I Understand Very Little (Some Advent Thoughts)

Yesterday I read this Newsweek article that attempts to debunk the apparently misguided biblical argument against gay marriage. I will say nothing more about it, except that the article hammered home one major point: Christianity and the Bible are frightfully misunderstood.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been researching an article that I am writing on the “missional” movement in Christianity. I’ve been interviewing dozens of professors, theologians, pastors, and church historians in efforts to understand what “missional” is saying about the purpose of the Christian church in the world. I will say nothing more about it, except that it reminded me of one thing: even Christians have trouble agreeing upon what Christianity really means.

These two instances, in combination with scores of other things (including but not limited to the plane crash that killed four people in San Diego, Oprah getting fat, and Handel’s Messiah), have reinforced to me the deep and abiding mystery that is Christianity. I mean, the word and the religion are not all that mysterious, but how it all works—the birth of Jesus, the death, the resurrection, and all the fancy words we use to make sense of it all (incarnation, justification, salvation, atonement)—is utterly and unavailingly mystifying.

But really, could it be any other way? We’re talking about God here, the eternal, omni-everything Being of beings, the Ultimate Concern (as Tillich would say) who created all things… and he condescended to our little planet in the form of an infant? And as this human, the person that history recorded as Jesus Christ, God made himself fathomable. This is how I look at Jesus: as the form through which God revealed the knowable part of himself to his creation.

It makes sense that Jesus was the complicated, counterintuitive, controversial figure that he was. He was God in a man’s body—fully human and fully God. No wonder we’re still talking about, wrestling with, trying to make sense of this guy. No wonder people still argue about what he meant by this or that, or “what he would do” in this or that scenario. No wonder we pray to him and sing songs about him, and go crazy every December in commemorate his birth.

God (aka Yahweh) was pretty complicated and mysterious before Jesus happened (i.e. in the Old Testament), but his mystery increased exponentially when he became a human. I mean, who does that??? I’ve read the Bible many times, I’ve heard Paul and the others when they talk about why God sent Jesus to earth and to the cross. And I still can’t fully understand what is going on. I mean, I understand enough. I understand that it was all out of love, for me, for a divine purpose, and that it was God moving to rescue his creation from self-destruction and sin. I understand the creeds, the theology, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But so much of it is still totally over my head.

And that is why Advent and Christmas are so wonderful. They are blatantly, audaciously inexplicable. They embrace mystery. They are about the mystery of God and Jesus. It’s comforting to know that all these thousands of years later, with centuries of intellect and science and progress and theology, we are just as awed and brought to our knees by the mystery as we ever were. The phenomenon is just clear enough that it has survived millennia and will survive forever onward, and mysterious enough to be worthy of worship.

And so we’ll press on, continuing in faith to be the church that God founded through Christ for the world. We don’t have to understand it all to be useful or meaningful. God is using his people in ways they scarcely can imagine. Our cognizant compliance is irrelevant.

But thanks be to God that we can understand some things. In the Christmas star, the cold winds, the nostalgic reverie of tinseled trees and warm rum and spiced cakes.

We can understand some things.

8 responses to “I Understand Very Little (Some Advent Thoughts)

  1. Brett
    Once again you have penned a remarkable blog (I so wish someone would come up with a better ‘word’!). As you so eloquently put it, without this element of mystery, there could be no reason to worship – after all, if we were able to completely understand, WE would then be ‘God’! I wish you a joyous Christmas season – and long may you continue to write inspirational blogs (please – can someone come up with a better word!).

  2. Wow…that Newsweek article is SO sadly misinterpretative and scary. Who is this writer? She should be ashamed of herself.

  3. I don’t want to completely derail the entire topic from Advent, but I guess I’m a dunderhead and don’t understand what is ridiculous about the Newsweek article. I mean, I can understand disagreeing with the exegesis or hermeneutic presented or whatever, but the way both Brett and Betsi talk about it makes it sound like the Newsweek article has no defensible rationale behind its understanding of scripture— which is different from one with which one disagrees.

  4. Tim
    In keeping with the KIS principle, the Newsweek article DOES have “no defensible rationale behind its understanding of scripture”!

  5. Tim–this woman doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and her arrogant tone will come back to haunt her. You can’t misinterpret the Bible to the masses without serious repercussions.
    It’s not just the fact that she’s wrong that bothers me, or that she’s repeating essentially the mainstream view as if it’s original to her; it’s her arrogant tone as if she’s just solved the entire issue in one article. On top of which, there’s a disrespect to those oh-so-ignorant religious conservatives that is certainly not new, but doesn’t do her any good in advancing her argument either.

  6. Brett, I love that this article talks about mystery, and how it is to be embraced. These Advent posts have been very welcomed. I’m looking forward to your future posts on missional topics.

    Thanks as well for highlighting the Newsweek article. For me, its arguments were not only well-constructed, but also indicative as coming from a writer with a sincere faith. We might even call her our sister in Christ (or would that be going too far, Betsi?).

  7. Betsi—
    In what sense does she not know what she’s talking about? Does she get the facts wrong about Abraham, David, et al.? This is what I’m asking: I’m not asking whether you disagree with her, which you clearly do and which is fine, I’m asking why you’re acting as though she hasn’t even presented an argument with which to disagree.

  8. What bothers me about her presentation of Christ is that it doesn’t seem to come from an actual interpersonal relationship WITH Christ. The arguments about what kind of relationship David had with Jonathan, etc., although nothing I haven’t read before, I don’t have any problem with (although of course I do disagree).
    She very well may be my sister in Christ, although I may have missed the part where she said she was a Christian…I’d be more on board with her article if it were presented in another magazine I suppose…I just would hope for less of her own opinion and more of a standard journalistic format in a publication like Newsweek.
    I’d love to be able to agree with her, and on some points I do. Like I said, I have more issues with her tone than anything else.

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