Archives For Apologetics

Translational Living

Mark Beuving —  October 19, 2015 — Leave a comment

Theologians and missiologists often use an important but difficult-to-understand concept: “incarnational living.” Using terms like “incarnational” sometimes makes important concepts like these unnecessarily difficult, so I want to reframe this concept using terminology that will hopefully be a bit more familiar.

“Incarnational” refers to the “incarnation,” the act in which Jesus took on flesh. (You can think of carne asada, grilled meat, and make the connection that Jesus wrapped himself in meat—a gross visual, but pretty literal). With the birth of Jesus, God was becoming man, the Divine Being was embodying himself—taking the form of humanity—and thereby revealing himself to us in a new way. This is the significant even the author of Hebrews praises at the beginning of his letter:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our father by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” (Heb. 1:1–2).

There is something unique about God speaking not in words, but in the human (and yet still divine) person of his Son! And in this miraculous event we have a powerful model of what it looks like to speak to our world about Jesus. So now, in an effort to make sense of what this would look like, let me switch from “incarnation” language to “translation” language. (And in doing so, I’m adapting some thoughts I gleaned from missiologist Andrew Walls.)

When Jesus lived amongst humanity, his very life was an act of translation. He was Immanuel, God with us, the very presence of God in human form. To look at Jesus is to realize, “This is what God is like.” We can use many words to convey what God would be like in human terms, or we can simply look at Jesus. Jesus was God’s greatest act of translation.

Hebrew BibleIn translating the Bible from the Hebrew and Greek in which it was originally written, translators have to ask which words in the new language (let’s just say English) fit with the words in the original language. And this is extremely difficult. For example, Greek has 3 words for “love,” and English has only one word to carry the meaning of all three words. Plus “love” in English is pretty slippery, covering everything from our “love” for breakfast food to our “love” for God. So translation carries all kinds of dangers and possibilities: We can express truth about God in new and exciting ways, but we also run the risk of mis-expressing something about God.

When God translated himself into human form (in Jesus), the translation was perfect. We look at Jesus and see God precisely as God would look were he to live as a human being in the first-century Greco/Roman/Jewish world (which is precisely what was happening).

So God translated himself in Jesus. But Christianity is a faith that requires constant translation. (This, by the way, is entirely unique. For Muslims, reading the Qur’an in a language other than Arabic is not truly reading the Qur’an. Sometime after Jesus, at least some branches of Judaism decided that a non-Hebrew Torah was not truly a Torah. But the Christian faith has had translation at its heart from the very beginning because the entire faith is grounded in God’s act of translation through Jesus.) That means that we must always be translating Jesus into our own context and for our own neighbors.

Suburban StreetYou and I are, in essence, walking translations of what God has done in Jesus. We stand in the midst of our neighborhoods and workplaces and friend-groups as an embodied statement: “This is what Jesus is like.” And just like translating the Bible, this is an extremely difficult task. It requires continuously deepening knowledge of who God is, thorough familiarity with our culture—including its interests, thought forms, and means of expression—and a commitment to “being Jesus” in a deep sense in every situation.

It has been said that you and I are likely the only Bible our neighbors will ever read. And that’s true, but not in a resigned, I-guess-that-will-have-to-do, sense. It’s actually true by God’s design that our neighbors will learn about him through the translation of our lives. You and I are acts of translation. We are God-made-flesh (not exactly like Jesus, but much like him) in the specific culture, setting, and relationships of our moment and our day.

The point is, be a good translation. Be a living, breathing example of what it looks like to be Jesus in your location in the 21st century. Call it incarnational living, call it translational living, call it whatever. God has something to say to the people he has placed around you, and he wants to say it through the details of your life.

I annoy my family every time we eat fresh strawberries or a ripe watermelon. “Are you kidding me?!! Did you taste these? How is this even possible?!!” Yes, they’ve tasted the strawberries; yes, they’re delicious; let’s talk about something more interesting. But let me annoy you with this for just a minute.

Think of everything that has to go into enjoying a strawberry. God had to first create a world in which strawberries could grow. Then he designed strawberries, but he did so with such an over-extravagant flare it’s ridiculous. They’re not black and white; they’re bright red. They have a unique shape and texture. They are capable of nourishing our bodies (which God also designed to receive nourishment from the fruit of the ground—unbelievable!). This would all be amazing even if they weren’t delicious.

Strawberries

But then God chose to give strawberries flavor. Think about what flavor entails. We’re talking about a whole language of subtleties and nuances. Wine and coffee snobs have their own jargon to try to capture some of these subtleties in flavor: sweet, acidic, smooth, robust, earthy, fruity, lingering, sharp, crisp, oaky, floral, etc. There is a world of information in every bite, so we grasp at a language that was not designed to describe such things and try to communicate what we’re tasting. Flavor is a full language, an incomprehensibly large set of data packed into the physical stuff we eat and drink.

God created this language of flavor. He encoded every edible thing with the appropriate data to make it taste as it should. Even if you’ve never eaten a fresh Oxnard strawberry, those strawberries are encoded with data by a loving Creator.

And then there’s your mouth. God had to give your mouth both the hardware (taste buds, teeth, saliva, etc.) and the software (flavor interpreters) so that you could decode the flavors that he has encoded in a strawberry. Your sense of smell is tied in as well. Every bite. Every strawberry. Every glass of wine. Every steak. Bursting with a flavor-language invented by God, decoded by the ingenious equipment God placed in your mouth.

It’s the same with your ears. We’re talking physical objects capable of producing sound waves that can carry unique timbres, flying through the air, smashing into your eardrums, travelling to your brain for interpretation. God encodes the world with a sound-language, and equips your body with decoding equipment.

It’s the same with your eyes. Multiple sources of light that cast unique visual opportunities at every moment. Objects that reflect and refract that light in a host of colors, shades, and textures, sending that light bouncing toward eyes and camera lenses. God encoded the world using an incredibly complex light-language. And he gave you light-decoding equipment that is mind-boggling in its complexity and brilliance.

Watermelon

It’s the same with your fingertips. A world encoded with textures, degrees of firmness, shapes, and all the incredible subtleties that make up the “feel” of the world. A touch-language that is infinitely explorable. And he covered you in skin capable of decoding this data with unbelievable sensitivity.

It’s the same with your nose. Particles everywhere encoded using God’s incredible scent-language. Winds that carry these scents. Noses that can pick them up and interpret them.

And here is the staggering part: ALL OF THIS IS ENTIRELY UNNECESSARY. From a certain standpoint, that is.

God could have made us purely spiritual beings, yet he chose to enflesh us. He made a physical world and loaded it with the potential for infinite sensory combinations. He gave us the equipment to utilize these five senses. He sends us out into the world to enjoy these sense experiences in all of their diversity, in all of their glory. God’s world is enjoyable—he made it that way, and he gave us the capacity to enjoy it. Truly, in enjoying this world, we are enjoying the God who made it, the God who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

I truly believe that God delights in my delight of strawberries. I can turn that taste into an idol, of course. I can use it for purposes that dishonor God. But when I bite into this unbelievable piece of God’s creation, my mind turns instantly to the Creator, and I thank him for being so lavish in encoding this world, and so gracious in providing me with the ability to decode it. I enjoy God by enjoying his creation. With every bite, I remember God’s goodness.

It’s as if the strawberries declare the glory of God; the watermelons proclaim his handiwork. It’s apologetic fruit, and it’s full of wonder.

In my last post, I explained that Christians typically try to convince non-Christians of the truth of the Bible by proving its reliability textually and historically. But non-Christians have another way of evaluating Christianity: they want to know if they can trust the Bible morally.

whitecrossIt doesn’t occur to me to answer that question for one main reason. I have lived so long inside the Christian worldview that I forget how different our religion is. Most religions and philosophies aim to change behavior from bad to good in order to please God, be a good citizen, or feel good daily. Christianity, on the other hand, only tries to prove that something happened historically. Once you’ve proved that, you work backwards to prove the rest.  My question is “Is Jesus God who rose from the dead?” Once I answer that question then I can assume that God knows how I ought to live.

Here’s why this is great news. When a person simply evaluates from their own perspective whether or not a certain philosophy or religion will make them “good,” “please God,” or “feel good,” they’re doing the best they can. But they’re basically just reflecting the current wisdom of their friends and family and media. They cannot rise above their culture because they’re stuck in it; just like a fish couldn’t imagine walking on land because his whole world involves water. When Christianity comes along with its way of “being good,” “pleasing God,” and “feeling good daily,” the wisdom comes from another world. It’s not up for debate or evaluation because we humbly realize that God is speaking (as opposed to humans, who should be critiqued).

We evaluate the trustworthiness of our religion in a completely different way. It has very little to do with personal experience, whether it seems to work, whether it makes me feel like I’m a good person, whether I get personal peace. (It will do pretty much all of that for you even though that’s not the point.)

Evaluating Christianity goes like this: Did Jesus die as a historical event? Did he rise from the dead? If so, then he must have been someone very important. What did he say about himself? Did God approve of his message? Jesus claimed to be God. And when God lets Jesus come back to life, that seems like a pretty significant endorsement of what Jesus said. Now, with that in mind, how did Jesus say we get on good terms with God? How did he command us to live? Our aim is to figure that out, respond accordingly, and assume that God knows best how to be good rather than bad, how to please God, and how to feel good today. History comes first, and all the practical stuff is the natural result.

Greek BibleA few weeks ago I preached a sermon called “You Can Trust the Bible.” Like I’ve always done in talks like this I laid out a simple path: 1) You can trust the Bible textually. 2) You can trust the Bible historically. 3) You can trust the Bible personally.

With the first point I showed how the copies of various books of the Bible are so plentiful and precise that we can know with nearly perfect confidence that the words in our Bibles are the words originally written by the authors. With the second point I showed how the Bible stands up to repeated attacks on its historical value, proving itself more accurate over and over. This makes sense because the authors have such an incredible advantage over modern people in terms of knowing what actually happened (i.e. they saw it happen).

After making those two points, I pulled in for the clincher, “That’s why you can trust the Bible and give your life to Jesus.” Christians in the audience loved it. I got lots of pats on the back from those in our family.

But then I got some texts from people who weren’t so convinced. “How can I believe a book that endorses slavery?” “How can I trust a book that is so backward about women?” “How can I trust a book that damns homosexuals?”

Nearly every book I read in college and seminary about how to “prove” the Bible took my two steps. But modern people expect another step. They have a different standard for evaluating a religion. They want to know if they can trust it morally.

Modern people expect to know if they can trust every moral claim about a religion or philosophy before they jump into it. Think about this for a minute. Why do they have this expectation? I’ll give two reasons, but I’ll only focus on the second.

1) Religions and philosophies aren’t chosen these days because they’re true but because you agree with them. People chose a religion as an endorsement of the philosophy they already hold. It’s like getting a historical, cultural stamp of approval that backs up what you already believe.

2) They want an answer to this question because this is how modern religions and philosophies are evaluated.

Buddha 1I’m finding that more and more of my non-Christian friends approach spirituality in a semi-Buddhist way, so I’ll use that religion to make my point.

Buddha was an agnostic. He didn’t make claims about God; in fact he said it was a waste of time to desire to know what God is like. In his opinion, caring about God too much hinders you from real enlightenment. What matters is living right, thinking right, and feeling right. The patterns of feeling, thinking, and living that you develop will give you personal peace. But Buddha didn’t claim that he got his stuff from God. No, he thought hard and came up with this philosophy. He then told people to follow him by thinking hard. The only test he offered people for evaluating whether or not Buddhism is “true” is personal experience. Huston Smith (the most famous professor of world religions) summarizes Buddha’s approach and includes a few quotes from the sage himself:

“On every question personal experience was the final test of truth. ‘Do not go by reasoning, nor by inferring, nor by argument.’ A true disciple must ‘know for himself.’”[1]

Not every person in the West thinks just like this. Not everyone connects their line of reasoning to Buddhism. But there are similarities among hard-working pragmatists, socially progressive secular humanists, well-meaning agnostics, generous atheists, and sweet and carefree New Agers. Ultimately they want to find a life-philosophy that helps them be good not bad, be good enough for ‘god’, or feel good today.

So, when I go on and on about historical arguments for the Bible and its factual nature, people yawn. Other people seem interested but unaffected on a spiritual level. The textual question doesn’t matter to them, nor does the historical question. They want the moral, life philosophy, personal peace, ‘be good’ question answered.

It’s an important question. And in the next post, I’ll explain how Christianity actually answers it.



[1]Huston Smith, World Religions, 98. Quotes from Woodward, Some Sayings, 283.

Wedding RingsI’m not bragging when I say this. My wife didn’t want to get married growing up. At least, she tells me that she didn’t want to get married too early. She wanted to wait. She wanted to put it off. She didn’t want to be the stereotypical “Ring by Spring” getting her “M.Rs.” from her Bible college. But she became a stereotype and married me the week after she graduated.

What happened? Well, I came into the picture. I met her when she was 18, we started dating right as she turned 20, and we were married when she was 22. Early as the birds come these days.

My wife wasn’t into “commitment.” She didn’t want to be “tied down.” Like any normal person she didn’t want to end up like some “boring old married couple.” All people talk about are the downsides of being married: what you have to give up, what you can’t do anymore, what you do “for fun.” That wasn’t enticing.

She didn’t want to get married for a very smart reason: the sacrifice wasn’t worth what she got out of it. She had a fear of commitment, but it was totally legit. She was afraid to commit to something she didn’t know, to someone she had no feelings for yet, and it was going to cost her everything.

When we tell people about entering a relationship with Jesus they’re reasonably squeamish. It doesn’t sound fun. It doesn’t sound inviting. It doesn’t sound worth it. Why? Well it’s the same reason my wife didn’t want to get married. She didn’t like the idea of sacrificing her independence and freedom. She didn’t like the idea of changing. She didn’t like the idea of becoming “boring.”

What got my wife over the hump? What convinced her to get married so young? Well (cough, cough), I did. She didn’t fall in love with commitment. She didn’t fall in love with changing who she is. She didn’t fall in love with becoming a boring old married couple. She fell in love with me and all that came with it, especially the last part.

To be honest, if all someone told me about marriage was what I’d have to give up and change about myself, I also wouldn’t want to get married. After ten years, I can look back and laugh at the person I’ve become. I used to save Carl’s Jr. chicken sandwiches under the seat of my van so I’d have a snack after class; now I don’t eat fast food and instead we are gluten free, dairy free, and sugar free. Sound fun!? I used to be independent, carefree, and able to accomplish tasks efficiently. Now, I have four other people to get on the ball before we make a move toward any task.

But I love my life. My wife loves marriage. We love the commitment. We love being together. Because we love each other.

As we invite people into relationship with Christ we need to consider where they’re coming from. If you know Jesus you know how freeing and peaceful it is to be “married.” The sacrifice isn’t a drag. It’s not a boring departure from your youthful self. It’s perfect peace. But your friends don’t know what he’s like. All they see is “going to church,” “giving money away,” and “doing boring church stuff.” That’s a sacrifice that doesn’t make sense unless you love the person you’re doing it with (Jesus) and the one you’re doing it for (Jesus).

When Peter, Paul, Priscilla, and Phoebe shared the gospel with people, I’m convinced that they told stories about from the Gospels (the biographies of Jesus). They shared stories about what Jesus is like. They told stories of miracles and radical forgiveness and insane boldness and liberating justice.

It’s like when I first met my wife and she told me stories about herself and I told her stories about myself. I wanted her to get an idea of who I am before she took the biggest step of all (which for us was the first date [marriage was a slam dunk after that]).

People don’t want to commit to being Christians unless it’s worth it to them to enter the relationship. They have a legitimate fear of commitment. Who would want to commit to someone they don’t know when it’s going to cost them everything? They have to like Jesus before they’ll want to marry him. We can’t just tell them “You can have a relationship with God” because they don’t know what God is like. “What if I don’t like God?” they might be thinking.

God is an unknown to them so an offer to sacrifice everything for him comes up short in their logic. It sounds like this, “Hey, do you want to get married? If you get married it’s forever. You will have to give up your rec league teams and your nights with friends and going to the beach. You’ll go to bed early and wake up next to the same person every day. But I’m not going to tell you who you’re going to marry, you just have to commit today, forever, and be ready to change everything about who you are and what you like to do!”

For the “Gospel” to come across to someone as “good news” they have to know the person they’re entering a relationship with.

So, get familiar with Jesus. Learn some stories about his life. Meditate on what it has meant for you to be in relationship with him. And then when you go out and talk to your friends and family about Christ, tell them stories about him like you’d tell stories of your favorite friends.

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