Monday, April 3, 2017

Conversations with Scripture and the Temptation of Idolatry

The Bible is an invitation to experience liberation from all the powers that bind us. What if the goal of spirituality is to free us to live fully as the people we were created to be?

One of the core confessions in Scripture is the Shema:
“Hear O Israel. The LORD is our God; the LORD is one. You will love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5)

Verse 4 begins with the exhortation: “Hear.” To hear is to listen and take action. True hearing assumes a faithful response. To listen is to hear and take action. The remainder of verse four may be translated several different ways. For example, the above translation follows the ESV, NASB, and NIV (among others). The CEV reads “Our God is the LORD! Only the LORD.” This is close to NRSV’s “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” Various attempts to render the Hebrew focus on the meaning of “one.” Is it a statement of God’s uniqueness, Israel’s singular exclusive commitment, or God’s unity?[1] Each of the possible English translations struggle to highlight one of these dimensions.

Moberly has advanced the issue by suggesting that the idea may be expressed by thinking of the LORD as Israel’s “one and only.[2]” The same word translated “one” appears in Song of Songs 6:8–9. The emphasis in the Song was on the selection of the beloved out of all competing options available for the writer.

The issue at stake in Deuteronomy is two fold. First, there are competing gods in the Near East. At minimum, 6:4–5 calls for allegiance to the LORD. Israel is to choose the LORD for exclusive service over all others. Second, the LORD is incomparable to any other deity. This is the reason for Deuteronomy’s adamant opposition to idolatry in any form. The LORD is unique as Israel’s “one and only.” There may be claims about the existence of other gods, but if the incomparable LORD is indeed god, there cannot be any other God for God’s people (cf. Deut 4:35, 39). The LORD is qualitatively different and thus must be embraced exclusively by God’s people.

Following the declaration of the LORD as our “one and only”, verse 5 calls for a response of full devotion and commitment with the totality of who we are as people. Faithful commitment rather than sentimentalism captures the meaning of love here. This is not to deny an emotional response to God, but the emphasis falls on a moment-by-moment decision to live faithfully. Our faithfulness in terms of exclusive commitment is the means of expressing love for God. “All your heart, all your soul, and all your strength” form a triad that emphasizes the whole-person response to the LORD. “Heart” refers to the will or thinking center of a person. “All your soul” covers all aspects of a person as a living being. “All your might” is a magnifier that emphatically restates the need for a full commitment. Together this triad calls for an “all in” response by us to the LORD as our “one and only.”

The language of “one and only” is helpful as we seek to live as the people that God created us to be. As modern believers, the challenge of idolatry is not diminished. 1 John 5:21 ends with a warning, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” For readers of 1 John, this is the sole time that John addresses explicitly the issue of idolatry. As I read through Scripture, idolatry is a common topic. What if spirituality involved freeing ourselves from idols? What if John’s concluding advice is the key to our growth?

We live in a globally connected world. There are competing narratives about the divine. Is the material world all that exists or is there a divine presence? Is the Universe, Mother Nature, and God all the same realities? Is there one God or many gods? If there is only one, who is the true God?

Whether we choose to believe in the existence of the universe, gods, or God the reality that they represent is real. In the ancient world, there were many gods. Each of these tends to function within a specific sphere of life. There are separate gods for sex, wealth, war, health, and wine among others.

Some present day religions such as Hinduism still work within such a polytheistic framework. I want to suggest however that many of us are at minimum practical polytheists. If we think of gods as spheres of life, we can make a list of the gods that exist in our secular world: sexuality, family, work, affluence, security, sickness, health, pleasure, beauty, and fitness. For some of us, our political ideologies take on the role of a god. Many of us cannot separate our allegiances to the Democratic or Republican parties from our self-identity.

Whatever is the name of the god or gods who hold our allegiance we must recognize that this choice matters. The god(s) we choose to embrace define(s) the chains that bind us. The Bible makes exclusive claims about the uniqueness of God, but more often it is subtle. For much of Scripture, its authors do not deny the reality of other gods. Instead, they deny that any other “god” is truly worthy of the title God. This is an important distinction especially in the 21st century where there are so many competing claims to truth.

Is the LORD truly our “one and only”? What would it look like if we de-elevated all other gods and lifted up King Jesus? Is this not the heart of the confession “Jesus is LORD”? This is a conversation that Scripture desires to have with us.
© 2017 Brian D. Russell

[1] See S. Dean McBride, Jr. “The Yoke of the Kingdom: An Exposition of Deuteronomy 6:4-5” Interpretation 27.3 (1973): 273–306.
[2] R. W. L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (Baker Academic, 2013), 7–40.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Lessons from the Shack: Perspectives for Enjoying the Book and/or the Film

Key Issues for Reading the Shack and/or Enjoying the Film
The Shack premieres in theaters across the country on March 3, 2017. I studied the original novel carefully and offered lectures and talks on it during 2009. I'm excited to see the movie and hope that it does well.  
Here are some initial thoughts and takeaways on the book/film:

1) The Shack is a work of fiction. It is rooted in life, Christian thought, and Scripture, but it is fiction and its author claims nothing more for it. Through story, The Shack offers a narrative that attempts to interpret key themes of Scripture in fresh and meaningful ways to a 21st century audience. In particular, it attempts to communicate an understanding of the God of the Scriptures that is capable of touching deeply a person who has grown weary of or hardened against a simplistic or naïve faith.
The Shack should not be read (book) or watched (film) as a systematic theology. Young is creative and imaginative in his writing. He deploys well the elements of fiction to craft a compelling and transformational story. This does not mean that every aspect or line will hold up to a rigorous theological critique. I think that Young succeeds in writing a powerful story about God’s missional love for the pinnacle of His Creation—humanity. None of the liberties that Young takes or imaginative illustrations that he deploys is detrimental to the Gospel message underlying The Shack. Ideally, through reading The Shack, men and women will be inspired to (re)engage God in relationship. This will lead inevitably to a return to the Bible itself.
2) The Shack joins a long line of fictional works that engage the riches of Christian theology and tradition. Here are some examples: C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia; Dante, Inferno; John Steinbeck, East of Eden; John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress; Flannery O’Connor’s short stories.
The Shack pushes the envelope through a personification of each person of the Trinity along with the figure Holy Wisdom (Sophia) from the Bible’s Wisdom traditions. Young takes a risk here. This move is made to emphasize the relational side of God. But its unconventional use of feminine and non-European imagery has raised issues for certain readers who forget (in my opinion) that The Shack is fiction and that the majority of the world’s Christians are now of non-European descent. Young’s portrayal of the Trinity is bold and works to put a human and gracious face on the biblical God who too many in our world think of as oppressive, distant, male, and neither loving nor faithful. I think that Young’s move works, but some (traditional) readers may not be able to get past the imagery to hear the good message within The Shack.
3) Reading The Shack is not a substitute for reading and reflecting on Scripture regularly. The Scriptures are God’s gift to humanity and serve as the authoritative guide for faith and life. The Old and New Testaments tell the story of God’s missional interactions with Creation in general and with the creation, fall, and redemption of humanity in particular. In fact, Young would not have been able to write The Shack without his own careful reflection on the Bible. The Biblical portrait of God is the inspiration for The Shack and Young alludes to the Scriptures subtly throughout the novel and screen play. The more that one understands and knows the Bible the more one can appreciate Young’s work. My hope is that The Shack will motivate its readers to read through the Scriptural story that inspired and informed the core of Young’s work.
© 2017 Brian D. Russell

Friday, February 17, 2017

Paradigm Shifts for Ministry and Mission: From Dispensers of Information to Interpreters for Transformation

As leaders in the Christ-following movement in the early 21st century, it has been many years since the public looked to its religious leaders as the primary source of information.  In fact, if the “information age” has brought anything, it has radically decentralized the availability of knowledge. The ivory tower has given way to the laptop and smartphone. We no longer need experts; all we need is Dr. Google. 

In this environment, we need to rethink the role of the body of Christ in teaching about Christianity. Instruction in the faith used to function through catechesis or discipleship training. It centered in local churches in Sunday School or Wednesday evening group studies. The Church trained believers in the basics of the faith including biblical content and an understanding of the theology of the Church. I am in no way against theological or biblical instruction.  It is crucial for followers of Jesus Christ to love God with their whole being—including the mind. It is equally vital that right thinking be demonstrated through right living.

Given the vast information overload that our 24/7 media saturated age has brought (including “fake news”), I want to suggest that the Church needs to concern itself less with adding to the glut of information and more with shaping how people interpret the information that they possess. In other words, we need stop focusing merely on what people should think/know and instead help Christ followers to learn how to think. Our world needs exegetes and interpreters more than experts. I have to credit Erwin McManus with this essential insight. I heard him speaking about this in Orlando back in January 2005. As I have reflected on the shifts that we need to make to keep the missional emphasis in our communities, moving to focusing on leaders as interpreters of information points the way forward. Scripture is more than a source of information; it is revelation from God that functions as a lens through which to understand the world. It is a call to us for ongoing (re)alignment with God’s kingdom.

Our culture does not need another expert or talking head. Instead, I believe that men and women are longing for profound speech that inspires and nourishes their very beings by pointing through the spin and gab of modern life to the true reality.  Will we make the shift to speak a bold and daring Word for God and from God to persons who are desperate for a taste of true reality in their lives?

What do you think?

© 2006 Brian D. Russell (Revised substantially 2017)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Video Blog: Navigating Toward Your Preferred Future (YourProfessorForLife #3)

In this short video (10 minutes), I will introduce you to a dynamic way of thinking about the futures. This is not a typo. Too many of us limit ourselves, our goals, and our thinking by mistakenly identifying the future as a single point. It is not. God has an ultimate future, but there are an infinite number of possible ways to arrive there. Much of these depend on us. What are our goals? What do we really want? Are we willing to take action to advance these?

Interested in participating in the creation of the future? As Seth Godin says, "You are more powerful than you think." 


Friday, January 13, 2017

3 Questions to Find Your Sweet Spot (Your Professor for Life #2)

Tony Robbins says, "The quality of your questions is the quality of your life."

In this brief (5 minute) video, I offer three questions for your reflection: Who is your mission? Who is your community? What kind of person do I need to become?

The intersection of the answers to these three questions is your "sweet spot" for maximum achievement and fulfillment in life. These questions correspond to three core values/needs in each of us: mission/purpose, community, and character/holiness.

Let me know what you think.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review of Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World–Class Performers by Tim Ferris

I'm a Tim Ferris fan. I read his first book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. I also subscribe and listen to his podcast. He is a specialist in lifestyle design and refers to himself as a human guinea pig. I appreciate the work of Tim Ferris. He is a student of maximizing our potential through physical fitness, wise living, and efficient and effective work and learning strategies. Ferriss provides tools to help us live as the people whom God created us to be. Over the last few years, I've taken on many new challenges and responsibilities. To step up to these, I've had to stretch and grow. Ferriss has been a valuable virtual mentor. Much of life is tactics. We need to develop a positive mindset. We need to learn to leverage the connection between physical/mental health and effectiveness. We also need to learn to manage time. If you need help in these areas, Ferriss is an excellent resource. WARNING to my Christ Following Friends: Ferriss is not a Christian. He uses "salty" language and approaches life from a secular prospective. However, if you read between the lines, you will find discussions of habits that one may call "spiritual disciplines." For example, Ferriss promotes fasting, taking sabbaths (he doesn't use this language), taking care of the body, journaling, and quiet time for reflection in the morning.

His latest book Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers is a 600+ page summary of actionable information and takeaways from his podcast interviews. Ferris divides his book into three sections: Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. This is a nod to Benjamin Franklin's old maxim. Ferriss synthesizes the wisdom of women and men at the top of their game. We get to learn from Brene Brown, Peter Diamandis, Seth Godin, Tony Robbins, Malcolm Gladwell, Whitney Cummings, Jamie Foxx, Arnold Schwarzenegger, General Stan McChrystal, and Peter Thiel to name just a few. His guests include entrepreneurs, comedians, authors, researchers, warriors, actors, and influencers. In Tools of Titans, he profiles 112 people.

In essence, this book represents a Cliff Notes summary of Ferriss' learnings from others. It can be read in any order. Each chapter profiles one of his past guests. Each begins with a pithy quotation from the guest. Then Ferriss summarizes the best ideas and practices from each high achiever. The advice is specific and includes precise details of produces, regimens, and resources discussed. A key part of each interview is getting to hear how various high achievers plan/order their days. Ferriss includes his own adaptations and experiments of the material. Ferriss personally tests the information before passing it on to the world.

Ferriss does an excellent job of cross-referencing between interviews that touch on similar themes and topics. Moreover, he includes helpful appendices. My favorite is a bibliography drawn from the recommendations of his guests. Out of this list he compiles the top 17 most recommended books by his pool of high achievers.

In addition, there are bonus essays placed strategically in the book. These include a fully updated version of Kevin Kelly's important essay on marketing "1,000 True Fans–Revisited"  (pp. 292–98). I personally found helpful his discussion of a "5 Minute Journal" (p. 146). I've worked a version of this into my own life and can testify to its helpfulness (here is a short video about my practice: "Five Minute Morning Journaling for Creating Your Best Day").

Becoming a Titan does not make one immune from pain and challenges. This is central theme of the book. Ferriss shares some of his deepest pain in an essay on suicide. We learn that Ferriss had planned his own death and was close to executing his plan before a fortunate chain of events intervened to save his life (pp. 616–627). He offers good counsel and hope for those who have suicidal thoughts. Ferriss' words are important because they hint at a core truth about life–even the most successful have personal demons and struggles. This is true for all of us. Ferriss tells his story and then provides help and hope for those who may feel as though the world would be better off without them.

  This is a fantastic collection of information for living well. There is insight into almost every aspect of life. The only area lacking is the role (if any) of traditional spirituality in becoming a Titan. This may simply be a matter of the selection of guests. As I noted above, there are secular spiritual practices included throughout the work. Moreover, one of the key takeaways is that 80% of the "Titans" practice some form of meditation. In sum, I recommend it heartily to all of my readers who desire up to date and actionable information to maximize the days that God has given us to live.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Video Blog: A Five Minute Journaling Practice for Creating your Best Day

I learned about the Five Minute Journal initially from the work of Tim Ferris. As I've gotten older, I recognize the necessity of getting each day off to a positive start. In this brief video, I describe my five minute practice. It involves: (1) Writing down 5 things for which I am grateful, (2) Reflecting on my internal feelings of worry or anxiety and writing down the causes as best as I can discern them, and (3) Writing down the key actions that I need to take today to make it a good one.