A Heresy of My Own (Part 1) | Questioning Assumptions

A Heresy of My Own (Part 1) | Questioning Assumptions

I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy. – G.K. Chesterton

I’ve actually been banned from speaking at an entire network of churches in the midwest. So I get it – my teaching/writing sometimes creates a bit of tension. I don’t think I’m actually a heretic, or even headed that direction, but I am on a journey. I am fascinated by God revealed in Jesus. I am dissatisfied with the Evangelical packaging I first found Jesus in.

We live in such a binary culture. This or that. The this I grew up in was very theologically, socially and politically conservative. To question those assumptions produced a very strong reaction: if you’re not this you must be that. If you’re not conservative you must be (GASP!), a liberal. But this is the very framework I am questioning.

When we equate the gift with the packaging, questioning the packaging feels like an insult to the gift. I first met Jesus in a very white, southern, male-dominated, conservative, Republican context. Yankees are bad. Non-whites can’t be trusted. Women can’t lead. Liberals are stupid. Democrats hate America. When you meet Jesus within that set of assumptions, it is easy to collapse faith in Jesus with that way of seeing reality. Questioning that way of seeing reality feels like questioning Jesus.

Things really get threatening when you begin to question the religious assumptions.

For example: The Bible is to be interpreted literally. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard this overtly taught. And when it wasn’t the explicit topic, it was the implied assumption of every other topic. To question this is to depart from the faith. To challenge this fundamentalist mindset is to embrace theological liberalism.

What does that even mean? Interpret the Bible literally?

God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:5, ESV)

Day and Night. How am I supposed to interpret this literally? Literally, evening and morning are what we experience on the Earth as it rotates on its axis in orbit around the Sun. Never mind that in Genesis 1, there was not a Sun for the Earth to orbit around until day 3. I can’t even read the first five verses of the Bible literally without first checking my brain and the meaning of words at the door (figuratively, of course)!

This book is full of figurative language. “So are you saying you don’t believe Genesis 1 really happened?” No! That’s not what I’m saying at all. Figurative language can still have a concrete referent.

The first chapter of Genesis doesn’t seem to be an answer to the questions: When? and How long? The first chapter of Genesis seems to be an answer to the questions: Who? and Why? You first have to bring your “the Bible is to be interpreted literally” glasses to the text in order to entirely miss the point of the text.

And that’s my problem. The packaging. The lenses. The set of assumptions we’ve attached to the text that is not itself the text. Our “Evangelical” commitment to that set of assumptions becomes the litmus test for orthodoxy.

You’re not allowed to question the assumptions. You’re not allowed to tear up the packaging. I’m going to anyway. I’ve been doing it since I was 21 years old and I’m not slowing down.

I remember when my journey started. In 1992, I was reading Power Evangelism by John Wimber and, at the same time, The Gospel of the Kingdom by George Eldon Ladd. It dawned on me that I might need to radically redefine what I meant when I used the word “gospel.” I thought the word encapsulated the Bible’s answer to the question: How can people go to heaven when they die? I realized it was actually the Bible’s answer to the question: How can God’s broken creation be made new again? Or: How can heaven come to earth?

It was a revolutionary shift in my perspective. It changed the way I read the Bible. It completely adjusted my understanding of the epic narrative I’ve been swept into. But in an Evangelical culture where sharing “the gospel” means asking people about whether or not they’re going to heaven when they die, my change in perspective has often produced tension and fear from those who felt like I was somehow departing from the faith.

And the thing is, I still believe in going to heaven when we die, and that Jesus is the only way.

But is Jesus a Republican? Ah…now that’s a good question…

28 Replies to “A Heresy of My Own (Part 1) | Questioning Assumptions”

  1. And this is why I love you. I feel like my soul, my personhood, my identity, was plowed into the ground by evangelical thinking. ‘Believe our way or you are wrong, rebellious and possibly destined for eternal flames.’ I struggled with depression and the very real fear that I wasn’t smart enough to believe things that just would not settle in my soul. Then one day I sat in a Kairos weekend and ‘heard God say’ that I was not stupid. That I could trust my own power of discernment and that quite possibly the things I felt were wrong, indeed were. I found the freedom to reject, to explore and finally to embrace uncertainty. It’s been a journey, but definitely worth it.

  2. Loved this. I wrestle with a fear of losing truth if I see scripture in a realistic, meaningful, intelligent way. But I do…quietly and personally…affirm what you are saying. Years of accepting what I knew was warped and inaccurate have left an imprint. I would like to be free of that. Thanks!

  3. Alan- I’d love a private message to confirm “where” you have been banned. I hope it’s not where I think… anyway, much love to you. I hope the messenger bag is doing as well as the journey seems to be

    Lee

  4. …reMove…the word DaddyGod asked me to pray for and over you and Nancy…at the time, it was odd to speak out loud…🙏🏻

    This blogpost produced happy tears. Thanks for questioning the “unquestionable”…and remaining fascinated by God revealed in Jesus.

    Take off your shoes, brother…this is holy ground. Go on…reMove them!!

  5. This reminds me of someone I know who used to say, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Keep up the good work, my friend.

  6. I do not question that the Bible is the word of God. But why should I believe God chose to stop talking to us and revealing himself. I think He is big enough to handle my questions. I think He is active enough to still be involved. I think He loves us enough to keep speaking. If I’m wrong, oh well I even believe He is big enough to correct me. Keep on persuing Him because there are a lot of us on this journey.

  7. You would be so pleased to know the curriculum chosen this semester for Aflame and Furnace Small groups is doing this exact thing. Questioning the unquestionable!!! Asking them not only WHAT they believe, but WHY they believe it.

    …and to be completely honest I may possibly be getting more out of this than any of our young adults or students LOL

  8. Can’t wait to read part two. This is already thought provoking as I’ve been pondering lots of these very things over the last 3-5 years but no idea how to flesh it out without feeling like that’s wrong. Grace. Grace. Grace. And a heavy dose of truth.

  9. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for posting this. From what I can tell, I share some of your same religious background and experience. I also have no regard for most evangelical pop theology, which does tend to bundle doctrines and assumptions.

    That being said, I’m interested in the framework you’re constructing here: “This book is full of figurative language. “So are you saying you don’t believe Genesis 1 really happened?” No! That’s not what I’m saying at all. Figurative language can still have a concrete referent.”

    It seems to me that you’re setting up a hermeneutic that says if one part of the bible can be figurative other parts of the bible can be figurative. And, hence, we should be more open to other interpretations. Interested to see how this hermeneutic plays through.

    “What does that even mean? Interpret the Bible literally?”

    Doesn’t it mean finding that “concrete referent”? At the end of the day, if something is figurative but still has a concrete referent that limits the number of possible interpretations. Limits it to about one interpretation.

    Look forward to your future thoughts.

    Thanks,
    Troy

    1. Hey Troy…thanks for your thoughts on this. I think the ultimate concrete referent is God revealed in Jesus. Everything else is understood in reference to him and him alone.

  10. When I met you at Gateway many years ago and I read your book it was like you were reading my soul. It changed me forever and the way we train pastors in Mexico, disciple, and pray. I also came from the same roots and was influenced by Wimber and Ladd but when it is not accepted sometimes we went backwards to be accepted. We no longer care about being accepted and your teachings and writing has influenced us greatly. Thanks you and God bless.

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