Monday, March 28, 2005

MARCH BOOK REVIEW: "Searching For God Knows What" by Donald Miller PART I

Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2004

I had not planned on reviewing “Searching For God Knows What” so soon. I devoured Donald Miller’s second book after being so affected by his initial foray into literature, “Blue Like Jazz” (see last month’s book review). What I discovered was a book even better than its predecessor and a particular chapter that was as moving, profound, and powerful as nearly anything I have ever read. I have decided to blog the entire chapter (don’t worry, it’s not a long chapter—thank goodness, since I had to type the entire thing out!—and I’ll blog it in pieces throughout the week).

I hope you enjoy and are as challenged by what Miller has to say here as I was. The chapter, entitled, “Morality: Why I Am Better Than You” is a stunning insight into God’s reasons for the rules that govern our lives and the ways in which many of us twist them in order to feel superior to one another. Do we embrace Christian morality because we adore God and want, above all things, to imitate Him, or do we see the Bible as little more than a rule book and morality as a score sheet, clearly delineating us as better Christians who can then wield our supremacy as a weapon against those who don’t measure up? How much damage have Christians done by promoting a religion more interested in being right than in being in right relationship? And in what ways is Christianity intentionally ignorant of the very shortcomings and evils it is so quick to point out in others?

It may strike some as beginning rather slowly. Stick with it throughout the week. There are sections that made my jaw drop. It will probably inspire some comments. I hope it does. I encourage you to engage in the dialogue and share your feelings.

A great concern for those who defend a propositional gospel over a relational gospel is morality. Some feel that if we do not emphasize morality, people will have too much fun and refuse to play by the rules the rest of us who know God have to play by. But I don’t think this is true. I’ve heard it said that Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion and my guess is, the fast growth is because it offers a strict morality, a system of rights and wrongs that people can live by as well as accountability, so they don’t cheat on their spouses or kick their dogs. All of us subscribe to some kind of morality, mostly born of a conscience rather than a book. And the Bible is not structured as a moral code. It does not have all the answers on right and wrong. It has some, enough to guide a man’s conscience, but a book containing a complete moral code would require all pages in all books.

Somehow, and for some reason, each of us subscribes to a kind of morality, and though for some this code is not defined, it is understood and adhered to. Grievances, then, are disagreements in the moral code, not one side holding to “it” and another side disregarding “it,” which, unfortunately, is often an evangelical position.

The truth is, we all want morality. We know morals will make us better people, and we even feel a kind of nobility when we subscribe to and defend a code. I watched a documentary recently about young African-American men in urban New York City who are turning in droves to Islam because of its moral guidance. Each of the young men was looking for a father figure, for a mentor who would provide for him boundaries, understanding intrinsically that life has rules and parameters and to succeed in the soul, one must learn these parameters. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe Muhammad was a true prophet, but I enjoyed watching this documentary because it reminded me that I, too, have parameters and rules with which to navigate my existence.

Lately, however, I have been thinking of morality in less conceptual terms, less as a system of rules and regulations and more as a concept very beautiful and alive. Please do not think I am blurring the lines between right and wrong; rather, I am wanting to bring these lines to life to reveal a guide and a judge. The reason I have been feeling this way is not because morality gives us boundaries or because it helps us live clean lives, though morality does these things, but rather because, in some mysterious way, morality pleases God.

One of the great problems with morality for me in the past was that it didn’t seem to be connected to anything. I no longer believe morality will redeem me. What I mean by this is that, often, when I had lustful thoughts, greedy thoughts, and envious thoughts, or for that matter performed lustful actions, actions that stemmed from greed and envy, I felt that I would go to hell for doing them, for thinking these things.

Growing up in a small conservative church in the South, you hear more about morality than you do Christ. If you were immoral, if you danced, or cussed, you were made to feel that God no longer liked you. And if you were moral, you were made to feel not one with Christ, but right and good and better than other people. These things were not stated directly, but the environment left me with this impression. Christian spirituality, then, hinged on whether or not a person behaved.

I don’t mean any of this to suggest I don’t want to behave, or what I want to go on sinning and say that it is okay with God. There is no part of me that believes anything like this can be defended scripturally. A god who says everybody can do as they please would be a bad god, a bad father, giving license for anarchy. Love creates rules and forgives when they are broken. People would hurt themselves and others if they did anything they wanted. People do hurt themselves and others all the time by neglecting laws and rules.

What I really wanted, though, was a reason for morals, a reason stronger than somebody’s simple suggestion that right was right and wrong was wrong.

When David wrote his Twenty-third Psalm he indicated God led him in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. This struck me, recently, when I was reading through the Psalms. I had always thought morality was something God created exclusively to keep mankind out of the ditches, and to a large degree, I suppose this is true, but David’s concept of morality was quite new to me and I wondered exactly what he meant by the phrase “for His name’s sake.”

Peter would argue in the book of Acts that when David talked about the Lord, he was talking about Jesus, acting as a kind of prophet. And in this light, the Twenty-third Psalm becomes quite beautiful. The Valley of the Shadow of Death, I came to learn while studying this passage, is an actual valley outside Jerusalem. It is treacherous terrain, and shepherds once herded sheep through this valley to move them to green pastures and fresh water. There were crags in the rocks, ditches, and thronbushes that sheep, simple as they are, would fall into, so shepherds had to use their staffs, those big sticks with the rounded hooks on the end, to reach into he crags and ditches to rescue the sheep. And the shepherd also had a rod he would use to scare off wild animals, keeping the sheep safe in the passage. In the Twenty-third Psalm, David says, “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (v. 4 KJV), and when I think of myself as a sheep, looking up at Jesus, who has a staff to rescue me and a rod to protect me, It makes me feel that this passage is quite endearing, that basically I am a simple sheep, having very little idea of what is right and wrong, and Jesus is going to pull me out of the ditches when I screw up, and protect me from spiritual enemies who, as we’ve already discussed, roam around like lions.

And then the words regarding Christ’s leading us in the paths of righteousness come up and I know David is talking about the safe ground through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and how there is a right way, a way that is prudent, a way that doesn’t have the crags and bushes; and this is the way of God’s morality, That is, God’s ethics, His conscience instilled in man and guided by Scripture, are the best ways to travel through a fallen world, through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, or what I have referred to as a lifeboat and a circus.

It made me wonder, then, if the idea of morality is just another ramification of the Fall. Paul even says that the law was given to the Jews to show them they couldn’t follow the law, to reveal to them the depravity of their nature, to show them the cancer that lived inside them so they would pay attention to the Doctor.

In my own life, I try to be moral, but I am no good at it. It becomes obvious, in my effort, that I have this cancer Paul alludes to, that I am in this fallen body with a fallen mind and a fallen nature. That said, I don’t suppose we will have any kind of morality in heaven, any thought about right and wrong, once we are with God, once our minds and our bodies and our natures are replenished and healed in His light and His goodness. No, morality exists only because we are fallen, not unlike medicine exists because people get sick.

Morality, then, if you think about it, is the way we imitate God. It is the way we imitate the ways of heaven here on earth. Jesus says, after all, to know Him we must follow Him, we must cling to Him and imitate Him, and many places in Scripture the idea is presented that if we know Him, we will obey Him.

If you look for this relational concept of morality, you see it all through Scripture. Paul connects the idea of morality to Christ in the books of Ephesians and Romans, and the author of Hebrews directly connects morality to our relationship with God in several places in that text. John the Evangelist, in all three of his short books at the end of the Bible, keeps saying that if we know God we will love our brother, and if we know God we will obey.

I was contacted by a magazine editor recently who asked if I would consider writing a few articles for his publication. The editor told me his magazine was unique in that both Christians and people who weren’t Christians contributed, which allowed them to offer a wide variety of perspectives in an open-table format. I thought the magazine sounded terrific and asked him if he would send me a copy. A few days later the magazine arrived, and I took it to Powell’s to sit and read in the coffee shop. I have to tell you, I didn’t like what I read. The first article was a shabbily written diatribe against conventional concepts of morality. The writer said he was in a Christian rock band but didn’t see himself as being any different from any other rock star, saying proudly that he frequently slept with his girlfriend, that he smoked pot and got drunk and applauded anybody who was willing to experiment. He went on to excuse his actions by claiming God’s grace. I read the article a couple of times and realized, perhaps, what it was that David and Paul were speaking of when they connected morality to God’s glory, and immorality to His personal pain.

Can you imagine being a bride in a wedding, walking down the aisle toward your bridegroom, and during the procession, checking out the other groomsmen, wondering when you could sneak off to sleep with one of them, not taking the marriage to your groom seriously? Paul became furious at the church in Corinth for allowing a man to sleep with his stepmother. It makes sense to think of this as Paul’s way of protecting the beauty and grandeur of a union with Christ. In this way, immorality is terrible because it is cheating on the Creator, who loves us and offers Himself as a bridegroom for the bride.

When I said I was looking for a reason for morality, this is what I meant. The motive is love, love of God and of my fellow man.


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