Ancient of Days beckons us to his throne so that he can teach us, stretch us, and make us new creatures. He does not intend to increase our comfort with who we are. He intends to unmake who we are, so he can remake us in the image of his Son.

The Old Book
So I think CS Lewis was right: we should read old books to expand our perspective and broaden our horizons. But as Lewis himself pointed out, this only works if we read for the author's meaning; if we view the reading of a book the same way we would view a tour through a museum, in which we go to learn and a docent instructs us in things we did not know. Authors of good old books are docents of knowledge. Let them teach you.

And perhaps we should read The Old Book with the same idea in mind. Perhaps we should avoid approaching the Bible firmly ensconced in our existing, limited point of view, determined to find something that fits who we already are. Rather, let us come to the Scripture as the storehouse of the knowledge of the Holy One, and let his Holy Spirit be the Docent of Things High and Lofty.

These things may indeed be too high for us now. But if we let him have his way we'll find that he will re-make us so thoroughly that we will be able to bear them. If only we'll open ourselves up to the adventure.

Learning to listen - to read for understanding of the author rather than just for affirmation of what I already know - is a priceless skill. When this discipline takes root in us it actually changes our character. It makes us good listeners, good friends, good people. And most important of all, it makes us good followers of Jesus Christ.

As Jesus himself said, "he who has ears, let him hear."

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