Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World

Recently John Shelby Spong has released a new book entitled “Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World.”  Just today I read a CNN article describing some of what lies in front of those who will read it.  I have not read it and so I have no interest in critiquing the book.  I think if we’ve learned anything in 2011 it’s that you cannot critique a book you haven’t read. (even if you turn out to be right)  🙂

In any case, I do  have a few initial thoughts that stem from the article and just a surface read of the title.

First, when any author starts by making what they must consciously know is an extreme statement and then follows that statement up with “and EVERY biblical scholar recognizes this”, instantly I know that something is fishy.  Either he’s completely lost touch with any scholar that isn’t in his tiny tribe and is thus ignorant (which I cannot believe), or he’s exaggerating and being intellectually dishonest, trying to pull a fast one on those who simply do not know any better.  I cannot help but think that Spong knows very well few biblical scholars would agree with what he says.

Second, I find it odd that the project that Spong says he is setting out upon is to “re-claim” a thoroughly religious document written by and for the “religious” FOR those who are “non-religious” and in doing so he finds nothing illogical about this at all.  This would be like me attempting to “re-claim” Shakespeare for non-literates or Darwin for the non-scientific.  To disassociate the scriptures from the religious realm is a fruitless endeavor. And what is this business of re-claiming?  Did the scriptures EVER belong to the “non-religious”?

Third, is this really a new project?  Hasn’t this already been done a number of times?  Isn’t this more of a re-appropriation of Bultmann’s project intensified and tweaked for the 21st century?  Hasn’t Marcus Borg already done this with “Reading the Bible For the First Time” several years ago? (which by the way I respect a lot more).

Fourth, the major historical points (not his assumptions) he brings up in the CNN article are nothing that we haven’t know for the entirety of church history (the gospels weren’t written until 70-100 AD, etc.) but he assumes that because a biblical book wasn’t written until a later date there is no possibility that anything historically accurate could have survived.  This is simply a false, modernistic presupposition that makes it impossible for Spong to adequately interpret scripture.  Mark is certainly based on eyewitness accounts.  These were eyewitness accounts that survived through the passing on of oral history which makes sense in an oral culture.

Fifth, and not surprisingly, he bashes on the Old Testament and makes the culturally popular statement, “How could you believe in a God like that?”  Simply because he cannot imagine a God like that in his contemporary, brilliant mind, He must not exist or He must exist how I would imagine Him to exist.  He quickly follows that up with the second most popular “Look at all the damage that has been done because of a certain reading of this book!” as if what sinful people DO in some way invalidate the book written about what sinful people DO!

Sixth, and finally, his answer to these Old Testament problems is that the trajectory of humanity was from ignorant morons who got God totally wrong to enlightened ones who really get God.  Spong of course falling in the latter camp.  There are simply better answers out there in terms of understanding scripture in all of it’s parts.  Spong is simply recapitulating what has been done a hundred times over and it’s still just as unsatisfactory.

Spong resorts to what is most popular and the easiest for our contemporary minds to believe in light of what our culture tells us God MUST be like.  There is nothing new under the sun.


2011 – an addendum

Immediately after posting what at face value appears to be a glowing review of this past year I must confess that this has also been an incredibly challenging year on a number of levels.  It is not my intent to mislead or to clean up the rough parts.  It certainly was not the great and fulfilling year I wrote about because there was no pain or heartache, and it wasn’t a great and fulfilling year despite the pain and heartache.

It’s more complex than that.

In addition I’ve certainly rejected the cliche yearbook quote “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  That simply isn’t true.  In fact I would say what doesn’t kill you makes you softer and more compassionate and I’ve personally found I am much more in want of compassion and kindness than pure strength.

I think Jim James is on to something when he sings on MMJ’s newest album, “If it would have been easy, I would not have cared.” In fact, I would say that this year has been so fulfilling and valuable because of the pain and heartache.  This year means a lot more to me than a year marked by ease and painlessness.

2011 – Year In Review

2011 has been an exhilarating, stretching, and wonderful year.  Honestly, this has been one of the best years of my life.  I make goals (not resolutions!) at the beginning of the year and this year I can look at my list with joy as I have completed most of them!  I won’t bore you with those particular items but looking back at the year there are several memorable experiences that jump out at me.







Fatherhood – Being a dad has never been more fun.  Gram is an amazing little boy and every day I find myself enjoying his company and quirks more than the previous day.  Each day I think, “surely I could not love this kid any more tomorrow.”  But each day he does something that makes me laugh harder, or warms my heart.  I LOVE this kid.






Weddings – This summer was premarital counseling and wedding season like usual.  I was honored to perform two weddings in two unique and beautiful places for two great couples.  The first was Matt and Krystal who was married in Ladd’s Circle and the second was Steve and Krista at Timberline lodge on Mt. Hood.  Both were a LOT of fun and very memorable.







Church Community – I may have learned more about church community and leadership this year than any previous year.  There have been some ups and downs but I find myself really thankful for where we are at and where we are headed next year.  I think we’re in for a really great season and am excited for 2012!

Ecclesia Conference in Washington, D.C. – Had a fun learning experience and bonding time with our staff at Ecclesia this year.  Todd Hunter was one of the main contributors amongst some other fantastic people.  I love this conference because there is no sense of “celebrity” there.  Whoever is present can actually be interacted with.  A welcome change from other celebrity/performance-oriented church conferences.  You can keep Catalyst!  🙂

Vacations – One of the perks of pastoring Evergreen is that I get 20 days of vacation.  We took advantage this year and spent a warm and sunny week on the beach in Clearwater, FL in April swimming, eating, and watching Gram attempt to play in the sand.  We also took our annual vacation with the Vaughn’s to Priest Lake, Idaho in August.  Great week of running, swimming, sampling a plethora of Belgian beers, playing Settlers, and spear fishing (Ok, so I wouldn’t call what I did spear-fishing, but more floating around on a river.  But Devin and Ethan looked like they were having fun).

Warrior Dash – I’ve been meaning to run a 5k FOREVER now.  So why not add an obstacle course?  Brandon, Joel, Matt and myself braved the mud, fire, water, and obstacles during a 5K trail run.  This isn’t what caused my torn rotator cuff, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t help anything.  🙂  I also managed to lose 25 pounds and get down to my ideal weight this year as a result of better eating and exercising.  It’s amazing what you can do when you give all of the fad diets the finger and learn some discipline (only took 7 years).

ThM Program – Thanks to a generous scholarship I was able to begin the ThM program at Western this fall.  I enrolled in a seminar on Augustine and a class on The New Perspectives on Paul.  It was a lot to keep up on considering pastoring full time and enjoying my family but I survived and will be doing a few more classes this spring.  Actually now that I think about it, I haven’t received my grade for Augustine yet so maybe I didn’t survive.  Who knows?

Brewing Success – After almost 5 years of brewing, I feel like I’ve got some beers dialed in.  Managed to make a great IPA, Saison, Belgian Golden, Dark Saison, and Honey Kolsch this year.  Hoping to make some more great beers this year!

All in all, this was one of the fullest and most satisfying years of my life.  I think Kelli might say the same (but of course there is no way to tell until she blogs about it).  Certainly wasn’t an easy one but a fulfilling year for sure.  I look forward to what God has in store for us in 2012 (unless the Mayans are right).

Favorite Albums of 2011

Looking through this list again I’ve realized how few new artists there are on it as compared to years past.  For whatever reason, I didn’t have the energy to listen to a lot of new music this year so I stuck with new albums from artists I already knew.  Maybe next year that will change.

10.  Wye Oak – Civilian





9.  Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire





8.  Okkervil River – I Am Very Far





7.  Beirut – Rip Tide





6. The Decemberists – The King is Dead





5. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean





4. Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest





3. My Morning Jacket – Circuital





2. Real Estate – Days





1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Head and the Heart – S/T.
  • J.Mascis – Several Shades of Why.
  • The War on Drugs – Slave Ambient.

Pain; it hurts

I’m a little over two weeks post-op for my rotator cuff surgery. Yesterday I had my second physical therapy appointment and I’m convinced that before that time I had yet to truly experience pain.  I thought I had, but at the moment when the pain was most excruciating and my forearm and hand were involuntarily shaking and spasming as if to say “ENOUGH! I can’t take any more!” I realized any previous pain was only discomfort comparatively.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about pain in the last two weeks.  There were two nights in particular after the surgery that I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep but only got about 5, 20 minute naps.  It was the kind of pain that doesn’t allow you to concentrate on anything else.  Kelli offered several times to turn on a show but I declined.  How could I watch TV while it felt like a child was being birthed out of my shoulder? (that may be a little dramatic).  Couldn’t read, couldn’t watch, couldn’t focus on anything else.  The only thing that didn’t make it worse was simply to sit in silence.  Thankfully that only happened during the first four days after surgery and because of my narcotic-induced state, the time passed quickly.

In any case, all of this has caused me to reflect on the experience of pain.

  • There are certain contexts in which avoiding or circumventing pain is detrimental to healing and wholeness.  

In fact, yesterday as my legs were kicking and arm was spasming while the physical therapist made my arm go in places that I would not have believed possible, I noticed a few times that when I was in the most pain, the physical therapist would look away.  She was clearly not looking at anything in particular.  It was almost as if she knew that if she looked at me, she would feel sympathy and be forced to relent in doing what she knows is absolutely necessary for my healing.  Fascinating!

  • Without some regular experience of pain, it’s easy to become hardened to the pain of others.

I have lost count of how many surgeries my father has had.  Two hips replaced, a knee replaced, a shoulder surgery, other assorted knee surgeries.  Seems that his body has taken a beating from all the years of motorcycle racing (which he will quickly dismiss as not being the problem.)   However, I was not able to empathize with his experience properly despite having a few knee surgeries myself (those were a piece of cake comparatively), because I had not experienced the difficulties surrounding a long and painful recovery myself.  Just in the past two weeks, I find myself being softened to the pain of those around me and truly feeling empathy for their suffering.

  • There is always someone who has experienced more pain or suffered more than you.  But that does not mean your pain or suffering is not legitimate or does not deserve empathy.  

When you have shoulder surgery you will quickly find and bond with those who have had the same experience.  I’m amazed at what people have endured.  A friend TK had a terrible shoulder injury and LONG recovery.  Devin’s mom has had 2 rotator cuff surgeries on EACH shoulder!  Brian had a long labrum repair recovery with a bad sickness on top of it.  I met a man at a restaurant last night who had a muscle transplant in 1971 and had his arm secured to his chest for 6 months!  He said to me “that looks uncomfortable” referring to my arm in a sling.  I laughed in my mind and thought, “uncomfortable! are you kidding me? excruciating!”  And then he told me his story and it put things in perspective.  All of those individuals I’ve named have probably had “more” pain than I have (if you can quantify such a thing).  But that doesn’t mean any of our own personal experience with pain is unimportant or should be dismissed simply because “someone is always hurting worse.”

  • Toughness does not mean denying the reality of pain or never talking about the experience with anyone.

In fact, I think there is a level of complaining that is appropriate and necessary regardless of how “tough” you are.  Of course, complaining always has limits and I hope I am not crossing the line where it becomes incredibly irritating for those around me.  (You’ll have to talk with my wife about that).  But there’s a myth that still exists that if you are tough enough, you simply won’t talk about the pain, or ever even acknowledge that it hurts.  All I can say to that is, what a bunch of BS.

  • Sometimes the only purpose pain serves is physiological. 

None of us want to suffer in a way that is void of meaning.  Some of us spend lots of time reflecting and searching out some kind of profound spiritual lesson while undergoing bouts of pain.  I believe that there are times when God does do something profound through pain, but sometimes He doesn’t.  Sometimes the only function pain serves is to tell you that something is wrong with your body, that you’re injured, that you need to rest; your nerves are sending a message to your brain that you need to address a physical need or problem.  And honestly, I’m okay with that.

  • Finally, on a more trivial, sports related note; when a pitcher in the MLB tears their rotator cuff, I will have a better understanding of why 50% of them will never pitch again.
I actually read that pitchers that have Tommy John surgery are much more likely to make a comeback than those with rotator cuff tears.  I would not have thought that but apparently surgeons have that one dialed in, as rotator cuff operations and recoveries are much more unpredictable.  It’s a career ender for most.  In fact if you’re an amateur pitcher hoping for the big leagues, the percentage of those who make it after this operation is a tad over 0%.  All that to say, my dreams of making the big leagues as a pitcher just went from 0.00001% to 0.0000001%.  I’ve started to grieve that reality, but the full weight of it hasn’t hit me yet. 🙂
*just to be clear as a end-note here, I’m actually doing really well so I’m not trying to solicit sympathy with this post.  Most of my pain is gone (other than physical therapy) and my range of motion is improving quickly.

Favorite Reads of 2011

How do you narrow down your favorite books of the year to 10?  That was not easy, because honestly out of the 55 books I completed this year, I read a LOT of great ones.  This might be one of my best reading years ever (I know that sounds really nerdy).  In any case, here were my top ten favorites.  (I’ve intentionally left off the ones that are really nerdy and no one would ever read. 🙂

10.  Augustine of Hippo – Peter Brown

A thorough, yet readable biography.  If you want to understand Augustine, this is a great place to start.




9.  How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It – Patricia Love

The title of this book almost made me laugh out loud.  I’ll be honest that after having “talk about our relationship” in marriage, the title intrigued me and made me want to read it.  Kelli and I both found it extremely helpful to understand the unique dynamics we bring into the relationship and what causes us anxiety and shame and how to improve our marriage without bringing out those two things.  I highly recommend this to all married couples.


8.  Faith Without Illusions; Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint – Andrew Byers

This is a very insightful and helpful read for those who have been disillusioned with faith/church in the past.  Byers does not only identify with our plight, but helps us to know how to grow into “hopeful realists” rather than cynics.


7.  Telling Yourself the Truth – William Bauckus

A book Erin recommended to me as I was thinking about how to help people with their anxiety problems.  Little did I know, I would benefit the most!  I’ve used the things I’ve learned in this book more than I can count this year.



6.  The Heresy of Orthodoxy – Andreas Kostenberger

Rigorously debunks Walter Bauer’s thesis that there were a diversity of “Christianities” that existed in the first century and the “orthodoxy” we have was simply because those in power trampled all the competing Christianities.  I knew that Ehrman was off when I read Misquoting Jesus, but this book thoroughly exposes Bart Ehrman’s appropriation of Bauer for what it is: based on and shaped by false presuppositions and biases, NOT on historical truth or scholarly textual criticism.


5.  Life is Mostly Edges – Calvin Miller

Calvin Miller’s memoir can be described as delightful.  One of the more enjoyable reads this year and one of the funniest!  Miller’s storytelling capacity is top-notch and his experiences and wisdom are valuable, especially for pastors.  Excited to read his latest…


4. Bonhoeffer – Eric Metaxas

The main criticism of this book was that it attempted to “claim” Bonhoeffer for evangelicals.  I’m not so sure about that, but maybe I’ll understand better his after my class on Bonhoeffer in the spring.  This is the first biography of Bonhoeffer I’ve read, but I’m inspired and intrigued with his life story.


3.  Craddock on the Craft of Preaching – Fred Craddock

I just finished this book today but LOVED every moment of it.  It was such a joy to read and has re-sparked the creative juices (which I needed!) in regard to preaching.  If you are a pastor and you preach weekly or regularly, you MUST read this.  I guarantee that you will love it and be challenged by it.


2.  The Divine Conspiracy – Dallas Willard

I’ve read bits and pieces of this in the past, but after my unique encounter with Willard in D.C. I finally made the time to go back and read it in it’s entirety.  This may be the best book on following Jesus I’ve ever read.  You should read it slowly and take it in because it will change the way you think about Jesus and his kingdom forever!


1.  The Pastor – Eugene Peterson

Eugene Peterson is the Radiohead of pastors.  He can write anything and I will give it a 10 out of 10.  This is no exception.  Great stories and more wisdom from a pastor I aspire to be like.

Favorite Beers of 2011

Belgian/Farmhouse Ales:

1.  Rodenbach Grand Cru

2.  Beetje Farmhouse Ale

3.  Cascade Barrel House Holiday Quad

4.  Boulevard Brewing Tank 7 Saison

5.  Logsdon Seizoen Bretta


1.  Laurelwood Workhorse

2.  Natian Old Groghom Winter IPA

3.  Widmer Bros. Rotator Series (Falconer’s Flight IPA/O’Reilly’s IPA)

4.  Ninkasi Maiden the Shade IPA

5.  Fort George Vortex IPA

The Others:

1. Schneider Edelweiss

2. Dogfishhead Sahti

3.  Heater Allen Pils

4.  Hopworks Abominable

5.  Redhook Wit


Brewery of the Year: Cascade Brewing Barrel House

Best Deal: Half-price flights on Monday night @ Hawthorne Hophouse

Best Tap Selection: Apex (would be great if it wasn’t cash only).