Bogus Commandments (140)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss an article from the Fall 2016 Biola University Magazine entitled, “Young People are Indeed leaving the Church.”

John summarizes the article as stating that the reason why young people are leaving the church is because they have “doubts,” and if these doubts can be sufficiently addressed then young people–essentially millenials–will have better relationships with God (and essentially will stay in church).

The article argues that Christian apologetics is the answer to the lack of church participation among millenials, yet John finds this line of reasoning questionable on several levels. First, the importance of Christian apologetics appears to be exaggerated by the way that the article presents it as a “command”:

These three findings highlight the wisdom of the Apostle Peter when he commanded followers of Christ to ‘be prepared always to give an answer’ (1 Pet. 3:15). The findings also make a strong case for the critical importance of apologetics for the church in the current generation. Doubts are everywhere. Almost all of us have them. And when not properly addressed, they can be spiritually disastrous. By contrast, faithfully answering questions and providing strong evidence for the truth of the Christian faith can have dramatic positive effects on the spiritual lives of others, especially our young people.

From this John wonders, “What does it mean for something to be ‘commanded’?” Does it mean that one must do this thing or be sinning (and so not “following God”)?  He also wonders how this ‘command’ to “always be prepared to give an answer” stacks up against other “commands,” such as the command to love God, one’s neighbor, or the ten commandments in the Hebrew Bible?

Second, Gregg raises the point that John himself has also raised before: that John’s own issues with Christianity were not purely intellectual but are also—and maybe more so—experiential, in the sense that Christianity does not seem “to reconcile with” John’s lived experience. So while some people may only have intellectual needs, the experiential needs are also valid.  Gregg thinks similarly: an intellectual, apologetic response seems misguided because ‘better’ information is not the sole, and likely not the the primary, determining factor in overcoming obstacles to Christian belief appear viable.

Returning to the question of whether 1 Peter 3:15 represents a “command” to Christians, Gregg notes the significance in terms of communication between the recipients of the New Testament and those of the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, Christians are exhorted to communicate “to the entire world” the good news relative to the kingship of Jesus (and thus the opening of God’s kingdom to all people), whereas the role of Israel as a nation was to be “God’s people.”

So Gregg notes that the unqualified nature of the “greatest” and the “next greatest” commandment—imperatives that remain the same regardless of context—is entirely different from the very specific context of 1 Peter 3. Gregg agrees that being “always prepared to give an answer” may indeed be a very important orientation for Christians in contexts other than that of suffering by experiencing persecution (which is the context of 1 Peter 3), but this does not represent a “command.”

Rather, commandments are unqualified and so they can legitimately be multi-contextual—they don’t sit within a specific context but have universal application.

In reading through 1 Peter 3, Gregg notes Peter’s orientation is towards how Christians are to speak and act in the context of being persecuted, and that in light of acting in ways that are contrary to cultural expectations (for those under persecution) they must always be ready to offer an explanation for their baffling behaviour! In other words, this passage has nothing to do with addressing doubts of non-Christians but with explaining loving, joyful behaviour of Christians in the face of events that would call for the very opposite behaviour!

So Gregg also sees this interpretation as related to point #2: Christians are to be “always prepared to offer a reason” for why they act differently—for the source of their hope, faith, and love—and especially when their current context would seem to preclude having hope, faith, or love. Thus these “reasons” themselves take the form of experientially informed and experientially targeted reasons–they both come from experience and address experience!

John raises a challenge to Gregg of working through a book of the Bible on the podcast. John also wonders how, if Gregg is graduate-trained in theology / Christianity, why he isn’t willing to commit to an interpretation of a biblical verse without first qualifying his credentials and consulting a commentary; where does this leave those people who have no real background in theology or exegesis? Do we all have to be as learned as biblical exegetes in order to feel confident in reading our Bibles?

Also, where the article raises the notion of “doubts” as purely negative, Gregg views them as essential to healthy faith. Further, a doubt about one thing actually represents confidence in something else. In other words, doubts are only one side of the coin: the notion that people are doubting Christianity has its corollary in the fact that these some people are finding more truth elsewhere!

Failing to understand this necessary dynamic (and so understand and engage with these other, seemingly more truthful claims) means that any proposed solution will necessarily miss the mark.

John returns to the notion of biblical truth claims and biblical truth values in terms of 1 Peter and wonders: how would he understand this book? Gregg suggests several steps. First, take a section 10 verses before and 10 verses after the verse under discussion and read this section 5 times, over several days. Let it sink in. Next, pretend this section of text is a painting and try to image what is being portrayed upon the canvas. Note what flows well and what seems disjointed or dissonant in the section. If you find dissonance, ask yourself: What would this section have to mean in order for passage to read or flow smoothly—in order for there to be no dissonance?

So Gregg notes that proof-texting has the effect of highlighting verses, rather than assuming that the biblical text is written competently and “flows.” Thus, hold the assumption that verse is clear and has good flow, and then ask: What would be needed for this to be the case?

Ultimately Gregg thinks that when Christians read the Bible in this way they are seeing entire section of the text as “carriers” for specific verses that these same Christian readers are quite likely simply to “commandify” the highlighted verse in order to validate their own views (or responses) about that verse. Thus Gregg sees the solutions proposed in the article as being an outworking of this method of Bible reading: it is essentially “leading the witness.”  Stated otherwise, the article’s authors seem to have a preferred “solution” and then are forming or interpreting the data in order to support that solution.

Do Core Values Mix with Christianity? (139)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss what “core values” are and how they apply to Christianity.

Gregg explains that he created a questionnaire for his church group when he understood that several participants were having a very hard time engaging with the material on self-deceit. One of those questions was: “What is satisfying to you about your Christian life (in other words, what value is your Christian life to you in your day-to-day life)?”

Gregg’s spouse, Susan, offered that Christianity is satisfying to her because it aligns with her core values. From Gregg’s perspective this answer was very different in the sense that the other responses were more oriented to answering “What makes you feel good about being a Christian?” Yet this essentially were all oriented toward how they were able to help others (rather than being satisfying to themselves).

John notes that clarity about one’s core values is both helpful for self-understanding and allows us to have a better sense of our priorities (in how we live out our various core values), such that when one lives in alignment with one’s core values life is, generally speaking, noticeably better. John sees this as “being in alignment with the best version of oneself.”

By contrast, John questions how some versions of Christianity try to impose a standard set of core values or beliefs, such that this set should be a Christian’s core values and so questions this.  John also explains how common conflicts occur between people when they prioritize their values differently.

So John wonders if our core values must be “prescribed” from the Bible or if are they essential parts of who we are.

Gregg agrees that core values are innate and yet believes that human values are often in need of guidance or correction. For example, Gregg identifies love and truth / truth and love as his core values and so excludes values that would ignore or undermine either of these. Also, inherent to the notion of core values is how accurately one sees oneself and how competent a “reader” one is of one’s own life, actions, dispositions, etc.

John is concerned about the idea of approaching the Bible as a “blank slate” in order to receive biblical values because of the belief that we can’t do it well ourselves. Gregg views this as a very philosophically modernist perspective: the idea of trying to obtain a neutral, position-from-nowhere in order best to understand something. Gregg thinks that the closest example of this in Christianity are cases where people are essentially “born into” the Christian faith.

Yet Gregg also believes that we “come with” certain core values because of our background and experiences, not just our personality. Gregg sees the case for the Bible having input into our values by virtue of portraying humans as being certain types of beings, portraying God as being a certain types of beings, and to portray better (and even ideal) ways of relating between the two.

So the Bible writers describe humans as having certain needs and having certain tendencies, and some of these tendencies are not helpful (as not promoting human flourishing). So from Gregg’s perspective love and truth / truth and love are the quintessential elements of right relationality between humans and God. Further, in Gregg’s view human beings need proper relationship with God because this relationship allows us to be “most” ourselves or our “fullest” self, and to be in a mode of being that approximates “abundant living.” Yet each person also has their own “flourish” or “take” on this. So while Christians are to be Christ-like in character but fully themselves in personality.

So where John emphasizes the importance of our core values “helping us to live effectively” Gregg agrees, though he notes that his findings—both through his experience and through his study of the biblical texts—is that love and truth and what most help him to live “best.” As a result Gregg’s approach is to ask, how well does this particular orientation, value, etc. allow me to promote (and indeed, to maximize) truth and love / love and truth?

This is because Gregg sees “love and truth” as what a) maximizes our possibilities of living rightly in the world (and so we most value ourselves), and b) allows for the greatest possibilities of the greatest good (such as happiness, etc.) and c) is the basis for—and result of—right relationship with God.

John and Gregg finish by discussing the tension between truth/Truth and “truth-for-me.”

Three questions from Gregg’s questionnaire:

1) What are “core values”? List 1-3 of your own core values. What makes these particular values “core” for you?

2) Should Christians determine their core values from the Bible or establish them based on their life experience? How would you go about formulating an answer to this question?

3) How would one go about either determining biblical core values or establishing personal core values? Name one or two ways that your upbringing / background informs your answer.

Recognizing Our Own Deceit (138)

In this episode John and Gregg talk further about Gregg’s Sunday morning “Discussion Group.”

John wonders: How is the “back and forth” within the group affecting Gregg? Gregg notes that he is learning to pay attention to how some participants habitually “detract” from or even contradict his perspectives without actually engaging with the material, and to plan in advance for these types of responses.

Gregg also explains how, in past, he saw the church as a culture of trust (relative to Christianity / Christian beliefs) where he is more accustomed to working in cultures that are suspicious of Christianity / Christian beliefs.

Now he is coming to understand this church as also being a culture of naïveté and credulity (where “credulity” is an over-readiness to believe something or a willingness to believe on insufficient evidence and “naïveté” is the view that something is relatively free from complexity, and so is easy to understand and manage. The opposite is a culture of “sophistication,” where people are aware of the complexities inherent to their beliefs, and inherent when these beliefs interface with the other areas of their lives.

Gregg further notes that other participants seem uniformed about some basic aspects of their faith.  So Gregg is seeing a) the need to educate people on certain matters and b) how much his desire for dialogue makes his uncomfortable when he is forced to “push back hard” against those who are impose their views on the group without engaging with the discussion.

John returns to the topic of self-deceit, the focus of the Discussion Group, and wonders: How is self-deceit identified? In Gregg’s opinion self-deceit is not actually visible: we only see it through the “traces” it leaves. Further, self-deceit is not about disagreeing (with someone or something) but is failing to recognize something that is right in front of us for what it is. Specifically, we fail to recognize because we are aware, at whatever level, that the implications of recognizing would be frightening, threatening, or painful

John again wonders: How easily can self-deceit be taken to an extreme, such as a “radical distrust” based on our sinfulness. The exception John sees to this radical distrust is Bible-reading, which for many Christians plays out like Gregg’s “Magical Jesus.”

Gregg agrees that a gross excess of suspicion—and lack of trust—can be paralyzing, but in Gregg’s view unless Christians are aware of the fact that they can read the Bible in instrumental, self-serving ways, then this is not truly an awareness of self-deceit but of human incapability. Instead, evangelical Christians misplaces suspicion, which is the best tool for uncovering self-deceit, on “sins” that we are aware of and, by so doing, actually domesticates the very idea of sin!

So if Christians have problems with their Bible readings then it is not simply because they are lazy of lack “biblical literacy” but that, because people are “wired” toward self-deceit, it should be unsurprising that Christians read their Bibles in ways that validate the very practices that we claim to disavow (and we hide the truth of the matter from ourselves).

And as Gregg notes, the shocking thing is that people outside of the church can see this, even though the Christians within the church can’t! This is particularly the case where bible-readings driven by self-deceit become a normative practice within a church or, even, a standards of faithfulness.

John wonders: How does self-deceit occur for Gregg? Gregg finds a number of examples in his family life, such as when Gregg claims he can’t do something because he’s “too busy” when really it’s because he thinks that he’s too important. In Gregg’s view the best way to combat self-deceit is to become self-aware and to understand our propensity to be self-centered and self-serving.

For example, Gregg advocates counseling (though not “biblical counseling,” which he does not believe is a valid or helpful means of self-assessment), courses in anger management or communication, travel (and particularly living in a foreign culture), take inventories of one’s belief (why do I believe, what do I value about my beliefs, how do I know that my Bible-reading is incorrect, etc.). Lastly seek “neighboring perspectives,” such as seeking advice from practitioners of other denominations or even faiths. Gregg identifies all of these as de-centering practices.

Gregg highlights three areas in which we are more likely to be self-deceptive: when dealing with fears, with problems, or with enemies. So we wish to comforted in our fears, I want my life to convenient for me, and I want my adversaries accused and brought to justice (without facing justice myself).

Choose Your Own Adventure? (137)

In this episode John and Gregg return to the topic of Gregg’s Sunday morning discussion group.

Gregg explains that last week, instead of pursuing the course of study (on self-deceit), he presented the group with 10-question Questionnaire to help them assess their expectations, energy and commitment level to the discussion group. Could it be that this study is not for everyone?

John finds Gregg’s approach surprising because, as John notes, at church, it’s “all for you” in the sense that people are accustomed to “everything being applicable for everyone all the time.” In other words, there would never be the idea that a Bible study would not be useful or appropriate for all?

However, Gregg explains that he framed the matter differently to the participants: he presented self-deceit as a “crucial” area of study such that, whether one is able or willing to study it right now, no Christian can be mature without becoming understanding how one deceives oneself (and becoming skilled at implementing counter-practices that reveal and diffuse self-deceit).

From Gregg’s perspective the participants seem divided into two groups. First, those participants that seem positively or neutrally disposed to the material seem to be looking to him to “provide the truth” rather than to “help them understand what truth is, find it, and apply it.” Second, those participants who are ill-disposed to the material seem not so much questioning or even disagreeing but offering “counter-discourses.” These counter-discourses act to “correct” Gregg’s “errors” but do so without these participants seeming to have even engaged with the material enough to understand it correctly.

Most worrying of these counter-discourses is the claim that Christians cannot know God’s will. When John believes that this viewpoint reflects Kyle Idleman’s “fire insurance” view (i.e., that Christianity is really about whether one goes to heaven or to hell). Gregg demurs: if one cannot know anything about God’s will then how can one know that one won’t “go to hell” in the end?

Gregg categorizes this view actually as a deviously crafted lie. This is because, on the one hand, it allows the holder to feel “safe” (by believing, contrary to their claim that God’s will is unknowable, that they are safe from hell), yet on the other hand it allows the holder also not to have to act against the bad things that happen in our world because–who knows?—God could be using any seemingly terrible / evil event for good (and so we do not have to commit ourselves against any such activity or even worry about it). Thus it removes from the Christian any sense of responsibility for—because s/he can have no understanding of—the world around us and those that live in it.

Further, Gregg believes that instead of being frustrated with these counter-discourse many participants are instead confused, because they too have not understood (or have not carefully considered) the discussion matter to this point.

John raises the point that if most Christians have been trained to listen to / accept what people tell them about Christianity rather than thinking about these matters (and deciding what they think about them) for themselves, then it would not be surprising to be confused. So by trying to encourage people to think and reflect on these matters—rather than simply “telling them what the answers are”—maybe Gregg makes no sense to the participants!

Gregg agrees. He notes that his aim throughout this course of study has been both to promote and to call into question the degree of “ownership” that the participants in this study have relative to their faith. Further, Gregg is not surprised that some folks hold their views (and even create counter-discourses) without engaging with Gregg’s ideas, but instead is surprised with how firmly embedded these needs are such that, when faced with significant reason to doubt the merits of holding such views (and creating such counter-discourses), they still hold their ground.

John also wonders: What has Gregg learned and what would he do differently?  Gregg notes first the value of creating the proper format (including, for instance, the content and timing of the Questionnaire).  Second, there is the need to address not only the issues raised but the tactics used (such as presenting “counter-discourses” at the end of a session), and understand that these likely result where the cost of taking this material seriously is very high, because it threatens views that function to console people, protect them, or make their lives comfortable.

Third, it is important to note that ignorance about various Christian beliefs is widespread. For example, the idea that someone can be a Christian for many years and yet claim not to know what God’s will is, in addition to being a rather devious lie, may also be related to confusing the idea of “knowing God’s will” with the idea of knowing God’s mind / what God may be “thinking.”

Identifying Self Deceit (136)

In this episode John and Gregg continue to consider Gregg’s Sunday morning discussion group.

John begins by returning to his uncertainty about Gregg’s contention that the beginning of the “Disciple’s Prayer” in Matthew 6: 9-13 (“Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. . .”) is a clear indication that God’s will is not being done on earth in the same way that it is being done in heaven.

Gregg replies that his view is that, for Christians, if one believes that one sins then this obviously shows that God’s will is not being done all the time… because it is not being done in my own life! So it follows, Gregg reasons, that Matthew 7:9-10 should be taken to mean what it ostensibly indicates, and not the opposite (which one participant adamantly asserted).

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