Is God Always in Control? (133)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss a recent session at the Sunday morning group that Gregg facilitates.

Gregg explains how this session was quite different because the adolescents joined the adults for this discussion. The history of his involvement with this group is that Gregg has been trying to engage them in re-considering their perspectives and beliefs relative to other perspectives (such as those of other denominations, atheists, etc.).

Yet Gregg has found that because the culture of this church is so strongly a “culture of trust” relative to such matters that it was very difficult last year for him to bring them to the place of viewing anything related to Christianity or Christian faith from a suspicious perspective. This is quite the opposite in most communities that Gregg is familiar with—call them “cultures of suspicion”—where people are usually all too aware of the failings of Christians and Christianity.

This year Gregg has decided to take a different approach. So he proposes to identify views held by the group that appear to contradict both the Bible and real life and present this contradiction to them. Then he aims to accept their rebuttals or disagreements and address each in turn, until either the disagreements can be shown to be invalid (and so rejected) or valid (and so incorporated).

In this case Gregg has been questioning the group’s belief that God is “in charge” or that God’s will is being done all the time. To do so, last week he raised both the Disciples’ Prayer (where the disciples are taught to pray that “God’s kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”) and the fact that events such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide occurred.

Essentially this amounts to “the problem of evil.”

Various group members disagreed with the idea that God does not cause / work with evil, citing both the first two chapters of Job and Romans 8:28. Following this session Gregg researched a number of articles on both these texts and found some very interesting and helpful material.

John wonders: How did the actual interaction work out? Gregg notes a few interesting things. First, he was surprised when respondents tended to try to use simplified or “easier” examples (such as assault instead of the Holocaust) to prove that there were edge cases in these easier examples that could be questionable, and then claim to have resolved the matter! So Gregg had to keep respondents focused on the hardest possible examples.

Second, Gregg was also surprised when a respondent was unwilling to recognize differences in wording between “God bring good despite evil” and “God uses evil to bring good.” In this person’s view there is no difference in meaning (yet Gregg wonders: how would this person respond if told that there is no difference between “no one comes to the Father except through me” and “Jesus is one path to salvation”?

Gregg believes that both of these cases are based on an impulse to console ourselves in the face of the difficulties and dangers of existence. In this case Christians ardently hold to the idea that “God is in control,” despite both biblical and experiential evidence to the contrary, because holding this belief making the unpredictability and pain of life meaningful and even sanctioned by one who is, effectively, on my side. Nor do Christians typically frame this belief in its starkest terms (such as saying that the Holocaust “had to happen” or that God “used the Rwandan genocide”).

So Gregg argues that evil or wicked treatment may create a greater, more jarring contrast when juxtaposed with a good or loving act, but it may also cause defensive detachment or other issues that do not result in “good.” Further, the world actually becomes less predictable when holding this belief: those believing that God brings good out of evil cannot be sure if any particular evil act is one that God is using for good—or indeed, if every evil act is being used for good (and so whether there is really any evil that we should dispute or resist)!

Ultimately, Gregg argues that being truthful with oneself about the reality of evil also necessitates being more truthful with oneself about who one is and what the world is really like, and this can be very difficult and painful to do.

Similarly, Gregg observes that there is a prevalent view within the group that Christians need nothing more than the Holy Spirit in order to read the Bible correctly. According to Gregg’s experience and his understanding of the Bible this is a false notion which functions to allow anyone to quote nearly anything in the Bible is support for his or her views. Instead, Christians are to see themselves as a body and need to be interreliant, leaning on other parts of the body that are more trained or suited to particular tasks. So the idea that any given Christian will ever be able to understand the Bible as well as Gordon Fee or N. T. Wright is simply bogus.

Questioning Beliefs and Trust (132)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss two different cultures, those who find Christianity and Christian beliefs to be suspect and those who are not questioning or believing that anything is wrong with their beliefs. They then focus on how to work with the latter group.

Gregg explains that indeed he is experiencing culture shock now that he is working with a group of people who largely believe that “the church” is okay and that what we are getting from the church is generally reliable. This is in contrast to engaging with the majority of people at L’Abri, where a culture of suspicion, about Christianity and the church, is dominant. In Gregg’s view a culture of suspicion arises out of people experiencing Christianity in a way that does not work and that may be damaging or hurtful.

The question of how to promote a lecture series about Christianity within a culture of trust has arisen between John and Gregg.

John favours emphasizing the benefits to be gained (such as better interactions with the world around us, with God, with oneself and with others) while Gregg favours emphasizing the issues that need to be overcome. Gregg initially thought that his emphasis was due to his past academic training of presenting an issue and offering a solution.

Instead, Gregg notes that based on his observation the reason that there is low turnout to his Sunday morning discussions is that for most of these people who in a culture of trust their lives take place in the realm of “good.” On the one hand, there is very little impetus for people who seem to see their lives at 7/10 to put in time and trust in something unknown in order to move to 8/10.

On the other hand, however, Gregg suggests that this culture of trust and this environment of “good” offers a distorted picture of their reality. Specifically, the true picture is that we—all of us, Christians included—are self-deceived (we have only to read the biblical prophets for this to be confirmed). Yet there is no practical understanding, or certainly no application of counter-practices, within this church as a manner of revealing and defeating the sinful practices that self-deception fosters.

Yet John wonders: can this sort of thing be marketed at all? For unless someone can see the issue and wants to change, won’t they just continue with the status quo? Gregg replies that while this may be the case in many areas of life, but in Christianity there is the built-in understanding that nearly all Christians accept, which is the idea of sin and sinfulness. Yet when put into practice in the church this understanding falls far short of the biblical description!

So Gregg’s aim: in a culture of trust to breed suspicion, in a culture of suspicion to foster trust. In other words, the tension between suspicion and trust must be kept sufficiently balanced in order to allow it to function properly. So Gregg argues for the need a) to identify one’s immediate reflex and to think about what it would mean to reverse it, and b) to love our neighbours by valuing their ideas and texts as much as our own.

Street Preacher Experience (131)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss a meeting that Gregg had with a street preacher.

Gregg explained that he has never spoken to a Street Preacher before but had his curiosity piqued and so began a conversation.

After recounting his encounter with the Street Preacher, Gregg goes on to explain that he had always assumed that people who preached on street corners had something not quite right about them.

But the more he thought about the situation, the more he came to wonder if instead of being in some way aberrant the Street Preacher may actually represent a distillation of most Evangelical Christian orientations!

In other words, Gregg wonders if the Street Preacher was not and in fact an idealized version of what he typically encounters in Evangelical churches. For example, he had his own way of reading the Bible and that was “the right way;” he maintains control of the conversation; his approach to the conversation is not to have a dialogue but to be completely persuasive.

So instead of taking what he learned at church and twisting it, Gregg wonders if the Street Preacher has not taken what he learned at church and refined it. In other words he’s got “to the heart of it.”

You Guys are Too Picky (130)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss a quotation by Yogi Bhajan, submitted by an Untangling Christianity listener.

John sees the discussion about Gregg’s response to the Yogi Bhajan quotation as an extension of their conversation about Christian Praise music (in episode #128, “Let them have their music”). John’s concern here is similar to his concern in episode #128: How do we know if / when we are being too picky with our criticisms?

John explains how, in the UC Facebook group, the listener who posted the Yogi Bhajan quotation concluded that she was approaching such quotations in a very different way from Gregg.

John explains this difference using the analogy of buying bananas at the grocery store. In essence, we rarely find the “perfect” banana. So John sees UC listeners as “bringing bananas” to the group (i.e., bringing their valuable ideas, quotations, etc.) and yet Gregg typically sees “too many bruises” on the bananas (i.e., listener ideas are often criticized and perhaps rejected).
Continue reading

I am a Christian (129)

In this episode John and Gregg discuss a poem from an anonymous newspaper clipping titled “I am a Christian.” Gregg received the poem on Facebook as, perhaps, a way of defining what a Christian is.

In Gregg’s view a Christian can be defined in two ways: a) as someone who claims to be a follower of Christ; or b) as someone whom God sees as being a follower of Christ. However both of these definitions has its failings: the first is extremely loose; the second is essentially inaccessible.

John notes that the philosophy behind the Co-active coaching model he is studying maintains that people are “creative, resourceful, and whole.”  John understood the notion of “wholeness” to be somewhat aspiration and mentioned this to an instructor in passing. They demurred. The instructor’s perspective is that all people are whole and it is only because of the negative messages they have embodied that have made them less than whole, however at their core, they are whole.  And so of coaching process can be a way to rediscover and return to that original “wholeness.”
Continue reading