Archives For Mission

On December 22, 2015

Cave God: The Gossip of the Gods

Cave God

I grew up not really celebrating Christmas.

I loved the Church I grew up in, but truth be told, we did more than just not celebrate Christmas, we attacked it! One Sunday, the preacher at the church told my visiting 9 year old niece that there was no Santa Clause…during his sermon!

And you haven’t lived until you’ve had to sit through that kind of awkwardness.

It wasn’t just my little church that resisted celebrating Christmas. At the church I preach at today, only 50 years ago the preacher from Highland wrote an article arguing that Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. He said, and I quote, “We shouldn’t try to put Christ back into Christmas, because it is impossible to put Christ back into something He was never in in the first place.”

IMG_4858This probably sounds odd to most of you, a Church not believing in Christmas, but I understood it then, and I understand it now.

Here’s why we used to think that, and here’s why I changed my mind.

A Very Pagan Christmas

Did you know that in ancient Babylon, there was a feast for the son of Isis (the goddess of nature) that was celebrated on December 25th. They would give gifts and throw a party for the entire nation. Did you know that in ancient Rome, they celebrated Saturnalia, honoring Saturn (the god of agriculture). During this season, a group of entertainers would go from house to house singing festive songs (I assume they too demanded foggy pudding).

Did you know that the pagans of northern Europe celebrated the birth of the sun god Mithras? They celebrated it on December 25th, the winter solstice, which they called Yule. Yule means wheel, and that’s the symbol they had for the sun. These pagans had a huge festival celebrating the rebirth of the Sun because they knew that December 25th was the day of the year when the days started getting longer again.

For these people, Mistletoe was a sacred plant, and kissing under the mistletoe began here as a fertility ritual. As someone who was born in September I”m grateful for this tradition (and creeped out if I think too much about it). It was during these celebrations in the Winters of pagan Europe that people began to bring evergreen trees into their homes as a reminder to each family that the crops would soon grow again. These people developed the custom of lighting candles to encourage the sun god to be reborn.

Does any of that sound familiar?

A few years ago, I read one of my favorite books of all times. It was written by G.K. Chesterton 100 years ago to a largely post-Christian England.

Chesterton was writing in a time when anthropologist had discovered the pagan roots of Christian practices, and all of Europe was shocked to hear that most of their parties were older than Jesus.

Chesterton was writing just a few decades after Evolution had become popularized, and people had started to connect their ideas about evolution to religion.  Suddenly, people started thinking that Christianity was really just an evolved version of pagan faiths, nothing more than a re-purposed ancient myth that’s no more plausible than worshipping Mithras or Saturn.

Does that sound familiar?

But in this great book, Chesterton points out that we don’t understand ancient pagan religions because our world has been so changed by Jesus.

Both Chesterton and C.S. Lewis point out that Judaism has always been different than Pagan religions in a couple of ways. The most obvious one is that Judaism has always been fiercely mono-theistic, but the most interesting one is that Judaism was always so historical.

Think about it, in the Jewish story God doesn’t so much give them a bunch of myths, he gives them a history, with details about land and Kings and prophets and so, so many genealogies.

Scholars of ancient literature have pointed out that Jews don’t have the great myths of ancient religions, their Scriptures read differently than stories about Zeus or Prometheus. They lack the prose, even the miracles are mundane, they lack the over-the-top imagery of a Greek Pantheon. To put it bluntly, Judaism in comparison to Pagan religions was kind of boring.

Because Jews were doing something entirely different than any other ancient religion.

So what were the ancient religions trying to do?

Great question, I’m glad I asked it.

When Fact Meets Myth

Have you ever had your life changed by a book or movie, even though you knew it was fiction? Have you ever found your heart swelling by a story that was entirely made up? Judging from the half a Billion dollars the new Star Wars movie took in during it’s premier weekend, it seems most of the world still knows what it means to be captivated by an imaginary story.

Picture of Star Wars Premiers from

Picture of Star Wars Premiers from

That’s the power of a well-told myth.

People who have studied the power of stories, have pointed out that every story/myth that has stood the test of time, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Homer’s Odyssey all share a same basic storyline, and that this story line was the basis of almost every ancient religion.

So Chesterton points out that the ancient religions were not stupid people who believed stupid things.  They were not saying that this is how things are, they were saying “Why can’t these things be?”

Ancient religions were about the universal hope that people have always had for things like redemption and wonder and reconciliation and sacrifice. They were about the deep hope we have for our lives to matter and for the world to have meaning.

Here’s how Chesterton says it:

Some myths are very crude and queer like the early drawings of children; but the child is trying to draw. It is none the less an error to treat his drawing as if it were a diagram, or intended to be a diagram. The student cannot make a scientific statement about the savage, because the savage is not making a scientific statement about the world. He is saying something quite different; what might be called the gossip of the gods.

The ancients didn’t believe their ancient religions in any way that is familiar to people who grew up with Christianity because Christianity is different in this one way.We believe these things really happened in actual history.

Jesus didn’t just leave home and travel to a far county, he was born under Ceasar Augustus, and sentenced to die by Pontius Pilate.

His life is the myth become fact, His was the body that God inhabited. He was the God become man, the King become carpenter. Jesus was and is, the dream, the echo of eternity that’s haunted humans since the very beginning, and who steps into the calendar, around 4 A.D

And that brings me back to our pagan Christmas.

Do you know why you celebrate Christmas with pagan traditions? Because whenever the earliest missionaries went to new lands to tell people the story of Jesus, contrary to popular opinion, these early missionaries didn’t just tell them about Jesus, they also listened to what they already believed.

And when they heard about their pagan religions and the deepest hopes that they had, these early Christian missionaries discovered that they weren’t just bringing God to different parts of the world. God was already there working, they were just telling people His name.

And so it was in 350 A.D. Pope Julius declared that Jesus’s birth would be celebrated on December 25th, because Jesus was the true Sun, who really did die and really was reborn. Jesus was the true God of the universe, the real thing of whom all the pagan gods were only shadows.

He was the rumor of Heaven, Jesus is the Gossip of the Gods.

Merry Christmas

Why has Christian language been co-opted by corporate America? Partly because the church doesn’t know what to do with her own stuff. We can’t figure out who to use it in this new world…We’ve lost the ability to teach old dogmas new tricks. -Leonard Sweet

Translation Picture

So for the past few months, I’ve been writing about Translation, and the reason that it’s so important for churches and Christians to translate the Gospel into the context and time that we are actually living in.

But now, I’d like to start turning this series by pointing out that translation has it’s limitations. Specifically, there is a sense in which we can over-translate.

In one of his books, Leonard Sweet talks about one of the first times he went to a Starbucks. He tried to order a regular cup of coffee, and the barista just stared back at him blankly, and then he handed Sweet a booklet called Make it Your Drink”

In giant font, the booklet read “Learning the Lingo” But what struck Leonard Sweet was that this book was not a training book for new employees, it was created for the customers of Starbucks.

Not only does Starbucks expect you to pay $5 for a cup of coffee, their genius is that they demanded customers to learn a lingo. Starbucks employees are trained to help new people comprehend a language we do not yet speak. They don’t say, “I won’t serve you until you learn our language.” But they do want us to learn the language of their community, and (here’s the part churches tend to be bad at) they give resources to help teach us.

Veni Sancte Spiritus

A couple of months ago, we had the Anglican priest and author Ian Morgan Cron come preach at the Highland Church. Ian’s written a couple of great books, but the reason I wanted him to come preach was because of something he’d done at a retreat for preachers I’d recently attended. He had taken a 5th century Christian hymn, and turned it into a contemporary song. I wanted him to do this at Highland.

So he did. He came in and preached about communion, and then he lead us in singing an ancient Christian hymn that he, and some songwriters, had translated into a great contemporary style.

The name of it was “Veni Sancte Spiritus”

I know that actually sounds a bit like I’m still talking about Starbucks, but it’s not about coffee. It’s Latin, and it just means “Come Holy Spirit”

But Ian didn’t fully translate that part, he told us what it meant, and then asked us to sing it.  That may just sound incidental, but let me tell you what not translating it did. In singing those three words, not translated, we were subtly reminded that this story isn’t an American one. It didn’t originate in English, or in the 20th century.

In singing those words we were reminded that this Jesus story is a story with some meat on it’s bones. It’s a story we’ve inherited from men and women, who at great personal costs have lived out the Gospel, and they did it in other language.

In singing that song, in that way, we were reminded that we stand in solidarity with the ages that have gone before us and a Gospel that belongs to the whole world.

The Words of God

Eugene Peterson (author of the Message translation of the Bible) once said, “In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.”  I think that’s right, I”m not asking for us to speak Christianese, but to use the words of God to tell the story of God.

In one of his several recent books, N.T Wright talks about it this way:

The enormously popular worship songs, some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaces, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul searching of the Psalms themselves. This I believe, is a great impoverishment. By all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their enduring charm.

I think that’s right on two levels, one the Church must continually write new songs, but she must also continually reach for the same story.

Some people will read this and immediately begin to grumble that their church doesn’t sing the songs they like, but that’s not my point at all. In fact, singing songs you don’t like, in styles you don’t like,  may be a great way of growing as a Christian, you may come to see your worship as primarily singing songs that really blesses other people.

But the worship songs themselves must always be for, about, and to God.

Greek Orthodox Funeral Censer

Greek Orthodox Funeral Censer

This past week I went to two very different funerals. They were both deeply Christian, but from very different traditions. One was the first Greek Orthodox funeral I’ve ever attended, it was filled with incense and liturgy that’s been used for thousands of years, the other was in a Church of Christ in the metroplex. The form was incredibly different. The words were not.

In fact, at one point both funerals sang these words: “Christ is risen from the dead, he’s trampled over death by death.”

These are words from an ancient Christian hymn and one sang it with drums and the other chanted it while swinging incense, but they both sang the same words.

Here’s the thing I don’t think we realize when we are talking about worship. Everyone of us is going to sing someone else’s words…I would love it, if the words were God’s words.

Because if Scripture is right, when God speaks He creates worlds.

I think they still do.

So let’s take a lesson from Starbucks. Don’t translate everything.

“Christian practices are always the practices of others made odd.” – Kathryn Tanner

“The most effective way to change someone’s mind requires grasping the minds they already have.’ -Leonard Sweet

Leadership with education

Jonathan Martin tells about a missionary friend of his who trekked for a few days to get to a specific unreached tribe, and when he finally reached them he discovered that they didn’t have a word for heart. And being a good Baptist, he invited them to ask Jesus into their hearts, and that’s when his translator told him that they didn’t have a word for hearts. Actually, they didn’t even know what that was. (It’s not like there are a lot of cardiologists up in mountain tribes.)

Which raised the question for this Western Christian, “How do you get people to invite Jesus into their heart, when they don’t even know they’ve got a heart?”

And this is not just a “Christian” problem.

When the company Microsoft first began to break into Chinese markets, they knew that they needed to rebrand from their English name. So they just did a literal transliteration of their name into Chinese. They became “Wieran” the problem is that they didn’t take the culture they were attempting to serve seriously enough to learn it.

Their new company’s name was literally “Flaccid and small”

Heaven Talking to Earth

When I was in college, one of the most disturbing things for me was learning about the context that the Bible was written in. As a Bible major, I learned about how similar things in the Old Testament were to the surrounding countries. The Old Testament covenants and speeches that we hear from God are strikingly similar to the religions of other Mesopotamian texts around that time.

To be sure, they are also strikingly different, in say their treatment of women, or their inclusion of foreigners, but so much of the Old Testament is written like other ancient religious documents.

And this really bothered me. Until…

After about a week of showing us the similarities between the Hebrew Scriptures and the surrounding culture, Dr. Fortner showed a classroom full of future ministers a clip from Apollo 13. It’s the part where the air filter on their return shuttle has malfunctioned and they have a very small window to fix the filter or the astronauts will die of asphyxiation.

The Austronauts don’t have enough air, and Houston has a problem.

And then some genius in Houston goes to a table full of engineers and dumps a box of random parts on the table, and tells them ‘You’ve got 30 minutes to fix this filter, using nothing but the parts in this box.”

And then Dr. Fortner asked us, “Why could they only use what was in the box?”

Because what was in the box was the only thing the people in the command module had to work with.

If God is going to communicate to people, how else is He going to do it? For God to effectively communicate to people He’s going to have to use the words/sybols/ideas that we have, and go from there.

So of course, when God comes to Israel, He’s going to have to use the ideas and structures from surrounding society, He’s not trying to give us a new language, He’s trying to create a new people.

Livers and Pigs

This is why missionaries fascinate me, because they get this. They are having to go to a new culture and tell a story in a language that is unfamiliar. They are trying to remain faithful to the story and relevant to their culture.

Leonard Sweet talks about a missionary who went to a country where they didn’t have a Bible, he was trying to tell the story of John the Baptist and Jesus, but as he began to get to know the culture, he realized that there was a problem. Lamb’s in this country were seen as dirty and impure. They were regarded as filthy. And so as the missionaries began to understand the way people saw the way their new country saw the world, they told the same story in a slightly different way.

Their new translation told about how John the Baptist introduced the world to Jesus by saying, “Behold the Pig of God”

So back to that missionary on the tribal mountain. The translator told him that they didn’t know what a heart was, but he also told him that “for them the seat of emotions is the liver.” So a few minutes later, he led them all in a prayer to invite Jesus into their livers.

Houston fixed their problem, and God promised the Israelites to be their God in a language and metaphor they could understand.

This is the way God works, then and now.

So invite Jesus into your Liver, and behold the Pig of God.

O for a thousand tongues to sing. My dear Redeemer’s praise! The glories of my God and King, The triumphs of His grace. -Charles Wesley

Leadership with education

A couple of Sundays ago at Highland Church, we showed this video of one of our missionaries in Thailand. They spent the first year of their time there just researching they symbols and practices that people used to talk about God and the Sacred in Pheyao. And then they did this very interesting thing.

They wrote down hundreds of different words on 3×5 cards, gave them to the Thai people they were interviewing, and asked them to put them in categories. The words were about things like love/service/honor/sacrifice. They wanted to see what ideas the words they were using where linked to.

Because there’s no such thing as a 1-1 equivalency for language, something is lost when we translate, but something can also be gained.

Bowing Before Kings

There is something powerful about watching Thai people bow down before Jesus. But only if you know the Thai culture. When Eden and I first got to Thailand, in our hotel, there was a warning for all foreign visitors not to speak poorly of the royal family. The King of Thailand is dearly loved, and respected, and that’s a good thing.

But what our missionaries in Thailand discovered when they were studying the language is that the King of Thailand was more than respected, the same words and gestures they would use to talk about God they would use to talk about him…sometime even more so.

They asked a new convert to Christianity what she would do if the King walked into the room. A visible change of expression came over her and she said excitedly, “I would fall flat on my face and bow before him.”

So that’s when they knew how to worship Jesus in Thailand.

And that’s when I knew that they had tapped into something many Western Christians hadn’t realized just yet.

Because they at least knew how to link certain emotions and words to other ones. The Thai people knew that all the reverence they had for their king, the anxiety they had when he got ill, or the anger they felt when he was disrespected, was actually something that belonged in the category of worship.

And I’m not trying to be hard on the Thai culture, I’m trying to point out something that I thought was profound for American culture. 

If you were to suddenly lose the ability to speak english, and you had to gauge people’s meaning and intent based on tone and body language and what kind of events would draw crowds together…what would you assume was our sacred spaces? What would you assume we worshipped?

If you had to discern just by seeing what people got angry at, or what made them extremely happy, what would you assume we worship?

And do our churches worship like that?

Kings Bowing Down

There’s an interesting passage in Isaiah that has captured my imagination recently. It’s Isaiah’s picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth. In Isaiah’s vision, the kings of the earth come marching in to the new Jerusalem, each bringing some of the cultural artifacts that their nation was famous for, and then they lay them down at the feet of the LORD.

In fact, the way Isaiah ends is with what he calls the “Glory of the Nations” coming in on horses and chariots and wagons and mules and camels (all distinct cultural forms of war and travel) and God makes people from all over the earth His priests.

They lay the best parts of their world, their culture, down at his feet, and it becomes a part of the Kingdom of God.

So back to Thailand, I went there last summer to speak to missionaries all over Asia, and at one point I talked about this. How God’s redeeming purposes weren’t just for individual souls but also for all of His creation, and some of the things that people have created. 

Then I asked the missionaries to just shout out what kinds of things they saw in the respective countries they represented that was in tune with God’s good world. They shouted out everything from food to ways of honoring the elderly to certain kinds of music.

I think they were exactly right.

That’s one of the great parts about being a missionary. It’s not just that missionaries go to share the Gospel, it’s that missionaries also get to see just how big the Gospel is. Jesus is already there, working through and in people, we just get to point Him out. And with eyes that are Gospel trained we get to see the world ablaze with the glory of God.

This is why translation is so important, and our approach to it must be generous. After all, no one culture can fully capture the Kingdom of God, no one worship style, no one language, and each time the story of God gets translated, it just gets bigger and better.

God’s priests are everywhere, some of them are still waiting to be called, and some of us need to go, and others of us need them to minister to us.

We need new priests to teach us how to worship and what to bow down for.

This is why Revelation ends with people from every tribe and every tongue singing to God.

Because this song is so good and God is so big, we need a thousand tongues to sing it.

On February 6, 2014

Translation: Sitz Em Laben

The church has plenty of leaders who can tell us what the bible said. What we need are leaders who can tell us what the bible is saying.-Skye Jethani

Leadership with education


One of the things I love about living in Abilene is getting to work with college students who are wanting to preach. At Highland, we have a group of young people who are training to be preachers,  they volunteer in different ministries serving throughout the church, and a few times a year they each get to a chance to preach on Wednesday nights.

Most of them are studying the Bible in depth for the first time, and they want to share some of the cool new things they are learning about, and often after I hear them preach I ask them this question:

Are you trying to teach the Bible to people, or are you wanting to teach people the Bible?

I’ve learned there is a big difference between those two things.

I was taught the importance of this question by Rick Atchley. He’s one of my best friends and mentor, not to mention a great preacher. For several years I was his associate (to the) preacher, and the entire time I was working with him, I was also in grad school. And one day he told me this story.

When he first started as the preacher at Southern Hills he was just out of college, and one day while he was teaching a Ladies Bible Class he was trying to talk about context and why we have to pay attention to the Context that each book of the Bible was written in.

Then he turned around and wrote on the Chalkboard the words, “Sitz im Leben”

Which is so funny on so many levels.

Because that’s a German phrase that just means “Situation in Life” if you’ve ever gone through Seminary or Theological studies, you’ve probably heard the phrase a lot, but if you are a member of an Abilene quilting club you probably think it’s something you are supposed to say after someone sneezes.

It’s a phrase about taking context seriously, and Rick wrote it down unaware of the irony of him writing a German word in Abilene Texas to little old West Texas ladies.

Throwing Keys and Telling Stories

I grew up in a church where the only Bible that we used was the KJV. Which is a beautiful, poetic translation of the Scriptures that makes ever verb end with -eth. But I also grew up with a preacher who was a former missionary. He paid attention to whether or not we were paying attention, and Bro. Foy would bend over backwards to make the Bible engaging to a teenager who was working his hardest to feign disinterest.

If Bro. Foy was talking about the Keys to the Kingdom and we weren’t making eye contact, he would reach in his pocket and throw his keys at us (true story), or he would tell the craziest stories about that time that he was in jail in Germany, or when he got food poisoning in India, or about his mother catching him stealing when he was a boy. And then when we were leaning in closer, he’d tell us about Jesus.

Remember in the book of Acts, when Philip is caught up by the Spirit of God? He’s whisked away where he finds a neutered man from Ethiopia who is trying to read the book of Isaiah. It’s a very relatable story, obviously lots of us have been led by the Spirit to have a Bible study with a Eunuch.

But for those of us who haven’t had this happen yet, notice that Philip’s first question to him is, “Do you understand what it is you are reading?”

Which is a totally normal question to ask. Isaiah’s got cherubim’s and public nudity and warnings and symbols and suffering servants, and if you aren’t familiar with the story of the Bible, Isaiah can be pretty confusing, no matter what language you read it in. And that’s why the Ethopian man responds the way he does, “How can I unless someone helps me out?”

In other words, the task of any Christian trying to tell the story of God is to help bring the story to bear on the life of the person trying to understand it.

Latter Day Saints

Founding of the LDS

Founding of the LDS

I think it’s interesting to see what happens historically when we don’t do this well. Joseph Smith founded Mormonism in the early 1800’s in response to the question that everyone was asking but not many were answering. “What does this mean today?” No matter what you think about Mormonism, one of the genius’ of the movement was it’s ability to reach for the idea of “Continued Revelation.”

So Mormons have books like “Pearl of Great Price” and “Doctrines and Covenants” in addition to the Bible, but they also believe that if the Holy Spirit falls on someone they will be able to speak with the authority of Scripture. And the reason why is because in the words of Joseph Smith:

“God said, ‘Thou shalt not murder’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted–by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.”

Obviously, I disagree with Mormonism and their view of inspiration, but not with their view of why they did it. Joseph Smith was tapping into a deep tradition of bringing the story of God to bear on the times and places we find ourselves in. In fact, Smith created a new story, because Christians at the time, weren’t doing a good job of telling their story for their time.

Truth needs to speak in a language that is accessible, and if it’s not than it doesn’t matter how loud you shout it or how powerful it is.

Doest thou concur?

On January 23, 2014

Translation: Holier Than Thou

Leadership with education

One of the more interesting bits about Church history is how many people are killed by the Church and later made into saints. There are lots of people who the church made martyrs one day and heroes the next. But the really fascinating part is why they were killed by the Church. 

The Patron Saint of Translation

When Wiliam Tyndale was 34 years old, he was working on translating the first English translation of the Bible. He was a British preacher, and this probably sounds like exactly the kind of work you’d expect a British preacher to do. But it made him an outlaw.

Up until this time in history, the only Scripture were copies that were made in the original languages, or from St. Jerome’s Latin translation. But now William was working to make the Bible accessible to every man, woman and child, in the language that they spoke.

This sounds like a reasonable life’s goal, but it was going to be the death of him. Because we should never underestimate how revolutionary the idea of translating the Bible, really translating into the common language of the day, actually is.

When the Catholic Church found out about what Tyndale was trying to do, they immediately made him a wanted man. One of his Catholic friends tried to warn him off this foolish mission, and Tyndale said:

“If God will spare for many more years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to  know more of the Scripture than you do.”

Not a good way to keep you head attached to you body.

Eventually the Church began hunting William vigorously, If the FBI had been around, William Tyndale would have been at the top of the Most Wanted List, If there had been Post Offices back in his day, his picture would have been in every one. When William finally finished his translation, he couldn’t find a printer in all of Britian who would publish it. So eventually he had to take a ship to cross the Chanel, where he found someone to print it…almost.

When the printer found out the implications about what he was about to do, he turned William in, and Tyndale barely got out with his manuscript.  The Church was furious. They posted officers at every port, and police were searching from town to town. If William had cared about staying alive, this should have been the time he took a lesson out of Osama Bin Laden’s playbook.

But he cared more about printing this story than he did for his own life.

And ultimately it got him killed.

After only a few thousand copies were made, William Tyndale was arrested, and publicly beheaded, then his body was set on fire, just to show the world what happens to people who try to make God too accessible.


william tyndale

William Tyndale

Today, William Tyndale is hailed as a saint. Dozens of schools and societies have risen up that bear his name. In the words of William Manchester, “You can’t kill a book, and that includes the Good Book.”

All Too Common

But why would people kill someone for this? Did you know that the very translation that Tyndale made, later was the basis for the King James Version? And in it’s day, the King James Version was just what the world needed. It was the story of God in the language of the people.

Before that, the translation that most people knew was Jerome’s Vulgate. But it was criticized in it’s day for being too common. That’s what Vulgar means, the language of the common folk.

Now here’s where things start getting relevant to our lives.  How many people do you know who insist that the King James Version is the “authorized and true” word of God, who won’t have anything to do with any version that was translated after people stopped being beheaded for not paying their taxes?

Now I respect the impulses here.

There is a certain reverence that we should try to approach God with, and the poetry of a more archaic language can sometimes help that. But tread carefully with this line of thinking, because Christianity is not a static faith.  This is one of the primary gifts the Protestants gave to the Church universal, one the Catholic Church began to catch up with in Vatican II.

In the Jesus story, there is an awareness that God is not too Holy to be involved in the everyday, commonness of human existence. In fact, that’s exactly what God enters into. This is why, over and against, other ways of relating to God, Christianity really is different.

It insists that the Jesus story must be translated into the common human experience.

This is why translations matter so much. Because the Gospel insists that we carry it deeper into the world. Holiness doesn’t dissipate when the story of God touches the vulgar, instead the vulgar is sanctified.

And if this sounds strange, ask yourself if it doesn’t sound a bit like the life of Jesus?

The Son of God was always hanging out with the wrong people, saying the wrong kinds of things in ways that everyone could understand. When God came in the flesh, he told stories about the everyday, because everyday matters.

There will always be religious people who grew up in a time and language that they are most adept at connecting to God through, and if we are not careful we can try to baptize how we say something, not just what we say. But the Jesus story invites us to take this message into every part of our mundane world and find words for it there.

There will always be people who push back on this. But beware of anyone who tries to make you holier than Jesus.

The Jesus story translates well, because it is a story of a God who translates.

In this story, Holiness isn’t just clean and stagnant.

In other words…Christianity is Holier than Thou.

On January 16, 2014

Translation: Dirty Bibles

So, [O Muhammad], We have only made Qur’an easy in the Arabic language that you may give good tidings thereby to the righteous and warn thereby a hostile people.-the Qur’an

“Next to the blessed Sacrament (Communion) itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If they are your Christian neighbor, they are holy in almost the same way, for in them Christ, glorified Himself, is truly hidden.” -C.S. Lewis

Leadership with education

When Leslie and I were in college, we got a chance to spend a few weeks in countries that were predominately Muslim like Turkey and Egypt. At one part of the trip, I had to go to the bathroom and I took my Bible with me. That’s all I’ll say about that, other than the fact that this shocked the people around me.

The bathroom attendant was especially surprised and asked something like, “Isn’t this a sacred book to you?”

For the last several months, I (along with a few others) have been studying the Gospel of Mark with some young Muslim men from West Africa. It’s been fascinating to read the Gospels with people who grew up in a culture much closer to Jesus’ world than the one I did.

But one of the interesting things about studying with them is trying to explain all the different Bible translations. Each week, it seems like everyone brings a different version of the Bible, we’ve got some NKJV, NIV, TNIV, NRSV and every other kind of acronym.

Which is a peculiarly Christian problem.

The Gospel According To…

Because that’s the nature of the Gospel.

I like the way Andy Crouch makes this point in his book “Culture Making”

Consider the four gospels of the Bible each one a cultural product designed to introduce the good news in a culturally relevant way. Matthew begins his Gospel this way: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…Mark, while just as aware of Jesus’ Jewish heritage, seems much more engaged with the cultural heritage of Rome. He begins with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – the Greek word euangelion, here translated “good news “but commonly galled “Gospel” (making Mark the only Gospel writer to actually call his work a “gospel”) Luke meanwhile takes on the mantel of a Greek historian, beginning his stately and rhythmic account with the epistolary preface that Greek readers expected….John takes up the Jewish philosophical tradition of a thinker like Philo.

In other words, the original story tellers for Jesus told the story in the same way that Jesus lived His life.

They translated it.

Did you know you can’t buy an English Qur’an? You can only buy an English translation of the Qur’an. According to Muslim tradition, no matter how literal the translation is, it is not the same thing. Because the word of Allah came to Mohammed in Arabic, so in order to understand it fully, you must learn Arabic.

Now I’ve studied the original languages that the Bible was written in. There’s been lots of times that I’ve discovered something that I would have missed if I wouldn’t have known the original Greek , but just as often as not, I’ve learned as much from how the Gospel translates into other cultures.

Tablets Made of Skin

Which brings me back to the Bible study we’ve got and my Bible in the Bathroom.

Martin Luther...pictured not on toilet

Martin Luther…pictured not on toilet

Did you know that the Protestant Reformation started on the potty? I kid you not.

Martin Luther was wrestling with profound feelings of condemnation and was in the bathroom reading and medicating on Romans  (like you do) when it struck him that we really are saved by Grace through Faith. And he wrote about this experience as God’s salvation for Him.

Paul got saved on a road, Luther was on the commode.

One of the more intriguing things about most religions, is their great respect for the actual book. Not just the words that are in it, but the physical manuscript.

I once was at a Sikh worship service where their sacred text was resting on a pillow and being fanned while the community prayed and listened to a teaching….The Muslim tradition says that you should not touch an actual Qur’an (the one in the Arabic language) unless you’ve gone through a cleaning, and have put your faith in Allah as revealed by Mohammed. Jewish people used to insist on cleaning your hands and purifying your heart before reading Torah.

And all of these things are fine…but distinct from Christianity.

Because Christianity loves dirty Bibles.

It insists upon it.

The assumption the Gospel makes is that Holiness, because of Jesus, now works differently than any other religion. Translating the Gospel doesn’t pollute it, it enhances it. With every culture distinction and different perspective brought to bear on the Jesus story, we don’t dilute the story, we understand it even better.

There is a time in one of the parts of the Bible where Paul writes about the nature of the the message of the Bible. It’s not static and cut off from normal human existence, it actually sanctifies it.

Here’s what Paul tells his little church plant:

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

This is not to say the Bible shouldn’t be respected. It is a Sacred text, but it is to point out that the Bible wants to be a different kind of Sacred text. Not a book to be worshipped, but a story to be lived out.

This is what it means for the Word to become Flesh. The Bible enters into this world made of mud and dirt and blood and spit, in fact some of it’s best stories involve these things.

So by all means take your bible to the bathroom, Martin Luther did.

Because that’s sacred too.

On January 9, 2014

Translation: Drunk History

“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word became Flesh…” -John 1

“I’m not talking altogether right, right now.” Drunk Historian describing the Kellogg brothers

Leadership with education

I’d like to start a blog series today, that will run for the next few weeks about the uniqueness of the Christian story and about the dangers that come along with it.

No other religion allows it’s story to be as flexible as the Jesus movement does. No other religion would give up so many of it’s essentials to on some level assimilate to whatever culture it is in.

And along with this comes all kinds of risk, but also great opportunity.

And so to talk about this we should  start with the show “Drunk History”…obviously

How to Pique Interest

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told about Comedy Central’s show “Drunk History.” Not to recommend it. It’s often profane and obscene and funny. But I’ve told lots of people about it, people I respect, who I never want to watch the show, because I think it is, in its own way genius.

Here’s what they do. The show starts off with the heading:

“You should know that the events that are being described really did happen, and the details are accurate…It should be noted however that the storytellers are entirely drunk.”

And that’s the premise. They get a young P.H.D historian, they get them hammered, and then have them tell an interesting story from American history, like about how Ralph Nader was more than the guy who kept Gore from getting elected, or how Lincoln actually dealt with depression and faced multiple failures. They get a few well-known actors to lip-synch and act out exactly what they drunk historian is saying. And it is fascinating. Like watching a train wreck, but one where you learn about how the trains used to run on steam and coal.

And here’s the reason I’ve told so many people about this show.

I think it’s a great example of translation.

From the Daily Show and The Colbert Report to Drunk History, Comedy Central is raising up a whole generation of people to care about politics and history who would never have done so before. And they are doing it by asking this one simple question…how do we translate these ideas or stories in a way that will be interesting to the people who we are wanting to hear them?

The Message of Relevance

Let me quickly back up and say I’m not advocating for this in Churches. The last thing we need is “Drunk Theologians,” we probably have too much of that already. We don’t need to copy that format, as Christians we are called to be different than the culture around us, but we are also called to engage it. I’m not advocating we copy what Comedy Central is doing, but I do think we have to pay attention to why they are doing it.

Pastor Eugene was teaching his Sunday morning Bible class just the way he always did. They had been going through the book of Galatians for a couple of weeks, and Eugene was pouring on about how Paul was changing the entire course of history with this bold and saucy letter he was writing to the Churches of Galatia. He was so caught up in the risks that this brash apostle was taking as he shared the Jesus story with a world that didn’t believe in One True God. But when he looked up he noticed:

“It was just awful. They’d fill up their coffee cups and stir in sugar and cream and look at their cups and they weren’t getting it. It was just really bad. I went home after the third week and said to my wife that I was going to teach them Greek. If they could read it in Greek they would get it, they’d understand what a revolutionary text it is and couldn’t just keep living in their ruts. She agreed that would empty the class out fast.”

So Eugene Peterson decided if he couldn’t teach everyone Greek, he’d translate it in a way that they’d understand it.

And after millions of copies of the Message Bible have been sold, it turns out that Eugene Peterson was on to something.

He wrote the Message to be relevant, because he believed that part of the Message was to be relevant. 

I can’t tell you how often I think about this. I’m constantly wondering how to translate an ancient story for today. Can it be done? Does it water it down? Does it have to feel antique to still be ancient? Or can the stories and ideas and life of the Scriptures come alive right now in everyday language and in everyday ways? Can we meet people by answering the questions they are asking, in a language and style that they are familiar with?

Or is it all part and parcel? If you are a Christian do you have to speak Christianese, or does Christianity press itself into every one of the mundane part of our life and make it all holy?

So that’s what I’d like to talk about on Thursdays for the next few weeks. And to be clear these really are questions I’m asking, not absolute statements wearing the camouflage of a question mark. So I’m hoping you’ll weigh in with suggestions and ideas or stories about how this has worked in your life.

I’m really wondering how to translate the Gospel and Church and faith and hope in ways that are engaging without losing the heart of the Gospel.

Which is of course the Word that became Flesh…the best translation of all.

Up Next Week: What I learned from doing a Bible Study with a Muslim Friend

On June 10, 2013

Churches Shaped By Mission

NT Wright on “Church Shaped by Mission” from Fuller Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

If you lead or serve in a local church, than this post is for you. Hold off on watching the video above for a second.

Last week I was in a meeting of a group of ministers and seminary professors who were trying to figure out how churches and seminaries can work better together for training future ministers.

It was an incredible meeting, and kudos to our seminaries for caring enough to ask the question, “How can we do better?” One of the more interesting parts of the conversation came when one of the ministers was talking about the tension between the ideal and the real. The way he said it was that he was, “I learned in seminary to be suspicious of anything that worked. Because pragmatic or practical ministry involves compromise and using methods that are less than ideal.”

And immediately we all knew what he meant.

I mean can we really say that the Cross “worked?” Isn’t Christianity a faith about dying to ourselves? Should we really compromise in order to be more effective?

But the problem is that in order to lead a local church you have to compromise and learn to work pragmatically. You are dealing with real people with problems that don’t come in textbook formats. And you learn quickly in ministry that for all your preparations and theories that the local church isn’t a laboratory. And that what works in theory doesn’t always work in practice.

So back to this video. This video is from the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright teaching at Fuller Seminary a few years ago. They were asking him about this exact thing, he was talking to preachers from churches from a hundred different traditions, who were basically wanting to know how to do we hold this tension between the ideal and the real?

I love his answer.

Keep the ideal in mind. Remember that there is a new Heaven and a New Earth coming, and remember what that vision for the future looks like, because that’s more than just the Christian hope. That’s the Christian mission.

It is the mission that should inform every church.

Let’s just hopefully and pragmatically stumble toward that.

Continue Reading...
On June 20, 2012

The Red Thread Movement

So I just returned from a couple of weeks in Nepal working with the ministry Eternal Threads. It’s a great ministry that I highly commend that is working to create connections between 3rd and 1st world countries, and providing fair trade opportunities for some of the most vulnerable people in the world. One part of the Eternal Threads ministry is something called the Red Thread Movement, and what it is doing for the girls in Nepal is unreal!

Continue Reading...