.::Canon Within a Canon

About a year ago, I was fortunate to be in a short term study with NT scholar Amy Jill Levine. She made a really interesting observation where she said, “We all operate with our canons within the canon.”. What she means is that we all pick and choose which parts of scripture are weightier and which don’t merit much study,thought, or reflection in our faith traditions.

My experience in the Churches of Christ has shown that we have traditionally spent more time with Paul and Jesus (in that order) than we have with the Gospels, the Prophets, Genesis, Revelation, well this list goes on and on. Tony Campolo makes the observation that for many evangelicals, we look at Jesus through the lens of Paul.  When we do this, our vision is skewed and tainted with legalism as we see Jesus through the ethical codes and legislation of Pauline writing.  He suggests that Catholics look at Paul through the lens of Jesus.  When we do this, then the ethical codes of Paul are given a much better context to accept those teachings.  Campolo had a good Catholic friend of his observe that when you look at Jesus through the lens of Paul you get televangelists, when you look Paul through the lens of Jesus you get Mother Teresa.  While this may not be completely accurate and even a bit unfair, there is a valid point worth considering.

I want to propose that our canon within the canon has resulted in a more legalistic view of Jesus than is possibly warranted or even accurate.  When we spend soooo much time looking at Paul’s ethical codes for holy living WITHOUT the context of JEsus, Jesus’s life, Jesus’s teachings, and JEsus’s character, it is far too easy to condense the christian life to a list of rules and regulations and faith becomes formulaic (See The Prayer of Jabez craze from a few years back).

For example, I have sat through far more classes and sermons on Colossians 3 that detail the list of rules for holy living than I have the Christ hymn in Colossians 1 that gives us the lens to understand.  If I am honest, I have look at teens far more with the lens of Colossians 3 and measured a student’s spiritual growth based on whether or not they they were students of “Anger, sexual immorality, lust, greed. etc.” then to really look deeper and see if they exhibited the character and qualities of Jesus as described in Col 1.

I have been struggling a lot with performance-based faith lately.  Donald Miller suggests that the two words that kill the human soul the fastest are: “Ought To.”I reflect on those externals that I used to subject my youth group students to . . . externals like:

  • attendance-how often are they at youth group and not “forsaking the assembly
  • quite time devotion-how often are kids diving in the word and journaling.
  • participation-are they at everything we are doing in youth group?
  •  bringing their Bibles-You know that “good Christians” bring their Bible to church
  • sacrificing a game to attend a retreat-this is almost the mark of martyrdom.

Don’t misunderstand me.  These things are not bad things.  However, when we use them as measuring sticks for faith and devotion, we are probably measuring the wrong things.  When we put these things up are the measuring sticks for faith, we put artificial hoops up for our students to jump through.

I would rather we find ways to see Jesus living IN and THROUGH our students.  How might we see Jesus living in our students?  Challenging our students?  I think the only way we can do this is to SPEND TIME getting to KNOW our students.  Sitting down with them over coffee. Listening to them articulate their faith, talking about Jesus, hearing their perspective on faith.

In order for us to know what to look for and listen for, we must spend more time in the Gospels AND the prophets AND the rest of the Canon of Scripture.  But let’s at least spend some time in our Sunday morning curriculum or small group times looking just at Jesus.  Luther sought for sola fide.  Perhaps we can strive for sola Jesus . . . at least for just a season this year.


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