Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity

Wide Open Spaces: Beyond Paint-by-Number Christianity

by Jim Palmer

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Jim Palmer's critically acclaimed Divine Nobodies was only half the story - the deconstruction and shedding of a religious mentality that hindered his knowing God. In his next book, Jim takes the reader along into the wide open spaces of exploring and experiencing God beyond religion. Jim writes, "It is no secret that God can be lost beneath the waving


Jim Palmer's critically acclaimed Divine Nobodies was only half the story - the deconstruction and shedding of a religious mentality that hindered his knowing God. In his next book, Jim takes the reader along into the wide open spaces of exploring and experiencing God beyond religion. Jim writes, "It is no secret that God can be lost beneath the waving banner of religion. Divine Nobodies is my story of how this happened to me. Sometimes you have to disentangle God from religion, even Christ from Christianity, to find the truth. With the help of some unsuspecting nobodies, I uncovered a new starting line with God. As I've put one foot in front of another, I've experienced God in ways that are deeply transforming."

Each chapter revolves around a central question related to knowing God on fresh terms: Is God a belief system? Is the Bible a landing strip or launching pad? Can what we're feeling inside be God? Are we too religiously minded to be any earthly good?

Brian McLaren wrote, "I am tempted to say that Jim Palmer could well be the next Don Miller, but what they have in common, along with an honest spirituality and extraordinary skill as storytellers, is a unique voice."

The Library Reviews said of him, "Jim Palmer's casual, yet compelling writing style cuts through the religious rhetoric and gets to the real issues…readers will love this author! His sense of humor is alternately mixed with shocking sentences and poignant moments. Laced throughout is a refreshing honesty that ties his ideas together with a ribbon of reality…each turn of the page strips away a little more of the contrived mystery of Christianity until the simplicity and sincerity of it stands in realistic splendor."

More and more people seek a deeper spirituality beyond status-quo religion. Others are left empty and weary from a shallow and narrow pop-Christianity. Palmer says that God's kingdom of love, peace, and freedom can be a present reality in any person's life. He proclaims that God is indeed in the process of birthing something deep and wide among unlikely people in unconventional ways, which is changing the world...one "nobody" at a time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

With Divine Nobodies, "emerging church" leader Palmer touched a nerve with readers who gravitate toward cutting-edge evangelical writers like Brian McLaren and Donald Miller. Similarly, this book employs a personal, homespun style to dissent from Christianity-as-usual. Palmer examines such spiritual disciplines as honing one's belief system in accordance with biblical principles; advancing the gospel outside of church walls; dismantling ineffective church practices; and discovering purpose in unexpected places. He might raise the hackles of some evangelicals with a confessional narrative of putting aside the Bible for a season, recognizing that it was at the center of "...a religion that had left [him] empty, exhausted, and disillusioned." Palmer shed this conventional religion as he purposefully "tuned out preachers and others quoting or referring to it," and writes that the result was that God spoke to him through nature, people, art, film and music. Palmer might be termed a renegade, but most young evangelicals will see him as a rebel with a cause and a message worth considering. (Dec. 4)

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Wide Open Spaces

By Jim Palmer

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2007 Jim Palmer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4185-3754-8


My God Can Whup Your God!

Is God a Belief System?

There are certain memories that stick with you. Like the first time I was given smelling salts. I was lying flat on my back on the thirty-five-yard line of the Blacksburg High School football field. Carroll County had just kicked off the ball, which sailed high but wasn't making much forward progress down the field. In fact, a sickening feeling grew in my stomach as the football began angling toward me, the guy who normally blocks. I was looking up in the sky, the opposing team charging down the field, my arms stretched out wide to receive the ball, and.... The next thing I remember was being rudely jolted back into the land of the living.

These last few years, God has supplied a few jolts of his own to rouse me from my religious slumber. One of those jolts was Connie's July 13 blog post, only nineteen words long. Connie is one of my MySpace friends, and from time to time I read her blog. July 13 was one of those times. I clicked on her blog and read this:

I Hate You.

You Hate Me.

We Hate Them.

They Hate Us.

What does it take to change this?

These words planted a seed within me that has continued to germinate. Religion teaches that God is synonymous with a specific belief system. Each system claims to have "right" beliefs about God, which are passionately held by its adherents—so much so that hate, bitter resentment, bloodshed, and even war can result from disagreement about God. A brief overview of world history shows that bad things happen when religious belief systems clash. This is what Connie was feeling. She had experienced religious hate in her own world, was fed up, and voiced it in nineteen sobering words.

But what if God isn't a belief system? What if God is bigger than self, bigger than family, bigger than tribe, bigger than nation, and even bigger than any set of doctrines we try to wrap around him? Whereas religion sometimes brings out the worst in people, could the vision of a bigger God cause us to place higher value on expanding our circles of care and compassion and working toward a more peaceful world?

One of the most freeing discoveries these past few years in my relationship with God (and it's still sinking in) is that God is not a belief system or a fixed set of theological propositions. On the one hand, it seems patently obvious that a list of claims about God can't actually be God himself. There isn't a lockbox at the center of the universe containing a divine computer program with doctrinal code. Hopefully we've all realized that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is fiction and that the number forty-two doesn't answer anything of ultimate significance. And yet for many years, my Christianity was basically a well-worked-out and defined set of propositions and practices in the name of God. I said Jesus Christ was my Savior, but in reality I treated my belief system as if it were my savior. It was my belief in the right suppositions about Christ that made me eternally saved.

When the basis for being a Christian is your specific set of beliefs about God, the most important thing is being right. If someone comes around with contrary ideas, the logical conclusion is ... well, their ideas must be wrong. It doesn't take an MIT grad to figure out two people with divergent views of God can't both be right. Therein lies all religious conflict; there must be winners and losers. It's a zero-sum game. The "win-win" mentality just doesn't fly.

For many years, my sense of well-being, comfort, safety, security, identity, and superiority in the world was based largely on being right about God. I was eager to take on theological debates. After I received my masters of divinity degree, I was confident I was "right" about God. When threatened, my response was akin to the little boy yelling, "My daddy can whup your daddy!" I was happy to be counted among the few, the proud, the saved who could emphatically say, "My God can whup your God! My belief system wins over your belief system. My book is better than your book. I win, you lose. I'll pray for you."

But from time to time, interactions with some people prompted me to notice the difference between upholding certain doctrinal beliefs about God versus actually experiencing God on a firsthand basis. Take Melanie, for instance. Melanie worked at a nearby Panera Bread, where I often went to drink coffee and work on my laptop. I was normally the first one there when the doors opened, which afforded some chitchat time with Melanie before the morning rush. When things slowed down, she'd be out wiping tables, and we'd pick up our conversation where it left off.

Melanie is one of those people who is good at planting an inspiring thought in your head. One early morning I came in still half asleep, and she said with an endearing smirk, "You better wake up. You might miss something." Once while toasting my bagel, she suddenly turned to me and asked, "Jim, why do you think people fear God?" Melanie enjoyed talking about God. Her face would light up as she described feeling God's love during her drive into work. I was convinced she must be smoking something. Melanie seemed to experience God everywhere and saw all of life from a spiritual perspective.

It was difficult to pin down the theological specifics of what Melanie believed about God, because she spoke of God like one would a neighbor or friend. It was maddening! I could never seem to find a natural opening to pop the question concerning her view of the Trinity. I, on the other hand, had my theological p's and q's all in good order, but I didn't seem to be tuned into God's frequency much of the time.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, God was using Melanie to prepare me for receiving a message that was going to be hard for me to swallow. In fact, I would have swiftly rejected this message had it arrived just four or five months earlier. The message was from God, and I recorded it in my journal so I could remember the exchange:

God: Jim, do you think knowing me is a matter of having correct theology?

Jim: As opposed to what, false theology!? Wrong beliefs aren't going to get me anywhere.

God: And where do you think your right beliefs are going to get you?

Jim: Well, if I believe the right things about you, then ... well ... I'll know who you really are ... right?

God: Jim, do you know the sun radiates heat?

Jim: Of course.

God: How?

Jim: Because I've felt it.

God: Are you sure it's not because a science book told you the sun radiates heat?

Jim: Well, let's just say I didn't need the science book to know it.

God: Do you need a set of correct beliefs about me in order to know me?

How dare God speak to me, a seminary graduate, questioning the value of my scholarly, airtight, bulletproof theology! I had spent four years and piled up a lot of school debt constructing that theology. Maybe God didn't appreciate just how brutal it was surviving Dr. Magary's Hebrew class!

God did seem to have a point, though. If God is real, I should be able to know and experience him directly, not just know about him through some set of theological propositions. If something is really true (or real), it can't just be true because the Bible says so. If there was no Bible to inform me that God is love, I could still experience God's love since his love is rooted in Truth. Truth is eternal. Therefore, Truth had to have existed long before the Bible was completed and put together into one document, which didn't take place until the third century.

This begs the question, what did people do before there was a Bible from which theological propositions could be formulated? Somehow God and humans made due without a well-defined belief system in place. How did that work? For instance, in the book of Genesis, a man named Enoch, only a few generations removed from Adam and Eve, is described as a man who "walked with God" (5:22).

Well, okay. Get ready. This is where things get interesting. Maybe a well-defined set of truth propositions about God isn't necessary for knowing and experiencing God.

Perhaps what's true of God has always been true and the Bible simply bears witness to it. After all, aren't the Scriptures written out of people's personal encounters with God? When Paul wrote, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control," he was describing his experience of God (Galatians 5:22–23). But people walked in love, joy, and peace as a result of knowing God long before Paul penned the phrase "the fruit of the Spirit."

Maybe this was the difference between Melanie and me. Melanie was actually experiencing God as goodness—as love, as joy, as peace. Perhaps this is what God was telling me in our conversation about the sun. God doesn't want me to construct some sophisticated belief system about him. God wants me to experience the warmth of his love upon my face, to bask in his beauty and goodness, to rest in him and be at peace, and be an expression of all of these in the world.

You don't see Jesus rounding up his disciples for a class on Trinitarianism or sending them home to study hermeneutics. Essentially, Jesus taught that knowing God comes down to love. In fact, Jesus said you could summarize everything that's ever been said about what God desires in this way: "Love God and love people" (Matthew 22:37–39).

Hmm ... do you think it's possible that God wants love to be our belief system? Religion seems to want us to focus on affirming a certain set of doctrines about God. But come to think of it, knowing the doctrine of the Trinity has not changed my life. I've known the Nicene Creed for many years and can recite it, but it hasn't turned me into the "new creation" Paul talked about (2 Corinthians 5:17). I have found these past few years that love is the only force that has transformed me. The stick (fear) and the carrot (reward) may alter my behavior or attitude, but love is the only force that transforms my being. If God is the ultimate power, then he must be love, perfect love.

God continuously prompts me to understand him in terms of love. I recently came across an interview Newsweek did with eighty-seven-year-old Billy Graham. Talking about his journey with God, Graham said, "As time went on, I began to realize the love of God for everybody, all over the world." Later he said, "I spend more time on the love of God than I used to." At one point, the interviewer asked Billy Graham about the different religions in the world and the challenge of determining who's right and who's wrong about God. He responded, "I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his Son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have."

My friend Jeffrey was recently in a conversation with a friend who is a self-proclaimed atheist. Jeffrey asked him why he believed as he did. In response, his friend began describing a jaded and harsh view of God and concluded emphatically, "I could never believe in a God like that."

This response led Jeffrey to ask another question, a bit stranger than his first. He asked his friend, "Do you believe in love?"

His friend responded, "Do I believe in love? Of course I believe in love! Everybody believes in love. There's nothing greater than love. You can never have enough love or give enough love. My life and this world would be so much better off if there was more love."

So Jeffrey asked, "What would you say if I told you God is love?" After pondering it for a moment, his friend replied in astonishment, "Well, if you're telling me God is love, then I'm no longer an atheist."

There are an endless number of things that divide people in our world. I'm becoming increasingly convinced God shouldn't be one of them. When the Scriptures say, "God is love" (1 John 4:8), maybe God was offering a center large enough for all people to seek truth peacefully. Religion, particularly religious leaders, stirs up debate about whether Jesus is God. Something about this debate seems insane. Setting religion aside for a moment, who in their right mind wouldn't want Jesus to be God? I'm not sure I could construct a better God with my wildest imagination.

If someone came up to me and asked, "Jim, are you interested in knowing God? Before you answer, let me tell you about him. He always loves and accepts you without condition. His motive in all things is love, and he always has your best interests in mind. He desires your freedom and wants to be your source of love, truth, peace, joy, and goodness. He is full of compassion and understands the pain and suffering of the human journey from personal experience. Knowing him heals your deepest wounds and extinguishes your worst fears. His main principle for life is to love. Are you interested?" my answer would be, "Duh!"

During Jesus Christ's life on earth, he gathered a small group of people who devoted their lives to knowing and interacting with him. Knowing Christ helped them see and live in the world in a different way. They became more like Christ as they hung out with him. Many called these folks "disciples," or apprentices, of Christ. They learned things like: love God, others, even your enemies; let he who has not sinned cast the first stone; put the needs of others above your own; care for the poor and marginalized. In time, this group became so much like Christ himself, people referred to them as "little Christs."

Eventually this term was slightly modified into "Christian" and later became the label for an entire belief system named "Christianity." The "Christian" label spawned efforts to add increasing definition to its meaning. Once you've labeled and defined something, you've established what it is and isn't, who's in and who's out. In this case, being "in" was a matter of having certain beliefs about God. I once assumed that the earliest Christians (as well as most Christians down through history) more or less all agreed to the same doctrines about God and Jesus. It was quite a shock to discover this isn't true. In fact, the differences of opinion among Christians motivated people in positions of ecclesiastical power to create creeds as a litmus test for authenticating yourself as a Christian.

I'm thinking maybe this all was a big mistake.

What the term Christian originally referred to has been replaced by the idea of affirming certain beliefs about God. In fact, for most of my life, I believed that agreeing to four or five theological statements about God and Jesus Christ made me decidedly Christian. This seemed pretty harmless. God is infinite and the Bible contains sixty-six books, so it was comforting to know that the really important stuff was condensed into a statement of faith that fit nicely on the back panel of my church brochure.

On one occasion the disciples declared that if Jesus would "show them the Father," their lives would be forever changed. Jesus essentially replied, "Look no further. The heart and nature of God is right now on display before your eyes—me" (John 14:8–9).

Jesus didn't come to start a new religion; he came to reveal God. Why? Because God knew if humankind could physically experience who he is, we would want to know him, and knowing him would change us. It worked! The love of God on display in Jesus attracted people like a magnet. Hanging out with Jesus began transforming people's hearts, way of life, and relationships with others. Jesus was so compelling that people left everything to follow him.

That is, everyone except the religious establishment. The idea that God could be known simply through interacting with Jesus was threatening. Heck, if you could experience God directly, why would you need them and their elaborate system of religious rules and rituals? Maybe God wasn't so complex and hard to know after all. Maybe it just came down to ... well ... Jesus.

In the apostle Paul's mind, this truth transforms lives and changes the world. He wrote, "And this is the secret: Christ lives in you" (Colossians 1:27 NLT). We come to know God as we interact with Christ within us. God is not a belief system of truth propositions; he is a living spiritual reality within us. Two thousand years later, this is still the secret to knowing God.

As it was when God spoke to me that day, I realize the idea of this chapter could be hard for the typical Christian to swallow. Part of me felt I should add a bunch of caveats saying how important it is we actually do have our facts right about God. However, if we have relationship with God and are interacting with the living Christ within, doesn't it stand to reason that God will lead and guide us accordingly? Would God lead us into falsehood and lies? Didn't Jesus say his Spirit within us would guide us in all truth?


Excerpted from Wide Open Spaces by Jim Palmer. Copyright © 2007 Jim Palmer. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jim Palmer is author of widely acclaimed Divine Nobodies and Wide Open Spaces. He encourages the freedom to imagine, dialogue, live, and express new possibilities for being an authentic Christian. With an MDiv from Trinity Divinity School in Chicago, Jim has also worked in pastoral ministry, inner-city, service, and international human rights work. Through writing, speaking, blogging, conversation, and friendship Jim is a unique voice for knowing God beyond organized religion. He and his wife, Pam, and daughter, Jessica, live in Nashville. Jim is a triathlete, enjoys eating pizza, and has a dog named Jack. You can find Jim at divinenobodies.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

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