Tinkering with Theology

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I can't tell you how many times as a child I'd walked down the street that led to First Baptist Church in Coalinga, CA. The Southern Magnolia trees filled the air with a citrus-like fragrance that, even to this day, is connected to hundreds of tiny memories. Who would have thought that nearly 30 years later, I'd move into a neighborhood 120 miles away, with the same Southern Magnolia trees lining every street. 

Maybe it's the contemplative late night walks that I tend to take, or maybe it's the Southern Magnolias. Either way, I think a lot about the Bible and theology on these walks. And lately, I've been thinking about the way that our upbringings shape our theology. Many of you might have had the same experience growing up in the church. Of course there was church on Sunday, but also the mandatory Sunday school before the service, Awana's on Monday nights, Bible Studies on Wednesdays, and homegroup on Fridays. I do realize though, that my experience isn't as common as it used to be. These days, it's more typical that someone DIDN'T grow up in the church and has little context for Biblical faith. In fact, according to Barna Group, 48% of Americans are considered "Post-Christian," meaning, they don't believe in God and they do not participate in practices such as Bible reading, prayer and church attendance.

But for those of us who consider ourselves Christ-followers in the modern West, it's becoming more important than ever that we regularly scrutinize our theology. Especially considering almost half of Americans don't believe like we do. For the longest time, my theology (if I could call it that) was simply cultural. Growing up in the church, I developed a way of thinking about the Biblical story through osmosis. I don't think there's anything wrong with this way of learning. I mean, isn't that how most everything is taught in our culture? Things like democracy, busyness, and not standing next to another man at the urinal. 

But at some point, we have to be able to articulate our position by means of personal experience. Phrases like, "because the Bible says so," or "this is the way it's always been" don't hold water any longer. People are looking for authenticity, and if we are going to call ourselves Christ-followers and learn to live and love the way Jesus did, we need to develop an ethos based on our own experience of the risen Jesus. 

Many American Christians hold the Bible up as our standard for living. We tell the world that "we stand upon the word of God" and argue that America itself was founded on Christian principles found in the Bible. Our households seem to reflect that belief, given that 88% of Americans report owning a Bible. But our practices do not. Only 14% of Americans read their Bibles multiple times per week. Now, please hear me. I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I'm just saying that it’s ironic then, that American Christians have based our whole lives on a book we don't read.

Again, I'm not passing judgment. Well, I suppose I am. But only because over the last few years, I've been on this journey discovering the Bible for what it really is. And let me tell you that it is BEAUTIFUL! When I actually began reading the Bible, I discovered that so much of my theology was based on a cultural ethos that was a shaped by a caricature of the Bible, not the text itself. My upbringing in the church was wonderful, don't get me wrong. My pastors and Sunday school teachers did the best job they could in explaining the Biblical story. But there's no substitute for personal experience. There's no substitute for the work the Holy Spirit does when we submit to being formed by spiritual practices like studying the Bible. 

Through my own study, I'm finding myself "tinkering" with my theology. I'm finding ideas that I've held that aren't found in the Bible. Some of them are flat wrong....and some of them are just...incomplete. No one likes to be wrong, or told that their beliefs need tweaking. But that's exactly what I'm finding the Holy Spirit challenging me on - letting the Bible dictate the Biblical story, not my politics, my past experience, or even my own comfort. 

The Bible is beautiful, but it will mess with you, that's for sure! The Bible is like Russian nesting dolls. Every time I open it, I realize that there's something inside the thing I thought was the end. There's more revelation around every corner, and just when you think you've squeezed every last drop out of the text, you realize that you've only been focused on one tree, and there's an entire orchard left to squeeze. 

I wonder what your experience has been? Did you grow up in the church, or is this all new to you? Either way, my hope is that we Christians rediscover the Bible in all it's beauty and weirdness. So maybe find yourself a Southern Magnolia tree to sit under and let your theology be tinkered with by the Holy Spirit as you continue to be shaped by the Biblical story.

- Travis