Growing up, my family attended numerous different churches within the Evangelical Christian denomination; everything from Baptist, Nazarene, and Vineyard to holy rollin’ revival worship churches. We finally settled on a “non-denominational, Bible church” in my high school years. The experience set me up well for attendance at my inter-denominational college, where I was exposed to Christian ideas outside of Evangelicalism.
I loved it. I loved the questions. I thoroughly enjoyed wrestling with my faith from other points of view, but after a while it can feel like you’re trying to walk on water. Everything is shifting, new ideas are always welling up, and you start longing for something solid to put your feet on. Something…fundamental.
Maybe it was the questions that created the schism. Maybe it was the Emergent Church movement splitting my home church apart the year we returned. Maybe it was the unraveling of the story I’d written for myself.
Whatever it was, I walked through both cancer and divorce in 2009 with only three pillars upholding my faith.
1) The Bible as the Word of God was reliable. (Not necessarily infallible, but reliable.)
2) Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected.
3) The divinity of Christ.
Andy Stanley has a good sermon series titled, “Who Needs God?”, in which he points out that the Gospel did not come from the New Testament, but rather, that the New Testament came from the experience of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even then, the Hebrew Scriptures were not added to what we now call the Bible for nearly 300 years. In other words, the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ does not hinge on the accuracy of the flood of Noah, or even the Exodus of Moses.
I almost wish that the four gospels had not been used to make a new holy writ. Then they could have stood as a simple witness to an historic event. But when we tied them into faith, as our faith goes, so goes their witness. I suppose it was inevitable, though.
Christ crucified hangs on the testimony of the Gospels, on the reliability of the Word of God. Like a prophet of the Old Testament, my faith in the Word of God relies on the outcome of what it says. Does the message hold true? Does it keep its promises? Does it give hope?
Andy does well to encourage us to build our faith on the historical accuracy of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but that historic accuracy is predicated on the reliability of the testimony of those telling the story. After all, theirs is not the only story. Other versions of history are told, other interpretations of events.
Although, it is a very small voice indeed that tries to declare the events never happened at all. And the only reason our scriptures are not treated as reliable glimpses into the past is simply because they have been preserved as scripture. This puts them in the context of other scriptures which read as myths and legends to us. Of course, talking donkeys, people swallowed by fish, and silent gods who used to speak make our own stories hard to believe, too.
How much of the Bible has to be accurate for the message to still be reliable?
In his book, Finding God in the Waves, Mike McHargue compared the scriptures to Van Gogh’s painting, “The Starry Night”. After describing it in lucid detail, and expressing the emotional impact it had, he asks, “Is it infallible?”
What a silly question to ask of a painting, no? What could we mean by such a question? Are we looking for objective truth? Are we asking if it’s true that the painting exists? That it was indeed painted by Van Gogh? That the little town surrounded by hills actually exists? That we can verify that the church lights were out?
Or are we asking about subjective truth? Does the painting truly evoke such a strong emotional response? Is the story it tells verifiable or reliable? Is there no light in the church?
I like the comparison, but the only problem is that the scriptures do indeed make an objective claim that needs to be reckoned with. Like good Bereans, we ask both objective and subjective questions about our scriptures, and that brings me back to the reliability of the Word. For me that question is less about the historical artifacts supporting the narrative and more about the fulfillment of the promises it makes.
Can I trust the Word of God to keep its promises toward me? Does it give me a reliable hope? Does it create consistent, positive change in me? Does it answer my questions about life and meaning and purpose? Does it give me light in the darkness?
If, as a “doer of the word” and not just a hearer, I can experience all these things, then I can extrapolate that Jesus was indeed the divine Son of God crucified on the cross, buried, and resurrected on the third day. I can trust the story if I can trust the promises. But even if all the historical evidence pointed to the veracity of the crucified Messiah, yet none of the promises held true in my life, then I would be compelled to either disbelieve the story or conclude that it was irrelevant.
So what happens if my experience does not line up with the message I have received? What happens when the promises I understand to be related to faith in the crucified and resurrected Messiah appear to be withheld from me and given to the unbeliever? What happens when the “other”, the one not dressed in the wedding feast garb, is given a place at the table rather than being cast out as he so justly deserves?
Even if the story is true, but all the implications prove false, what then can I trust? What am I to do? Either the story is false, or my understanding of it is. But how do I turn back to an old story for a new understanding? These old skins simply won’t hold new wine.
“How can a man be born again?” I ask the Teacher in the shadow of night. “Shall he return to his mother’s womb?”
Or is there a third way?
At what point in your own journey did you start asking questions that shook your foundation? What were those questions? What kind of experience were you looking for? What did you find?
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Buen Camino, my friends.