Monday, September 23, 2013

Be a Heretic Monday Starter Kit

A Handy Definition

Be A Heretic Monday: An unofficial weekly holiday that takes place on the Monday of every week, wherein Christians are allowed and encouraged to ask extremely difficult questions about their faith, even those that relate to the very pillars of their beliefs. This might take the form of a letter to a spiritual leader, an informal discussion with a friend, a Heresy Dinner with a group, or simple introspection.

I celebrate this almost every week, and have for two years. It’s challenged me, helped me grow, and given me an excuse to have conversations with others that go beyond surface-level “Nice weather we’re having.”

Not this kind of heresy. No fire involved. (Sorry, pyromaniacs.)

Why Practice Be a Heretic Monday?

One: Seeking truth is fun, and beautiful, and an act of worship.

Two: The common stereotype of a Christian is someone who blindly and not-very-intelligently accepts teachings she doesn’t really understand or know much about. While faith is central to Christianity, faith is not the same thing as sitting back and letting others do the work of interpretation and critical thinking. Asking hard questions will help us be more open to hard questions from others who don’t share our beliefs. (Note that I didn’t say it would give us the answers to solve all theological problems and refute all arguments.)

Three: We need to care more about what we believe. If we aren’t bothered by injustice or contradictions or how we should apply ethics to our lives or what others’ perception of God is because of the way they interpret the Bible, we are losing something really, really important. (Rachel Held Evans talks about this problem here.)

A Few Important Things

Important Thing 1: This is not really heresy. I call it “Be a Heretic Monday” because “Be a Thoughtful Christian and Combat Anti-intellectual Stereotypes Monday” is not catchy at all. For an official definition of heresy, see the following really interesting article.

On the other hand, I also believe that words change in meaning based on how people use them and what they think of when they hear them. And some Christians tend to think that asking questions and having doubts amounts to what they would call heresy. So I’m not changing the name. Not yet, anyway.

Important Thing 2: Questions should not be asked or answered in an arrogant way. I did this once (probably several times). It is not fun at all to have a discussion with someone who already has an opinion and simply wants to kick everyone else down, drag them over to their opinion, and tie them firmly to it with ropes of pretentious logic and really loud declarations that they are right.

Okay, that’s extreme. Sometimes, humility is hard, and it’s a pretty subtle art. Here are a few guidelines that have helped me be a little more gracious instead of the jerk I tend to be.

Important Thing 3: Doubt is a tricky subject. I do think that there are ways to ask questions with wrong attitudes. (I did a presentation on this once.) Take some time to think about why you’re asking the questions you are. Motives are usually pretty telling.

Important Thing 4: These questions are fun. I think they are even important, for the reasons I listed before. But they are not the main thing. The main thing is loving God and loving others. Don’t forget the main thing.

A Handy List of Sample Questions

Bonus! If one of these questions really intrigues you and you want to know what I think about it, comment or shoot me a Facebook message asking me about it.

Seriously. DO IT.

If someone accurately said, “This hurts like hell,” what would that look like? In other words, what’s the closest emotion/experience we can have on earth to hell?

Why does God’s ethical teaching on topics like slavery seem to change from the Old to New Testament if God doesn’t change?

John Calvin says, "Wow, that's a great question."
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13. Christ substituting himself for us on the cross is the highest act of love. So, in Romans 9:4, Paul says, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.” This seems to be a pretty intense sacrifice. Why wouldn’t God let him do this if it was okay to let Jesus take our place?
How do you justify the genocides in the Bible? (Emotionally and ethically)

Most scholars believe humans are both made in the image of God and that we have a sin nature. Which one of those is a stronger force in our lives? Are we all bad, mostly bad, basically good? Does it make a difference if the person is a Christian or not, and if so, how?

Why do we call contradictions in Christianity “paradoxes” when we just call them “contradictions” in other religions? (Such as Jesus being God and man)

Bible scholars talk about how it’s important to understand the context of the culture of the original audience. Western Christians have access to resources to do so. Many believers, past and present, have not. Does that make our faith more accurate or deeper than theirs?
John Stott says, "Brilliant!" (In a British accent,
which makes his one word cooler than all of mine)

Did God literally separate himself/abandon Jesus when Jesus was on the cross? If so, how does that work with the Trinity? If not, how could Jesus have really paid the penalty for our sin (separation from God)?

If eternity is all that matters, why do we do anything (entertainment, leisure, travel, non-ministry careers) except tell people about Jesus?

If you knew nothing about the doctrine of hell and hadn’t read Scripture passages about it, what would you think of the idea? How would you explain a loving God and the existence of hell?

What is the greatest weakness of the modern Western church?

If you had to explain the Israelites' destruction of men, women, and children to a Sunday School class of third graders, how would you do it? What about a room full of jr. highers asking how that event was just?

Predestination? (That’s all you need for several hours, let’s face it.)

By the time you get to the Law of Moses, God is pretty clearly against child sacrifice. Yet he commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. Was it okay for God to do that because he knew he would intervene before Isaac’s death?

Augustine says, "Man, I wish I was still alive so I could discuss this stuff."
Say my friend murders someone in a fit of angry rage. I go to court and demand that the judge punish me for his wrongdoing. The judge doesn’t let me, and we say that justice was done. So how was it just in God’s sight for Jesus to die in our place?

What happens after death to those who never heard an account of the historical Jesus and his death and resurrection preached to them?

Women’s roles in the family and the church. (100 million bonus points if you talk about this in a group of both genders. And everyone actually gives an honest opinion. And no one throws things.)

Why doesn’t the Old Testament say much of anything about heaven or hell?

How much attention should we pay to spiritual forces, good and evil, in the world? What would be too much, and what would be not enough?
C.S. Lewis says, "Wait...what?"

If my spiritual gift isn’t [evangelism/hospitality/encouragement/whatever] am I still responsible for doing that particular thing? Is it possible for a Christian to do ALL THE THINGS?

What does it mean to love our neighbors when we know about all the suffering in the entire world?

Why does it seem that a lot of Christians love to quote C.S. Lewis, and is that okay?

Is it a sin to create bad Christian art/writing/music? Is it even valid to call something Christian art/writing/music?

Should all Christians be asking questions like this?

Do any of these abstract, theoretical questions really matter if they don’t apply to how we live our lives on a daily basis, following Christ? (Do they apply to our lives?)


  1. Questions I liked:
    1. Did God literally separate himself/abandon Jesus when Jesus was on the cross? If so, how does that work with the Trinity? If not, how could Jesus have really paid the penalty for our sin (separation from God)?
    I'd be fascinated by your opinion on this. I wrote an assignment on it and came to the conclusion that the separation couldn't be ontological but that there was relational separation. Yes?

    2. By the time you get to the Law of Moses, God is pretty clearly against child sacrifice. Yet he commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. Was it okay for God to do that because he knew he would intervene before Isaac's death?
    This is one I'm going to think about. It's Tuesday but how about asking whether Abraham failed part of the test of knowing God whose character would not permit it. It's interesting that Jewish tradition emphasises Akedah (short hand for "binding of Isaac" i.e. it's about sacrifice) whereas Christian tradition emphasises testing of Abraham. I wonder whether a different emphasis would deflect the question somehow. What do you say?

    3. Is it a sin to create bad Christian art/writing/music? Is it even valid to call something Christian art/writing/music?
    Mostly this question made me chuckle but I want so badly to say yes to the first question. Thoughts popping into my head are "all truth is God's truth" and "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" which complicate the question. How do you answer it?

    1. Hi James,

      Here are a few of my thoughts on these three. A little scattered, but a starting point.

      1. I don't know. Really. That's just about it. When I start poking around with the nature of God, things get complicated. Add to that the fact that the mechanics of the atonement (did Jesus actually descend into hell? etc.) aren't covered in much detail in the Bible. The focus is almost always on the effects. I like the distinction you give, though. That could be very helpful in understanding the separation.

      2. Hmm, the emphasis on Isaac does change things a lot, and makes it easier to understand (Isaac is pretty clearly an innocent victim). What I would go to is the fact that Abraham believed that God was going to raise Isaac to life again even if he actually did die (Heb. 11). To him, there wasn't a finality to the death, and thus it wouldn't reflect badly on God's character. From God's perspective, I would think that his big-picture view (seeing all the tiny threads of motive and circumstance and result and understanding them all perfectly in order to determine whether something is "good" or "evil") could come into play.

      3. I think an individual artist knows when they're intentionally slapping something together that isn't their best quality, and that that's wrong. I don't think we have a right to point at something and say it's "sinfully cliche" or what have you. Because we have no idea where their heart was when making it or what their ability level was.

      Thanks for your thoughts--I really enjoyed them!

  2. 1. When picking topics a friend of mine chatted to someone who advised focussing on the atonement because it would grow my friend spiritually. I think it was too long since he had studied though because my friend and I didn't want to touch atonement with a barge pole once we got into current debates which, on reflection, is quite a shame.

    2. I suppose you could argue that we are imposing the idea of death's finality onto the text but I don't think that the possibility of resurrection negates the problem of child sacrifice. I don't have a solution though...

    3. To be honest, I wasn't taking this one too seriously - I just wanted to be able to point at certain songs that somehow make it into the mainstream and say that they're a result of the fall.

    So be a heretic Monday is now a part of everyday life for me - let's hope I don't constantly experience Monday blues. One more interesting question:

    4. How do we go about designing a framework by which to comment on women's roles? That is, it seems that the question is more complex than simply asking whether women can do x, y or z because there aren't enough letters so we need some evaluative strategy. I'm thinking that it would start (1) with collecting all the references to women doing anything in the Bible and trying to categorise activities (though I'm not sure how), finding (2) all the references to women's roles and doing exegesis on each passage allowing them to comment on each other (which becomes exponentially more complex the more passages you decide have an impact). Finally (3) comparing the results of 2 to the activities of 1 to validate exegesis (or, more likely, invalidate. In which case, back to step 2).
    What do you have on this?

    1. Hooray for heresy! In this context, I think it can be really useful.

      Hahaha. #4. That happens to be one of two theological issues I picked for 2014. Meaning that I usually keep it in the background of my mind for the year and look for different perspectives on it. I'm not usually actively studying it, but over 12 months, you can accumulate a lot of information from both sides. My thoughts are that, while I'm logical enough to hold my own, systems and structures don't work well for me, and sometimes I don't think they do a good job of reflecting reality. Some people may need a process, but when I try that, I make God (or ethics, or other Biblical topics) into a strict formula. That A. doesn't work and B. takes all the fun out of it for me.

      What I'm planning to do is read historical Christian writings, study Bible passages, listen to people's opinions and ask why they have them, and think about the question, "Is being a woman of God different than being a man of God, and if so, in what ways?" And also, I want to spend more time praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit than I normally do, because sometimes I think we put such a high value on logic and exegesis that we forget that God can speak in other ways.

      I'm excited for what I might find out, although I don't expect to even come close to forming a general rule.