I might be a heretic. At least that’s what some inferred after I mentioned I was leaning toward Inclusivism. Sure, some of the charges came in the form of finger-wagging. But for the most part, it was friends cautioning me heretic-nametagto be careful, to be faithful to Scripture, and to not be deceived by the spirit of the age.

You know what? I totally appreciate that.

It’s kind of like the dinner conversation I had with two Christian author / editors. One was finishing up a project with an outspoken religious progressive and championing ideas of questionable veracity. The passion escalated quickly as one of the individuals stated “I refuse to follow a god who commits genocide” (referring to the slaughter of the Amalekites). From there, they shambled into New-Age pantheistic blather about God possibly being a stone or a footstool. I eventually lost it and stormed away from the conversation. Once I calmed down, I tracked down these individuals and apologized, admitting that I was genuinely concerned for their souls and where these beliefs would take them. They agreed that this was serious stuff and we left on good terms.

Because that’s what friends do — they don’t let friends become heretics.

Of course, such theological challenges or inferences don’t always sit right.  Like the former pastor friend of mine who quoted something from former pastor Jim Palmer (what’s up with these “former pastors”?). It was an excerpt from Palmer’s project named the Religion-Free Bible. Palmer’s one of the myriad of “victims” of organized religion who are, apparently, treating their wounds with feel-good mumbo jumbo. Palmer undertakes to re-translate sections of the Bible through a “religion-free” lens. What comes out sounds remarkably like Deepak Chopra. Like this quote:

“Love gives. Love is what brought me into this world. I am a gift, offered in love. Love desires your freedom. Love desires your wholeness. Love wants you to know yourself as complete. Love wants you to be at peace. My life was an invitation to this freedom, wholeness, peace and love. But my invitation is a choice. You have also been fed a lie about yourself that will ultimately destroy you. The lie says you are bad and worthless, irreparably flawed, defective and unacceptable, and undeserving of love and acceptance, even from God. I’m here to say that’s not true, and I’m asking you to believe me. Even when everything in your head or everything n your life seems to be evidence of the lie, I’m asking that you believe me instead. I’m going to be gone soon, and I need you to get this because I need your life to be that invitation as mine was. You are as much a gift to the world as I am, and I want you to accept and own that for yourself. Love never stopped giving. Love keeps birthing new expressions of the truth to awaken those lost in the lie. First, you have to wake up yourself and then your life naturally becomes the smelling salts this world needs.”

- Jesus, John 3:16-17, RFB

Love desires your wholeness. Huh?

Love keeps birthing new expressions of the truth to awaken those lost in the lie. Say what?

First, you have to wake up yourself and then your life naturally becomes the smelling salts this world needs. Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.

Frankly, this sounds like something that was run through the New-Age Bullshit Generator.

What happened next was even more interesting. When a concerned party exhorted this guy to be cautious about embracing false doctrine and potential heresy, he got all defensive.

  • Stop judging me.
  • You’re not the theology police.
  • There’s more than one way to interpret the Bible.
  • God is Love, not Doctrine.
  • This is between me and God.

For folks who want to get back to the “real Message,” it’s funny how resistant they can be to reproof.

I love how the apostle Jude put it:

22Be merciful to those who doubt; 23save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

We have a responsibility “to those who doubt,” to those who are dangerously close to “the fire.” We are to “save” them and “show mercy, mixed with fear” as we do so. This includes, I think, those who are drifting into false doctrine.

Their duty is to listen.

“True friends,” said Oscar Wilde, “stab you in the front.”

Perhaps the truest test of friendship is whether or not someone will “show mercy, mixed with fear” and question you about potential heresy. And perhaps the truest test of faith is whether or not we will shut up and listen.

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SlavesWomenHomosexualsI took up William Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis as part of a challenge.That challenge was issued by a pastor friend after I made some comments on Facebook critical of Christian feminists and egalitarians. He suggested that rather than base my opinion on the popular treatments of the subject in books like A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Jesus Feminist, I read a more scholarly treatment of the subject.

Bottom line: I’m really glad I did.

Much ink (and probably blood) has been spilled over the topic of gender roles and Christian feminism. As such, Webb’s book has been widely referenced and reviewed (try THIS, THIS or THIS). Nevertheless, the book appears to have done little to bridge the complementarian / egalitarian divide. As I don’t have anything especially new to add to the debate, I’ll attempt to keep my comments to a minimum and cut to the chase.

While Webb’s treatment of the subject is thorough and very fair, it left me unconvinced as to the dismantling of traditional gender roles.

Webb spends considerable amount of time expounding upon an interpretive model for discussing this subject which he calls a “redemptive movement hermeneutic.” The method has to do with cultural analysis: Were biblical commands limited to a given culture or were the commands trans-cultural, applicable across all ages and societies? For instance, the Bible does not explicitly condemn slavery, a fact often pointed out by its critics. Instead, it establishes principles that, when applied, would inevitably lead to the dismantling of the institution of slavery. In other words, Christians apply a sort of “redemptive movement hermeneutic” when it comes to slavery. Webb suggest that certain texts have a “redemptive component” that moves the culture towards “a better ethic.” That there is, in fact, an “underlying spirit” to certain biblical commands.

I found this section of the book very helpful. It seems rather clear to me that, in Scripture, something is at work above the letter of the text, and that if we fail to recognize an over-arching redemptive movement to God’s dealings with mankind, we can potentially get stuck enforcing codes of conduct or societal norms that were not intended as trans-cultural.

However, this interpretive principle is not without its critics. In his review, Wayne Grudem calls Webb’s work,

…a deeply flawed book that fundamentally contradicts the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura because it nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire NT and replaces it with the moral authority of a “better ethic,” an ethic that Webb claims to be able to discover through a complex hermeneutical process entirely foreign to the way God intended the Bible to be read, understood, believed, and obeyed.

It’s a very fair caution. Super-imposing another ideal over Scripture potentially guts the Bible of authority. After all, on whose authority do we define a “better ethic”?

Having constructed an elaborate system of 18 criteria by which to judge major social questions, Webb proceeds to hammer out this hermeneutic as it relates to three classes of people: slaves, women, and homosexuals. Why were certain biblical commands instituted regarding these groups? What were the cultural forces at work which precipitated such commands? Were the commands cultural or trans-cultural? Were the commands rooted in the creation narrative or the fall / curse narrative?

The major text the author concentrates on regarding women is 1 Tim 2:12-15.

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.

While conceding that verse 13 may be trans-cultural, Webb asserts that verse 14 is definitely cultural, citing modern evidences to debunk the idea that women are more easily deceived than men. (For the record, I’ve always felt the argument for patriarchy that relies on the point that “the woman was deceived” overlooks a more crucial inference: that the Man willfully disobeyed.)

After using his 18 criteria, Webb’s conclusion is that most of the male rule in both the Old and New Testament is based on cultural, rather than trans-cultural values. As part of the dismantling of such rule, women should be allowed to teach in the church.  (Concerning the issue of homosexuality, which is somewhat peripheral in this volume, the author concludes that there is no redemptive hermeneutical movement that should lead to an acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in the church.)

As much as I liked this book, I still find myself in a rather uncomfortable middle regarding the complementarian / egalitarian debate. While I have no problem with women teaching men (the primary qualification for teaching in the church is not gender, but gifting), Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals offers no compelling reasons to abandon male-centered leadership in the home and the church.

One reason is Webb’s concession that I Tim. 2:13 — “For Adam was formed first, then Eve” – may be trans-cultural. In other words, male hierarchy could be rooted in pre-Fall creation order. This admission is important on Webb’s part, I think, because that principle is one of the most persuasive for a patriarchal model. (As I’ve said elsewhere, this is also one of the reasons I believe many egalitarians also embrace a non-literal view of Genesis 1-11. By mythologizing the creation account, especially Eve being made FROM Adam to serve as his “helpmeet,” subsequent teachings on gender roles can be stripped of trans-cultural clout. )

The idea of male hierarchy based on creation order, rather than just social construct, is proffered often by the apostle Paul. For instance:

22Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. — Eph. 5:22-24

So there is an intrinsic connection between Christ’s relationship with His church and the husband’s relationship with his wife. On what grounds can we affirm Christ’s loving leadership of His Bride while deconstructing the husband’s loving leadership of his bride? It is precisely the divine hierarchy that this text seems to be paralleling.

I Corinthians 11:3 appeals to a similar order:

But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

Here, another chain is added to the hierarchy:

  1. God is the head of Christ
  2. Christ is the head of the Church
  3. Christ is the head of the man
  4. The man is the head of the woman

Again, the inference is clear as to a created order; that the role of men and women, husbands and wives, Christ and His church, are intertwined as part of a larger universal creation order. In other words, these roles transcend culture.

Which is why the Bible can both command us to “submit to one another” (Eph. 5:21) and still delineate societal / household / ecclesiastical roles:

  • Citizens submit to governing authorities — Rom. 13:1
  • Church members submit to spiritual leaders — Heb. 13:7
  • Slaves obey masters — I Pet. 2:18, Eph. 6:5
  • Children submit to parents — Eph. 6:1
  • Wives submit to husbands — Eph. 5:22

In no case is submission to authority translated as superiority or inferiority, which is a common charge of egalitarian proponents –  that submission implies one is a lesser person. On the contrary, citizens are called to submit to their governing authorities not because those authorities are better, but because such submission is part of a larger order. Church members are called to submit to their spiritual leaders not because those leaders are better, but because such submission is part of a larger order. I see the same principle at work in the gender debate.

OK. So much for keeping it brief and pointed.

Either way, I do not see this issue as a hill worth dying on. I have no problem fellowshipping with brothers and sisters in Christ who believe otherwise. I would, however, have difficulty attending a church led by a woman pastor. But I can’t deny that God has, and still does, call some women to lead men. (Especially in those places where men are not rising to their roles or a woman is exceptionally gifted.) Whatever the case, we need more grace in this conversation and I think Webb’s book does that. It’s a very fair treatment of the subject, good-natured and civil. I would definitely recommend it to those seeking to further their knowledge of this important issue.

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invite-envelopeA new movement was started entitled National Back to Church Sunday (NBCS). In September 2013, more than 21,200 churches participated in the event. The massive outreach attempt has continued to grow each year. It’s based on Thom Rainer’s research that “82 percent of the unchurched are likely to attend church if invited by a trusted friend or relative,” while “only 2 percent of church-going people invite someone to church in a given year.”

I’m lukewarm about efforts like this. This might surprise you coming from a former pastor. During my tenure as a staff pastor, I would applaud ANY effort to get visitors through the doors of our church. But now, from the other side of the pulpit, I see it differently. Here’s why.

Most Christians equate evangelistic outreach with inviting their friends to church. I think this is a mistake. No, I’m not suggesting that we should stop inviting people to church or that inviting them cannot be part of evangelistic outreach. My idea is this:

Sharing the gospel / making disciples, and inviting people to church, are two very different things.


For one thing, in many (if not most) cases, it’s an issue of inviting people BACK to church, as the NBCS campaign suggests. In other words, these are people with previous experience in a church. Perhaps they are backslidden. Maybe they never professed faith. Whatever the case, this potentially ignores two important groups of people with two potentially different spiritual conditions:

  1. Those who have no or little understanding of church, Christian culture, or the Gospel
  2. Those who aren’t in church because of objections to the church or faith issues, or emotional hurt from organized religion

My suggestion is that people in both of these groups require more than just an invitation to a church. Which brings me to my main concern about campaigns like this.

Inviting someone to church has become our default evangelistic approach. Rather than take time to cultivate a long-term personal witness, grow in articulating what we believe, learn to answer objections to the faith, and impart real-time grassroots discipleship, we simply hand off the faith baton to a pastor or someone more knowledgeable. In other words, inviting people to church can be a way to let myself off the hook.

Yes. In many cases, inviting someone to church can be used in conjunction with personal outreach and evangelism. It becomes a springboard for continued witness. But for many church-goers, I fear that inviting friends to church simplifies pacifies a sense of guilt and reinforces our own spiritual limitations. face it: the reason many Christians invite seekers to church is because they can’t sustain a good, persuasive argument for following Christ.

In the case of the non-Christian who is agnostic or antithetical toward the Christian faith, the better approach is not to invite them to church, but to befriend them, listen to their questions or objections, and over time, seek to answer them. This could take years.

In the case of the person who has previous experience in church but was wounded or disillusioned, the best approach is not to hope your church “isn’t like that,” but to find out what those objections and/or emotional roadblocks are and to listen, grapple with the pain, and gently offer answers or corrections to the dissent.

One more thing: Inviting people to church can potentially equate being a Christian with going to church. Don’t misunderstand me here. The Bible’s clear that following Christ entails fellowship with His people. Christians should attend a local church. But I don’t go to church to become a Christian, but because I am one. Inviting people to church — especially when church is mistakenly viewed as the place where people go to be / become more Christian — can subtly convey dangerous assumptions.

Bottom line: Evangelism should go on in the world, not the church. Most unchurched people do not need to be in a church first and foremost; they need to come in contact with real Christians in the marketplace; they need to experience a genuine sense of their own sin and moral failures, understand the reasons (historically and philosophically) how the Christian message addresses those issues, and they need to make a move toward Christ.

Going to a church may be a part of that. And it may not.

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ChristianFictionIf Christian Speculative fiction is on the rise, it’s not showing. At least in the mainstream Christian market.

Several weeks ago, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association announced the finalists for its annual Christian Book Awards in seven categories.The five finalists in the Fiction category contain NO speculative novels. The closest would be Tosca Lee’s Iscariot, which is labeled as an “historical.”

Question: If Christian spec-fic is on the rise, why aren’t we seeing it edge its way into the mainstream houses?

Fantasy novelist Kat Heckenbach went poking around at the subject a while back on Facebook when she made this observation:

Kat’s question seems to infer that if Christian spec-fic is to get any traction, it must do so through indie presses and self-pubbers. Indeed, small presses have become the main outlet for Christian speculative fiction. Marcher Lord Press (MLP) being the flagship. So I found Jeff Gerke, MLP founder’s, comment on Kat’s post interesting:

…the pool of self-identified fans of Christian speculative fiction is very small–possibly smaller than 5,000 people in the English speaking world. So the real problem is 3) how to appeal to those many, many fans of Christian speculative fiction who don’t KNOW they are fans of Christian speculative fiction. The people who would never watch an alternative history movie with time travel and a paranormal major character but who would gladly watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The people who would never watch a time-traveling ghost story with an element of horror but who would love to watch “A Christmas Carol.” There are millions of potential fans of Christian speculative fiction, but they simply don’t know they would love it and, most importantly, if you described it in speculative fiction terms, they would run away from it. So they’re sleeper fans who must be awakened and activated without triggering their “I hate science fiction and fantasy!” gag reflex. Go do that, my children, and you shall prosper.

A couple things. First, I agree with Jeff that a story’s speculative elements may be under the radar for many readers and viewers. What’s interesting about that, however, is that general market speculative fiction LEADS with its speculative elements. Which is why films are marketed to sci-fi fans, horror fans, epic fantasy fans, superhero fans, etc. In other words, they don’t have to try to “appeal to those many, many fans of… speculative fiction who don’t KNOW they are fans of… speculative fiction. ” If Christian speculative fiction will only make progress as it convinces unknowing spec-fans to embrace its titles, I fear we’re way behind the eight ball. Making my title appealing to someone who’s not a certain genre fan seems self-defeating.

My second observation has to do with Jeff’s point that “the pool of self-identified fans of Christian speculative fiction is very small–possibly smaller than 5,000 people in the English speaking world.” If true, this is terribly disheartening. But here’s where I think that observation is tricky and points to an important divide in the Christian speculative fiction debate.

While “the pool of self-identified fans of Christian speculative fiction is very small,” the pool of Christians who like speculative fiction is immense.

And that, I think, is a huge distinction that needs made. I’ve repeatedly said, as I did on that thread, that “hardcore spec readers migrate away from overtly ‘clean,’ preachy stuff.” I’ve seen this over and over. The Christians I know who love speculative fiction read Stephen King, watch Game of Thrones, enjoy The Hunger Games, and like the Walking Dead. They don’t need to have their stuff scrubbed and salted with Scripture. And these same Christians are probably not in Jeff’s pool of 5,000.

  • The pool of Christians who love speculative fiction is immense.
  • The pool of Christian fiction enthusiasts who love speculative fiction is much smaller.

These two groups are after two different things: One wants good spec-fic, the other wants good Christian fic, with speculative elements.

And there’s your divide.

It’s this BIG pool of Christians who like speculative fiction that we are missing. And we are missing them because we’re aiming at the Christian market.

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Max-Von-SydowI have postulated elsewhere why a Judeo-Christian worldview and moral absolutes are essential to good storytelling. I was reminded of that idea while reading this interview with William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, who ventures a similar  idea by suggesting that the film worked because he was a believer. Via The Hollywood Reporter:

1973′s The Exorcist, the first horror film nominated for best picture, earned $441 million because its creator believed in God, said director William Friedkin.

“I made that film as a believer,” he said March 26, speaking to students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television. “The reason that all the sequels to The Exorcist are rotten chunks of excrement [is] because they are made by non-believers. And what they all attempt to do is to defrock the story and to send the thing up.”

According to Friedkin, one reason that the sequels sucked (which is much kinder than calling them “rotten chunks of excrement”) was because their makers sought to “defrock the story.” I’m assuming he means stripping them of genuine religious content or a biblical worldview.

The story’s author, William Peter Blatty, made a similar connection a while back. In his interview with Huffington Post, Blatty responded thus to the following question:

Why do you think the story of “The Exorcist,” in its many forms, has resonated so much for so many people?

BLATTY: I can only guess based on what has been written by others.

Obviously, of course, a popular novel has to be a page-turning read. Second, everyone likes a good scare, so long as we know we’re not really threatened.

And third – and most importantly, I think – because this novel is an affirmation that there is a final justice in the universe; that man is something more than a neuron net; that there is a high degree of probability – let’s not beat around the bush – that there is an intelligence, a creator whom C.S. Lewis famously alluded to as “the love that made the worlds.” (emphasis mine)

So the author of The Exorcist unloads the ultimate spoiler. All that snarling, churning, head-spinning, projectile-vomiting, was about…  “an intelligence, a creator”… “the love that made the worlds.”

Is it a coincidence that both the writer and director of one of the scariest stories ever written / filmed were professing believers? I don’t think so.

Leave it to an atheist to almost muck up the works.

In his interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Friedkin reveals this fascinating account of acting legend Max Von Sydow and how his atheism became a monkey wrench in the project.

During one scene, when his character, Father Merrin, is conducting the exorcism, “He says at the top of his voice, ‘I cast you out, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ When we came to that moment, Max froze up. We had this false ceiling that had to crack. We had six ceilings made and we went through six takes that day and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get those words out. I stood there, kind of paralyzed. I ordered six more ceilings and we came back a day later. Same result. On the third day, I called Bill Blatty, who wrote the novel and the script. I said, ‘Please look at these [takes].’ He sat down in a room and he looked at them and he said, ‘You’re right. They’re awful. He doesn’t believe what he’s doing.’ We were going to re-write the script and have von Sydow die in that moment. We went in to see von Sydow, who was a very simple man. I said, ‘I’ll bring Ingmar Bergman in here to direct this scene with you.’ He said, ‘No it’s not a matter of Bergman. I just don’t believe in God.’ ”

Von Sydow’s atheism prevented him from convincingly renouncing an evil spirit “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The film worked only when Von Sydow believed what he was saying.

It’s an interesting window, I think, into perhaps the greatest horror film of all time. It may also be a reminder how a Judeo-Christian worldview and moral absolutes are essential parts to a good horror story.

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5 Reasons Why Christians Mythologize Genesis 1-11


I believe that mythologizing the early chapters of the Book of Genesis has serious theological ramifications. Nevertheless, I seem to be part of a growing minority.  Nowadays, more and more professing evangelicals seem to have little problem viewing the biblical creation event and early Christian history as a myth. But why? The going theory follows […]

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Christian Novelists and the “Moral Artist Principle”


Apologist Randall Rouser recently posted a couple articles that touched on an important concept for Christian novelists. Rouser was rebutting some critics’ rejection of the Bible on the grounds that God does not appear to distance Himself from “moral atrocities” and “problematic moral content.” The illustration one critic used was that of an editor who […]

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Is There a Middle-Ground to Calvinism?


A while back, I articulated some reasons Why I Am Not a Calvinist. As I’m not a theologian, that post could probably use some re-thinking and polishing. Nevertheless, it highlights my ongoing struggle with Reformed theology. I call it a “struggle” because there’s lots of things I agree with and appreciate about Calvinism. And there’s […]

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3 Reasons Why I’m Not Seeing “God’s Not Dead”


I’m typically torn by most “Christian films,” as I am with God’s Not Dead, which opens in theaters this weekend. On the one hand, I believe it’s important that Christian artists and biblically themed stories reach mainstream audiences, rather than simply being aimed exclusively at churches and existing Christians. On the other hand, much that […]

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“Clean Fiction” as White Magic


Several months ago, in a discussion about Christian speculative fiction and where it’s heading, I suggested that “‘bad theology’ has shaped much of mainstream Christian fiction.” One aspect of this “bad theology” is the belief that reading “clean fiction” — and by this, Christians normally mean fiction without sex, profanity, excessive violence, occult themes, etc. […]

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Reading Books You “Should” Read v. Reading Books You Want


In his book on the craft of writing, Stephen King condensed his advice down to two simple axioms: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Hard to argue. But where do you start… reading, that is? If you’re a writer, […]

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Bad Parenting Tip: Teach Your Kids to Believe Whatever the Hell They Want


Profanity alert! Sarcasm alert! Alert, alert! * * * Millennials have been vocal about the shitty job us Boomers did in raising them. I mean, how else can you explain our kids’ mass defection from organized religion and their embrace of social liberalism other than as a reaction to their evangelical parents’ soft, shallow, narrow-minded,  […]

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