What I Learned Rewriting The Bible

“This may be the first Bible a new believer owns.”

I sat stunned when I read these words just moments after I signed on to an incredibly refreshing Bible project called, The Voice Bible: Step Into the Story of Scripture. What had I done? Signed on to re-write the Bible? Well, kinda, sorta? What the what?

I know now what I couldn’t have known then; “re-writing” the Bible allowed me to read it better. Here’s how that happened.

In the Spring of 2001, my friend, Chris Seay, invited me to join a group of musicians, artists, poets, pastors, and story-tellers assembled to bring a fresh perspective to the Scriptures. On it’s face, re-writing the Bible seemed sacrilegious or impious or something. After all, the Bible is the Bible is the Bible, right? But upon further review, Chris’ grand vision was the same one perceived by faithful Christian men and women since the days of Guttenberg; that contemporary Christians and seekers would have a Bible which spoke their language. Chris sensed what many before felt, after a while, dusty, threadbare language needs repair for emerging generations. The drive behind The Voice Bible was just that simple; we weren’t re-writing the Bible, we were refreshing it.

The Word is Flat

If you’re like me, nearly every scripture you’ve memorized is tucked into your mind in the lofty but superannuated language of the King James Version. In fact, for some folks, the KJV isn’t merely a translation of the Bible, it’s the only Bible. One man told me, “If King James English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

The problem is, the KJV suffers the same malady as the NIV84, TNIV, NIV2011, RSV, ESV, and every other popular translation of the Bible: They are flat. That is, Genesis reads like Psalms reads like Matthew reads like Ephesians reads like Revelation. Because they are translated flat, we read them as flat!

In contemporary translations, each book of the Bible reads the same as the last one and the next one. And that’s a problem! It’s a problem because Psalms are prayers and songs which partly served as the hymnbook of the Jewish people. Daniel and Revelation are apolcalyptic. Paul’s epistles are, well, letters. The gospels were written for various purposes to different audiences and their authors were trying to accomplish different things.

When the entire Bible looks, feels, and sounds the same, we are prone to misread it. When my daughter reads Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, she knows it’s not the same thing as reading the Wall Street Journal or NY Times (and, yes, she sometimes reads those). Likewise, a Jonathan Franzen novel is different from an NT Wright commentary. Both types of literature convey truth, but we read them differently because we know we’re supposed to. However, we struggle to do so with the Bible because our translations are stingy with clues that might otherwise tip us off as to what we are reading.


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Our Future’s Distant Past

“Well, I’ve found that prophesying is one of life’s less prophet-able occupations!” – Abraham Lincoln

The trouble with prophecy is that prophesying is so misunderstood. Think: When you hear “prophet,” what do you imagine? Regardless of biblical definitions, our most common imagination for prophets is women and men who see and read the future. They predict. Foresee. Anticipate. Then they tell.

In reality, that’s not the role of the prophet. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds the church, a prophet’s job is not to announce the future as much as it is to call us back to who we are in God. That being the case, when asked to ponder the “future” of the church, my instinct is to reach for the past.

Before we do that, we need to be clear: When most folks call us to reach for the past they aren’t actually calling us to the past as much as they’re calling us to particular visions of their own childhood. Worse, we are called to the hazed, fuzzy memories of their childhood. More than the rough textures of fact and truth these remembrances are made of imprecise, Rockwellian nostalgia; life as they wished it was. What I’m suggesting is a time not remembered, yet one we are called to respond to.

Things Not Remembered (at least not by us)

In the beginning, the scriptures narrate, God created the world good.

We glance by this truth because American Christianity, for reasons not apparent to me, wants us all to embrace more of what happens in Genesis 3 than we embrace what happens in Genesis 1. Nevertheless, good writers furnish the crucial information at the outset then allow the rising action to flow from there. When you read your Bible from front to back, you can’t escape the fact that God made the world good.

The heavens and earth were good…
Light was good…
Dry land and seas and vegetation were good…
Sun, moon, and stars were good…
Living creatures were good…
Land animals were good…
And people were good…

This is the only past worth reaching for. With the force of an anvil pushed over a cliff, it should be clear to us now: The calling of the church is the recovery of goodness.

When the Bible launches, it blasts off with goodness and because of it, the world is at peace. The Hebrew for peace is “shalom.” Shalom is harmony. It’s a world correctly ordered (by which I mean all living things rightly know who they are in relation to God).

In those early pages of the Bible there is complete shalom. There is peace. Heaven and Earth are at peace. Woman and man live in peace. There is peace between Spirit and Soul. And all living creatures experience peace within themselves.

Shalom is what God meant for humankind.

 

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The Strength We Don’t Believe

Church leaders have a hard time admitting their weaknesses.

I suppose everyone does. No one likes to have their vulnerabilities exposed and their misalignment with God uncovered. Church leaders, though, have a few distinct reasons:

1. Many people in the pew like the idea of a flawless pastor – or at least one whose flaws are minimal, like s/he overeats at potluck.
2. It helps with book deals and speaking gigs to be well thought of rather than honestly thought of.
3. Some church folks use it against a minister if s/he confesses who they really are.

As genuine as these reasons are, they are shadows of the actual reason pastors, leaders, and generally everyone you know, stops short of admitting their weaknesses. The truth? We don’t actually believe the Bible!iStock_000012442006Small

Here’s my proof: The Apostle Paul makes one overarching point in his second letter (or third, for folks who know) to the church in Corinth. That point? God’s power is made perfect in weakness!

Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul refers to his own weaknesses and the myriad ways he’s been accused of not being the best pastor in the world. He’s no speaking tour, mega-church, huge podcast, leadership conference speaking, book-writing, superstar. So Paul writes 2 Corinthians as a response to the various ways he’s been criticized (none of which he denies being true).

After arguing his case for a while, the apostle detonates the message he has received from God; “But he (God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

As beautiful – and quoted – as this passage is, few of us believe it.

The next time you’re flicking through TV channels take note of how many TV preachers are ministering from their weaknesses. At the next large “leadership” conference listen to speaker introductions and see how frequently the strength of the presenter (great leader, incredible communicator, cultural architect, entrepreneurial leaders, etc…) and the strength of their church (read: numbers) is mentioned. When you peruse the bookshelves at your local Christian bookstore, notice how many bestsellers are written by folks who are writing about how God works through their weaknesses rather than their strengths. At many churches, when you join their ranks, they’ll even give you some kind of “strengths finder.”

What’s more, how many of us blog, tweet and speak in order to “build a platform” (confession)? And isn’t building a platform simply a fancy way of saying, “building strength”? You will find some pastors and preachers sharing honestly, but not most. When we do, our talk of weaknesses are simply humble-brags; “I can’t believe I speak to 6,000 people each Sunday after struggling with a speech impediment as a little boy….”

We are strength addicted! Our deeply held conviction is the same conviction at work in all of American life: Strength is always better than weakness. Those of us working in and leading churches project the same false machismo and pomp we see after a wide-receiver scores a touchdown. We thump our chest and scream to the world, “Look at me. Look at me. See how strong I am.”

We actually believe strength is better than weakness even though the Bible expressly tells us otherwise. While the scriptures call us to open our weaknesses and allow God’s power to flow through us, we have knotted the hose keeping the Spirit from cascading through us.

What would happen if we actually believed that God’s power is not just useful in weakness, but made ‘perfect’? What might happen if the next time we saw a church leader carting a truck full of accolades and more franchises than McDonald’s, we became suspicious of whether or not s/he was walking with the Lord as Paul did or was just Donald Trump with a 3-point sermon? What would happen if we accepted the fact that the cross and suffering of Jesus was the Spirit’s most powerful moment.

The cross was a moment of seeming weakness; a tiny organization of unsure followers yet that’s when God’s strength was most on display. What if for something to be of God it had to look like weakness to the world? What if it looked like weakness to us?

What if we have strength and weakness all wrong?

Performance Anxiety

A year ago our congregation was visited by a family of five – wife, husband, and three kids. They looked like the kind of family every church secretly covets; good-looking, educated, well-ordered, and young. From all accounts they enjoyed our fellowship. They were already familiar with several members of our church and their energy was obvious. After three weeks, I felt confident they would join our congregation and mission.

They didn’t.

After three weeks, they never came back. I can’t say why they left.I suspect that after a lengthy questioning of me after worship service, I didn’t dislike the same people they disliked and I didn’t read the Christian books they read, and I didn’t listen to the same preachers they listened to.

The same event occurred when a gentleman left our congregation because he couldn’t find the Bible I preached from, The Voice, at the local Lifeway Store. What’s more, collecting the offering before the sermon was a bridge too far for him. After all, if the sermon was good that day, he might be inclined to give a little more.

If you suspect my stories are wild outliers, sit down with your preacher or church leaders and have them share a few stories of their own.

Church can be a mixed-up, confused, and debatable entity – mostly because it means so much and can mean so many different things to different people.

Standing Ovations
For most people, church is a place where particular “performances” occur – singing, preaching, communion, and, good heavens, announcements. We don’t like to call them performances, but that’s how we think of them.

Performance – in part – is why preachers podcast, worship bands record and tour, and parishioners “join” churches they “like.” Performance-thinking has almost solely produced the contemporary imagination of the American church. From the blessings and ills of mega-churches, to the rise of celebrity pastors, to conference groupies, to small church anxieties about being “good enough,” to the revolving door of church members groping for a church where they are “fed” and “fits their learning style,” American churches are experiencing performance anxiety.

In short: If we like the performance then church is a benefit, if we don’t, we’re out. Collectively, American Christians have transformed church life into an episode of Iron Chef; let’s sample the offerings then declare a winner based solely on our taste.

But our tastes are the precise disease the church exists to cure.

When the Apostle Paul speaks of church and worship, he never speaks of performance. He doesn’t even speak of membership or joining. Paul’s language is much more gritty. Paul uses the word “body.”

In Paul’s oft-quoted, but seldom lived words about worship, the Apostle connects true worship with transformation and the renewing of the mind.

“Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete. ”

-Romans 12:2

Over the last 20 years or so, this connection has helped many of us understand worship as more than what happens on Sunday. We eagerly proclaim that worship is connected to all of life,the day-to-day, the routine and mundane. Yet even in this acknowledgment, we somehow manage to cut Paul off at the knees and fail to grasps the deeper, more meaningful message.

For Paul, worship is not merely connected to daily actions, it’s connected to transformation and transformation is the aim of church.

He writes,

“Because of the grace allotted to me, I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are; devote your minds to sound judgment since God has assigned to each of us a measure of faith. For in the same way that one body has so many different parts, each with different functions; we, too—the many—are different parts that form one body in the Anointed One.  Each one of us is joined with one another, and we become together what we could not be alone.”
– Romans 12:3-5

A Church At Odds

When Paul writes to churches in Rome, he pens his letter to Christians at odds. The Jewish and Gentile believers don’t care much for one another and if it were up to them they’d just as well go their own way. Like us, they’d select a church of their own liking, one, presumably, filled with folks that looked like them, talked like them, and fit their needs.

Paul is not concerned about their needs. He’s consumed with their transformation.

And before we hoop, holler, and cheer for transformation, we need to be honest and remember that when it comes to transformation, we seldom like it. We remember well our attempts at previous transformations – losing weight, getting out of debt, beginning to take God seriously, re-imagining our marriage amid hard times, readjusting to the management of our children when required, and the like.

Transformation, by its nature, is stressful, uncomfortable, and difficult. It ask us to submit to an alternative way of being — an alternative way of being that we could not and would not choose.

This being the universal case, perhaps the worst decision we can make when contemplating our church life is choosing one we like. An overweight, out-of-shape man has already chosen how many sit-ups are appropriate: None. That’s the way he stays overweight and out-of-shape.

Choosing a church (or non-church) where we “fit,” may be the strongest guarantee that we will never be asked to change. This, I suspect, is why we do it.

In church, as in the rest of life, we don’t want transformation as much as we say we do. We’d rather have comfort.

Being Church

The best thing many of us could do is envisage church as an opportunity to embrace that which is outside of us, that which does not – at least on the surface – appeal to what we already are.

Being church requires actions and activities that we wouldn’t otherwise choose. While being church, we are placed among people we might not like to participate in activities we may not choose at a time we might find inconvenient in a manner we may not fit our style, in order to become, in the words of Paul, “what we could not be alone.”