Every morning I walk by a bookcase full of names and titles that, even a cursory glance to my right, brings back memories, ideas, conversations, struggles, and insights which have shaped me in more ways than I care to admit. As much as I wish my philosophy of life and doctrinal beliefs were fully developed and never changing, they are, rather, ever changing as I read, discuss and wrestle with these authors.
It would be comfortable if these things remained constant. It would be comforting to know that my beliefs, firmly held, would firmly hold me to the end. But just as stagnant water is a breeding ground for disease, could the same be true of stagnant beliefs?
My beliefs have been developing for as long I can remember. (I was a theologian long before I realized it.) Every sermon listened to, every lyric sung, every book read, and every conversation had.
As a child, doctrine was belief in God, Jesus Christ, heaven and hell, and forgiveness of sins. Beyond that, “doctrine” was a dirty word in our circles, often associated with the proverbial image of the strict, tight-lipped Puritan.
In college, as I dated a Calvinist, then attended Dr. Talbot’s Philosophy 101 course, I soon embraced whole-heartedly the doctrines of grace. They had captured my affections, and had become a well-insulated defense against the cultural heresies of my world. It was then that I wondered, “Have I arrived? Has my doctrine found its resting place? Are my beliefs now fully formed?”
For all I could tell, it seemed they had. I continued to reinforce my beliefs in TULIP (while wrestling with them at the same time) through reading in an echo-chamber of Reformed authors.
None of this was bad, I feel. I am immensely grateful for men like James Boice, Phil Ryken, John Owen, and J.I. Packer who introduced me to these doctrines. They are part of my “Sacred Journey,” as Buechner would say. These authors, like many afterwards, became close friends, and their ideas are a part of my very soul. Insights in those books have, and always will, continue to shape my understanding of the world, people, motives, scripture, God, sin, economics, etc. They shape how I choose to live and the decisions I make.
As much as I wanted Reformed doctrine to be my home, though, it was more of a resting place. A chance to take stock and to look at the map. For can one ever rest in his or her quest for truth?
The answer seemed to be, “Yes and no.” I was resting in the Truth, but the doctrine surrounding the truth felt like it was part of a bigger picture. It felt like only scratching the surface.
Still, I did not venture far. I was told not to go on exploring too much, lest I land myself in Dangerous Territory.
My curiosity could not be satiated so easily, though. I continued to read books that others recommended, books that were in footnotes of books that others recommended, slowly venturing outside the echo chamber, into the dangerous world of Unreformed Ideas.
The verse “…and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) seemed both an invitation to rest in the Truth, and to also not be afraid of challenging the Truth. Like a rock that is for centuries smoothed over by the rains. If Jesus is a rock, then he is a sure foundation and anchor in any storm.
In college, my dad came across Peter Kreeft, a Catholic Philosophy professor at Boston College who has written almost sixty books. Up until that point I imagined (based on things I heard and read) that Catholicism was next to heresy, and that to be Catholic meant you were not quite a Christian. But Kreeft crushed that illusory belief, and by the end of reading Heaven, The Heart’s Deepest Longing, I was humbled by his humility.
There was Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which, although, not intended to be allegorical, challenged my understanding of what I thought I “knew” about Heaven and Hell and my judgments about who was going where based on what I could see with my eyes.
Then there was Orthodoxy, in which G.K. Chesterton swept me up and gave me a bird’s eye view of ideas and doctrines that seemed incompatible and beyond my understanding, revealing a beautiful mosaic of which I was only looking at a few pieces down below.
N.T. Wright’s After You Believe challenged what I thought I knew about living out my Christian life as a believer in, and follower of, Jesus. Just when I thought I had reached my destination (salvation), I realized I was only just beginning.
N.D. Wilson’s Death By Living was a modern day Orthodoxy which put the beauty of God’s creation in fresh perspective.
Joel Salatin and E.F. Schumacher challenged my understanding of economics, GMOs and food systems, pulling back the curtain on so many assumptions I had taken for granted.
There was Brother’s Karamazov and Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. There was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wendell Berry, Mark Twain, Shane Claiborne, J.R.R. Tolkien and Marilyn Robinson, and so many more that brought ideas to life, challenging me to wrestle with God in prayer.
And it has happened once again. I just finished reading John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable. He writes with mathematical precision and logic, and as a result, is succinct and convincing (and convicting). Reading Crossan is both exciting and fearful. Exciting because he opens up your eyes to the scriptures, putting them in historical context, and fearful because he challenges many of the beliefs I have taken for granted my entire life.
If I would have read this book a few years ago, I would have put up a lot more defenses. Crossan is a heretic from an orthodox Christian perspective. (Just search his name on Google). But I find that in order to engage in new ideas (and in conversations with others about differing beliefs, ideas and opinions, for that matter) it seems necessary to let down defenses. To even suspend judgment, perhaps? (“Judge not, that you be not judged” Matt. 7:1) I find that the more defensive I am in speaking with someone who holds different beliefs, the more defensive he or she will be. Could it also be true that the more open I am to questioning my own beliefs, the more the other will be open to questioning his or her beliefs?
It would be foolish of me to attempt to summarize The Power of Parable. Crossan does that well enough in his epilogue, and there are plenty of good reviews out there. It would be a massive task, and I don’t feel that I am well equipped enough for that with only one reading under my belt.
To note, Crossan does believe that Jesus is a historical figure, and though he doesn’t come right out and say it in this book, my observation and inference is that he does not believe in the divinity of Christ, or that he was physically raised from the dead. That aside, I still feel Crossan has many valuable gems to communicate to our 21st Century Western perception of who Jesus was (and is).
Crossan brings to life the context of the parables of Jesus, painting a picture of the time and culture they were told in. Jesus’ parables go from being an invitation to imitation (“Go and do likewise”) to a subversive challenge to…
[…] probe and question, ponder and wonder, discuss and debate, and, above all else, practice that gift of the human spirit known as thinking. About what? About the absolutes of our religious faith, the certainties of our theological vision the presuppositions, presumptions, and prejudices of our social, political, and economic traditions.
Challenge parables are not about replacing certitude with doubt, because certitude and doubt are but opposite ends of the same spectrum. Challenge parables foster not periodic doubting, but permanent questioning. Their hope is – from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – to help us “love the questions” and “live the questions.” Their purpose is – from the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins – to “Jolt / Shake and unset your morticed metaphors.” Their intention is – from the prophet Micah – to make us “walk humbly with our God.” (The Power of Parable, 111)