Are We Godbreathed?
Hard core, avid, and serious Star Wars fans are aware of the vast material of what was called the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The expanded universe comprises comics, games, novels, and other storytelling media that fill in the gaps and tell the back history of Star Wars not found in the major films. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars, they inherited the Expanded Universe which admittedly has had some issues with continuity, stale histories, and other problems. Yet, that universe is treasured and followed by avid fans. In a move to tighten the history and story of the Star Wars universe, Disney renamed the Expanded Universe to Star Wars Legends and extracted the stories and characters they wanted to include in the Star Wars “canon” from now on. If course, this was met with some opposition by fans who had an attachment to the stories and characters of the Expanded Universe. Dave Filoni has masterfully brought some of the most prominent characters into the new Disney Star Wars Canon which includes the original baddy from The Expanded Universe, Thrawn. But the traditions of the Expanded Universe are still embraced by many and that brings me to a comparison with the grand traditions of the Church catholic.
Disney chose a method of dealing with the back tradition of Star Wars by resetting the canon while keeping a nod to the old canon. The idea was that the tradition would become what Disney saw as official Star Wars while allowing the fans to keep their traditions as a type of deuterocanonical tradition. The history is there, but not considered the true history. Within the Christian tradition, this is the approach of nonconformist groups and denominations. Many Christians acknowledge the historic traditions of the Church and their denominations, but choose to create a new reset of those ideas and become unmoored from the tradition. The extreme form of this is sectarianism and fundamentalism as those ideologies create their own tradition which rejects wider tradition as corrupt or even heretical. They are being like Disney’s desire to control the story.
I am not arguing for a strict adherence to tradition, but a recognition of its place and how it informs our beliefs. This includes the traditions of a specific denomination - in my case this is the Church of the Nazarene. We have traditions that are important. These include our historical understanding of scripture, the nature of God, the role of Christians in working with God for justice, a fierce concern for the marginalized, and a via media approach to doctrine. These have shaped us, even as streams of fundamentalism and sectarian concerns creep in. Our tradition and distinctiveness become threatened when sectarian concerns seek to reset our tradition. So that I am not misunderstood here, I am not talking about a threat of progressive Christianity unmooring us, but of sectarian ideologies severing our tenuous link to the original Nazarenes who saw their place with the marginalized as primary mission.
How did we get here? The same way any group finds itself at a crossroads; by complacency and chasing shiny things and respectability. Things like church growth programs and the fear of being marginalized ourselves has led to the embrace of ideologies that are not part of our historic understandings. This had led to the crisis of discipleship I mention in another essay, and the mistaken claims of clergy about our views of scripture and the way God reveals Godself to the world in the essay on progressive misunderstanding found here. I considered this idea as I have been reading and early draft of Gabriel Gordon’s upcoming book The Fundamentals of a Recovering Fundamentalist. In the introduction, Gordon quotes Bradley Jersak to explain what he hopes to accomplish and why tradition is important. “We need to be drawn, ‘down [into] the trunk of the historic church and [drawn] deep into the roots of apostolic Christianity as taught by the early mothers and fathers of our faith.’ This is what I hope to move us toward in this book.” I believe that is a truth we should be rooting ourselves into as well as becoming deeply rooted in the women and men who shaped the ideas of ministry to the outcasts in the early Church of the Nazarene.
The Church of the Nazarene (COTN) has never been a people who believed in modern Biblical inerrancy. We have always been an egalitarian denomination who saw the roles of women and men as equal in leadership and ministry. We started as a denomination who saw Jesus in the outcast regardless of the relative respectability of being with the outcast. Our tradition places us outside the modernist controversy of fundamentalism versus liberalism. We were too worried about helping the hurting that we rejected that fight as irrelevant to us. That is until the middle of the twentieth century when we sort of lost our way historically. That is when fundamentalism snuck in through the concerns over liberal theology. But as a people we still did not compromise on our belief that scripture is inspired to show us who God is and how to be reconciled to God in relationship. Even when forces attempted to change what we believe, we grasped the truth of authority being as Floyd Cunningham states; “Nazarene theologians stressed the primary role of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and lives of the Bible’s hearers. They have pointed out that inspiration resides with the Holy Spirit and is not the independent property of the Bible. Only the Holy Spirit can make the Bible’s message of salvation a living and transforming word from God.” Cunningham continues by quoting Purkiser who illuminated the reality of what we believe. “Theologian W. T. Purkiser said the Nazarene Article of Faith on Scripture saved the denomination from ‘bondage to a fundamentalist literalism which affirms the dictation of each word of the original autographs, and which sometimes seems to extend the same sanctity to a certain English version.’” (Square Peg p25)
While we may not desire to emulate everything from our tradition like the banning of dancing or wedding rings, we do hold to our understanding of scripture and its purpose. For Wesleyan-Holiness folk, the authority of scripture is less about the text and more about the transforming work of the Holy Spirit through our encounter with the story of God. Joel Green says it this way; “It is never enough simply to think correctly about the nature of Scripture. Instead, embracing Scripture’s authority is more about our character, our attitudes, as we come to Scripture. We recognize Scripture’s authority when we approach it ready to be formed truly in relation to the God whose self-communication we hear in Scripture’s drama. Scripture’s authority is thus most visible among those whose lives embody God’s address heard in and through Scripture.” (Square Peg p137) Zack Hunt has brought this idea into the twenty-first century in his own book Godbreathed “To be godbreathed is to tell a good and true story. So let us tell a good and true story. And let us tell it honestly, never being afraid to admit our failings, our doubts, our frustrations, our pain, our anger, our hope, and yes, even our ignorance. Let us be humble in our storytelling so that the truth of our story is not found in demagoguery or theatrics or sophisticated rhetoric, but in a life worth living.” (Hunt p178)
Even the stalwart warriors against liberal theology like Richard S Taylor embraced our historic understanding of scripture and the progressive nature of revelation culminating in the person and ministry of Jesus. “[B]iblical authority is also qualified by the principle of progressive revelation. “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1–2, NASB). As the sun reaches the meridian very gradually from the first faint dawning of light, so God’s self-revelation as recorded in Scripture progressed from the limited disclosure to Cain, Enoch, Noah, and later to Abraham, to the fuller disclosure to Moses, then to the prophets, and finally to the perfect revelation in Christ—and in a sense even beyond, to embrace the authoritative interpretation of Christ in the New Testament.” (Taylor) This is important because it should inform who we are today.
This week, a friend’s church moved into a new building because their old one was damaged in a flood and was in a floodplain that could bring damage again. The church had the opportunity to reimagine how they use the building and could put the things they believed and aspired to upon the walls of the physical church building. Many shared the image, including one of the General Superintendents of the COTN, so it went viral. This simple picture (our cover image for this essay) is who we are supposed to be. It aspires to a better vision of the church than exclusion and outrage. This image shines a light on the credibility gap that Mildred Bangs Wynkoop pointed out in the 1970’s that still lingers in the COTN. It reminds us of the true roots of our tradition. It is not about certitude and culture wars, but of working with the Holy Spirit to bring justice to the outcast, to set the prisoner free, heal the sick, to feed the hungry, and to be with the marginalized as that is where God is found. Our tradition is about an encounter with the ever present Christ who brings transforming love and grace to the margins.
I invite those who, as a result of the ideology of fear, have taken up the mantle of inquisition to instead work on bringing holiness through God’s restorative justice. To shine the beautiful light of God’s presence to a hurting world by showing who God is through our attitudes and actions rather than a constant barrage of fearful warnings to a church that simply wants to see God and live in God’s holiness. As Eugene Peterson’s Message version of the 27th Psalm says:
When besieged, I’m calm as a baby. When all hell breaks loose, I’m collected and cool. I’m asking God for one thing, only one thing: T o live with him in his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet. That’s the only quiet, secure place in a noisy world, The perfect getaway, far from the buzz of traffic. (Psalm 27:4–5 The Message)
Hunt, Zack. Godbreathed. Herald Press, 2023. Taylor, Richard S.. Biblical Authority and Christian Faith. Beacon Hill Press. Kindle Edition. Truesdale, Al. Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists. Kansas City: The House Studio, 2013.
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