MW Cook

an ex-evangelical doing a year of living christianly

Tag: bible

Religious, but not Spiritual

I get confused when people say they are spiritual, but not religious.

I don’t know how you can do spirituality without religion. Religion is like scaffolding. Both the five-hundred-year-old tradition and the vague conception of following your own inner truth are religion. Religion is the structure, the ritual, the lens through which you see parts of the world.

I think I’m religious, but not spiritual.

“What does that even mean?”

I pray and read the Bible. I belt out hymns and attend church. Christianly myth undergirds my interpretation of reality. I love sacred things. I’m religious, and I can’t help it.

But I don’t think any of the stories really happened. I don’t think the Bible is a book from God, and I don’t think that Jesus rose from the dead. I don’t think anyone is listening when I pray, or spiritually leading me, or that I’ll survive my death in any meaningful way. I’m not spiritual. I believe in the sacred, not the holy.

The Bible is sacred, foundational to many religious frameworks. But it is not holy. It is not whole and pure and uninjured. It is a collection of disparate works across time and genre that do not internally cohere without a complex hermeneutic formula. If I believed it was holy, I would have to accept the obviously evil bits of the Bible.

Here’s a guy who’s religious AND spiritual

A benefit of being religious but not spiritual is that I can hack my religion. Since it’s not the eternal edict of the universe, I can toss out every word of the law that contradicts the spirit of love and, with a nod to Marie Kondo, every doctrine that does not spark joy can be reverently discarded.

Nearing the End

I thought I’d have done a lot more for this year of living christianly. I wanted to read the entire Bible, join a local church, and post regular blogs and videos about religion and spirituality and scripture.

I didn’t.

I couldn’t finish the Bible. This is partly because it took a long time for morning devotions to become a habit. Also, scripture is to be lingered over, not devoured. Bible reading isn’t like studying for a test, it’s like a homeowner going through storage, seeking treasures old and new.

Church was difficult. I was always on the outside, even though I’d sing louder than most. Our local evangelical church worked homophobia into every sermon (they will know we are Christians by our sexual conservatism!). And I was on the outside in progressive churches because they never sang songs I knew. In either case, I couldn’t take communion, which I’ve always understood to be the chief meeting of the Church.

My posts about religion, spirituality, and scripture were irregular. I found myself in a middling space, seeing the profound flaws and injustices of religion, along with the beatific and life-changing powers of religious spirituality. This has been hard to write about.

So here I am, my year of living christianly nearly over, and I’m no closer to believing in the crucial aspects of the Christian religion: the existence of a personal God and the resurrection of His son, Jesus Christ. These doctrines are the crux that bar my way back.

But I am not done with this old-time religion. Morning devotions have turned into something powerful for me, and I’ll keep them. I realize that I’ll probably never be done with The Book. And in the new year, I’ll have more to say about it.

Exvangelical Devotions: The End of Job

God shows up and is all, Who’s darkening counsel without knowledge? Then, in four chapters, God tells Job all the things he’ll never understand or accomplish. Job listens, puts his hand over his mouth, and withdraws his complaint.

From the pulpit I’ve heard that the answer to Job is kind of an expansion of Isaiah 55:8; “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” Basically, God knows what’s up and we ought to trust that everything will work out and Job got his money back and new kids so, over all, there is a justice to the world.

My interpretation is a bit different. See, God keeps coming back to the same kinds of questions. Where does light live? Does rain have a father? Can you bind the constellations? Will the unicorn serve thee, doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and all that? The end of that matter is that the question falls fully apart. Why do the innocent suffer? Where is snow is stored for winter? It isn’t. It just doesn’t make sense.

The three friends are moved by this revelation to bring food and throw down some money for Job to get back on his feet. They stop blaming. They stop trying to figure out the Story. They just help.

An Unmarked Bible

After I lost faith, someone mailed a Bible to me. It was my own Bible, misplaced years ago and given up for lost. It was good to hold it and let it open to worn, weathered pages. Some sections are positively brown from exposure.20170308_122719

These days, my projects have sent me looking into the past, at faith and fundamentalism and worship. My Bible is open on my desk, and I often run my eyes over familiar passages with great tenderness. The other day I found a verse that had been highlighted. I know I didn’t do it–when I bought this Bible I had decided to never mark it. It was lost for years, so there’s no way to guess who marked it, or why, or what the verse means to them:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. Ecclesiastes 1:18

Having never had much wisdom or knowledge, I can’t say whether this is true or not. But I do like Ecclesiastes, and one of the positive things about being faithless is that I can take these words whichever way I can muster, or just leave them altogether. Or flip over a few pages to other words that say other things.

Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Enjoy life with the ones you love, all the days of your vain life, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil. Whatever your hand finds to do with your might, do it. For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave, to which you are going. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

I Stand Alone, I Stand Alone

I heard the tune as whispered on the wind. It was elusive, though familiar. Like the opening theme to a cartoon you watched as a child. It was there, somewhere, but I couldn’t quite hum it. I had to get closer.

I walked across a green plain in the direction I thought it came from. It grew louder as I went, as did the sense of familiarity. It was a tune from my childhood, familiar as water. Off in the distance I saw something grow out of the plain. A hill, wide and tall, the tip of which I could not clearly see. And the song grew louder still and I thought I could grasp a few of the words.

I quickened my pace and saw that the hill was not truly a hill, but a pile of objects. Books. Books of every shape and kind. Large and ancient hardcovered tomes along with magazines and tracts and paperbacks and novels and comics. I stood at the foot of the hill for a moment and peered toward the summit. The song was definitely coming from the top. And it was louder now, though not much clearer. The familiarity tickled and tormented me. I had to know the song.

And so I started to climb.

I caught sight of many of the titles as I went up. They intrigued me. Many of the books I had read and some I had enjoyed. Others I did not know and still others I had read and rejected. I took note of some titles. “In-crowd mentality” by I.M. Choosen. “Systematic Theology” by Goddat Wright. “Western Comforts” by W.B. Rich.

The song grew louder as the air grew thin and I grew lightheaded. I found I could not think clearly at this altitude. I tried to focus my thoughts by reading other titles. “Doing to Others Before they Do to You.” “Choosing Your Favorite -ism.” “Economic Justifications.” “The Individualistic Life.” “Hollywood Drama.” “Democracy” (I liked that one). “10 Days to Blind Confidence” (I think I had read that one). “How to Dismantle Anything.” There was a chart listing the top ten spiritual professions. I had memorized that at one point, I recalled. “North American Values and Their Enemies.” “Capitalism.” And scores and scores others.

My hands grew cold as I crawled through the clouds. Finally, as I reached the top, I found the source of the familiar tune. There stood a man, his eyes closed and his fists clentched in the posture of a child trying to wish something true. And the song came clearly:

The B-I-B-L-E
Yes, that’s the Book for me.
I stand alone on the Word of God.
I stand alone on the Word of God.
I stand alone on the Word of God.

“Oi, friend!” I called out with a shiver in my voice. “I think you’re standing in the wrong place for this song! For I have seen many books, some I like and others I like less, but I cannot help but think that none of them are the Word of God.”

The man stopped singing only for the time it took to open an eye, shoot a hostile look at me, and continue his chanting.

“I stand alone on the Word of God! I stand alone on the Word of God!”

And suddenly the mount we were on heaved and shook. I clutched tight and watched as a few books toppled down to the ground below. But I remained firm for the moment. The chanting man did not seem to notice. I realized that the foundation he and I were standing on was not stable.

“I say!” I called out. “I fear this is not an ideal place to stand. I’m heading down. Perhaps if we both descend together it will be less risky for the both of us.”

Again he did little but curl his lip at me and continue his chanting. I thought to stay with him, but another tremor from below made me certain that I was in a precarious place. And so I descended, slipping and bruising myself along the way.

I arrived at the bottom, still hearing his words in my head. In that moment they reminded me of similar words spoken by others in ages past. I recalled some chanting about The Temple of the Lord. Whatever happened to those people, I wondered.

I was half a mile off when I heard a horrible crash behind me. I turned and saw that mighty tower of books collapsing upon itself. And I wept.

The Bestest Newest Product on the Market!

If you’re like me you’ve had your special moments of frustration with that best of Books. Maybe you accidentally found yourself in James or one of the synoptic Gospels and you read something that did not in any easy way seem to mesh with good, old-fashioned Evangelical theology. If you were a good Christian you had an evangelical study Bible that tried to help neuter the offending passage, but deep down inside you could feel something was still off. Some voice inside told you that when you interpret something in a way that negates everything that was spoken, it’s bad somehow.

Well not to worry for I have found an answer that will save fundamental evangelicalism from its current state of decline! Forget having a study Bible to merely explain away the anti-evangelical things that some Apostles say! Say hello to the brand-new Theological Conformity Bible!

No longer will we be embarrassed about lines from the Apostles who hadn’t read the Pauline Epistles nearly enough. See how the TCB renders these verses:

Hebrews 6:1 – “Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity in sounding and defining the depths of eschatology, unpacking deep Trinitarian doctrine and word studies about how ‘World’ doesn’t always mean ‘World’.”
1 Peter 1:17 – “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s doctrine, conduct yourselves with confidence during your time of exile, because your doctrine is probably right.”
James 2:24 – “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone (Ha! Just kidding guys!)”

And, of course, it’s not just the Apostles, but Jesus himself has uttered some words that, at first glance, do not really line up with an evangelical way of thinking. But with a few innocent tweaks we can make it all fit nicely:

Luke 18:18-25 – “And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Pray this prayer with me: God, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I deserve the consequences of my sin. However, I am trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I believe that His death and resurrection provided for my forgiveness. I trust in Jesus and Jesus alone as my personal Savior. Thank you Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen!”

Matthew 7:12 -“So be sure to spend a lot of time reading your Bible and going to church and listening to sermons, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

John 14:28 – “If you had loved me you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is co-equal and co-eternal with me and the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 22:36-50 – “‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall get the doctrines of the Trinity, atonement, eternal state and end times right. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You will make sure your neighbour gets them right, too. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.'”

Matthew 25:31-46 – “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep form the goats. And the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For you accepted Jesus as your personal savior and said a prayer to that effect. You held the doctrine your preachers preached and maintained an unquestioningly evangelical outlook on life. You are orthodox in your views on hell, the end times and the Trinity.’ Then the righteous will say, ‘Hurray! We knew it would be like this!’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For your prayer of conversion did not mention substitutional atonement and you questioned aspects of evangelical theology. Your views on hell, the end times and the Trinity were a little off as well.’ Then they will also answer and say, ‘Nuts.'”

I anticipate this new Bible being a great hit. To order your own copy, please call 1-800-485-3787.

The Slightly Off-Centrality of Scripture

Evangelicals are a Bible-centered bunch and they ain’t afraid to say it. They go to Bible camps and Bible chapels. They hold Bible studies and attend Bible colleges. They make their churches Bible based and crack Bible jokes. Whole lot of Bible going on.

And I think it’s real, too. Seriously, I do. The evangelical sub-culture is set apart by its mission to make the Bible the centre of everything they do. They wear that as a badge of honor. Like the song goes, they ‘stand alone on the Word of God! The B-I-B-L-E!’

But I don’t really think they should.

I guess this may sound funny, but the Bible is not the thing upon which my spirituality is based. Not at all. Because my spirituality and my searching for God is focused on Jesus. The Bible is just a glass. A slightly dirty glass through which I see some of Jesus. It’s a tool. It’s a bridge. It’s a thing.

Of course, pretty much everything I know about Jesus comes through the Bible. So why make a distinction? I want to make a distinction because the difference between having a Bible-centered life and a Jesus centered life is bigger than you’d think. The Bible-centered life is like an astronaut studying the Hubble. The Jesus-centered life is like and astronaut studying stars. And then visiting them!

Easy Growin’

Dane Ortlund of Crossway Books recently asked 26 evangelical leaders what each thought the key to growth in godliness was. Read them over, if you’re at all interested, and see if you can tell what is similar about nearly all of them.

Did you catch it? Did you see it there?

Nearly each one is abstract, intellectual and conceptual. They are focused on a certain point of view or a point of fact or belief. Generally they are things you can do in bed. Read this book. Think these thoughts. Take this view.

Not all of them, of course. Carl Trueman says the key is going to church. Some of them say it’s reading the Bible. A few, like Steve Nichols’, are just plain confusing.

I don’t mean to nitpick, of course. They only had a sentence or so to respond and I’m sure they’d elaborate if they had the chance. But isn’t it telling that the first thing to come to mind, for these leaders of the evangelical movement, are things we do in our head or things that involve benefitting ourselves? Is there something wrong with that?

Didn’t God say that in helping the helpless we will find spiritual health (Is. 58)?
Didn’t Jesus say that in helping the helpless we will find spiritual cleansing (Luke 11:41; 14:12-14)?
Didn’t Paul say that in helping the helpless we will find spiritual treasure (1 Tim. 6:17-19)?

Maybe I’m being a little jaded. Maybe I’m blowing this horn again because it’s trendy or because I’ve been disillusioned by my upbringing or because I have a bit of a malicious streak and I like to imagine fundamentalists squirming in their seats. Maybe I’m preaching a social gospel and since I am for helping people on earth I don’t care about their souls. Maybe.

I have never understood why folks perceive a conflict between social justice and spiritual welfare. In fact, doesn’t Jesus seem to suggest that the two dance together? Wherever he went he helped bodies and helped souls. So when a group of evangelicals can all give different answers on the ‘key’ to spiritual growth and not a single one mentions anything that has to do with our relationship with our fellow man and the way we treat them, I think it’s a symptom of something yucky.

Am I saying there is no mysticism with Jesus? Am I saying that a metaphysical view of Christ does not change us for the better? Nope. In fact, most of those keys seem useful. But not as keys. Not as the deep secret to spiritual growth. If they were, we might as well become hermits. A spiritual life that is not holistic, I think, is not spiritual at all.

Fire and Brimstone

I can picture the preacher. Black suit. Dark tie. Stony face. He stands there atop the platform, takes the glass in his strong hand and drinks. He puts the glass back down and looks over the crowd, waiting and expectant. He takes a breath, raises his hand and begins to preach.

“This land,” he says, voice already at a yell, “is hanging over the pit of hellfire! This land, this evil, abominable culture we have found ourselves in, is against God in the most perverted ways imagined. Only the great and unfathomable mercies of Jehovah have held the fire and brimstone from consuming this country as it consumed Sodom and her whoredom so long ago. But do not presume on the mercies of God! There is a limit! A limit of the deviant sin that God will be willing to put up with. I tell you, brothers and sisters, if this land will not repent of its grave iniquity, it will be consumed just like that city of old that has become a byword for sin so heinous I can hardly bring myself to give it utterance.

“What? Are there those among you who think that our country and culture is not so bad? Worldly! Deceived! Sons and daughters of a liberal, post-Christian age! Can you not see? Have you not heard what the Lord has done to those nations that have turned to the sins that our culture and politicians are embracing? God points the finger at the political parties who have allowed this sin, most horrid, to become accepted, nay, applauded. God points the finger to the citizens who do not care or raise their voices against the sin of Sodom that has become so popular. God points the finger even at the Church, his whore bride, who plays the part of Sodom with more and more liberty now than ever. Never before has the Church been more like Sodom than today! And you think God does not hear? You think God does not see? Shame! Shame and judgement! The judgement of God shall fall upon us all soon, for the philosophy and practices of Sodom are with us, unchanged by time.”

He pauses to take a breath, I think. Another sip of water. And then he opens his Bible and, in a soft voice, reads.

“Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”