Tuesday, March 30, 2010

WARNING: Long excursus ahead!

Okay, we're going to tackle the "mythology" question head on. Alert blog reader Bruce has raised this question more than once in the last couple months, and it is a critical question that cuts right through the heart of Christianity, especially in North America. The question is about whether we should read the Bible "literally". I'll let Bruce ask the question himself, which he did in a comment on my last column (thanks, Bruce! And thanks to others who comment -- I always appreciate your feedback).
Bruce said...

I have a sincere question: Do we not run into danger theologically when we claim that certain scriptures are myth? Is it not not wiser to assume that God's inspired Word is literal, except in such cases as the inspired author directly states that the intent is poetic, prophecy, or a parable?

With that said, I must admit that I am finding far more in Genesis than simply history. Thanks again for sharing you thoughts and theology!

It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand all the trends, movements, and patterns of thought we have inherited when we pick up a Bible. As readers in 2010 we do not -- we CAN NOT come to the Bible without a boatload of preconceptions and assumptions. It is important for us to know what assumptions we carry and make sure they're the ones we want to carry, as much as possible.

One fact that deeply colors our thinking -- and not just about the Bible -- is that we live in a post-Enlightenment world. So our thinking is shaped by the fact that we have inherited Rationalism and Humanism. Humanism is a movement or philosophy that began to invade western thinking in the 1500's, especially under the guidance of Erasmus who was a contemporary of Martin Luther. Along with Erasmus stood many other university teachers and leaders throughout Europe in the 1500's and later. The basic teaching of Humanism is that "man is the measure of all things" -- in other words, rather than receive divine teachings from the church without questioning them, we should evaluate everything and decide what is true and what is not according to some human-based standard of Truth. We are not subject to a greater authority and bound to obey it; rather, the human is the ultimate Agent, the ultimate one who can change things. Rationalism, the working partner of Humanism, teaches that the rational mind of the human being is able to make sense of the universe and that Truth and Fact should be determined by the scrutiny of the rational mind. So if you have a problem, approach it logically. Make a list of pro's and con's. This is a rationalistic approach, and by and large it is a good one. But biblically speaking, a rational mind is only one gift of God in creating humans. Oh, and by the way, humans are created under his authority, in his image, and expected to obey his will. We have to treat the assumptions of humanism and rationalism with caution.

Okay so far? Let's keep going.

People have been writing history for ages and ages, since at least the time of Homer, who wrote the history of the Trojan War in a little ditty we call the Iliad. (Brad Pitt recently redid this little piece, but I like the original version better.) History through the ages, as everyone knew all along, was written by the conquerors. In the process of writing history, part of the historian's task was to help the reader understand events. To interpret, if you will. To collect some events and not report others in order to help us make sense of the world. So for example, students in North America have usually been taught a great deal about the European Renaissance because we viewed ourselves as inheritors of Northern European culture. We have been taught (until recently) very little of the amazing cultures that came and went in sub-Saharan Africa over the past 2000 years, mostly because the writers of history felt we were little impacted by those cultures. We report some things and not others based on what we feel is important.

A few years ago -- about 185 years, actually -- a German named Leopold von Ranke wrote that the task of the historian is to portray things "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" or in English, "the way it really happened." Many, if not most, historians since that time have adopted von Ranke's philosophy with some subtlety and nuance, because historians know it's impossible not to do some interpretation along the way. The way it has trickled down to the average person, however, is that we believe -- because we are rationalistic children of the Enlightenment -- that history should be "just the facts, ma'am" and by the way, that news reporting should be unbiased (or at the very least, fair and balanced). Think about it for a while -- and listen to the evening news for a while if you can stand it -- and you'll see that this is pretty nearly impossible. When you report things, you choose some facts to report and not others. You bring your own sense of priority and meaning to the reporting, whether you're telling the story of a traffic accident or the Thirty Years' War. It is simply unavoidable, and in reality it's not even desirable -- because what we're really looking for as we hear those stories is meaning. We need to know what difference this makes. How is this event connected to me and to my world?

So we're looking for meaning, right?
Now, what is the best way to find meaning? Is it to look at unfiltered literal facts?

Think about getting directions. If you needed directions from Cub Foods in Elk River to Burger King (about 2 or 3 blocks) I could give you directions a couple ways. The first option goes like this: Exit the Cub parking lot to the east, turn right; follow that road through the stop sign and down the hill to the stop light. Proceed straight through the light and take an immediate left past the bank. Turn left into the Burger King parking lot.

Easy, right? That is because I have excluded every shred of information that doesn't directly bear on the question you asked which frames the meaning you're seeking.

The other way I could give directions (and some of you have received this kind of directions) is to share with you just the facts: Go out the Cub parking lot to the east, the Hollywood Video store across the way is closing down, I'm not sure if they're still selling out their old DVD's any more but I was thinking about seeing what they have in stock. On the southwest side -- back behind you at this point -- of Cub down below where Target used to be there's a fenced enclosure. I heard that about ten years ago there was a bear in Elk River that got trapped in that fenced area. Oh, and Target closed that store down, inconvenienced a lot of people who used to shop there, and moved to the big new Superstore in Otsego, just south of Rockwoods. They've got a white chicken chili at Rockwoods that's to die for. Well, they used to have it -- the last time I was there it wasn't on the menu any more.

What was it you wanted again?

Both sets of directions are based on facts. Difference is, one set of facts is filtered by a question of meaning. The other is totally factual but unfiltered.

Which set of directions is true? In one sense, both are true. Totally factual. But the first set is a correct answer to the question, "How do I get from Cub to BK?" It is the question that gives a filter that provides meaningful framework to the facts.

So what question is the Bible trying to answer? How does that filter change what's included? Do you see how important this is? We play this "filtering" game all the time. Murder mysteries use our natural filters to fool us. When you find out it was really the hired hand who killed poor Aunt Betty, a part of your brain screams at the unfairness of the whole thing. "Uncle Al would have to have seen him on the road between town and the farm if he had done it!" you think. So you turn back to page 34 and sure enough, you remember something you filtered out the first time around -- that as Uncle Al turned the corner at mile marker 29, "he saw a man in a jean jacket hunched against the cold November wind walking along the shoulder of the road. Something was vaguely familiar about the man's walk, but Uncle Al dismissed the idea and drove home ..." It was the hired hand walking back toward the farm to commit the crime, but you missed it at the time!

Hold that thought and let's come at this from the other end.

What are we really saying when we ask if the Bible is "literally" true? Are we saying that when the Bible reports history, that it is reporting it "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" -- "the way it really happened"? If so, we are taking our post-Enlightenment idea about history and imposing it on the Bible from our perspective.

Now for those of you who are worrying at this point that I'm going to throw out the historicity of the Bible, let me pause in mid-thought to let you know that I am not one of those who say Abraham and the Patriarchs never existed, that the Exodus never happened (I'm teaching a class on the Exodus starting on April 14, and I'm doing a ton of reading right now on Egypt and possible chronologies of the Exodus ... it's sort of a hobby of mine) or that David never ruled a unified kingdom, etc. People who deny the historicity of these things are called "minimalists" when it comes to the Bible, and to all those questions I choose to respond by siding with the historicity of the Bible. I am no minimalist. I see nothing in any of those stories that tells me the Bible is doing something other than telling me basically what happened, and then extrapolating meaning from a series of reasonably historical characters and events. So I accept the basic historical truth of the Bible's events when they seem intent on being taken as history.
But I don't want to risk missing the Bible's point by assuming that something is history if it's not intended that way.

There are times it seems like the Bible is doing something other than telling me what happened. I've made that argument repeatedly regarding the Genesis creation stories in Genesis 1-11. I think Jonah is another interesting example of a place where the Bible seems less concerned about what happened and more interested in the meaning of it. It's like a political cartoon, if you will pardon a trivial parallel. Is the political cartoon true? If it wasn't, it wouldn't offend anyone. It is the pundit's truth that earns him enemies. But sometimes to tell the truth we use an illustration or a personification -- or a myth.

We don't like the term "myth" much. We think it denigrates facts. We believe facts are more powerful than mere myth. If we're talking about simplistic stories of how the goddess Athena created the first spider out of a little woman named Arachne because Athena was jealous, maybe that's true. But those stories are myths because they once had great power to tell a people -- the Greeks in this case -- who they were and where they came from. Every ancient culture had myths. Modern cultures have myths, too. One of our myths is that education improves your life. Another is that America has the greatest potential workforce in the world. Another is that in 1969, a group of American astronauts walked on the moon. Many of our best myths have been written into movies. Have you watched Gladiator? It's pure myth -- not because it's about a Roman soldier, but because it is about us and how important it is for us to hold tight to family, strength, honor, and duty. It is a myth because when Marcus Aurelius whispers to Maximus that there was once a dream that was Rome, but it was so fragile -- he could as easily be talking about the freedoms of America, at risk from self-seeking politicians and the unthinking mob. Ohhh -- ouch. That's getting a little close to home. EXACTLY. That's what myth does.

Now, I understand that there is a long tradition within certain circles of Christianity that says the Bible's integrity rises and falls on our ability to affirm and defend its basic literal truth. So Genesis 1 has to be literal or the Bible goes down the sewer. One camp in the Darwinist Wars of the last century claimed this ground and fought themselves nearly to the death over it -- because as soon as they defined the ground, they realized that their literalist camp was divided between young earth and old earth believers, between literal seven-twenty-four-hour-day creationists and a-day-might-mean-a-million-years creationists. There are huge divisions in the literalist camp. And there are huge divisions in the Darwinist camp. And here's my deal -- I THINK BOTH OF THEM ARE MISSING THE POINT.

I sympathize with the creationists' idea that if the first few chapters of Genesis are mythology, then where do we draw the line? We're on a slippery slope and pretty soon Jesus didn't really rise from the dead, it's just an inspiring story about spiritual new life conquering all the deadly things in our lives. (Google John Shelby Spong sometime and find someone who really makes me mad.) I sympathize with them, because I want people to trust the Bible. But in the end their argument has huge holes in it. In fact the argument boils down to "inerrancy" which is a leap of faith which claims that the Bible -- not God, but the Bible -- is totally without error. Now, they realize that there are a few trivial errors -- discrepancies in body counts in two biblical accounts of the same battle, that sort of thing -- that have crept into the text. So the only way one can hold tight to this belief in inerrancy is by claiming that the original manuscripts -- which by the way we don't have and probably will never have -- were without error. What the inerrantists have done to the Bible is the same thing the Pharisees in Jesus' time did to the Law -- they build a fence around it and add in a little extra territory to protect it from all the unwashed masses like you and me.

Two major problems with this set of arguments:

First, inerrancy says the Bible I have right now is not trustworthy, even though it is based at two-thousand-years' distance on trustworthy manuscripts. Only the original "autographs" -- the first writings -- are totally without error according to a strict version of inerrancy.

Second, it totally neglects and ignores and rejects the role of the Holy Spirit in maintaining and transmitting the written Word of God with integrity.

So while I maintain the integrity and authority of the Bible against all challengers, I cannot in good conscience buy into the idea of inerrancy, because as I see it, inerrancy is about a rationalistic need for me to control the authority of the Bible through human means (i.e., an unprovable faith in perfect autographs), and I have more of a sense that the Spirit works in transmitting and translating the Bible to guarantee its integrity and authority. (NOTE: In the last year I have publicly put my job on the line, publicly argued and taught, and finally changed my own denominational affiliation over the issue of the authority of the Bible. I have no desire to undermine the Bible's claim on me or to minimize its authority over me.) Inerrancy is a problem precisely because it doesn't allow the Bible enough authority. If there's a discrepancy today I can simply claim that some error must have crept in since the time of the original writing. If I claim that the original author was inspired, then the text has to be in some sense inspired even if it's a little decayed and distorted with the passage of time.

In Bruce's original question (remember that?) he posits that inspiration rests with the author, and that it is the author's responsibility to tell us that what we're reading is poetry, parable, etc. If we receive no such notice, we should simply assume that it's intended to be taken as factual history.

Problem is (in addition to the above argument that the inspiration of the text decays over time if only the author is inspired) that the text doesn't often tell us what's what. None of the psalms start out with a notice that says "NOTE: This is POETRY. Don't take it literally!" Jesus rarely identifies his stories as parables, though he does so a couple times. In fact, under this system, we should assume that Jesus' story in Luke 15 about a man who had two sons is factual history, because Jesus simply says by way of introduction, "There was a man who had two sons ..." Most of the places where Jesus' stories are identified as parables, they are identified not by Jesus but by the writer of the gospel story. Matthew, Mark, and Luke (John doesn't have Jesus telling parables) were certainly inspired, but I think we'd agree that Jesus has higher authority than they do.

The other problem with this whole line of author-as-inspired way of thinking is that the Bible seems to talk about the text as inspired, even more so than the author. See 2 Timothy 3:16-17, or Hebrews 4:12-13, for example.

Okay, so enough of diatribes. One final (hopefully short) thing. What do I mean by mythology? I put it in the same genre as the story about Athena mentioned above only because both are stories designed to tell us the truth about who we are and where we come from. But I hold the Bible's "mythology" on a totally different plane as far as its inspiration, the method by which it was written, and the authority that resides in the story. The Bible is the story that reads me. Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time must know that I take the biblical text very, very seriously. So seriously that I am not willing to let Genesis 1-11 be about what has happened in the past, though it obviously has very deep roots there. These are stories included out of the deep, deep memory of the Hebrew people, telling stories around the fire and beginning in different ways and different contexts to write them down, in order to tell themselves - and to tell us - who we are.

So when I come to these stories, I come humbly, expecting to encounter the God who created me, who knows me better than I know myself, who cuts through all my pretense and philosophy and learning and ignorance and changes my heart. I learn about the Enlightenment and humanism and rationalism so I can better understand myself and the baggage I bring to reading the Bible. I pray before I read so that my arrogance and my ignorance might not get in the way of being shaped by God as I read his inspired word.

I dare not make these stories simply about the past, because my heart, my life, my present is exposed in these stories and I have a sense God wants to use them to strip my soul bare and exchange my heart of stone for a heart of flesh.

A snake in the garden

Apologies to those of you (both of you) who get up each day and first thing, check this blog. It's been pretty sparse lately. I guess the end of Lent is catching up with me -- seems like there's a lot going on lately!

Genesis 3

In true Genesis form, we don't get any explanation where the snake comes from or why it's in the garden. It's just there. Again, it seems like Genesis is not trying to give a cogent account of what happened in some past time -- or if this is a record of past events, it's offered with little thought for rooting the events in history. The point, whatever the historicity of this story, is mythological. Not at all in the sense that these things are false -- but exactly the opposite. Frederick Buechner says that a myth is a story that is always true. In that sense, this is a mythological story. It is true right here, right now, in the coffee shop where I'm writing. In fact, there are many parallels between this spot and the Garden of Eden. It's a good place. All my needs and some of my wants are supplied in this place, and I recognize that God has provided (through the work of some individuals) all this for me. I've had many a good conversation with God here, and I've also spent time here doing the work to which God calls me -- preparing sermons, writing, having conversations, praying, meeting new people, getting reacquainted with old friends. Yet there are opportunities here to step outside God's intentions for me as well. Most obvious is the cheese danish in the bottom of the case up at the counter, but there are less obvious, more "crafty" (depending on your translation) temptations as well.

The most crafty temptation here is to lose touch with God and begin to experience life for myself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, if I want to know God I can know only God, and all other things through God. As soon as I know anything apart from God I have lost the knowledge of God. So the cheese danish, the other customers, the owner, the coffee, the laptop, the sunrise, are all available to me in two distinct ways: as gifts from God to be received appropriately and used in obedience and love that springs from a strong connection to God as my source and my guide and my center; or I can access these other things as things available to me directly, to be managed, used, or worshipped as I choose. This is the question for us in every moment, in every Eden where we find ourselves.

And there is a snake.

I am not left on my own to gently reason these things out and come to a good decision about choices. No, the choices come at me hard and fast, crafty and subtle and before I know it I have begun to consider the fruit in its own merits rather than knowing the maker of the fruit. Because you have to make the choices, don't you? Is it possible just to opt out of the decision making of this life?

Probably not. But we can reduce the number of decisions, and we can certainly reduce the number of temptations. "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it," God said (see Isaiah 30). Truth is, we like making our own choices, and we enjoy the frantic pace of our lives. We choose these things again and again when God lays out opportunities for repentance and rest, quietness and trust.

So we find ourselves grateful for the snake, and we work in league with him for our own destruction. It is only when we get tired of eating from the fruit of this tree, when the knowledge of good and evil on our own terms has tied us up in knots time and again and we descend into slavery that we begin to be willing to live dependent on God, rooted and grounded in him and him alone. Until then we keep saying, "I'll just do this one on my own ..." and the story happens all over again. It's our story. The coffee shop, the office, the living room is the garden. I am Eve. I am Adam.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Not perfect but good

So, we've come to the end of Genesis 2. Those of you who have been reading for a while might be breathing a sigh of relief -- we're actually making progress! Slow, sometimes tedious progress, but I hope you're seeing a little of the depth that is possible digging into the Bible. Not that this blog has exhaustively covered Genesis 1-2 -- not by any means! No, I feel like we've been skimming the surface, bopping in for a glimpse here and there in the text. There is so much more we could talk about. In chapter 1 we didn't talk at all about the fact that most of the things God creates were represented in the cultures around ancient Israel by various gods. So creation was personified as deity, but Genesis says that God created all the things that are worshipped in the surrounding cultures. So there's a claim about God's sovereignty implicit in the story.

We didn't talk much about what it means to be created in God's image. Oh, we touched on it, but whole books have been written on that topic and we just skimmed it. We blipped over a lot of material in Genesis 2 -- geography and discussions about where "Eden" might have been located, the whole science of RNA that shows fairly decisively that humanity today descends from one ancient woman, probably somewhere in East Africa if scientists have the migration patterns right. We have spent almost no time on the creation / evolution debate that so consumes conversations in our culture that involve Genesis. (That bit o' neglect is intentional on my part, as I have no desire to start a mudslinging match between the six-day young-earth crowd and the 14 billion year Big Bang faction ... if both of them can confess "Jesus is Lord" -- and I'm not including the "evolution-is-a-totally-random-process-and-there-is-no-God" types here because I can't see why on earth they would spend time reading my blog -- what more do we have to argue about? At some point it's like the Catholics and Protestants bombing each other out of northern Ireland. When they treat each other like that, you have to wonder at the foundation of things if their "faith" is really about Jesus at all.)

No, there is a lot of uncovered ground in our romp through Genesis. (Okay, so maybe it's more like a slog or crawl. I write the blog, I choose the words. This morning the sun is out and it feels like spring, so it's a romp.) At the end of Genesis 2, however, we can say a few things:

  • Creation -- whatever the methods God used to make it so -- is the work of a loving, attentive God who is relational and personal and stays engaged.
  • Creation is good. Many many times God says so. Notice that he doesn't say "perfect." We sometimes get screwed up because we think Eden was a totally perfect system except for that free choice thing, and if God could just have found a way around that we'd all be happy robots singing praise and eating papaya fresh from the beautiful trees -- but not that one tree -- to this day. No, Genesis is clear that creation is a beautiful, good place but it has some dangerous parts as well.
  • Creation is orderly. Chaos is the enemy of goodness, except where chaos becomes the raw material out of which God makes goodness. The goodness of creation demands basic order, including some distinction and separation. You are not me and I am not you.
  • Humans are made for relationship. This theme perhaps more than any other (except the sovereignty of God) dominates Genesis 1-2. We read about being created in a relational God's image, about our relationship to creation, about our task of stewarding the earth, and then in chapter 2 about the man's desperate need for companionship, his appropriate relationship with the animals, and the goodness of male and female relationship.
We could certainly say more. Lots more. But suffice it to say for the moment that Genesis 1-2 provides a climb to great altitude where we can peek into God's purpose for creation and for us specifically. Now we have come to that point on the roller coaster where we've reached the pinnacle and we're about to plunge into the abyss. Genesis 3 is the watershed of the whole Bible. Here we go.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


We attended a youth gathering many years ago in Santa Clara, CA. One of the groups from somewhere south of there had t-shirts made up for the gathering. On the front was a picture of some large wooden tribal masks, carved into stoic expressions; on the back it said, "Take off your masks -- Pray Naked!" When asked about these interesting shirts, the young people wearing them explained that their group had done a Bible study on Genesis 2:25, focusing on how God wants a relationship with us that is totally vulnerable, totally open, but because we are sinners, we constantly wear masks.

John Eldredge, in his book Wild At Heart, talks about a similar thing when he describes how most guys (and I daresay the same is true for women) are posers. We swagger and strut, we pretend to know something about things when we actually don't have a clue ("Yeah, I was pretty sure when I brought it in that it was the muffler belt. Yep.") and in reality we are just pretending. Not in a good way. We're wearing masks.

In contrast, Genesis lifts up nakedness without shame as our state when we know God face to face without fear. It is only when sin enters the picture that we feel the need to cover ourselves, protect ourselves, pretend to be something we're not. If not for the presence of sin in the world, I wouldn't get antsy sitting with my back to a full restaurant. In the same way, it is the presence of sin in this world -- and my long-conditioned response to its presence -- that teaches me to cover my heart, to build the walls, to don a mask so I won't be hurt by someone's rejection or disapproval or scorn.

Nakedness is the prerequisite for not only a relationship with God, but for marriage. It is no accident that this verse comes hard on the heels of God's prescription for marriage -- leaving, cleaving, and weaving. They were naked, and they were not ashamed. Married life (which, by the way, Ephesians 5:21-33 treats as a picture, a cartoon version if you like, of Christ's relationship with the church) needs openness and vulnerability.

You've probably seen, like I have, couples that coexist. Maybe they have had their fill of conflict and they at some point just draw boundaries and say, "We'll share space but we will not get beyond each other's walls." Maybe they never figured out how to be vulnerable with each other. I'm constantly amazed when I plan a funeral and the children -- or even the spouse -- have little idea what was in their family member's heart. Spiritual beliefs? Not a clue. Deep loves? Well, she enjoyed pinochle. What was really important to him? He liked building birdfeeders. Any idea what he thought about God? We never really talked about it. What did she believe in? Oh, she was a staunch Republican.

We hide our hearts from each other not out of some noble stoicism, but out of fear of being hurt, plain and simple. We don't know how to be naked at a heart level.

And sometimes those who are most capable of being naked physically are the most guilty of hiding their hearts behind walls. Whether it's the "free love" of the 1960's or the "friendship with benefits" of today's college set, all we do by getting naked together is satisfy a temporary lust for affection. We miss the vulnerability, the intimacy for which God created us.

What makes this kind of vulnerability possible? It's fairly simple. We cannot be forced into vulnerability -- we must be loved into it. Love creates safety. Safety does not mean you will never experience pain; rather, it means that I will not selfishly hurt you. If you are in pain, I will come alongside you. God loves us by seeking us out, coming alongside us, standing with us when we are in pain, and -- hear this -- speaking no word of condemnation. By the time we see God coming alongside we have already been condemned amply and fully by the laws of the universe. (Yes, God made the universe that way, so yes they are his laws ... but God doesn't run around like a referee in a striped shirt blowing his whistle when we make a mistake.) We don't need another word of condemnation, and God knows it. We are wounded enough already, wounded to death. So Jesus comes not to condemn -- see John 3:17 or Romans 8:1 -- but to save. He comes to bring resurrection. Like the Samaritan in the story, he dresses our wounds, lifts us up and places us on his own donkey (Luke 10) and brings us to a place of safety. This is God's model for love, and indeed God's model for marriage. This is how we are to care for each other -- not by condemning or manipulating, but by coming alongside one another and caring for each other. We are wounded enough already. So if your chosen means of expressing affection is the sarcastic jibe, find a different way. Be vulnerable and give an honest compliment that might be rejected. Open your heart and speak your affection instead of offering a backhanded insult. That's just a mask. Learn to get naked, even just a little bit.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


One of the pastors at Central talks about these three steps to a healthy marriage as leaving, cleaving, and weaving. Kind of a handy way to remember! We've talked about leaving home, we've talked about husband and wife cleaving to each other, but what does the Bible mean when it talks about two becoming one flesh?

The first answer that often leaps to mind for many people is that this "becoming one" refers to the sexual relationship between husband and wife. True, and it's important to acknowledge that there is a deep understanding in the Bible that physical union between male and female produces a oneness that goes far beyond a momentary act. This is why "casual" sex is so terribly damaging. If we don't understand that this physical act produces deep spiritual and emotional bonds, we will damage ourselves very quickly. We take what God designed to be part of a lifelong relationship of intimacy and we make it as casual as sharing french fries. (Of course, there are some cultures in the world where you wouldn't share french fries with just anyone, either!) When God included a commandment about sexual purity in the Ten Commandments, he was letting us know that this is serious -- and if we treat it casually we're going to get hurt.

But "one flesh" refers to much more than just our sexual relationship.

One of the best examples I've ever seen of a "one flesh" marriage is a couple who have been married for many decades -- not many years, but many decades -- so they've had a long time to get used to each other. Some couples survive in marriage that long by distancing themselves from each other, but not these two. They have shared joy and grief, work and play and everything all their lives. I watched the two of them making breakfast once when Julie and I stayed with them. They had a narrow space to work in the kitchen. They maintained a conversation with the two of us while they worked. He was making orange juice, she was mixing pancake batter. I couldn't help but notice that while he went to the cupboard for a pitcher on his end of the kitchen, he also grabbed a mixing spoon from the drawer because he knew she would need it. When she retrieved eggs out of the fridge, she also got the frozen orange juice out of the freezer for him. Neither of them asked the other to do anything -- they were just very aware of what the other was doing, and they functioned like one four-armed person. It was almost as if they shared a mind and a body. Exactly. (See 1 Corinthians 7:4 and Ephesians 5:21.) This relationship took time and commitment to create. This couple spent years watching out for each other, paying attention to each other's needs, and learning how to serve one another.

Let me go a little further out on a limb with this "one flesh" idea. The Bible uses the word "flesh" in a couple different ways. Sometimes it just refers to the fact that our bodies are physical, like a T-bone steak is physical. (See for example Hebrews 2:14 or 1 John 4:2.) Other times, though, that word "flesh" refers to our old spiritual nature, our sinful self that fights against God's Spirit. (See for example Romans 8:12-13.) I wonder sometimes, is the Bible implying that husband and wife become, in a sense, one "flesh" so that my weaknesses, my sins, my rebellion against God become burdens my wife has to bear, and vice versa? This is a difficult thought and one that makes me uncomfortable, but I see its truth in action. If I carry unforgiveness around in my heart, it damages my wife, even if she is not part of the relationship where I'm holding a grudge. How much more does it hurt her if I am refusing to forgive her! When we have an area of our lives where we indulge our rebellious flesh and refuse to let Jesus have authority over us, husband and wife can cause each other some real problems. The most common areas where we experience this might include selfishness, unforgiveness, resentment, a need to control or manipulate, fear and anxiety, arrogance ... the list goes on. We bear one another's burdens (Galatians 6:2) as well as sharing one another's joys.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Genesis 2:24-25 -- three necessary steps toward a healthy marriage. We already covered the first one, leaving home. The second step is to cleave to one another. What is so hard about that? Couples who come into my office anticipating marriage usually can't keep their hands off each other. They have NO problem clinging to each other!

Then why is it that a year later, or two years later, these same couples come in and sit at opposite ends of the couch in my office? They don't make eye contact with each other, they don't talk to each other (they talk to me about each other) and they obviously have some HUGE resentments going. What's with that?

Part of the problem, at least, is that these two have not fully understood what it is to "cleave" to each other. They have gone out into a world that is actively opposed to strong marriages, and they have been poorly prepared. As soon as a couple says, "I do" there are forces trying to tear them apart. Other relationships get in the way. His family, her family, friends of all stripes, work, recreation, different goals, different spending habits, different recreation habits, different movie preferences, different ideas about who does what around the house ... there are literally hundreds of subtle differences that can worm their way in between a couple and shred their marriage.

Worse yet, each of them brings a whole host of wounds and assumptions and judgments that affect how they see marriage, what they expect from their spouse, and how they express and receive affection. These are internal factors that may or may not be visible to each of them -- but they have a huge effect on the marriage.

"Cleaving" means that we create a bubble at the core of the marriage that is a "safe zone." It is a secure core to the marriage, and only three people are allowed in the bubble: him, and her, and God. No one else is allowed inside. Kids, parents, siblings, friends, all belong in their appropriate relationships, but a strong marriage has a safe bubble at its core with only three occupants. Anything that threatens that safe place must be excluded from the core of the marriage. This includes habits. Maybe one day he realizes that what he thought was playful joking is really painful sarcasm, and it needs to stop, because it's threatening the bubble and hurting his wife. Maybe she sees that her spending on a few little items here and there is causing her husband tremendous tension when he sees the bills each month. Each one brings their habits to death for the sake of the marriage.

The tricky part is that when he recognizes that he has not only habits he can see, but also wounds, assumptions, or judgments that are less visible. If these threaten his wife, he needs to bring them to God for healing -- because they are endangering the bubble at the core of his marriage. And he needs to let his wife know what's going on so that she's in on the process of his healing. In the same way, when she sees that there are things in her life that compromise her marriage or threaten the bubble at its core, she needs to bring those things to the cross so they might die. The old fashioned term for this is repentance. There is huge vulnerability in recognizing that there may be attitudes in me that need to die for my wife's sake. There's huge humility in going to her and saying, "I need you to pray for me that I could get past this, because I see that it is hurting our marriage." But if they cannot exclude from their marriage everything that threatens its survival, it will begin to die. There is no room for self-protection in this bubble.

Cleaving is about two things: 1) Commitment and 2) Time. Each one brings a commitment to honor that safe bubble. Each one recognizes that the death of those old attitudes may take a long time. We are in this bubble, the three of us, for the long haul. We cleave to each other -- all three of us -- taking hold of the Bible's promise that "a cord of three strands is not quickly broken." Two alone are not enough. It takes him, and her, and God, all cleaving together, in that bubble of safety at the core of the marriage.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Leaving home

I read once that everything the Bible has to say about marriage is in Genesis 2:24-25. Anywhere else the Bible talks about marriage is just reinforcing or commenting on these verses. The more I live with these verses, the more convinced I am that it is true.

Anyone who has brought marriage issues to me as a pastor knows that I refer to these verses a lot. Premarriage counseling, marriage troubles, my own issues around marriage, all of these draw me back into Genesis 2:24-25. I haven't gotten anywhere near the bottom of this well yet.

Genesis 2:24 lists three things we must do if marriages are to be strong. (It says the man does these things, but it has been my experience that both husband and wife need to do these three things to build a strong marriage.) First is to leave father and mother. Second is to cleave to each other. Third is to become one flesh.

Leaving home is difficult. For some of us it's tough to physically leave. I've been teaching a group of 19-and-20 year old students this week and I'm vividly reminded of leaving home at 17, getting on the Greyhound in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and getting off in Seattle. For a kid who had never been out of the upper Midwest before (does a trip to Kansas in 7th grade count?) it was a terrible shock to my system. I tried to find a home in college that fall, but the homesickness nearly killed me. It was so bad that when my RA planned a weekend trip back to Minneapolis for his sister's wedding, driving 1800 miles in a Ford Courier pickup, I jumped at the chance to ride along as far as Fargo and spend a day and a half at home. We left school Thursday evening, drove straight through 27 hours, I was home about 36 hours, and I got back in that Ford Courier and rode all the way to Seattle where we pulled in late Monday night. It was bad.

For some people, leaving home physically is a relief. Home has not been a good place for them. Maybe it's abuse issues, maybe personality conflicts, maybe there's just no love. They run from home at the first sign of an open door. But it is especially hard for these people to let go of home emotionally. "Home" is surrounded in their hearts with all sorts of vows that start out "I will NEVER ..." So they hold home in their hearts with bonds of judgment and condemnation.

No matter why we hold onto home, we have to leave before we can cleave. We have to let go of the way Mom & Dad always did things. We have to undo the bonds that hold us to the home where we grew up or we cannot enter into a successful marriage.

If we are not willing to set aside what we learned at home and recognize that we might have to learn new habits, new methods, new expressions, we cannot love effectively. Fact is, the things I learned watching my parents don't often work in my marriage. My parents were good people and I deeply respect them. But I had to leave home -- especially emotionally -- before I could learn to love my wife. The ways my Dad showed affection to my Mom just don't cut it in my marriage.

It's the same with every area of marriage. Financial management, child-rearing, home maintenance, household chores, Christmas traditions, vacation plans -- all need to be renegotiated. Just because Mom & Dad did things that way doesn't mean it will work in your marriage. You have to leave home.

What this does is create space for a relationship that is safe for both man and woman. It keeps the inlaws, the grandparents, and everybody else out of the bubble the two of you create.

What goes on in that bubble? We'll talk about that next time.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


You wouldn't believe how much trouble I got into for my last post. Lots of guys have been coming up to me telling me to quit talking about marriage, quit talking about what relationships between men and women are supposed to be like, quit talking up how great women are, just quit it!

Sorry, guys. Can't do it. I don't have a pro-feminist agenda or anything like that, I've got a biblical agenda. And as we work through what Genesis has to say about us -- this is our story -- we have to work through these verses at the end of Genesis 2.

So man is alone, and God sees the aloneness is not good, and God decides to do something about it. I've heard and seen and lived this story so many times. There's a fairly decent guy who is maybe in his early 20's or maybe his early 30's or maybe his late 40's, it doesn't matter. But everyone around him just aches because he's such a fairly decent guy and why doesn't he find a nice girl and settle down but he just keeps doing his own thing and it annoys them to no end. My dad was 38 before he got married to the little girl across the road who somewhere along the way grew up and became a rather remarkable young woman who got a hold on his heart and wouldn't let go. When he was a bachelor, he did a lot of hunting and fishing until nearly every housewife in the territory had given up trying to figure out who Art should marry. Then Pearl got him. (Good thing, too, for my sake, or I wouldn't be here!)

We know this story. The man likes to be alone a little too much, and everyone -- maybe including him -- can see it's too much of a good thing. Then into his loneliness walks a woman with a light in her eyes and a flip of her ponytail and his friends are suddenly wearing tuxes and pouring Rice Krispies into the defrost on his car. (Don't do it -- you'll NEVER get them all out, and every October a few more will come fluttering out when you turn on the defrost for the first time. It's a pain.) And in the fairy tales, that's the happy ending.

But we also live in a world where we know that the story goes on, and all too often it is a sad, difficult story. She may have kissed prince charming, and he doesn't look like a frog anymore, but he still likes to eat flies when she's not looking. I've sat in my office with way too many couples who have tried on their own wisdom for month after month to make their marriage work. Trouble is, they don't know what it's supposed to look like, so they just keep fighting and making each other mad. So he stomps off to the garage to be alone, and she calls her mother in tears. It happens way too much.

We won't solve people's marriage problems right now. It's going to take a while to work through these verses, because there is a lot of stuff packed in here. But let's start with a rib.

Why does God take from Adam's ribs to make this woman? Why not a different bone, or maybe just another pile of dust? Why a rib?

First of all, the rib means that these two are intimately tied. When he wakes up and sees her, the man recognizes this right away: "This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," he says, which is a rough Hebrew approximation of "WOW!" He recognizes that this goes beyond the bond he had with the golden retriever, as much fun as the frisbee game was. Here is someone who is custom made for him, in fact made from him, so that in a sense these two fit together. To separate them now will cause irreparable harm. It will be like letting an oak tree put roots down into your heart and then tearing it out, roots and all. It leaves you behind, but you're shredded.

Second thing the rib tells us is that there's a symmetry, an equality, to God's intended relationship between a man and a woman. She's not made from his head to tell him what to do or how to think. Male passivity has allowed and encouraged (and sometimes required) women to step into the role of directors and dictators, but that was never God's intention and it is not God's intention today that she should be domineering and he should be henpecked. Neither was the woman made from his foot so that he could stomp all over her, grind her into the dirt, use her and put her away when he doesn't want her around, make jokes at her expense, beat up on her when he's feeling threatened and powerless, or play her emotions like a fish, reeling her in and rejecting her just to reassure himself that he's got some power. She's created from his rib, which lies underneath his arm where it can be held close, and which lies over his heart. She belongs with him, nestled up against the seat of his will and emotion. (Yes, guys do have emotions. They're in the tool box next to the 9/16 socket. Go dig them out and tell her about them sometime.) The rib tells us a lot about what God desires for this relationship.

But there's more coming.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


It is not good for the man to be alone, God said. So what's the solution? God brings around a truckload of animals and the man names them and they have fun hanging around and playing frisbee in the garden. But the man still doesn't have what he needs.

Why does God do this? Doesn't he know what the man needs?

Wait a minute. Remember -- this is not about what happened back then, it's about what happens now. It's about you. It's about me. So this part of the story is incredibly helpful to me. When I go looking for the solution to my loneliness in some other place -- on my treestand during deer season, or out in a boat, or in a novel or writing a blog or ... (where do YOU go looking for solutions apart from God? Fill in the blank) ... we find that as good as these things are, they don't satisfy. When I was in college and had tons of discretionary time, I hardly ever went hunting. Why? These days I would kill for a tenth of the free time I had then. Back then I had a ton of excuses for not getting out in the woods every Saturday throughout the fall, but reality is that I already had enough solitude during college, and I didn't need any more.

When I have a few days at home to myself, when my wife and daughters are gone, at first I revel in grinding my way through a few escapist novels or movies with lots of suspense and explosives (two things Julie is allergic to onscreen) -- but then I start wandering the house aimlessly and all the books and movies waiting for me look like loneliness and boredom waiting to happen. I've been around the block enough to realize that I don't need more of those things.

One huge danger for us is that sometimes we buy into other activities to fill our loneliness, or we let our appropriate appetites grow beyond their appropriate boundaries. So a man develops an escapist habit of reading or fishing or golfing or woodworking or just plain working. These are good activities within boundaries, but they are unhealthy when they are allowed to grow too dominant in our lives. Then there are activities that are unhealthy from the start, and they will take a lonely person and make an addict out of him. So he turns to pornography that for a few minutes makes him feel alive, or alcohol in quantities enough to dull his pain. He gets addicted to the adrenaline rush of online poker because he keeps thinking he's about to score big, or he just whiles away the hours with the fictional courage of video games.

It's not good for the man to be alone.

So God creates a ... well, let's see. This is a tough word to translate. So let's stick with the Hebrew for a minute, because in English we get messed up in a hurry. God creates an "ezer" for the man. Not exactly just "for the man" either, but to be with the man. Like peanutbutter was created for jelly, or rubber rafts and whitewater rapids were made for each other.

What is an "ezer"? Most English translations say something like "helper". That works, sort of, as long as we don't think "assistant." I've often wished for an assistant; someone who could come along behind me and do all the detail work, so I could just focus on high and lofty and non-messy things. More honestly, I've wanted an assistant so I wouldn't have to clean up after myself. God is not saying he will make an assistant for the man. In fact, if you take a look through the rest of the Bible, "ezer" does mean "helper." But the only other way it's used in the Bible is to refer to God as the helper, as in "God is a very present help in time of trouble" (See Psalm 46). So unless you're tripping through life thinking God is there to clean up after you -- if that's the case we need to talk, seriously -- you have to realize that an "ezer" in Genesis 2 is not a way for a man to get a little clerical help.

So when God says he wants to make a help perfect for the man -- the King James says "a help meet for him" which is not coining a new term, "helpmeet" which means assistant -- instead it means a help fitting for him. In the liturgy we used in church when I was a child there was a line that said, "It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer praise to you, O Lord ..." "Meet" means fitting, perfect. In the world of cool toys we'd say it's "custom." So God decides to make for the man one who will be a custom-made help, one who will be perfectly made for him to take away the ungoodness of his loneliness. All the other good things in creation -- fish and birds and zebras and koala bears, even golden retrievers -- fall short of what the man needs. But this "ezer" will be the perfect partner, the perfect help, the perfect one who bears the nature of God for him in a way that pierces through his illusions and his isolation to reconnect him to God, to himself, and to her.

Do we have any concept of the gift men and women are supposed to be to each other? This is where it becomes so important to read God's word not for entertainment but so that we might understand who we are, why we exist, and how we must live.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I brake for poetry

Change of pace -- this is something I wrote roughly twenty-five years ago and filed away. I was intrigued at the time by the idea of something in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry that a critic labeled "inscape" -- the use of an external landscape to describe the condition of the soul. So I played with it in an attempt to capture what the soul -- my soul -- goes through in coming to repentance.

Inscape: The Prodigal Turns

Prologue: Narcissism

In a far country, dreams grow like ivy up the sides of the valley;

all they touch is trimmed in gaudy green

with streaks of brilliant red.

The earth turns. Emerald leaves wither and die.

An avalanche of brown precedes the snowline

as it falls from the hilltops.

Autumn: Hubris

A cat, death brooding in its eyes, stalked a sparrow.

The bird neither sowed nor reaped, nor took measures

for its own defense.

Cats may levitate if need be, rising slowly

above brown earth for a mouthful of bloody down;

mine did. I mourned silently for the bird, but cried out

in awe of the spectacle: Life from death.

My cat only chewed hollow bones

and left a scarlet-black stain on the earth.

Winter: Recognition

Hell is bright days in winter

when the sun has no power to warm.

I cannot open my eyes, partly for the cold

and partly for the light jabbing icicles

through my eyelids. Ice-crystal rainbows

obscure frost-rimmed trees ringing like bells

in the breeze, or cracking like a firing squad at sunrise.

Too grand for me, this miracle-laden landscape

must remain external, and behind my eyelids

I stand face to face with my pettiness.

Spring: Surrender

Aggressive freshets of meltwater steer

downhill; they seek a river. Before reaching its banks

they are a flood to give even Noah pause.

Death swims these raging waters.

As days go by, the deluge recedes;

I see muddy fields, barren and fertile as my own soul,

awaiting the sower.