Archive for October, 2009

Guest Post: Learning to Read with the Rabbis

October 16, 2009

A Guest Post by Rev. Russell Rathbun, author of nuChristian:::

I have learned so much about reading the Bible in the last few years from the Ancient Rabbis. I have long known that it was not a book of answers, but a book of the best questions there are about what it means to be human in relations ship with God.  But the Sages have such an amazing way of interacting with the scripture as if it were a living thing.  It is a kind of relational way of reading.

The rabbi’s, when they read, walk into the text.  They bring them selves to it and step across the edge of the scroll onto its body, bouncing a little, believing it will hold their weight.  And then on hands and knees crawl through the furrows of words, examining, brushing away dirt, not like an archeologist hoping to unearth some dead, hardened thing but like a botanist examining growth patterns and evidence of the soils mineral content, water content or whether there is deep clay and then, below the cracks in the soil from which the words emerged.  It is the cracks, the gaps that will allow them a way in.  The midrash is the exploration of those gaps.  Stories and parables, proverbs and legal case studies come from their time mining those gaps.  The text is changed by their having been there, there are footprints left behind, indentations, great hollowed out places and covered over, smoothed out portions.  The tents of opposing camps are set in the text side by side.  Conclusions leaned up against refutations, some decaying some flourishing.  Having once been an oral wisdom that required a speaker, and what is an individual speaker if not a unique interpreter, the text was not allowed to pass into stone, to become hardened, but was kept alive and fertile, even malleable but with deep and unknown roots.

Russell Rathbun (Author of nuChristian)

Russell Rathbun (Author of nuChristian)

A Book Review: nuChristian by Russell E. D. Rathbun

October 13, 2009
Image by: Judson Press

Image by: Judson Press

Recently, I was asked to do a book review of a book called nuChristian (no that’s not a typo…its actually ‘nu’ as in ‘new’) that is a response of sorts, but more so a contribution to the ongoing conversation that resulted from the book unChristian written by Dave Kinnamon (President of The Barna Group) and Gabe Lyon (founder of Fermi Group, now Q) and published in 2007.   Written by Rev. Russell Rathbun, one of the founding pastors of House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the book is practical, pastoral, and conversational and based largely on Russel’s experience in the post-modern world.  As such Russell is upfront about the fact that he is writing from a “highly subjective, extremely relational perspective” (p. viii).  While some may discount his book since it is “subjective” and “relational,” I think it has a great deal of insight to offer and I am thankful Russell chose to write from this standpoint.

In the Forward of the book, Shane Claiborne writes, “I am convinced that if we lose a generation in the church, that loss won’t be because we failed to entertain them, but because we failed to dare them–to take the words of Jesus seriously and to do something about the things that are wrong in the world” (p. vi).  According to Shane, “Russell Rahtburn offers us that dare–to renew a Christianity that reminds the world of Jesus again” (p.vi).

There is a lot that I could say about this book.  I think Russell does a great job of responding to the data presented in The Barna Group’s study.  And I very much appreciate his straightforward but gracious approach in his response.  I think the two things that jumped out at me the most while reading Russell’s book were his discussion of ‘scapegoating’ and his understanding of the way postmodern people read the Bible.

Russell goes into some depth to draw his reader into his understanding of ‘scapgoating.’  While I was familiar with the term, I very much appreciated his efforts to place the concept within our current culture and context.  Early on in the book Russell writes, “The kingdom of God is made up of every kind of person there is” (p. 3).  Though this may result in a response of “well, duh” from many people but let’s be honest…this is not the reality of many churches.  I personally have attended or visited many churches and found them to be demographically and ideologically anemic.  Many write this off as a result of people seeking to be with others who are like them (what Russell refers to as the “homogenous unit principle” as introduced by Dr. Donald A. McGraven [p. 1]).  I personally think this it’s a cop out.  Russell presents the idea that it is ‘scapegoating’ (p. 6).  The bottom line in this seems to be that “scapegoating is when we find someone else like us, and we bond of the shared object of our envy, anxiety, and fear” (p. 6) since “one of us most be wrong” (p. 7) if there is a difference in desires or opinions.  It is harder for me to walk the line between scapegoating and judgement, but undoubtedly blaming any one certain group for the ills of society is unfounded at best.  I appreciate Russell’s efforts to drive the point home that “nuChristians listen to and consider the opinions of others” (p.88).  That coupled with the reality that “human perfections is an illusion” (p.88) makes a great case in and of itself for leaving the judgement of others to God.

As for Russell’s understanding of the way postmodern people read the Bible, he first explains that previous generations typically view scripture “as an instruction book, a guidebook, [or] a book of answers” (p.16).  In this line of thing, “there is only one right interpretation of every text in the Bible”  (p.16).  In the eyes of a postmodern person, if this is trued, they “see the Scriptures as something dead” (p. 17).  Instead of thinking of the Bible as an answer book, Russell proposes that we view it “as a book of really good questions” (p.18).  I really like that.  It took quite some time in my own life to see that if Christianity is just about following rules, you don’t need the Holy Spirit.  Or discernment.  Or a brain even.  Machines can follow rules.  Russell compares this to the use of a “checklist” saying, “you don’t need God when you have a checklist” (p.19).  I also found it very intriguing that Russell has found that “in [his] own ministry…highlighting the questions we find in Scriptures gives people permission to voice the questions they have always wondered about” (p. 18).  It’s rather boring, after all, when someone just provides you with all the answers.  Our brains can only take so much of that.  It’s boring, frankly, and it assumes that the person giving the who is on the receiving end of the answers doesn’t have the mental capacity to think through things on their own.  Our curiosity is primed, so to speak, when there is mystery.  And if there is one place there is enough ministry to last us until Christ returns, it’s God and the Bible.  Allowing people to wade through the deep waters that are the Scriptures will surely bear more fruit and cramming answers in their brains.

While I am sure I disagree with Russell on at least a few things, the more I think about it the more I understand agreeing isn’t really important.  It seems to me that Russell is daring us to hold our beliefs loosely and others tightly.  Love of God and Love of neighbor are linked inseparably.  And if loving my neighbor means challenging myself to be more accepting of ambiguity and more realistic about the limits of my own humanity I am all for it.  No one has it all figured out.  We can all learn from each other.  The question is, will we humble ourselves enough to allow that to happen?

He has showed you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6.8

*for more reviews on this book, visit http://www.judsonpress.com/blogtour.cfm for a list of blogs included on this blog tour*