ORT & Me 3: The Backstory

The Backstory[1]

Many of those who have known me and heard me teach and preach at various times over the last 40 years would probably be confused and, perhaps, dismayed by the theology I have embraced slowly over the last decade. Some have had the love and courage to ask me personally, “Why the change?” or something like that. I appreciate so much the honesty and respect they have shown me by actually asking the question, rather than jumping to conclusions about why I’ve land where I’m at, biblically and theologically.  

I’m certainly not saying that hurtful—actually, deeply painful—experiences have not played any part in my theological evolution. Nor would I deny that I’ve been impressed with the sincerity, passion, dedication and determination of those who think about God, Jesus, the Bible, the church, etc., in ways that are antithetical to the doctrinal teachings of the denominations of which I have been a part. However, to think that I’ve just thrown theological caution to the wind in some knee-jerk, reactionary way, would be an incorrect conclusion to draw.

The cracks in my previous theological foundations began appearing more than 20 years ago, but for many years I was too busy doing the work of ministry—part of which involved upholding traditional theology via private and public teaching and preaching—to have the mental and emotional wherewithal to consider what was causing the cracks. I simply ignored these (or tried to) and denied that I had any doubts, questions, concerns, etc. In fact, for about 10 years, I actually worked harder at becoming a Christian apologist and fervently defended “the faith once delivered.” However, life and ministry soon gave me the pause that I needed to be able to think long and hard and to examine what these theological cracks were and what was their cause.

In 2008, after a month-long teaching tour in the Eastern Mediterranean—specifically in Istanbul, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Limassol (Cyrus) and Athens—an unresolved sinus infection I had been dealing with for months began to impact me systemically in various way. Some of these effects were life-threatening and some were life-altering (and still are). At roughly the same time (or shortly thereafter), my experiences in the ministry (both congregational and denominational) began to really trouble me, especially as I saw an opportunity for real introspection and change. But instead, there was doubling down to resist any strategies and ideas that were outside our traditional theological box. The way to get through our denominational existential crisis, apparently, was to get back to “the first principles.” So, we weren’t teaching and trusting ministers or members to think for themselves and have open and honest discussions. Rather, ministry leaders were reminding members and ministers of what they were taught initially and that any challenges to “the faith once delivered” were, at best, misguided. It seemed to me that ministry leaders believed the following about virtually all members: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb 5:12, NIV).

There is no doubt that all of this motivated me to expose myself to other perspectives on “all things biblical.” So, from 2005-11, I was a part-time undergraduate student in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies at the University of British Columbia. My major was Classical Studies, for two reasons: (1) I wanted to be able to study the NT with a deeper understanding of its original language: Greek; and (2) I wanted to learn more about the political, social, religious, etc., contexts of the 1st century C.E. During my studies, I was taught by scholars of the Hebrew Bible (and language), of ancient and rabbinic Judaism, Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as of the NT and early Christianity. After receiving my B.A. in Classics, I remained a part-time student taking various upper level and graduate courses in Hebrew, Judaism, Archaeology, etc, until I decided to pursue an M.A. in Religious Studies. There, I focused on the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism. Many realities became clear to me, especially about the complex, convoluted and often confusing history of how we got “the Bible.” At the same time, I was tuning into scholars, via books, articles, websites and podcasts who represented a variety of Jewish and Christian traditions; from Orthodox to Reform and Fundamentalist to “Liberal.” I received my M.A. in 2018. My thesis was titled, Linguistic Dating of the Biblical Texts: Proponents, Challengers and Judges 5.

It was during this period that my “out of the box” and evolving approach to ministry, church leadership and biblical teaching met with skepticism and even concern within my local congregation and many of my denominational colleagues. This resulted in a parting of the ways, at least in terms of my career in ministry. Happily, we were able to have honest and healing talks with the local members and have stay engaged with many of our long-standing personal relationships. As I look back on this time, I wish I’d been less naïve about how challenging it is to introduce significant changes even on the local level. Then, I wouldn’t haven’t been so discouraged when it became obvious that the changes I was introducing were too much, too fast. Ah well, we live, we learn (I hope).

What is, just is! And though it was quite a difficult experience, after more than three decades of ministry, I am quite glad to be freed from trying to fulfill the often unclear and/or unstated expectations others had of me.[2] In the last five years, I have been able to think again for myself without fear of what this means for others and for my future work. I’ve been able to pursue the faults and flaws of my own traditional theology while I explore other perspectives regarding the nature of the Bible and of God. Since I am no longer committed to sola scriptura, (founded on biblical inerrancy), I’ve been able to call upon my experience, my reason, and my theological traditions as co-equal lenses through which to interpret, not only the Bible, but the purpose of my life in this world. My continued journey, so far, has led to associations and even friendships that have enhanced my understandings of “all things biblical” and my efforts to grow in my love for God and for my fellow human beings.   

[1] This is MY story. I fully recognize that there are others who would disagree with some of the ways I have interpret events. I’ve tried to stay away from interpreting intentions. I believe that those who disagreed (and probably still disagree) with me and my interpretations were, and still are, honestly doing, saying, and living the lives that their theology and doctrinal understandings lead them to do, say and live. I trust they will give me the same respect, though our paths have diverged.

[2] At some point, I’ll probably blog about the problems associated with the “pastor model” of church leadership as it is practiced by most Christian denominations. It is a role that leads to personal burn-out and results in the continued infantilizing of church members and has largely contributed to the paucity of positive impact by “the church” on “the world.”