What is Christianity?

Here is something exciting and frustrating: If you ask a hundred people what Christianity is, you’re likely to get 75 different responses. (Which is at least better odds than Judaism; it’s been said that if you ask two Jews, you get three opinions. Maybe Christians are just better at Math?) Exciting because you realize that different people have different experiences with God. Frustrating because sometimes you just want a simple answer.

Some say the purpose of Christianity is to introduce others to Christ so that they escape hell when they die. A ticket to heaven is the point. But when you realize that when the Bible speaks of heaven it refers to “the other, hidden dimension of our ordinary life,” as NT Wright says, the get-out-of-hell-free card loses its luster.

One opinion on the whole purpose of Christianity is that the Christian life is a quest to recover our humanity (See Michael Wittmer’s book Heaven is a Place on Earth).

If indeed the Christian life is about recovering our humanity, the Christian can confidently and curiously explore everything the world has to offer, keeping both eyes open to whatever smells like life, whether it’s Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Atheist, or even Southern Baptist. Whatever is good.

Rob Bell’s Book “Love Wins” and NT Wright on Universalism

Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” was released on March 15, 2011.

Some people think he might be flirting with universalism. Some think he may deny hell. If the latter is true, he’d be going against a New Testament scholar he seems to admire more than any other: NT Wright. In this Youtube video Wright affirms and explains his view on hell. He ends with this:

“The choices you make here really do matter. There’s part of me that would love to be a Universalist and say, ‘It’ll be all right, everyone will get there [heaven] in the end.’ I actually think the choices you make in the present are more important than that.”

If Bell’s view in “Love Wins” is far from Wright’s he may lose a number of supporters who heretofore have largely considered him to be Evangelical.


Thinking Through the Big Picture

I’ve been thinking through the big picture of the bible and wrote down some stuff from books that I’ve been reading, and also from Adam Ellis’ summary on these blogs. Ellis’ words are in bold.


We are the people of God, created in his image. That image is distorted by the Fall but is still there.

“God created people in his own image.” 1

“You made us only a little lower than God.” 2

“They will be masters over all of life.” 3

“God made human beings precisely in order to care for the earth. We were made to serve this purpose. It is built into our very being; it is our very design.” 4

“Humans were made to reflect God’s creative stewardship into the world.” 5

“To image God, then, human beings are charged not only with care for earth and animals (‘subduing’ what’s already there) but also with developing certain cultural possibilities (‘filling’ out what is only potentially there). 6



We live in God’s world which he created and loves. God loves creation simply because it exists. We believe that this world was created “good” (in the “loaded with potential” sense) and not perfect (in the “complete” sense). We believe that God created us and this world to live in harmony with each other and with him.

“The first act in the world’s drama is God’s act of creating and sustaining ‘all things visible and invisible’ out of a generous desire to enlarge the realm of being, to bestow life and goodness on others, and to assist others to flourish in the realm created for them.” 7

“God leads a very interesting life and is full of joy. Undoubtably he is the most joyous being in the universe…We pay a lot of money to get a tank with a few tropical fish in it…but God has seas full of them, which he constantly enjoys.” 8

“God loves creation. God celebrates creation. God even plays with his creation.” 9

“It was good…it was good…it was good…it was good.” 10


Human beings make an extremely destructive choice very early on in the narrative. That choice has far reaching consequences and knocks the entire creation project off course. The shalom, or harmony that is supposed to exist between God, people and creation is shattered. The world is not what God dreams for it to be, and all creation seems bent on moving in the opposite direction.

“The glory of God’s good creation has not been obliterated by the tragedy of the fall, but it has been deeply shadowed by it. The history of our race is, in large part, the interplay of this light and shadow.” 11


God does not give up on his dream for creation. He enacts a plan to bring about the “restoration of all things.” This plan involves covenanting with a cummunity of people to operate as agents of shalom in the midst of a broken world. God becomes a human being whose life, death and resurrection open the door for a renewed creation of shalom between a) God and human beings; b) human beings and other human beings; and c) human beings and creation. God calls a group of people to live in his reality now in the midst of a broken world. He calls us to partner with Him to make it more and more the place he always intended it to be. He promises that one day Jesus will return and that heaven and earth will be renewed. He insists that we will be resurrected so that we may enjoy the fulfillment of his promise and his dream for all creation.

“The Christian life is a quest to recover our humanity.” 12

“You have stripped away the old self, with its ways, and have put on the new self, which is continually being renewed in fuller and fuller knowledge, closer and closer to the image of its Creator.” 13

“The principalities and powers that kept us in exile have been defeated; they need reminding of this, and we need reminding of it too, but it is a fact – if it isn’t, the cross was a failure.” 14


“Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.” 15

“The story of Scripture is the story of ‘Emmanuel’, for it describes how God progressively comes to live with us on our planet, at each appearance staying longer and in more permanent form.” 16

“Our destiny is an earthly one: a new earth, an earth redeemed and transfigured. An earth reunited with heaven, but an earth, nevertheless.” 17

“Scripture appears to teach not only that there shall be a new heaven and earth, but also that it shall be this earth, renewed. In Revelation 21 the city of God descends to us. We do not go to heaven; heaven comes to us.” 18


1 Genesis 1:27
2 Psalm 8:5
3 Genesis 1:26
4 Heaven is Not My Home by Paul Marshall pg. 18
5 The Challenge of Jesus by NT Wright pg. 184
6 Engaging God’s World by Cornelius Plantinga pg. 33
7 Plantinga pg. 44
8 The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard pg. 62,63
9 Plantinga pg. 24
10 Genesis 1
11 Plantinga pg. 53
12 Heaven is a Place on Earth by Michael Wittmer pg. 83
13 Colossians 3:9-10
14 Wright pg. 185
15 Revelation 21:3
16 Wittmer pg. 205
17 Marshall pg. 11
18 Plantinga pg. 32

Christians Wrong About Heaven says NT Wright in TIME


“Much of “traditional” Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.”  
        —NT Wright, TIME Magazine (source)

On Christianity and Language


“A studio president once asked me if I believed in angels and demons. (My writing partner, Paul Boardman, and I had written them into a script the studio head had just purchased.) Sensing that he was really wanting to know if I was a Christian with an agenda, I said, ‘I think what I believe is irrelevant. What’s important is that people want to believe in spiritual realities.’ He thought for a minute and seemed to decide that he didn’t really care what I believed, just so long as I wasn’t there to proselytize him or the audience. He nodded, the meeting went on and the subject never came up again. I didn’t deny my faith. I simply didn’t answer the question–a little trick I learned from Christ himself.” 
Scott Derrickson, screenwriter, producer, director

I work at Barnes & Noble.  Sometimes in the morning my job is to shelf books that were delivered to the store the night before.  When one of my co-workers has this particular job she makes sure she gets the Christianity/Religion section done before the store opens so that she won’t be there when customers come in.  She doesn’t like the customers who come to that section.  They freak her out.

We often talk about movies and books and other things while working and I haven’t yet been asked point blank if I’m a religious person-slash-Christian-slash-freak.  I’m kind of glad I haven’t, either, because I’m not quite sure how I would respond.  Am I ashamed of being a Christian?  I don’t think so.  My hesitation comes not so much from being embarrassed for being a Christian as from having been told portions of the truth in a Christianese language that has begun not to work for myself and will most assuredly not work for my skeptical co-worker, and I can’t figure out a way to say it.  The goal is not to recycle meaningless words but to articulate this breathtaking reality in fresh language.  John Piper says it this way:


“My responsibility as a preacher of the gospel and a teacher in the church is not to preserve and repeat cherished biblical sentences, but to pierce the heart with biblical truth.”

The problem with some fringes of the tradition I’ve come from is that what lies on the uppermost shelf of importance is not the truth but the language, and as a Christian it is my duty to be for what is ultimately real, not a system of beliefs surrounded by a few choice words.

“Nothing is more easily resisted than subcultural religious language. One of our primary responsibilities as artists and Christians is to invent a new language for old ideas. It is impossible for me to successfully talk with people in Hollywood about sin and salvation. Those words are no longer alive for them. Words are socially born and they socially die, and we have killed off much of our Christian language. In popular culture, words like ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ have connotations and associative meanings that are so antiquated and negative that it’s impossible to use them effectively. What artists can do is to take the truth of sin, the truth of salvation, the truth of redemption and find new ways of representing them.”  –Derrickson


Words are socially born and they socially die.  When Billy Graham preached around the United States in the 1950’s through 1980’s he used words that people understood – sin, salvation, repent, born-again, etc.  The truth behind those words was true long before Billy came around and it will be around long after he’s gone.  The truth lives.  But the words?  The language?  I think they may have died, at least to the average person in America in 2008.

So, what if my co-worker asks me if I’m a Christian and I don’t answer her directly?  Am I denying Christ?  Or would I be denying a language? 

Maybe being a Christian is more about living in the world in an excellent way than making sure I conform my words to a certain acceptable language.  Maybe my agnostic co-worker is acting more like Christ than I am by working her hardest and treating the other employees with kindness while I lazily anticipate punching out so I can go home and eat, snarling at co-workers in the process.  Maybe what’s most important is living as in-tune with reality as possible, not making sure my doctrines line up correctly, and by “correctly” I mean the way I see things.

Nietzsche is famous for saying “God is dead.”  I agree.  “God” is dead, but the one outside of time who made possible for the tides to come in and go out while pulling the moon in like a kite, yay, who invented the human hand which pontificates on life, philosophy, animals, sex, politics, and even God, is more alive than our language allows us to express.

If I ever do feel guilty it should not be because I failed to recite the right words, but because I’ve been shown what it looks like to live in a way that most lines up with reality and I failed to conform.  Words are secondary and only hint at the truth.

Your task is to find the symbolic ways of doing things differently, planting flags in hostile soil, setting up signposts that say there is a different way to be human. 
   –NT Wright

N.T. Wright on Mystery


“Part of the point of the doctrine of the trinity is that when we say ‘Father, Son and Spirit’ this doesn’t have the effect of having a q.e.d at the bottom.  It isn’t ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit – there you are, told you so.  That’s all you need to know, put it in your back pocket and you’ve got God on tap.’  But rather the very fact of talking trinitarianly is a way of saying, ‘Here is mystery, which you’re going to have to live into.  Here is mystery, which each generation will have to re-appropriate for itself.  Here is something that you cannot possess, because if it’s true, it possesses you.’  That’s very hard for so many Christians to take, both so-called radicals and so-called conservatives.”

–N.T. Wright, Thinking about God in Tommorrow’s World lecture, June 15, 2007

N.T. Wright on Ultimate Reality


“Reality as we know it is the result of a creator god bringing into being a world that is other than himself, and yet which is full of his glory. It was always the intention of this god that creation should one day be flooded with his own life, in a way for which it was prepared from the beginning. As part of the means to this end, the creator brought into being a creature which, by bearing the creator’s image, would bring his wise and loving care to bear upon the creation. By a tragic irony, the creature in question has rebelled against this intention. But the creator has solved this problem in principle in an entirely appropriate way, and as a result is now moving the creation once more toward its originally intended goal. The implementation of this solution now involves the indwelling of this god within his human creatures and ultimately within the whole creation, transforming it into that for which it was made in the beginning.”

N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pg.97-98

Joel Osteen and NT Wright

Joel Osteen

Yesterday I watched Joel Osteen talk about how our habits affect what kind of people we become.

Today I listened to NT Wright talk about the Enlightenment and being for the world what Jesus was for Israel.

The difference?

I understood the smilin’ preacher.

I’ve read several negative things about ol’ Joel, and whether they’re merited or not, we’ll find out on That Great Day, but I’m not too quick to jump on the Joel-bashing wagon. I’m not down with the whole prosperity thing he appears to promote, not least in his lifestyle choices, but I’m also aware that paths to the living God are as numerous as the individual persons that He’s created. I will take a lesson from the editor of The Christian Century magazine, who one week jumped aboard the Joel-bashing train, and editorialized it, only to come to a different opinion no less than two weeks later, which he humbly wrote about:

Any theology that promises success as a reward for faithfulness and fervent prayer is misleading at best, and it deserves a forceful critique. At the same time I’ve learned not to dismiss ministries, however different from mine, that can lead people to their vocation or to a new sense of God’s love.

I probably wouldn’t go to Mr. Osteen for an in-depth analysis of 1st century Judaism, or any theological question for that matter; no, for things as deep and important as theological issues I’d consult the kind of leaders that Jesus told the people to listen to – Pharisees, but I do wish to remove my narrow lenses and think deeply and broadly about our complex world and infinite God.

NT Wright: Christianity Is For This World


These two quotes are from an interview with NT Wright in Christianity Today on the difference between certain versions of Christianity and the one he feels is closer to the Bible’s version:

Christianity – Saving Souls?

For generations the church has been polarized between those who see the main task being the saving of souls for heaven and the nurturing of those souls through the valley of this dark world, on the one hand, and on the other hand those who see the task of improving the lot of human beings and the world, rescuing the poor from their misery.
The longer that I’ve gone on as a New Testament scholar and wrestled with what the early Christians were actually talking about, the more it’s been borne in on me that that distinction is one that we modern Westerners bring to the text rather than finding in the text. Because the great emphasis in the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work.

Christianity – Not For This World?

Our Western culture since the 18th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or faith from politics.When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say, “Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world.” And the answer is no, what Jesus said in John 18 is, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That’s ek tou kosmoutoutou. It’s quite clear in the text that Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t start with this world. It isn’t a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It’s from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.

The Story of Reality

Imagine William Shakespeare wrote a play (hard to imagine, I know). It’s such a great play that many people think that actors should be hired to act out the play on stage. The problem is that the play is supposed to be five acts, but we only have the first four acts and the beginning of the fifth in our possession, with hints of how it will end. Most of the fifth act has been lost forever. What do we do?

It seems like the best thing to do would be to hire actors who are well-versed in Shakespeare, give them copies of this unfinished play to study, and then have them act out their interpretation of what they think the fifth act would look like.

In the same way, the story of reality, the story of God, the story the Scriptures reveal to us, is a play with the first four acts and the beginning of the fifth written out for us. We humans have been hired, so to speak, to act out the fifth act of this great play on the stage of life, knowing what we know of the first four acts.

This play was not designed to be read and enjoyed by only a certain group of people, but rather is intended for anyone and everyone. In the same way, the story of God, the story of reality, the story of the Scriptures is meant to set the stage for anyone and everyone to act out the fifth act; it’s meant for all humanity.

Since we don’t have the final act of Shakespeare’s play, it wouldn’t be right to complete the drama once and for all. Even the well-trained actors need to be open to different versions of the play. After all, the play will look different as it is acted out by different people in different time periods. The goal is not to once-and-for-all decide what Shakespeare meant to do in the fifth act.

In the beginning of Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, (review of Velvet Elvis) he says something similar to this, but he uses the illustration of an Elvis painting instead of a Shakespearean play. Bell then concludes the introduction by saying, “Welcome to my Velvet Elvis” – I.e. this is my interpretation of act five.

Throughout Christian history, and in our world today in 2006, there are many different groups giving their interpretation of act five. Most of them, unfortunately, will tell you not, “This is my Velvet Elvis” or “This is my Act Five,” but rather, “This is the Act 5.”

My goal is to become an actor well-versed in the first four acts so that I can faithfully live out on the stage of life the fifth act.