August 6, 2008

There was no one thing that finally brought my Christian faith to an end—it was a long and slow progression. But if there was one watershed issue, it was that of the inspiration of the Bible. Let me give you some background.

I was a leader at a large church that many people had identified as “emergent” (even though the theology was quite conservative). As a leader in this church, I had started and run many different ministries. I was working on a new ministry which was going to revolutionize the way our church (and hopefully many other churches) did evangelism. We called it being “missional,” a term ripped off from Mark Driscoll, the “cussing pastor” of Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. I never did like that word, “missional,” but it was better than “evangelism.” So in order to train Christians how to be “missional,” I opted for a distributed approach of retraining through small groups. I would train the leaders who would then train other leaders who would eventually help retrain everyone in the church and beyond.

The idea was that Christian practice tends to undermine the very thing it means to accomplish, especially with evangelism. I’ll explain: Christians call themselves “Christians” and everyone else they call “non-Christians.” Evangelism is meant to bring Jesus to non-Christians. So by definition and right from the start, there is a decidedly exclusive tone to the exercise. “We are Christians and they are not.” So it’s us against them. This would not do! We needed to reexamine our terminology if we ever wanted to reach these “non-Christians.”

Enter: Christianese.

There is a distinct language that Christian people speak. It is marked by terms like “in the spirit,” “sanctification,” “gospel,” “the word,” and hundreds of other terms which no one except Christians use or understand. These terms mark someone as being on the inside of Christianity. If you meet someone in a social setting and don’t have the guts the ask them flat out, a Christian will—consciously or unconsciously—listen for these and other terms to recognize their kin.

The problem with these terms is that Christians pick them up without learning clearly what they mean. Case in point, I remember hearing and teaching the doctrine of justification as being “just-if-i had never sinned” (a phrase that shares phonetic similarity with the theological term). This is a handy memory peg for teenagers, but very few Christians ever move from that (mildly) catchy phrase to a robust theological technical definition

What makes matters worse is that phrase has other meanings as well. According to my Oxford English Dictionary (and probably the man-on-the-street), “justification” means: an act of showing or proving to be right or reasonable. This is not at all what the theological term means. Christians tend to use what are sometimes normal words in unusual ways, often without distinguishing the difference. This is the crux of my present concern.

“Inspired” is another term that Christians use in a way different from everyone else, and I would argue, in a way they seldom understand themselves, if ever. This term is particularly important when speaking of the Bible. All Christian theology hangs or falls on one’s opinion of the Bible.

The Bible is taken to be important and different from all other books because it is inspired. But if you ask a Christian what they mean by “inspired,” the most common answer I get is always “God breathed” (from 2 Timothy 3:16). While more poetic, that is obviously no clearer. It does however provide a great example of how the structure of Christian terminology is circular so one term can only be understood in terms of others. When pressed for a yet clearer definition, the answers go in many directions.

One thing is clear however, Christians do not use “inspired” in a normal way. If I see a beautiful sunset and am moved to write a poem of the occasion, I can rightly say the sunset inspired my poem; but that is not the sense the Christian means of the Bible. God isn’t the enrapturing idea that motivated a creative work. (Is it?) Similarly, the Christian almost never means that God held the pen or physically forced the hand of the apostles to make certain words on parchment. So what do Christians mean by the term “inspired?”

I suggest that no one actually knows. It is technically a vacuous term. It’s a term that is associated with identification in that community, but has perhaps no semantic meaning of its own, even in that community. The desire that often coincides with the use of this term is wanting to indicate that the Bible has authority. But this is certainly not what the term “inspired” means.

So if we dispense with the term “inspired” when talking about the Bible in favor of terms of that more clearly indicate what we mean, we are left saying it has authority—this is a very different place! We no longer have a book handed to us by God in one way or another; we have a book that is important for very different reasons—among them: defining order in the social setting of Christian organizations. It is possible to have authority for this purpose without ever being from God in any sense. For example, if the group agrees that it should be the guiding document, it has authority. So in the absence of an intellectually honest and rigorous account of what Christians mean by “inspired” and concluding term and the doctrine are vacuous, I was forced (yes, against my will; I didn’t want to believe this) to reevaluate my long-held dogma about the Bible and concede the unprivileged status this book has among others… at least outside of Christian social circles.