The Face and Name of Jesus

1 Comment

JesusIt’s a face that pretty much everyone would recognize. It has a kind and gentle expression and is framed by a medium-length light brown beard and long, wavy, light brown hair. The eyes are slightly downturned and can be either brown or blue; it varies from picture to picture. The face is a bit narrow with somewhat high cheekbones, and the nose is a little on the long and narrow side. That’s Jesus’ face. Of course, we are aware that our idea of what Jesus looked like is based on artwork and that we don’t know precisely what he looked like.  In fact, his skin and hair were probably at least a bit darker, and the proportions of his facial features were probably a little less Caucasian. But we picture Jesus the way our artwork portrays him.

The question is whether this has any theological implications. Some people would say yes. I have seen numerous internet debates that say or imply that it is racist to depict Jesus as being white just because we live in a culture where whites are a racial majority and middle eastern Jews are a racial minority, and that by inaccurately depicting Jesus’ appearance, we are misrepresenting his identity and worshipping a fabricated version of Him. Therefore, people who worship Caucasian Jesus are following a white supremacy religion. Granted, I’m paraphrasing the most extreme version of this argument that I’ve ever seen, and most people wouldn’t go nearly that far. And, of course, the first part of the argument is true. Jesus was not European, and it does seem to reveal the racist traditions of our society when we forget that Jesus wasn’t part of the racial demographic that is slightly most common and generally most powerful in this country. But does that necessarily mean that we’re worshipping a false Jesus if we imagine his appearance incorrectly?

Jesus name transliteration

Keep in mind that the Hebrew and Greek used different alphabets from what is shown here, and that not every letter in one language’s alphabet has a corresponding letter in every other alphabet. For example, Greek has no sh sound.

Along a similar vein, I saw something on youtube several months ago in which someone was claiming that Christianity is all wrong because we worship someone named “Jesus”, and that wasn’t His name. Jesus’ name probably would have been pronounced Yeshua (accent on the second syllable) in Aramaic and Hebrew, although not everyone agrees on that. Apparently, Galileans had a distinctive accent, and that has something to do with the debate. In the early church, the pronunciation of Jesus’ name changed over time because of the transition from Hebrew to Greek, from Greek to Latin, and from Latin to English. Considering the fact that there were different alphabets involved, this isn’t surprising. Incidentally, Joshua is technically the same name as Jesus, but it came through the translations differently because Old Testament names were transliterated straight from Hebrew to Latin without the Greek stage.

But does that mean that we don’t believe in the real Christ if we pronounce his name “Jesus” instead of “Yeshua”? Is the pronunciation that important? Some people say yes, and they make a very interesting and understandable argument based upon the importance of names. Hebrew culture in particular places a fascinating emphasis on the power of the spoken word, and a person’s name is a very specifically significant kind of word. The name of Jesus is particularly special because it is the name of God. There is certainly a logical basis to the assertion that, if you change the name of your god, you’re making up a new god. (Incidentally, Christians don’t use the name YHWH very much anymore, either.)

As the History Channel taught us, Jesus had beautiful hair. I wonder what kind of shampoo he used.

As the History Channel taught us, Jesus had beautiful hair. I wonder what kind of shampoo he used.

In retrospect, I wish I’d used this issue as the topic for my final paper in my postmodern class my last semester of college. It has to do with the very postmodern question of how much meaning language has. The typically postmodern answer is that words are just words; they only carry any meaning at all because a large group of people agree to use them in a certain way, but their meaning is vague and transitory; there’s nothing inherently meaningful about a word, a name, or any symbol or artistic imagery that’s used to represent something. I don’t remember specifically discussing names in that class, but it seems to me that a completely postmodern thinker would have to conclude that the collection of sounds that we use to refer to people is entirely arbitrary and can change over time without any change in meaning, because it doesn’t actually have any meaning in the first place. The opposite approach, which is at least somewhat closer to what Hebrew culture assumed, is that a name is inseparably linked  to the person who bears that name and that the name therefore does have meaning in and of itself.

Google Earth tells me that this is what Nazareth looks like now.

Google Earth tells me that this is what Nazareth looks like now.

Of course, Jesus lived in a time and place when pretty much everyone was multilingual, and they were presumably accustomed to the fact that even people’s names can change between languages. Based upon the culture and political conditions surrounding Jesus’ life, and based upon the context of certain conversations described in the Bible, we can say with certainty that He knew both Hebrew and Aramaic and that there’s at least a good chance that he knew Greek. I’ve also heard speculation that he might have known a little Latin, although I don’t know whether or not there’s much of a basis for that claim. Most likely, Aramaic would have been his primary language. At any rate, Jesus probably heard more than one version of his name used during his life. Besides that, there are numerous titles used for Jesus in the Bible, such as Rabbi/Teacher, which his disciples often called him, and “the son of man,” which he frequently used for himself, and, of course, Christ/Messiah. If we’re going to insist that the exact set of sounds is what matters, we can’t allow any titles. But since Jesus himself was okay with them, that must mean they’re okay.

Jesus' nameWhile I disagree with the postmodern disregard for the importance and significance of words, I also think that it doesn’t make any sense to fixate on how a name was supposed to be pronounced in the original language. It’s true that there was something important about Jesus’ name in the original Hebrew, but that important thing isn’t the sounds, it’s the meaning. Most Bibles have a footnote on Matthew 1:21 and/or Luke 1:31 that tell us what “Jesus” means, but I looked it up in a couple other places as well in the hopes of finding more information than just a definition. Yeshua is a shortened form of Yehoshu’ah, which is basically the name Hoshea (which means “salvation” or “he saves”) with Yeho (from YHWH, God’s name) added as a prefix. It literally means “God saves,” where God is specifically the Hebrew God of the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, it’s pretty clear that the Jews had a thing about choosing names with relevant meanings. Jesus’ name wasn’t just a bunch of sounds, it was a description of what He was doing in this world. “God saves” is the message we’re supposed to be getting from the name of Jesus.

The image on the right was created by forensic anthropologists associated with the BBC, and is considered to be an accurate representation of an average Hebrew man from Jesus' time and place.

The image on the right was created by forensic anthropologists associated with the BBC, and is considered to be an accurate representation of an average Hebrew man from Jesus’ time and place.

It seems to me that the issue of how we depict Jesus’ appearance is similar. There is room for philosophical debate about the relationship between identity, name, and appearance, (I would argue that a person’s name is more closely tied to their identity than their physical appearance is) and there’s also room for debating the social implications of incorrectly depicting Jesus’ race. It is certainly understandable that some people, particularly those who are part of racial minorities, would be troubled to see Jesus portrayed as if he was a European, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to argue that this tradition in Christian artwork may have contributed to racism in Western ideologies over the last couple millennia. If that is the case, it certainly is sad, and it’s clear evidence of the fact that we are sinners. Even the most devout and well-meaning Christian is not immune to horrible, sinful attitudes towards other people. But it doesn’t mean that we worship a false Christ if we imagine Christ looking more like a European than He really did.

The image on the left is a picture of the shroud of Turin; you can see the faint image of a face, although it doesn't show up well in the photograph. The image on the right is the negative, which shows the face much more clearly.

The image on the left is a picture of the shroud of Turin; you can see the faint image of a face, although it doesn’t show up well in the photograph. The image on the right is the negative, which shows the face much more clearly.

It’s worth noting that our artistic images of Jesus were not randomly made up out of the blue by racist Caucasian people. At least since 1350, it has been speculated by many and believed by some that the shroud of Turin was Jesus’ burial cloth. It is marked with an image, believed to have been left by radiation, of the man who was wrapped in it, including his face. The shroud is shrouded in mystery and controversy. (Pun intended) If you Google it, you will find lots of articles about it that contain compelling evidence supporting conflicting opinions. Many believe that it was a hoax from the 1300s; many others believe that it does indeed date back to the early first century. In the last few decades, technological advances have allowed the cloth to be examined more extensively, and that has not ended the controversy or answered all the questions. Considering the fact that John 19:40 specifies that Jesus was wrapped in linen cloths, not a shroud, I’m not inclined to think that the shroud of Turin was Jesus’ shroud. (Yes, I’m aware that some English translations of the other gospels use the word “shroud”, but I’m pretty sure that in all three cases, the word σινδονι ought to be translated simply as “linen”, not “a linen shroud.” I could be wrong about that, but John 19:40 is pretty specific about how Jesus was buried.) At any rate, whether the shroud of Turin shows a genuine image of Jesus or not, some religious artists from many centuries ago believed that it did, and based their depictions of Jesus on that image without any racist intentions of making Jesus look specifically European.

This picture was closely based on the face from the shroud of Turin, and looks very much like the popular image of Jesus' face.

This picture was closely based on the face from the shroud of Turin, and looks very much like the popular image of Jesus’ face.

But the important thing is that our salvation does not depend upon whether or not we accurately picture the way Jesus looked. The Bible tells us that he was true God and true man, born to live a sinless human life and die an innocent death on our behalf, which is what we really need to know. It also tells us about many of the things that Jesus said and did during his ministry, because those are important details, too. But it didn’t tell us what Jesus looked like because that information isn’t necessary or relevant. On the one hand, it’s perfectly okay for us to keep the pictures we have of a face that we identify as Jesus, even though we don’t know what he really looked like. But on the other hand, it’s perfectly okay for us to try to make educated guesses about what He did look like and to have a preference for artwork that is more likely to be accurate. We just have to remember that Christianity isn’t about racial controversy, it’s about “God saves.”

More Stuff that Martin Luther Didn’t Say

8 Comments

Martin LutherA little more than a year ago, I wrote this blog post, expressing my annoyance that Martin Luther is often incorrectly associated with certain liberal ideas such as a mistrust of organized religion and the subjectivity of biblical interpretation. Seriously, Martin Luther is among the most misquoted historical figures of all time. According to the Editor’s Introduction to the Augsburg Confession in the 2006 publication of the Book of Concord, the time-honored tradition of grossly misquoting Luther dates back to 1519 in a book written by John Eck for the purpose of turning people against Luther. But I think that some of the current non-Lutheran viewpoints associated with Luther actually have the opposite purpose; they come from some people’s desire to claim that Luther’s reforms were heading in the direction that certain current denominations are going. At any rate, Luther never wanted the Bible to be subject to personal interpretation and he by no means believed that religion is a one-on-one individualistic relationship with God that doesn’t have anything to do with church. That’s basically what I said in the aforementioned blog post from last summer.

It has come to my attention since then, though, that Martin Luther’s name has also become associated with transcendentalist ideas. There are a number of popular bogus Luther quotations that get posted all over the internet, and I am aware of one particular facebook page that bears Martin Luther’s name, but has posted the words of Romantic-era transcendentalist poets with the assertion that they have some connection to Luther’s teachings. I later unfollowed that page after noticing that the admin had done that kind of thing on several occasions, but I am disturbed to know that such a page exists and that there are many people who repost those things with the idea that those heretical (or, at best, heterodox) quotations are profound, true, and consistent with Lutheran beliefs.

Transcendentalism is the philosophical idea, associated with Romantic-era literature as well as with a few much older beliefs, that nature is itself divine. Depending upon who is being quoted and what the context of the statement is, transcendentalists may assert either that there is no God apart from the natural world, that God speaks to us directly through the natural world, or that He can be studied by immersing oneself in the natural world. Transcendentalism can be rectified with various different beliefs about what God or the gods are like, but it is not consistent with biblical Christianity. In all fairness, I suppose it is technically possible for someone to be a Christian with a transcendentalist point of view, but this cannot be supported by scripture and is not in keeping with Lutheran doctrine. (I am here defining “Christian” as a person believing in the existence of the triune God, viewing the Bible to be God’s Word, and having faith in the salvific work of Jesus Christ, who was both true God and true man and who lived a sinless human life and died on the cross and rose from the dead to pay for the sins of all humankind so that we may have eternal life in heaven.)

Luther quoteThere are several fake Luther quotes out there that speak about finding God in nature. The most famous of these is “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” Another one, which is very similar and perhaps is just a variation on the same quotation, says, “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime”.  There are others out there on the internet that are along the same vein. Not only have the people of the internet been unable to cite a source for these statements, but they don’t even sound like Luther. Martin Luther’s rhetoric is not known for being cutesy and fluffy. He certainly had a way with words, but he often used it to disagree with people who taught false doctrine. Basically, if you can use a quotation as the caption for a beautiful and inspirational picture of the natural world, either it’s probably not a Luther quotation, or you’re probably pretty bad at captioning your pictures. Here’s a website that gives genuine Luther quotations. (I would like to point out for the record that Luther did not specialize exclusively in insults and name-calling; he also had much of importance and significance to say about God.)There’s also a twitter page where someone posts these Luther insults in response to false doctrine that Joel Osteen puts on Twitter. Frankly, I think that Martin Luther would approve of this posthumous use of his words. It’s very much in keeping with the way he used them when he was alive. It’s certainly more consistent with Luther’s personality and his beliefs than are vague transcendentalist statements about finding God in nature.

I have no doubt that Martin Luther was as capable as anyone else of acknowledging the beauty of certain aspects of the natural world, and that he appreciated the fact that God had created that beauty. You don’t have to look any farther than the Small Catechism (for example, the explanation to the first article of the creed) in order to see that Luther saw creation and every good thing in it as a direct gift from God. But there’s a big difference between acknowledging that God created something good and thinking that he communicates with us through it.

It is commonly said by Christians of all denominations that we can see God’s hand in the natural world, and this is certainly true to some extent, but God does not literally speak to us through nature. In fact, the existence and beauty of the world around us obviously does not constitute proof of the existence of God, because if it did, there would be no atheists or agnostics. Even if someone was to conclude that there is a God just by looking at plants and rocks and shining lakes and majestic sunsets, they wouldn’t be able to know anything else about God from those sources of information.

Jesus on the CrossOne truth that we can learn from the natural world is that people aren’t the only beings that experience disease, destruction, and death. Even in a relatively wild and untouched place, there will be plants and animals that suffer and die and rot, and that may suffer and/or look ugly in the meantime. While it’s true that the creative hand of God can be seen in nature, the destructive effects of sin are also written there very clearly. And nature doesn’t tell us which is which; if it wasn’t for the actual real Word of God, we would have no way of knowing that God gave us a perfect world and that it was sin that damaged it. Many people actually do see the imperfection of the world as evidence that God either doesn’t exist or that he isn’t entirely benevolent. Those are the doubts that come from ignoring the Biblical teachings about sin. Furthermore, the natural world doesn’t inform us that this destruction caused by sin isn’t the end of the story, that God has already fixed things for us. There is nothing in nature that tells us about Jesus’ incarnation and death and resurrection. To receive all of that crucial information, we need the real Word of God, which is the Bible. And Luther never said anything to the contrary; he firmly believed in Sola Scriptura.

Anyone who claims that Luther said or believed otherwise is misrepresenting him. And anyone who says or believes otherwise themselves is placing faith in something other than God by reading divine messages into something that God has never said He would use to communicate with us. It’s essentially a belief in omens and signs, no different than in many pagan religions. At best, it’s a form of superstition that shouldn’t blend with Christianity, and at worst, it’s a completely non-Christian religion that is particularly evil because it falsely calls itself Christianity.

Why I Don’t Like Liturgical Dance

1 Comment

I was a dance major in college, and on more than one occasion, it was suggested to me that I ought to do liturgical dance in church. That disturbed me, especially in one particular case where it was a visiting pastor who said it. I don’t want to sound overly judgmental about the idea of liturgical dance, because I know a number of well-meaning and sincere Christians who have participated in liturgical dance, and besides, there technically is nothing heretical about it. But there are a number of reasons that liturgical dance just isn’t a very good idea. I was reminded of all these reasons when I saw a youtube video on facebook yesterday of a liturgical dance performance in a Lutheran church. I should acknowledge the fact that the person who posted the link and the other people who commented on it shared my dislike for liturgical dance, but the fact remains that there are a lot of people who don’t see what’s wrong with it. As someone who has had to express a specific opinion on this issue before, I’d like to offer a list of reasons why I don’t approve of liturgical dance.

1. Dance is a performance art where the focus is on the performer

praise danceIn general, a choreographed dance is intended to display the skill of the dancer(s) and/or to be a form of artistic self-expression for the choreographer and dancer(s). Either way, the focus is on the dancer(s) themselves, and the viewers’ impressions and reactions are supposed to reflect that. Yes, dancers and choreographers can and do use dance to tell stories, to convey emotions, and to express ideas, but those stories, emotions, and ideas are based upon and centered around the dancers’ bodies. I think that dance is the most performer-centered art form. If you don’t agree, think of what happens when dancers and musicians perform together. From the audience’s point of view, and usually from the performers’ perspective as well, the dancers are the real stars and the musicians are just providing accompaniment. I am not saying this to insult dance as an art form or to imply that dancers are egotistical. As someone who has spent an awful lot of literal blood, sweat, and tears on dance, I definitely think that dancers deserve appreciation for their talent and dedication. But I also think that it is inherent in the nature of dance that it is impossible for the audience’s focus to be on anything other than the dancer. For that reason, dance does not belong in a worship service. Even if the dancers genuinely are doing it in praise of God, the audience is paying attention to the dancers, not God.

2. Liturgical dance tends to have theological problems

I suppose that it would be hypothetically possible to choreograph a dance piece that had accurate theological significance. But all of the liturgical dance videos that I can find on the internet seem to fall into one of two groups: they are either a meaningless and repetitive series of generic dance moves set to a theologically shallow praise song, or they portray a personal struggle that ends with the main character finding her way to God. (I say “her” because I actually haven’t seen much of any liturgical dances featuring men) I realize that there really are some Christians who actually believe that Christianity is all about winning a personal struggle against evil and achieving faith and salvation, but that’s not a biblical idea. If these dances were theologically accurate, they would first make it clear that the main character is a sinner herself, not an innocent victim of vague evil powers, and then show that it is God Himself who brings salvation to the sinner, rather than an individual’s own personal victory. The choreography also ought to work the crucifixion and resurrection into its story, because those are absolutely central to Christianity, and any “Christian” message that leaves them out is running the risk of not really being Christian. If the congregation doesn’t want to see a liturgical dance that doesn’t portray the individual Christian as the hero, then they obviously don’t have the kind of devoted faith in God that their lead liturgical dancer shows at the end of her performance, and probably are confused about what faith is anyway. Faith is not wearing a white dress and making graceful gestures towards the altar while nobody dressed in black pulls you back anymore; it is belief in God and the salvation that comes from Him. These people would benefit a lot more from hearing the law and gospel in their service than from watching an artistic expression of what the Christian life is like.

3. “Do everything to the glory of God” isn’t just about the church service

I'm really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

I’m really hoping this is a photo-shopped joke and not a thing that actually happened.

This oft-quoted phrase is from 1 Corinthians 10:31, and it is often completely taken out of context, since that passage is about whether it’s okay for Christians to eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan gods. That isn’t an outdated and irrelevant passage because it applies to other situations where the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what to do. But it really has nothing to do with the worship service. A variation of this phrase also appears in Colossians 3:17, but it’s still quite a stretch to read that passage as saying that a person is compelled to display all of their God-given talents in the worship service. There’s this thing called vocation; it means that it’s good and godly for us to do whatever we’re supposed to do in every aspect of our lives, and not just in the worship service. Even a world-famous professional dancer wouldn’t be compelled to dance in church in order to justify the fact that dance is his/her God-given talent. After all, the church service can’t encompass everyone’s individual abilities. What if you’re a rocket scientist or a marine biologist or a soccer player or something? Good luck finding a way to showcase those useful and significant God-given talents in a worship service. If everyone actually believed that doing something to the glory of God required doing it in church, the worship service would be nothing but a talent show. I think it’s really a symptom of the trend towards Sunday-morning-only-Christianity that anyone would believe that performing in a church service is somehow more Christian than using whatever talents you have been given throughout your life, even in contexts that aren’t exclusively Christian.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really... edifying. I'm sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

Wow, this is liturgical dance costume is really… edifying. I’m sure that any routine performed with this costume would instill devout and devotional thoughts in the minds of all who see it.

4. Liturgical dance is not liturgical, it’s a distraction

I got this on google but I can't figure out what the original source was.

I got this on google but I can’t figure out what the original source was.

I have heard people comment with surprise about the fact that churches of different denominations sometimes have very similar liturgies. For example, the traditional Lutheran liturgy is pretty similar to the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy. That is not just a weird coincidence. It’s a result of the fact that every traditional liturgical church can trace the history of its liturgy back to the early church. Over the centuries, many traditions have stayed more or less the same because they just work so well. It’s not just a matter of the aesthetic beauty of an “old-fashioned” church service; the ancient liturgy is theologically rich. Law and gospel are embedded within the order of the service itself, most of the responses come directly from the Bible, and old hymns tend to be much more meaningful and didactic than modern praise songs. That’s not to say that innovations are evil. There’s nothing wrong with singing a hymn that was written relatively recently, just as long as it is theologically accurate and actually says something. There’s nothing wrong with using an instrument other than a pipe organ, just as long as that doesn’t lead to singing songs that aren’t theologically accurate and don’t actually say anything. There’s nothing wrong with using technology in the church service, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. And by the same token, there would be nothing wrong with adding something new and artistic to the liturgy, just as long as it serves a purpose and it’s not just a distraction. But liturgical dance doesn’t serve a purpose because it doesn’t offer anything that the ancient, traditional, liturgical service is lacking. It just interrupts the flow of a service that has a logical and meaningful order without it. At least a musical solo can be smoothly incorporated into the service because the liturgy is already characterized by music. People who want to see liturgical dance or other diversional performance acts in the worship service are just looking for entertainment, and that’s not the purpose of worship. In fact, catering to people’s desire for entertainment in church can be dangerous because it reinforces the belief that religion is just another kind of recreational hobby.

In conclusion, I think that liturgical dance is parallel to popular Christian praise music. Both are creative art forms that have little or no theological value and don’t belong in the worship service. But in both cases, they are perfectly acceptable and maybe even good things outside of the divine service. There’s no reason that mainstream art and culture can’t include non-satirical references to God, sincere praise for God, and positive portrayals of Christianity. If Christians find those types of music and dance to be likable and entertaining, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t enjoy them in their everyday lives. Maybe some people will even find that such things reinforce their beliefs and values to some extent. But no religious-themed but theologically shallow art form is faith-giving, or acts as an acceptable substitute for the divine service or for any aspect of it.

Cotton Candy: A blog post in which I rant about bad theology on the internet

2 Comments

Not naming names, but...

Not naming names, but…

No matter how many times I hear or read it, it always takes me by surprise when someone claims that personal bible study means picking a verse, meditating on it, and determining what that verse means for you in your life. But that’s something that people say a lot. In fact, what I just typed is fairly close to a direct quotation from something I saw online just the other day. I wonder where that idea even comes from in the first place, because it is just so obviously problematic.

First of all, why is it supposedly a good idea to deliberately take something out of context? That is inevitably going to create misunderstandings. You can make the Bible say pretty much anything if you just pick random phrases without taking into consideration what the whole passage is saying. I mean, technically the Bible says that there is no God. (Psalm 14:1. Look it up.) That’s obviously an extreme example, but it just goes to show that taking words out of context risks manipulating their meaning. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with memorizing specific Bible verses or even putting them on T-shirts and bumper stickers and wall decorations. But make sure they mean what you think they mean, and do that by reading the Bible, not by soul-searching and self-reflection. The human mind is no substitute for the Bible, and it can’t offer the context for a Bible verse the way that surrounding Bible verses do.

When I googled "Bible study inspiration" to see if it would be as corny as I feared, I got this picture. I am not even kidding about that.

When I googled “Bible study inspiration” to see if it would be as corny as I feared, I got this picture. I am not even kidding about that.

And why do we think that we’re supposed to decide for ourselves what a Bible verse means specifically for our own individual lives? What’s wrong with the idea that a Bible verse means the same thing regardless of who’s reading it or what’s currently going on in their life? Maybe there’s some comfort in the notion that God has things to say to specifically address your various life problems as they occur, but there’s greater comfort in the notion that God’s word and His gifts are constant and consistent regardless of the changes and difficulties that each individual faces throughout their life. The good thing is, that’s what happens to be true, as promised in Psalm 102, for example. There are zillions of other places in the Bible say that God and/or God’s word don’t change, but I’m not going to make a list here because I can hear some reader somewhere wondering how I can quote a list of individual Bible verses after writing the previous paragraph. (Although, incidentally, I would have looked up the entire chapter instead of the individual verses, just to make sure I wasn’t taking them out of context. Admittedly, another reason that I’m not doing that is because this is a quick and slapdash blog post, not a time-consuming and carefully-written one.)

fortune tellerThe only way to pretend that God’s word is subjective and relative, meaning different things in different situations, is to imagine that it is as vague and empty as a fortune or horoscope, which are ultimately meaningless because they are constructed with a deliberate attempt to be completely flexible.  I had written a pretty long paragraph about internet apps that give daily “personalized messages from God”, but I deleted that because I suppose someone could argue that I was building a straw man there; I doubt that many people actually believe that those kinds of randomized computer-generated messages are divine. But the idea that God sends you a new personalized message via the internet every day isn’t much different than thinking that the actual Bible shifts its meaning to reflect your changing circumstances and emotional needs. God’s word is better and more versatile than a “personalized” message or fortune because it actually is universally relevant without having to vary its meaning at all.

What results from a self-reflective method of reading the Bible is cotton candy theology. In the search for emotionally meaningful advice and words of comfort, the reality of sin gets ignored. People take the beautiful and life-giving words of forgiveness and salvation out of context and forget about their own sinfulness in the first place. Then Jesus’ death on the cross loses its significance, and thus the gospel becomes watered down as well. Now the law looks like a flexible and vague set of strategies to make your life better or to make you a cooler person, and the gospel looks like a cheerful and vague reminder that God cares about you. This is the cotton candy theology; nothing is left but overly-processed sugar, air, and a little pink food coloring to keep people interested. (That food coloring can take the form of emotional worship music, inspiring testimonies, fun church youth group activities… If it sounds cool and is supposedly religious but doesn’t have Jesus in it, it’s just food coloring.)

*sarcasm alert* You can tell it's good because people buy it, right?

*sarcasm alert* You can tell it’s good because people buy it, right?

My question is this: Why settle for fluff and air when we can have something substantial and important to say by acknowledging the reality and seriousness of sin? Why settle for weak artificial sweetener if we can have the true sweetness of the gospel by remembering what Jesus did for us on the cross? Why settle for artificial pink food coloring when we can have the genuine blood of Christ in the sacrament? And why settle for cotton candy by narrowing our study of God’s word when we could have cake by reading and trusting the whole Bible?