Back in October I took a class in school where I met Jesus in profound ways. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it or describe it at the time, but when I left the class and finished the reading and wrote the papers and talked almost nonstop about the things I had learned, I found that throughout the process Jesus had dug so deep into (what I thought was) my profound theological understanding that it came out looking like a piece of Swiss Cheese.
What once felt solid no longer did.
What once was neat and tidy now felt like a complete mess.
What was once seemingly perfected was now full of holes.
What was once certain now felt uncertain.
The funny thing is that I went into the class thinking that I was taking a preaching class. The class was entitled something like “Communication to a New Generation” and so I assumed the content would revolve around the idea of communicating the Bible to the generation in which we find ourselves whether that be though ...
... Or something similar.
Makes sense, right?
Instead, however, it was a class about how to read and apply the Bible in an ever-changing, ever-moving-forward, ever-progressive-thinking world all the while being mindful of and holding at a high regard the ancient culture in which the Bible was written.
All of those things are of the utmost importance and pushing them to the side (like we so often do!) can have drastic, negative consequences on our understanding of the Bible and God and what it means to be alive in this world.
Let me take this a little further.
A big eye-opener for me was when the professor tackled an idea about something that I had always thought I believed, but was kind of afraid to voice because not only didn’t I have the words to describe it, but I wasn’t sure how people would respond it or if they would understand.
Will people argue with me?
Will they laugh at me?
Will they say I’m a heretic?
I’m past those fears now and so I’ll share it with you here. You can also head over to my YouTube channel and join me as I talk through it, but I’ll give you the short version here - it’s the idea of The Surplus of Meaning.
The Surplus of Meaning is a philosophical idea from French Philosopher Paul Ricoeur which says that when it comes to a text (i.e. a poem, a story, the Bible, etc.) there are a number of different meanings and understandings hidden within it. In other words, the stories and books of the Bible don’t just have ONE single meaning buried within them that we have to figure out, discover, and get right.
There are a number of different meanings hidden within them, meanings that are like pearls waiting to be uncovered and discovered.
And so honoring the text doesn’t happen when we approach it forensically, trying to dissect it and rip it apart in an effort to find the one, real, true meaning and then pushing everyone around us to accept that meaning; honoring the text, rather, happens when we treat it as a beautiful world to be explore, never knowing and never being ready for whatever new Truth might pop out at us around the corner.
It’s important to note, though, what this doesn’t and does mean:
This DOESN’T mean that we can make the Bible say whatever we want.
What it DOES mean, however, is that the Bible means everything that it does mean - nothing MORE and nothing LESS.
Let me say it like this - the Ancient Jewish Rabbi’s used to say that the Biblical texts are like a diamond in that depending on how you turn them and in what way the light hits them, a new meaning or idea or thought or understanding will be magnified and brought to the surface.
... The Surplus of Meaning.
Again, although I always THOUGHT this kind of stuff in my head, that’s where it stayed - in my head - because I was, I admit, hesitant to voice such thoughts that would be considered unorthodox and even heretical by the tribe of people I grew up with.
“There’s only one way to understand the Bible.
It says what it says.
And it says it CLEARLY.
There’s no room for debate.
There’s no room for questioning.
And if you doubt, you need more faith.
Read your Bible more.
Go to church more.
You must believe THIS in THIS way or you’re in danger of hell.”
That class, though ... I don’t know. It’s like it gave me some sort of Divine permission to crack this door open in my heart and take a deeper look inside and once I opened it I couldn’t get it shut again. The door flung open and out poured a firehouse of ideas and thoughts ...
Ideas about how the Bible isn’t as clear as I always thought it was.
Thoughts about how maybe there are different ways to understand the passages and stories that I always thought needed to be understood in ONE way.
And a strong belief that this is all OK because THIS is how God intends it to be and THIS is how people all throughout the Bible have always grown closer to God and deeper in their faith.
NOT through systematic answers.
NOT through clear cut doctrines.
NOT through 100% certainty.
Through wondering, “what if?”
Whether it was Thomas doubting that Jesus had rose again or David ranting and raving about God in the Psalms or Moses arguing with God or Peter rebuking Jesus or Paul rethinking and rewriting Jewish history to fit the mold of a crucified and resurrected Messiah ... they all modeled for us what it looks like to grow closer to God through the journey of life.
The class took place in Nyack, NY and so as it came to a close and I set out on a 10 hour drive back to Charlotte, NC, I couldn’t help but dwell on the feeling that my once certain thoughts about God and the Bible and faith and everything else now felt full of holes. And that even though it felt full of holes, (this is the really profound thing) somehow and in some way I felt closer to God than ever before.
I tell you all of that because I’m not the first one to experience this Swiss Cheese theology - I’m not the first person to have Jesus punch holes in his theology.
In Mark 2 we find Jesus in a place called Capernaum with a huge crowd around him. The storyteller tells us that so many people were gathered in the house that Jesus was in that not another person could possibly fit through the door.
And then at some point in the middle of His teaching, 4 men arrived at the door carrying their paralytic friend on a mat. They were hoping to get some face time with Jesus in hopes that He might heal their friend like He had been healing everyone else, but they weren’t able to push their way through the crowds to get to Him.
That’s when one of them had an idea - “let’s dig a hole in the roof and lower our friend right in front of Jesus!”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Which must have been odd, right? Like, can you imagine Jesus teaching and talking about His Kingdom and calling people to follow His ways of love and grace and mercy when all of a sudden ...
... And little pieces of dirt from the ceiling probably began to fall and then a little bit of light started to shine in and then bigger pieces of dirt fell down and then a paralytic guy on a mat was being lowered through the hole.
It must have been quite a scene.
What happened next is weird, to be honest. As soon as the guy was lowered through the hole, Mark tells us that ...
“When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.”
That’ll mess with your theology, right?
I grew up in church hearing EVERY. SINGLE. SUNDAY. that in order for my sins to be forgiven I (emphasis on I) had to confess my sins and repent. In other words, I had to tell God the things that I had done wrong, promise to never do them again, and then (and only then) would I be forgiven.
I guess Jesus didn’t read the same Bible my pastors did, though, because Mark says that when He saw the faith of the paralytic guy’s friends, He looked at the paralytic (probably with a smile on His face because He knew He was about to offend the pastors and teachers and religious leaders who were present) and said ...
“Son, your sins are forgiven.”
If what I learned in church is right then Jesus got it wrong, I guess, because it seems that from this story a very real claim can be made that the sins and shortcomings and mess ups of those close to me can be forgiven not necessarily only by THEIR confession and repentance, but also by MY continual efforts to bring them into God’s presence at all costs.
And so that said, I wonder who in your life is physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually unable to get into the presence of Jesus ... who in your life needs to be carried there in your prayers this day instead of being told again and again and again that they need to get their act together and get there on their own?
I wonder if your willingness to carry them there again and again and again might be the very thing that will forever change their life?
That’s not even the craziest part, though. As soon as He told the guy his sins were forgiven (as expected, almost as if on cue) the religious leaders began “thinking to themselves, ‘Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins except God Himself!”
“Immediately”, Mark says, “Jesus knew in His Spirit that this is what they were thinking in their hearts and He said to them, ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
In Mark Jesus loves to refer to Himself as the “Son of Man”, which was actually a character from the Old Testament book of Daniel. The term appears in Mark 14 times, but was first used in Daniel 7 to describe the true representative of God’s people.
He was a man who was ...
Opposed by evil.
Vindicated by God.
Given authority to dispense God’s judgement.
Every Jew who was gathered at the house that day would have known the term “Son of Man” and would have been familiar with the Daniel 7 passage. What I love about this story, though, is that Jesus made Swiss Cheese out of those people’s theology by removing the idea of “judgement” from the equation and replacing it with “forgiveness of sins.”
Do you see it?
In Daniel 7 we find the Son of Man being empowered to dispense God’s judgement upon the evil doers of the earth, but in Mark 2 we find Jesus declaring Himself to be the Son of Man and empowered to dispense God’s forgiveness to the anyone and everyone who would make their way into His presence. Rather than stick to the script and apply the Daniel 7 Scriptures in a way that everyone would have expected Him to apply them, He (instead) creatively interpreted the passage for His time and dispensed God’s forgiveness on a man who didn’t even ask for it.
I tell you this because it’s a huge piece of the What If Project - creatively interpreting the stories and verses of the Bible that we’re so familiar with for this day and this age all the while giving honor and respect to the times and culture in which they were originally written.
What IF there’s a different way to read them?
What IF there’s a different way to understand them?
What IF the background of the stories means more than we ever imagined?
Some people shutter at this idea, but it’s nothing new, really, because we see it happening all throughout the Bible, all the time. Like (for instance), the early Old Testament passages (in Exodus and Leviticus) make it sound like to God sacrifice is of the utmost importance ...
Sacrifice your children (i.e. Abraham and Isaac).
Then comes the prophet Hosea who says that compassion is more important to God than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).
And then comes Isaiah who says that God found the people’s sacrifices disgusting when they made sacrifices to God without showing care for the oppressed (Isaiah 1-2).
And then came David who says that God takes no pleasure in sacrifices, but loves a contrite heart (Psalm 51).
Then, of course, Jesus who said that sacrifice wasn’t necessary anymore and then (to back up His claim) went into the Temple and literally threw everyone out who was selling animals to be sacrificed.
Do you see the progression in their understanding? In Exodus and Leviticus the people believed that sacrifice was the most important thing ever, but then along came ...
... Poking holes in everyone’s theology by creatively interpreting the old laws for a new time.
One could make a case that these stories are teaching us important things about God (and I wouldn’t deny that), but I think a stronger case can be made that such progressions in the Bible exist to teach us that our faith in God and our understanding of God is healthy not when it’s stagnant and still and content, but when it’s ...
Pushing back on the status quo.
Refusing to stay still.
Challenging the norm.
There are some of you out there reading this who are at the point where what you learned about God and the Bible growing up and the list of doctrines and ideas you were told you had to believe and had to sign up for in order to be accepted into the club and given a ticket to heaven when you die ... for some of you, that stuff isn’t working anymore.
And I wanted to tell you, that’s OK.
It’s OK to no longer be certain of what you believe. And it’s OK to be unsure about some of the stuff you read in the Bible.
It’s OK to think that maybe the world didn’t begin in Genesis 1, but maybe it did begin with a Big Bang millions of years ago.
It’s OK to think that the stories of God in the Old Testament killing people are ridiculous.
It’s OK to think that maybe Noah’s Ark was just a story, not something that really happened.
And it’s OK to think that maybe getting to heaven when you die isn’t the point of it all and maybe that was never Jesus’ point to begin with.
It’s OK to not believe in a rapture where Jesus is going to return and take His people away while everyone else burns.
It’s OK to not believe in hell, a place where God sends people to be tortured for all of eternity because they believed the wrong thing about Jesus.
What’s not OK, though, is to throw all of that out and never pick it up again.
Because the world needs people like you who can bring unique perspective and understanding to the above ideas and help turn the diamond in a slightly different direction so that the light hits it in a slightly different way and gives us an entirely new pearl of an understanding.
That’s one of the things I’m aiming to do here, at the What If Project, and I’m thrilled that you’re here to help.
Until next time.
Love and peace!
Helpful Resources Referenced:
(1) Mark for Everyone by NT Wright
(2) Binding the Strong Man by Ched Myers
(3) The Gospel of Mark by William Barclay