Here’s Sunday’s sermon from our deconstruction series . . .
Deconstructing Theology #3
Alum Creek – Jan. 17, 2010 – Alum Creek
The Grain of Salt: Learning to Ask Questions
Every once in awhile, a line is uttered in a movie that jumps off the silver screen and is forever etched in the psyche of popular culture. Often times one or two lines of dialogue from a movie forever represent an entire film. Before we get into the lesson this morning, I want to hear from you some of the greatest movie lines of all times. Some of my favorite:
· “I see dead people.” – The Sixth Sense
· “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” – Dirty Dancing
· “I feel the need, the need for speed.” – Top Gun
Who remembers this line? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
That line, obviously, comes from the Wizard of Oz, one of the many famous quotes from this movie. As we move into our third lesson in our series on deconstructing theology, this scene becomes a very good starting point for our discussion. We began two weeks ago by asking some questions about the way we think. We acknowledged that our knowledge, our perspective, is circumstantial. There’s not getting around that. We think the way we think because our environment, our training, our personality, our tradition, our teachers, and an infinite number of other things affect what we know in addition to affecting the way we know what we know. In acknowledging this reality we came face to face with the fact that we could be wrong – about a lot of really important things, and thus, should always ask the question, “What if we are wrong?”
We looked to Paul and saw that his call for transformation of the mind in Romans 12 was really a call to acknowledge that we have been wrong. Paul states that transformation happens by the renewing of your minds . . . and the renewing of your mind is an ongoing process of stating, “Well, I’m wrong about this,” and then subsequent growth from righting the wrong.
Last Sunday we pressed on further by calling for some cognitive humility – confessing to others that we don’t have all the answers. We saw that Job was completely undone by not just the undoing of his life, but by the undoing of his mind. What happened to Job didn’t fit in his box – his understanding of things, of God. We will never be able to grow until we are readily able to admit, “I don’t know.”
But . . . is that allowed? Aren’t some things just given? Aren’t some areas just the way they are because they are?
David Dark begins his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by telling the story of a small tight-knit community. The community is close and they watch each other and take care of each other. Anyone visiting from the outside would quickly notice their blatant and constant affinity to “Uncle Ben.” It was very common to hear members of the community say, “Isn’t Uncle Ben awesome?” Even in tragedy, the locals acknowledge, “It just goes to show you how much we need Uncle Ben.”
At the beginning of each week there’s a meeting at the largest house in the town where the people get together and talk about the events of the community and each family. They talk about Uncle Ben until a bell rings and all the people get up from their seats and moves to a staircase that goes to the basement. The entire community descends the staircase where they see an enormous, rumbling furnace. There is a man in black overalls with his back to them. They wait in silence until the man turns around.
He turns and his face is slightly contorted with anger and he yells at the people, “Am I good?”
They respond to him in unison, “Yes, Uncle Ben, you are good.”
“Am I worthy of praise?”
“You alone are worthy of his praise.”
“Do you love me more than anything?”
“We love you and you alone, Uncle Ben.”
“You better love me, or I’m going to put you . . . in here” – he opens the furnace door to reveal a gaping darkness – “forever.”
Out of the darkness can be heard sounds of anguish and lament. Then he closes the furnace door and turns his back to them. They sit in silence.
Finally, feeling reasonably assured that Uncle Ben has finished saying what he has to say, they leave. They live their lives as best they can. They try to think and speak truthfully and do well by one another. They resume their talk of the wonders of Uncle Ben’s love in anticipation of the next week’s meeting.”
The Uncle Ben in this story shares a striking resemblance to the God that so many have directed their worship. They live their lives the best they can. They do good to others. They acknowledge their shortcomings. They pray, read their Bibles, and attend church services. And all along the way . . . they are completely paralyzed by fear. The God that they serve is Uncle Ben . . . the who threatens fire and damnation to the one who looks behind the curtain . . .
If your image of God resonates with the Uncle Ben portrait there is no place for questioning. Fear stymies questions. It extinguishes all hope of growth. It does not allow for transformation. It forces us to walk on eggshells hoping not to get anything wrong. It creates an environment of insecurity and unease – far from the peace that God promises His people.
There’s a great parable in another movie that I want to show you, it’s a very brief clip from the movie Bridge to Terabithia. The movie tells the story of two 10-year-olds, Jess and Leslie, who find a magical land in woods surrounding the homes. One day as their play date was rained out, Jess bemoaned the fact that he wouldn’t be able to return soon since he had to do chores the next day, and the following day was Sunday and he would have to go to church. Leslie asks to come along to church, but Jess is sure she won’t like it – after all, she’ll have to wear a dress. Listen to this amazing exchange the two of them have (with Jess’ little sister) on the way home from church.
[Play Bridge to Terabithia clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swcEExbjVMQ).]
“You have to believe it, and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” What an incredible quote! If you have an Uncle Ben picture of who God is, then you have to believe. You can’t take a chance. It must have been what the philosopher Blaise Pascal had in mind when thought through what is now known as Pascal’s wager. Basically, he asserted that the existence of God cannot be determined, but if there is a God and he can condemn you to hell forever, it’s better safe than sorry. If you work your whole life believing there is a God and turns out there’s not, you’re not out nearly as much if the opposite proves to be true.
At this point I have to ask you the question, “Is this the God of Scripture?” Does the Bible portray a God who demands dogmatic precision and theological perfection? Is He the kind of God who will zap you if you miss too many answers on the final exam? Is our God really a “better safe than sorry” God? Is there really no room for error? Does it really have to be either/or when eternal torment is at stake?
Obviously, if our God is like that of Uncle Ben in the story we just read, the answers are always going to have to be pretty straightforward. But . . . what if God isn’t like that? What are the implications of a God who is different than Uncle Ben?
The Bible is full of stories of men and women who were forced to ask some very difficult questions . . . questions that called into question all that they have ever believed. This morning, quickly, I want us to consider two especially relevant stories from the Book of Acts.
As chapter 7 comes to a conclusions in the Book of Acts, we are told that, as Stephen was lying dead on the ground at the hands of Jewish leaders who had stoned him, a man named Saul stood giving his approval. Saul was an up-and-coming Jewish leader who was working his best to eradicate a Jewish sect of false teachers who were followers of a man named Jesus. He knew all the answers to religious questions. He had been trained in theology. He knew who God was. He knew who he was.
Then . . . Acts 9: 1 – 9.
What do you think those three days were like? What do you think he was thinking about? I bet a lot of the same questions we’ve been asking: What if I’m wrong? How could I have been so wrong?
The story of Saul is one we have grown up hearing. We talk about it all the time to the point where it nearly becomes dull to us. But we must not allow that to happen to us. Listen to the story. Saul is standing there watching some of his friends throw stones at a man who is tied up so that he wouldn’t run away. And they threw stones until he died. He watched every gory detail. And then he and his friends went back to the place where they were staying and had dinner and joked and went on their merry way.
And then . . . in just the matter of weeks, days, this same man is out promoting the very Gospel that he had been out to kill with force. He had been completely and totally wrong. Now, he was left with the ominous task of convincing others in the Christian movement that he wasn’t attempting to simply infiltrate the group and turn on them all.
And if the story of Paul doesn’t make the point well enough, another chapter over and we learn of the great Apostle Peter and his strange vision.
Read Acts 10: 9 – 23.
Something major was about to change for Peter as well. He knew that the Jews were the exclusive people of God. This was still their understanding after Christ was resurrected. The Christian movement was a Jewish one. Peter knew this. They all knew it. But now the vision . . . Cornelius . . . read verses 34 – 38.
And then what happens . . . challenges you a bit, too, doesn’t it? Read verses 44 – 48. This is a problem for those of us who have grown up in the Churches of Christ. We all know that the Holy Spirit comes on us at baptism – as it does to those who are baptized on Pentecost in Acts 2: 38 and at other places in Acts. But here, this is not what happens. They receive the Holy Spirit . . . then they are baptized.
But this is another time, a unique time, with the apostles and all that you may wish to argue . . . and maybe so, but in moving away from the Uncle Ben image of God . . . it becomes less important to argue the case for the proper practice of baptism and defining who is in and who is out and more important to simply revel in the glory of God’s goodness revealed to us. To rejoice in all that God has done and is doing.
Last week we spoke of the difference between putting up fences to bound our practices and define the boundaries of our pastures versus digging a deep well for all to come and drink from, knowing that no one will venture too far away from the spring and well of life. With fences up all around the property, some questions are off limits. In that kind of atmosphere, there are some things you just can’t ask. They are too threatening to the man behind the curtain. But with the God of Scripture, no questions are off limit. Yahweh is no deceiver hiding behind some great production. “Come and seek me,” he asks us, “I have nothing to hide.”
Paul was forced to ask incredibly penetrating questions. “How could I have been so wrong?” Peter is left with the far-reaching implications of his visions, “This changes everything!” And both men leave their ‘Aha’ moment changed forever. Forever. There was no going back. It’s as if the boundaries that they were so focused on maintaining kept them from standing back and seeing that outside of the boundaries were acres and acres of more property in the fold of God, but they couldn’t see them because their attention was so myopic.
What are we afraid of? When changes come? When new beliefs take hold? When new ideas prevail? What are we afraid of? If, indeed, Uncle Ben is our God, there is much to fear. But if our God is too complex to box in, if He’s too diverse to be defined, if He’s too deep to fathom, then we are left with nothing but questions. David Dark’s words are helpful again here:
God is not made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys. Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence. God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off from the complexity of the world we’re in . . .
Leaning on our own understanding of God in this way is idolatry, an inappropriate and unfaithful dependence on our pictures, concepts, and broken ideas that can’t hold life-giving water. Nothing we claim to know or have hold of or pretend to believe as children or as adults places us on the winning side of God’s affections . . . Standing firm in our beliefs will often take precedence over seeing what’s in front of us.
If we never ask questions, we allow ourselves to stand before the great Wizard of Oz and never realize that the one we’ve cast as God is nothing more than a fraud. Our questions force us to delve deeper. Our questions tell us that we don’t have to be afraid any more. God isn’t afraid of our questions. God likes our questions. God wants our questions.
Read Psalm 100. God is not the God Jonathan Edwards describes having us dangling like spiders above the pit of hell held in place by a “slender thread” ready to knock us in for every doctrinal ineptitude.
The psalmist rescues us from such a God. Our God is to be worshipped with gladness. Our God is a god that can be known. Our God is one who is worthy of praise and adoration. And our God is a God who welcomes our questions.