The Call to Controversy

Need something stimulating to think about?

You could hardly go wrong with Brian McLaren’s new book, “A New Kind of Christianity.”

This book is certainly continuing to stir up not only healthy dialogue about important topics of faith, but also controversy in the Christian arena. It seems that there is very little middle-ground of opinion in regards to this book. People tend to either love it or hate it. And like it or not, in Christian circles this book looks to be THE “most talked-about” read of the year.

So, why endorse something that is the source of such controversy? Well, for several reasons:

1) WE NEED TO BE AWARE OF THE DISCUSSION.

Lots of people will be talking about this book and the questions that it raises. And make no mistake, they are important questions, no matter what you think are the correct answers. These are the questions of 21st century Christianity; questions of both those inside and outside the mainstream church today. Whether you realize it or not, you will be a part of this discussion. In fact, your voice will help shape this discussion.

And let me suggest that you actually read what is being stated by this intriguing side of the discussion. I have and will continue to read many disparaging comments and blogs about Brian McLaren’s view from people who disagree with his answers, which by the way is just part of the healthy dialogue. But, what is not healthy is that many of the people on the opposite side of the debate have not actually read McLaren’s books.

“That Brian McLaren has really gone off the deep end. I think he’s dangerous.”
“Have you read his book?”
“No, but I’ve heard he said such and such.”

Brian McLaren

Maybe we ought to be a bit more informed as we enter this discussion. Whether it is McLaren or MacArthur, maybe we should actually LISTEN to what they have to say and the context in which they say it before we criticize them. In fact, while you may disagree with either person in many areas, you may find some common ground as well. Or perhaps even more importantly, you may disagree with the conclusions, but may find a respectful appreciation for the spirit of the person and their questions.

In a recent interview, McLaren makes a case for this in responding to the way people easily dismiss his questions as “liberal” without considering his possibly more complex stance:

“I wouldn’t want to overlook the many ways in which my proposals differ from traditional liberal theology. My attitudes and commitments regarding Jesus, the Holy Spirit, scripture, spiritual experience, institutionalism, personal commitment and conversion, evangelism and discipleship, and many other subjects make many of my liberal friends think of me as conservative. Sometimes I wonder if evangelicals simply use the word “liberal” as a way to say, “Let’s stop listening to this person. He’s too different from us, and so is not worth our time and attention.” I hope that’s not the case, but sometimes, this is what I feel like when evangelicals use “the L word.”

For me, liberal is not automatically a bad word. If liberal means free from tyranny, I’m for it. If liberal means generous, I’m for it. If liberal means believing that our best days are ahead of us, I’m for it. If liberal means welcoming honest questions and giving honest scholarship a fair hearing, I’m for it. If, on the other hand, liberal means without restraint, or careless about tradition, or dismissive of scripture, or institutional and lukewarm regarding commitment to Christ, and so on, then I wouldn’t want to be associated with that. And we could say parallel things about the word conservative.”

Huh, maybe he’s not as crazy as people say. But, that’s not important. You don’t have to agree with McLaren, but maybe we should give him a fair-hearing (or rather reading). It may be that he is not as “off-the-deep-end” as we think. Or even if he is, that he is at least still committed to the best of his mental and reasoning ability to Jesus, if only incorrect.

2) WE NEED TO BE THINKERS

What I like best about this book is that it forces us to wrestle with concepts we take for granted and THINK. Controversy can only exist where people are seriously grasping and thinking and reasoning. And in that way, a healthy dose of controversy is probably very good for the modern church.

I work with high school students on a regular basis, and by far my greatest goal in my time with them is not to give them all the answers. Do I want them to have good answers? Of course. But more importantly, I want them to learn HOW to question, HOW to find good answers. I want to help them learn HOW to THINK. Many more questions will come up in their lives long after I am gone, and I’d rather they learned how to critically think about those questions sure-to-come in the future rather than just have some spoon-fed responses from me about the ones they are asking right now.

Ironically, many high schoolers I know are better at wrestling with questions and learning to think than a lot of adults. And maybe that is a bigger problem in our churches today than we’d care to admit. We just don’t think for ourselves. We’ve accepted long-held answers (many of which might be correct, by the way) to many old questions (some of which people aren’t asking anymore) without ever thinking it through ourselves. We are lazy. Lazy theologically. Lazy mentally.

This has direct consequences for our witness to the world. Because while we are busy being content with answers to questions we’ve never genuinely asked ourselves, the rest of the world is actively and honestly seeking answers. The church is irrelevant because by and large we can’t speak authentically to these questions. We appear to be a second-hand, consignment store of truth because we are primarily selling the “hand-me-down responses” of generations before us rather than doing the hard work of wrestling with the deeper questions and making sense of them in this time and context for ourselves.

Consider just these few questions: How is the Bible unique and why should it apply to my life? What makes the Bible authoritative in my life? How do I know it is the “Word of God?” What does it mean that it was “inspired?” What in the Bible is culturally-conditioned for people at the time of it’s writing and what is a universal-truth that applies to me? How do I know the difference? Can I know the difference? Is there a difference?

While just the tip of the proverbial ice-berg, these questions alone go a long way in helping answer modern dilemmas such as human sexuality, the character of God, the purpose of Jesus, social justice, and other ethical considerations.

Some will agree with the conclusions of the author and others will not. But no matter what you think of McLaren’s answers, what is undisputable is that these questions need to be asked. Or rather, these questions are already being asked by many people (friends, family, co-workers) around us. McLaren is not by far the first person to ask these questions, but he is suggesting that rather than dismissing the people who ask them maybe we ought to spend some time struggling with them as well and as a community “led by the Spirit” recalibrating the answers to this time and in our current context.

As McLaren says:

“That’s why, in the end, I hope people will actually read the book with an open heart and mind. I’m not expecting that anyone will agree with everything — that’s not my point. But I am hoping that people will be stimulated to think, and maybe even to dream of better possibilities … so the Christianity of the future can continue to learn and grow and not simply repeat the past or be stuck in the present.”

Is it dangerous to read a book that challenges things that you believe and causes you to ask some rather unsettling questions about your core beliefs? Possibly. But far more dangerous for the church today is not reading these books and not asking these inquiries.

So go ahead and risk it. It’s okay to hang up the “under-construction: please come back later” sign on your theology for the weekend. Pick up the book and let it mess you up a little bit. Be okay to let the questions move you to a place of uncertainty for a while. Inhale the ambiguity and breathe deep the tension of inquisition.

It may be that once the smoke and fog has cleared you find yourself with some “real” answers. Or at the very least, a greater understanding & compassion for and a stronger, more respected voice into the life of seekers around you.

It could be the church will be healthier for the controversy.

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Love Connection – 3/22/09 – Part 2

Ok, this may be the most “scandalous” blog that I have written to date.  Wait, a minute… probably not.  The “Gay-Bath House” series was a bit scandalous too, huh? (Gay-Bath House article).

love-connection-jpgOh well, apparently my lot in life is to get involved in the dirty, messy and controversial subjects.   So, let’s jump right into the final question for this week, which almost gave me a coronary attack as I read it knowing I’d have to answer it!  Thanks everybody…  Let’s just get back to asking questions that are “safe,” huh?  LOL.


Question #3:
What are your views on masturbation?  Is it okay?

Wow, so we’re gonna go THERE now?  Ok.  I guess I should have known that we would eventually get here.   This question doesn’t necessarily have to do with relationships, however it is an issue that could impact relationships on many different levels.   So let’s go ahead and discuss it.

This is a very difficult question to answer.  On the one hand, many people believe it is wrong.  But, on the flip side, many Christians believe it is not.  Either way I answer I do two things:  1) I make half of everybody angry.  2) I assume that I actually know the answer.  (LOL)

So, let me give you my best effort at an answer.  It may not be perfect, but for better or worse, it is what I believe by faith right now.

First, the Bible has nothing to say directly about this issue.  The word “masturbation” is not in the Bible at all.  It is a subject, like dating, that isn’t discussed.  And without making too much of an “argument from silence” it does at least gives us a little bit of flexibility here.

However, there is one Bible text that has been used to condemn the behavior and it is worth mentioning here because its often use in this manner is not only unwarranted but flat-out coercive and wrong.

onanGenesis 38:8-10:  “Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.  But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.  What he did was wicked in the LORD’s sight; so he put him to death also.”

Wow!  How’s that for a little provocative Bible reading?  Just tell your parents: “Hey, you wanted me to read the Bible.”

Now, when I was a teenager (like 100 years ago), this verse was quoted to me as God’s ultimate word against masturbation.  The line went like this, “See, Onan wasted his seed  (sperm) and God’s punishment for him was DEATH!!”

Nothing like a little fear that God will strike you dead to keep you from masturbating!

However, this story has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH MASTURBATION.  It is a story about a strange, but merciful Jewish law that took care of widows and passed on family inheritance.

In the Jewish culture, if the husband of a woman died, his brother was required to marry her and save her from widowhood.  And if she did not have a son to pass the deceased husband’s land and assets to, then the brother was required to father a son with her.   This son would not be considered the brother’s son, but the deceased husband’s son and thus he would inherit the land.   It was God’s way of providing for families in crisis and ensuring rightful land inheritance.

In this text, then, God is not addressing masturbation at all.  He is punishing Onan for purposefully being disobedient and not taking care of his brother’s family.

So, if the bible doesn’t directly address this question, than what are we to make of it?  Is it okay?  Is it a sin?

Well . . . to say that it is a sin goes beyond what we have God directly saying to us in the Bible.  Because of this, theoretically, I believe that the act itself is not sin.

looking with lustHowever, while this makes sense theoretically, there is a very practical reality to consider.  Maybe most compelling are the inevitable thoughts that go along with this act.   And while no Bible text deals with masturbation, per se, Jesus does have some pretty radical things to say about our thought-life.

“You have heard it said that you should not commit adultery.  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  — Matthew 5:27-28

What Jesus is saying here is that our “thoughts” are as important as our “actions.”   The intention behind what we do or don’t do is as crucial as our actual actions.

Now, even if theoretically, masturbation isn’t a sin, think of all the thoughts that usually invade your mind during those moments.  I would say that it is extremely rare that one engages in that action without some sort of impure thoughts about another person, whether you know them or don’t know them (in the case of most pornography).  And these thoughts are IMPORTANT, because they affect our relationships with other people and how we see other people.  Particularly for guys, this type of visualization reinforces “objectification” of women–seeing women as “objects” to possess rather than people to be honored and loved.

Couple that with the fact that masturbation is about selfish gratification (as opposed to sexual intercourse which when performed “in love” as intended is done as much for the other person as for you) and you at the very least have a less than beneficial activity.

So when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure I can make that judgment call for you.  I don’t know what goes on in your head.  Only you do.  And I don’t know what God’s Spirit convicts you about.

But it might help as you think through this issue for yourself to be reminded that sin is not primarily a legal infraction.  Sin is not like a speeding ticket.  God isn’t necessarily keeping track of all your tickets and waiting for you to “pay-up.”

Instead, I believe sin is more like an infection.  It is something that messes up your relationships with God and other people, like an infection messes up the way your body is supposed to work.

With this in mind, I don’t think God is going to kill you for it and you won’t be sent to hell for masturbating too much.   However, it may warrant a bit of caution.  Just because something may not be sin, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good for you or for your relationships with other people.   And if this issue causes problems between you and God or you and other people, you would be wise to listen to that prompting of the Spirit and choose differently.

Ok.  Hope that helps.

By the way, for those counting at home, I said the word, “masturbation” nine times.  Oops, make that ten.