Several years ago I spoke at a small Christian liberal arts college in eastern Tennessee. Afterward I joined the host professor, a half-dozen students, and my Art House compatriots for food and discussion at a nearby restaurant. A bright though anxious young man, full of story, sat across from me. He wanted to talk, to tell me at least three things. One, that he was wrestling with the form of Christianity common to his college (call it Pentecostal fundamentalism and foundationalism). Two, he was in the middle of acquiring a problem with the trustworthiness of words in general, but specifically those of the Bible and how they were interpreted on his campus. And three, he had questions about knowledge itself—how we know what we know. After rambling on about religious fundamentalism, deconstructive literary theory, and postmodern philosophy, he finally reached a climax of frustration. “Don’t you see,” he exclaimed. “Words have no meaning!”
To which I replied, “In that case, I haven’t understood a word you’ve said.”
“What?” he asked.
“In that case, I haven’t understood a word you’ve said,” I repeated. Of course I’d understood him, and after a healthy pause for reflection, I let him know as much. (Note: I’m not proud of my initial retort.) This sincere student had no intention of speaking so honestly just to have me dismiss him or tell him his words were meaningless. With emotion and frustration (and words) he wanted to convey meaning—to be heard, known, and understood. He invited me into his story in all its messiness and clearly wanted me to know the questions that haunted him:
Does God really exist? If so, is God even somewhat accurately represented by the words and propositions of the group of believers I find myself tangled up with? In other words, are their ways of being, knowing, speaking, and doing congruent with God’s desire for the human family? And if they are congruent, and this is who God is and what being human is, can I accept it? Or should I keep searching? And if I do speak out loud that I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, does that have to mean I’m somehow unfaithful or that I don’t believe?
While he wrestled with questions such as these, the young man was also trying to make sense of living in a world filled with individualized interpretations of reality where any professed certainty or confidence is the mark of a fool at best and a tyrant at worst. He’d taken a look at language through the lens of deconstructive literary theory, transposed this to philosophy, applied it to the whole of life, and now, from where he stood, God was starting to look a little unnecessary.
The young man was growing increasingly certain that all claims of certainty were only plays for power and autonomous control of people and the planet (maybe even especially so among Christians). He shouted out, “Words have no meaning!” not because they actually have none, but because they have too many, more than any one person could ever keep up with. He had begun to see that words and stories (thought units composed of words) could have as many possible meanings as there are people to construct individualized interpretations of reality. He’d come to college full of religious certainty. Now he was on the verge of giving up hope of ever finding any trustworthy, life-defining knowledge. I really did understand him. The problem of God and words is an ancient one, going all the way back to the beginning.
A few years later in 1998, when President Clinton uttered his now famous reply, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is,” I thought back to this young man’s story and struggle. If the world really has become an infinity of individualized interpretations of reality, right down to the smallest of verbs, then perhaps the young man was prophetically distressed. Did he, wandering in the wilderness of East Tennessee, have a vision of a day when the brain twists of academia would become presidential sound bites on 24/7 cable news?
I think of him again now, wondering if he gave up the search for truth, for personal knowledge, for the Story that explains life and reality better than all others.
I wonder if he has a girlfriend, a wife, children.
What work and play does he enjoy?
When was the last time he had a party thrown for him?
And what about the words? How does he think of them today? Has he decided that they’re necessary social constructs, liquid in meaning, separated into public and private sectors? Has he abandoned them altogether, preferring the certainty of silence? Or has he, like me, resolved to work with the pesky things despite how inadequate they can be from time to time?
I’m not ready to do away with words. Neither am I ready to do away with stories or the idea that trustworthy knowledge is out there and accessible. I still need words and stories. Especially when they’re arranged in such a way that after speaking, writing, reading, or hearing them, I feel more human, more eager to live, not less. I desire the same for my hearers and readers—more life, not less. I imagine being a man who works with life-giving words and stories. That’s the dream and the reason why I get up every morning to practice the work of imagining, creating, and telling—hoping and trusting that some of it will have life, breath, and brightness.
A brief pause for belief and confession: I confess that I hunger to be eager for life, to be fully human. I confess that I appreciate words that increase this hunger. I confess a belief in the existence of ways of being, knowing, feeling, thinking, imagining, and doing that promote a fullness of life and humanity, and I confess a belief in the existence of ways that do not. In short, I believe antithesis is real.
Still, I believe that words reflect their human users—they’re never perfect. They are human words. The world is filled with imperfect people using imperfect language to describe imperfect human thoughts and actions. This, I believe, is one of life’s certainties. I wonder if my friend from East Tennessee would concede to this.
I need these imperfect words in all their shapes and sizes, whether timid, bold, or humble. All manner and variety have helped me navigate the darkness and the deep. I am certain that Bob Dylan and Bono have, in words, issued warnings about storms and rough seas. I’m just as certain that Wendell Berry and Dallas Willard have, through imperfect words, helped me identify navigational errors and make course corrections. I’m certain that the theologian-apologist Francis Schaeffer once radioed me with new, lifesaving coordinates. I’m equally certain that songwriter David Wilcox and writer Brennan Manning have guided me away from the danger of shallow waters, while writer Anne Lamott helped me appreciate and celebrate the good, the strange, and the difficult I’ve experienced in various ports of call.
Sometimes “wordy” navigational help, like that of the people just mentioned, can be the most practical aid of all: It helps you bail water while waiting for rescue. And sometimes, in my experience, help like this is the means of rescue. Again and again the words and stories of poets, preachers, and pontificating Irish rock stars offer a reassuring “I hear you” to my cries for help bouncing off God’s satellite. And when they do, I don’t think about how shabby the words are. I think about how life-giving they are, even in their weakness. Borrowing from a device I’ve heard pastor-theologian André Resner use, “I’d like ten minutes back” with my troubled college student, the East Tennessee Wilderness Prophet. Is there anyone you’d like ten minutes back with?
If I could have ten minutes back with the Prophet, I’d say this: “Close your eyes, friend, and imagine. You’re high up in the air, in an aisle seat, looking past your neighbor and out the window. Down below you is a mass of cloud cover looking like fresh snow, marbled, marked with divots and craggy monuments of white. Imagine that your understanding of reality is defined by this view: what you see out the window and what’s proximate to you there in the plane’s cabin. The airplane and its passengers are what you might call a small, unique closed system moving inside what appears to be vast space with a visible boundary of white mass below.”
Many well-meaning Christians, gathered together in various sects, present Christianity in just this way. They invite you to view reality from a very small window, and they are quite certain they’re providing you with an absolutely objective view of reality. If you join them, you are expected to see as the sect sees. Failure to embrace their view of reality is sometimes commensurate with failure to be a follower of Jesus. And when people say you’re not a follower and you are, it is very hurtful—and very troubling. For sects such as these, “anything other than absolute, unqualified, mathematically certifiable certainty betrayed a soul adrift.”1
Let’s imagine some more. Get out of your seat, reach into the compartment above, and carry the yellow package to the rest room. It’s a parachute. Strap it on. Now go to the big door with the red sign, open it, and jump. When you pass through the white stuff, pull the cord.
As you pass through the clouds, down below, previously hidden from your view, is a world of wonder and wickedness, joy and pain, sex, truth, and lies. It’s a place full of story upon story where words are as plentiful as stars in the sky. And there’s land and promise. Land where God walked. Land belonging to him, promise belonging to him. It’s a place where men and women, boys and girls, either serve themselves or serve the God of the land and the sky and all that ever was and is. This land and sea, this earth and water, is the jazz of God and humanity: order and improvisation, beauty and ashes, boundary and freedom, choice and counterchoice, mistakes and all. It is a place of storytelling and storied living.
When your feet touch the ground, look up. Do you see the plane? No? But it’s there, isn’t it? You know it exists; you’ve just come from there. Remember this: You know about the little sect’s story, but they don’t know about the one you just dropped into, do they? At least they don’t act like it.
Now the hard work begins. At first you will feel compelled to throw out everything the little sect taught you. In fact, this is what you started to do when you encountered deconstructive literary theory and postmodern philosophy, isn’t it? It feels like the answer, but it’s not wise.
Over the years I’ve had several of these parachute epiphanies. With each one, the view widened and the clouds parted. I could see more of the Story, the one that was always there but had been obscured or hidden for various reasons.
My dream is that student-followers of Jesus will learn to tell the Godhuman-earth-and-sky Story with the widest, clearest view right from the beginning. I write, hoping there’s a way to guide new student-followers into a rich awareness of the Story without having them feel that since they’ve heard and believed, they now know it all. What will it take to accomplish this? I’m not sure, but I’m on the path, watching and listening for clues, putting one foot in front of the other.
I handle each clue with care and excitement, like a child who finds a special stone along the seashore. I’m eager to show it to others, to see what the tribe thinks, feels, and says. It’s slow work, but I’m growing accustomed to the pace—to what is a communal and storied way of knowing.
When I used to hang out with drunks and addicts, they would say, “More will be revealed.” When I started hanging out with Christians, no one talked like that, or lived like that. They were largely a people of dry, almost mathematical certainty. The only time mystery entered in was when someone quoted 1 Corinthians 2:9, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
The mystery was all eschatological, a question mark in the great byand-by. I wish my first Christian friends had been more like the recovering drunks and addicts and had just told me, “Hey, there’s a good deal of mystery in the here and now, too. More will be revealed.” Maybe they weren’t keeping it from me; maybe they just didn’t know another way.
But you knew, didn’t you, Wilderness Prophet? You were on to something back then with your questions, skepticism, fist pounding, and youthful unrest. It was T. S. Eliot who said that “doubt and uncertainty are merely a variety of belief.” Did you get it sorted out? Did you come to understand that you can still be a student-follower of Jesus and not possess all truth, once-for-all universal certainty, and the answer to every question?
I hope so. Especially since such things are beyond the scope of humanity, even Christian humans. Did you eventually realize that no matter how much you know, there will always be a gap in your knowledge, and therefore always mystery? Did you come to recognize the role of faith in all knowing? Did you find community where the Jesus way of life is practiced so that the way might be formed in you? And most important, do you see that you can admit gaps in knowledge and still hold that the biblical Story explains reality best? It’s an unfolding Story with a sufficient starting place for knowledge, and it doesn’t position itself as being exhaustive. Part of the Story is that only the Creator-Storyteller holds exhaustive knowledge. This is the part that so many followers of Jesus get wrong.
I hope you’ve come to understand what was going on with those people who grieved and confused you so much in college. Here’s what I suspect happened. Christian folk have often claimed to know too much. We’ve been guilty of speaking with far too much certainty. Well-meaning Christians have lived and spoken as if they’ve come to know what they know from someplace outside of history, outside of any cultural or social conditioning. They load you up with words, propositions, assertions, and acculturated behaviors, and then send you out as some sort of fleshy trump card to the gazillion other cards in the human deck—an agent of the gospel in the soul-saving business.
Then there comes a day when you parachute through the clouds and find out that this kind of hysterical optimism is the result of rationalism, Enlightenment dualism, and socially conditioned behavior—not necessarily what Jesus had in mind when he said to his first disciples, “Follow me.” When you find out, you’re relieved, but you’re also angry. And with good reason, since it doesn’t have to be this way. We need more parachute epiphanies on the front end, more clouds parting, no small sects in the sky on an exclusive charter flight. The growing tribe is too huge for such small thinking, for such a small epistemology.
You were on to something back then, maybe just too wounded and vulnerable to sort it out. Did you finally meet the perfect Word? Did you encounter the Word who is neither construct nor interpretation? Did you meet the Word who is the standard-bearer, the Word who overrides and governs the multiplicity of subjective words? Did you come face to face with the Word who begins the Story, sits at its center, and provides its climax? Did you meet the Word whose tribe looks through an everincreasingly larger window—a multinational community that shares a defining, foundational loyalty to the Word made flesh? This tribe is the Community of Invitation and shows itself as such by embodying the inviting, new way to be human that the Word incarnates. This is the only tribe worthy of your image-bearing humanity. It’s a fit.
When this tribe goes off course, and it does, it’s always because the Word of God (the Story) has been wrongly interpreted by studentfollowers of the Word made flesh (Jesus), misrepresented as something it is not, or simply ignored and disregarded.
Try this on for size: The Bible is not an exhaustive record of a Tripersonal dialogue between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible is far from exhaustive with respect to the knowledge of God. It does not reveal with radical clarity everything there is to know about God, or all that ever was, is, or will be with respect to what is seen or unseen. Neither does it claim to, and Christians end up looking like fools when they make claims for the Bible that it doesn’t make for itself.
What the Bible is, is revelation from God in the form of an accommodation to our human capacities. It takes into consideration our imperfection, our enmity with the Creator, and our failure to be what he has made us to be. It is God condescending to use human language and images from creation to bring us into a personal encounter with him. He uses human language to make his relational will as Creator clearly known, to make clear what has gone wrong between himself, humanity, and his creation, and to reveal his plan of reconciliation through the Word, the final Word to the human family: the Messiah. Jesus is the promise made good, the Word incarnate, the exact representation of God’s being, revealing his character and nature.
In short, God has spelled it all out in a Story, in our world, on our behalf, for our good.
My hope is that you’ve come to see that it’s possible to believe that the Bible (the Story) is not an exhaustive record of the knowledge of God and still hold to an unchanging belief that the Bible is truthful and reliable in all that it affirms. And see that it’s not only possible but good to delineate that the Bible’s truthfulness and reliability are dependent on its being rightly interpreted. As theologian David Clyde Jones says, “It is the Godintended meaning of Scripture as expressed in the Spirit-inspired words that is inerrant, and not some other meaning that anybody thinks the words convey.”2
It’s time for Christians to recover from the illusion of personal objectivity and the posture of unflinching certainty in every regard. These are untenable positions. What we can say and do is hold to the Word of God as objective and absolute while confessing that our reflections on the Word are, by their very nature, relative and subjective. This is honest orthodoxy. We can make it our goal as student-followers to interpret, reflect, and live in ways that are congruent with the intended meaning of the Bible (the Story).
We can be quick to admit our failures when we don’t, and we can recover from incongruent ways more quickly by not gripping our interpretations and social conditioning with an iron fist. If student-followers would live this way, old words such as charity could have new life and application—a leniency in judging as we all sort it out.
Instead of a my-way-or-the-highway attitude, perhaps Christians could communicate something like this: We’re sure of some things, so we speak with certainty about those things. But there’s a lot we’re not sure of, so we’re trying not to speak with certainty about those things. Please forgive us when we confuse the two. In fact, that’s one of the things we’re certain about: We get confused, make errors, and sin against God by claiming to know things we don’t.
The best we can do is (1) make a confession, and (2) offer an invitation. One, we confess we have a starting place for looking at life. We hold to a controlling Story that makes the most sense, that explains reality best. Two, we invite you to come over and stand where we’re standing at the starting place of who and what we’re sure of—Jesus. We invite you to stand within our community, to stand within our story. See if what we claim to be confident of doesn’t reveal to you, a human person on this planet, something you didn’t know or couldn’t believe before. See if we aren’t modeling a new way to be human that tugs at your sense of what human destiny is. See if the window widens and the clouds begin to part.
See if the Word comes to you, spinless and perfect, the best thoughts on the most important things, spoken and embodied. See if the Word doesn’t offer to reconcile you to God, to yourself, to other people, and to the creation.
See if the Word doesn’t offer forgiveness and empathy for the human problem.
If life does look different from where we stand, and you want the reconciliation, meaning, and purpose the Word offers, then come and see on a day-to-day basis. Come join us in building a new worldwide community of people who take the Word seriously and are trying to live out the new way to be human that the Word teaches.
In 2000 I heard Anne Lamott speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That evening I personally voted her Theologian of the Year. Sitting there in the bleachers, transported by her words, I pulled the cord on my parachute and dropped down to where she was standing, at the starting place of what she was sure of, and I saw afresh that what she claimed was certain, I, too, claimed as certain, and we were of the same tribe—a huge, ever-expanding tribe.
“Jesus,” she said. “He’s all I’m really sure of.”
Jesus, the certain Word—a confidence that will be richly rewarded.