Intriguing Scriptures, Part One: Dr. Chelle Stearns

As we round out our summer podcast season, Dan has invited a series of friends and colleagues to talk about specific passages of the Scriptures that intrigue and inspire them. To kick it off this week, Dan is joined by Dr. Chelle Stearns, Associate Professor of Theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, to talk about Philippians 2:1-11. Chelle shares how, in fifth grade, she encountered this passage—one of the earliest recorded creedal statements of who God is through Jesus—when she was first shifting the inherited faith of her childhood into something that was authentically her own.

Chelle: “In many ways, the Christian life is this call to set aside your own life. […] The call is to set aside the things that are false about yourself, to set aside the things that are false about this world, to see clearly what is actually there.”

Reflecting on that fifth grade summer camp context, Chelle and Dan talk about how this passage is often packaged in a youth group message of “here’s how you’re supposed to live.” That prescriptive posture, though, misses out on the playful invitation in Paul’s language, the invitation to set aside pretenses and falsities—not to minimize or belittle ourselves, but to discover our truest, fullest self in Christ.

Chelle: “If we really think that being conformed to Christ, being united with Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, then what’s actually being invited of us is to see where wholeness of life is and to work that. […] We give up our false images of ourselves and put on Christ, in the sense that we are transformed into the likeness of Christ in this place. And that’s not to be less of ourselves, ironically, that’s actually to be the fullness of who we are, of who we’re called to be.”

Dan and Chelle also discuss the high probability that this passage, often described as a hymn, once had a musical element. This is not the burdensome drudgery of “Oh, I need to become more humble.” It is something to be sung and exalted in—“This is worship,” says Dan. “It’s a kind of shout!”

Dan: “So as it’s proclaimed, there’s going to be a little toe-tapping. There’s going to be a little movement. It’s not just evoking words, it’s a set of images attached to a kind of musicality.”

Chelle: “And then the hymn becomes a giant yes—yes, this is the life we want to take on.”

If you want to know what fullness of life is, this is the place in which your imagination will take flight.

In the musical, communal call and response of this passage, we are invited to consider that human flourishing is not about what we do—it’s not about our capacity to read enough Scripture or do enough good. It’s about opening ourselves to take on the life of Christ as an affirmation of the beautiful, God-imaged people we were created to be.

Chelle: “There’s something about the Christian life that invites us into our deep vulnerability and inability to deal with everything that comes our way. We tend, especially in the Protestant West, to focus so much on our sin. But regardless of who we are, regardless of where we are, regardless of how silent we may feel because of our traumas and our abuses, God meets us in that very place. I think this is what this hymn tells us.”

Dan: “What if we were to accept that our labor is actually becoming human, our faithfulness is actually becoming human, and our sacrifice is becoming human. It really does turn the table on so much of what we have failed to hear and receive.”

Tune in next week as Dan is joined by Dr. Angela Parker, Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The Seattle School, to continue exploring intriguing Scriptures. And if you’d like to hear more from Chelle, don’t miss her series with Dan from earlier this year, “A Theology of Abuse.”