Rachel Held Evans: Improvisation Done Well

The news of the death of Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans at age 37, Saturday morning, left me shaken. Sudden deaths of young people always leave us with more questions than answers and challenge our belief systems. I did not know Rachel personally, yet I found a profound personal loss in her passing that I have yet to understand. Perhaps because I lost my son when he was only 19. I know all too well the sense of hopelessness and inability to make sense of a loved one dying young. Perhaps it is because another bit of my certitude died Saturday morning. Her spiritual journey, while not identical to mine, was similar enough that I felt a kindred relationship.

A few days have passed now, and I am beginning to be able to talk about Rachel and read her final book—Inspired. (I just learned of another book to be posthumously released).  In the introduction of her book Rachel refers to New Testament scholar N. T. Wright’s description of the Bible stories as a “five act play” in which we are asked to participate. Rather than reading from a script that gives us our lines, the participants are asked to enter into the story and “improvise the unfinished, final act.” 1 “Our ability to faithfully execute our roles in the drama depends on our willingness to enter the narrative, he said, to see how our own stories intersect with the grander epic of God’s redemption of the world.” 2

With Rachel Held Evans we got a glimpse of what it means to faithfully question scripture: a series of stories, poems and letters, that invites us in to add our story to the greater story. Like myself, Rachel struggled with scripture like Jacob wrestling with God. As Rachel herself said: “If I’ve learned anything from thirty-five years of doubt and belief, it’s that faith is not passive intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It’s a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, all-night-long struggle, and sometimes you have to demand your blessing rather than wait around for it.” 3

The Bible is full of stories that draw us in and provoke thoughtful and even disturbing questions; is God with us? Does God care? Will He abandon us? Does He commit genocide? Does He feel our suffering? Does He care about justice? Those who understand the narrative, understand that they are to be a part of the answers, and jump in to act out their part in the play. Rachel Held Evans, you threw yourself whole-heartedly into the play, and have shown countless others including myself how to improvise well. Thank you for your faithfulness and courage. The world is a better place for having known you.

1 N. T. Wright, “How Can the Bible be Authoritative?”

2 Rachel Held Evans, “Inspired,” p. XX.

3 Ibid., p. 28.

An Easter Service That Missed the Mark

So, Easter 2019 has come and gone, and it couldn’t have been more awkward or spiritually depressing. I was too disturbed emotionally to post an uplifting Easter message on my blog, so I shared one from another blog: Letters to the Next Generation which I had found inspiring. My wife and I take my 94 year old mother to her Assemblies of God church, the denomination I had been raised in, every Sunday. As I have “deconstructed” my belief system over the past half dozen years I have come to realize that my faith has become at odds with that tribe’s belief system and have been looking for a “graceful” way to transition to a more open, affirming church, but in the meantime…we are kind of stuck with things the way they are.

As usual, the worship portion of the service was vibrant and uplifting, as is befitting a Pentecostal service. Unfortunately, the sermon was anything but. The pastor is a good man and means well. He has all the pieces of the puzzle, as do many evangelicals, but doesn’t seem to realize how the pieces are supposed to fit. He follows the same tired pattern of fitting the pieces together that Bible School has taught him, ignoring the solutions that don’t fit the evangelical dispensational narrative and forcing pieces together that don’t quite fit.

He started with some humorous antidotes and pictures from his recent trip to the Holy Land, a sort of Mecca for evangelicals. He remarked on the serine beauty and foliage surrounding the purported tomb of Jesus and pointed out the emptiness of the tomb and the promise of life rather than death it and the surroundings denoted. So far so good… Then the sermon took a turn: he started comparing other religions to Christianity. He tried to spin things so that it appeared he was taking, not about Christianity as a religion, but a relationship, but in evangelicalism “relationship with Jesus” ALWAYS means “religion,” belief in certain orthodox doctrines. So his attempts at painting other religions as man’s attempts to reach God, and Christianity as true “relationship,” sounded hollow.

Then he expounded on a frequent hot button issue recently, and a big factor in the Religious Rights war on society: inclusivity. In describing salvation he likened other religions and those outside traditional Christianity to Little League players who receive “participation trophies.” In his mind’s eye there should only be winners and losers. Participation trophies are for losers. As in all evangelical churches I’ve come across, evangelicals are the winning team of course, while all else earn a place in hell, no matter how good their intentions or how sincere the effort. This obsession with declaring who the losers are permeates much of evangelical teaching and in my opinion weakens the atonement and declares the Cross a failure.

In building his argument he used the usual scripture: “no man comes to the Father but by me,” John 14:6, to be interpreted as exclusive rather than a declaration of what God has done through Christ for ALL. Oddly, he quoted Jesus’ words from the Cross: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Luke 23:34, as showing what great love God has for us, yet didn’t see the correlation between the two different verses. This is what I mean by evangelicals have all the pieces to the puzzle, but don’t know how to fit them together. How can Jesus’ request to the Father be sincere if God’s love is conditional? Did God then say, “sorry Son, I know you mean well, but only a few will be forgiven?” The request becomes entirely rhetorical and utterly meaningless in evangelical teaching. And, of course, it puts Jesus at odds with the Father, another problem altogether.

Without getting into the early church teaching on Universal Reconciliation, which was the default for almost 500 years, I will say that Jesus IS the means by which all will be saved, and it is ONLY through Him that the Father has accomplished that, and that ALL will eventually declare Him Lord, and every knee shall bow Philippians 2:10-11. This is not a forced obeisance, a powerful overlord demanding worship from the vanquished, as some evangelicals believe, but the accomplishment of the fruition of the Coming Age, when YHWH is declared Lord of all. The evangelical God is too petty, too vindictive and to tribal to be Lord of All.

So in conclusion, a missed opportunity, a service that did not provide hope and was more bad news than Good News. A sermon that predictably followed the usual confirmation biases and settled for “alternate facts,” having the pieces but not following the picture on the box cover. So close, yet so far.

Ps. I don’t think I have stressed strongly enough the implications the pastor was suggesting in his attack or critique of “inclusivity.” In the “culture war” that the Religious Right has been waging, a war that has its roots in the antebellum South, the resistance to inclusivity has strong racial and sexual overtones. Although the sermon weaponized the Bible against people who fell outside evangelical conventions, historically evangelical exclusivity has been used to exclude, not just those of other religions, but women, minorities, entire races (other than Whites), and people of non-binary sexual inclinations. It is a White, patriarchal dog-whistle that divides, rather than unites people.

While I am sure that the good pastor was not intentionally implying those exclusions: most White evangelicals are oblivious to their subconscious biases, it was there, nonetheless. The problem with the whole winner-loser approach of evangelicalism is that it totally misses the point of Jesus’ interactions with women, Samaritans, sinners, outsiders and the Romans themselves. Jesus was very inclusive…it disturbed the leadership of Second Temple Judaism deeply, and like the frustrations of evangelicals with inclusivity today, brought Jesus into direct conflict with the religious leadership of Jesus’ day.

A point I hear raised repeatedly by evangelicals I interact with online, is the belief that Jesus was religiously conservative. I firmly believe, had he been so, he would have fit in nicely with the Pharisees and Sadducees of his day. He would have sided with one on some topics and the other on other topics. He would have simply been just another rabbi arguing the finer points of the Law of Moses. But he was not. His teaching was a shot across the bow of Second Temple Judaism, a call for religious conservatives to repent. I wish evangelicals could see the Pharisee within their ranks.

Sunday Meditations: O Death

Some great thoughts here. Just had to reblog it. Very candid and refreshing, especially after attending a rather dissatisfactory Easter service at an Evangelical church today which left me feeling uneasy and a bit disturbed.

Letters to the Next Creation

O, Death
O, Death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year?

– “A Conversation with Death,” Lloyd Chandler

For as long as I can remember, I knew what would happen to me when I died.

When I was very young, I knew that, when I died, my spirit would go to Heaven where I would live forever in a paradise that was as varied as there were inhabitants.  One of my pastors talked about rooms full of banana pudding.

When I became older, Calvinistic, and more dour, I traded the rooms of banana pudding for the new heavens and earth.  With some help from N.T. Wright, I adjusted my focus to a bodily resurrection into a new earth, although my concept of what that would look like didn’t differ too much from Heaven.  What happens immediately after death became more of a mystery to me and, ultimately, not very…

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Finding God’s Purpose for Your Life

Recently proudly posted on a family member’s Facebook timeline was a story entitled: “THEY GAVE ME THE MIDDLE FINGER AT THE ALTAR,” by Jeremiah Johnson. In it Mr. Johnson told the story of a engaged young couple that came up front to be blessed before marriage (honestly I don’t know what that’s all about, but it must be something done at his church). In a moment of (I’m sure of pure wisdom), the Pastor asked if the couple we’re sleeping together. Basically he read them the riot act about God’s condemnation of them in their sin. Slut-shamed, they fled the church, giving him the finger as they ran out.

Just a few days earlier, the same family member posted a meme about the first slaves on American soil being 100 Irish children. A simple Google search and visit to Scopes, of course, proved it to be a reoccurring post started by White Supremacists to discredit Black slavery in the US. My family member didn’t think to check if it were true or not because they came from a background of White privilege. 

I love all my family members, but so many are evangelical “Trump,” Fox News Christians. And, of course, post things about the wall, immigrants, etc.  It makes me very sad. I attend (for now), an evangelical church, which has a discipleship program (as many do), to learn your “purpose” in life. Finding “God’s purpose for your life” seems to be a popular theme in evangelical circles, especially Pentecostal ones.  Books have been written about it. The teaching is usually geared to fill Sunday school teaching positions, welcome desk and greeters. But God’s purpose is clearly outlined in Jesus’ teaching: love God, love your neighbor, love your enemies. It’s that simple. Love abundantly, extravagantly and unconditionally.

The problem with evangelicalism is there is so many exceptions and strings attached to loving.   

Pete Buttigieg and the Church’s Need for Repentance

I found a good article on Pete Buttigieg‘s run for the Presidency that has come up on Patheos:

(https://www.patheos.com/blogs/shanephipps/2019/03/31/pete-buttigieg-puts-conservative-christianity-on-damascus-road/)

I agree with the author’s general assessment, that Buttigieg’s run will be interesting. It highlights an interesting intersection of non-binary sexuality and progressivism, both political and religious. How contentious the Religious Right makes it, remains to be seen. Some of the more conservative commentators there have suggested that the Gay rights movement has reached a sort of critical mass, and is pushed on us everywhere. That being Gay will be secondary to what Buttigieg’s political agenda is. I would like to think so, that the conservative church is tired of attacking Gays for being Gay, but I have my doubts.

I agree, especially in light of the Religious Right’s adoption of a grossly immoral man as their choice to lead our country, that Buttigieg’s sexual orientation should be of little concern to them, or anyone for that matter, and they should give the same “pass” to Buttigieg that they have afforded the Adulterer in Chief, but I am not taking bets on it.

Western Christianity is changing, and that is concerning to the “old guard:” the Religious Right. The change primarily centers around, not the Bible as much as the collapse of Christendom: the old collusion of Church and State that gave the Church so much power over the direction society was going. Conservative Christianity in the West is still grasping for power, not realizing that the path to the Kingdom of God is not found in power. Historically, the ability to control the actions of the citizens of the State has been a hallmark of Christianity in the West: a blend of imperialism, nationalism and religion. 

And, of course, the hot buttons for the Right have centered predictably around “control” issues: control of other’s sexual behaviors, control of women’s bodies and control of minorities: the foreigner or strangers in our midst. In order to maintain control distance needs to be created between the “controllers” and those they wish to control. This is accomplished by enforcing an obsession with the “rules” of inclusion in the controlling group. This is usually referred to as “orthodoxy:” right belief. And, predictably, orthodoxy is defined by the “winning” or controlling group, in this case Western Christianity, which eventually “won” the battle and Eastern Orthodoxy did not, for a variety of reasons.

In the past, I have touched on what I feel is a gross misunderstanding of sin found among evangelicals, which is less about sin itself and its definition, and more about demanding repentance of the wrong individuals. It is the classic attempt to remove the speck of dust in one’s neighbor’s eye but not seeing clearly because of the log in one’s own eye. While we all sin (see Romans 5), as did Adam, one must remove the log first before attempting surgery on others.

If you look at the gospels as a whole, and how Jesus dealt with sin, he did not direct his calls for repentance to society as a whole. No, not the Romans, no matter how unjust or depraved that society was. Instead he concerned himself with Israel and Judaea’s need for repentance. It was primarily a call for the “church” of his day that the call went out to. The “unbelieving and perverse generation” Jesus refers to in Matthew 17:17 is the Religious hegemony of Second Temple Judaism, and their failure to step outside that comfortable bubble and be spiritually aware. The chapters preceding and following are all directed at this religious group. In chapter 15, he refers to them as blind guides, as concerned with exterior ritual and neglecting righteousness. Chapter 16 deals again with spiritual blindness, the inability to discern the “times:” that the religious elite couldn’t see what God was doing among Israel, and ultimately the Gentiles.

In chapter 17, Jesus begins to spell out the inevitable results of chastising organized religion: when cornered, religion that is in power will resort to violence rather than admit the need for repentance. In chapter 18, he is asked who is greatest in the Kingdom of God. Astonishingly it is not the influential, the powerful, those who know their doctrine, but it is the simplicity and powerlessness of a child that best represents “greatness” in the Kingdom. Of course this reflects the teachings on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 on who is “blessed” in the Kingdom. 

Historically the church has applied this admonishment of Jesus to repent as squarely applied to the Jews for their rejection of the Messiah. It has fueled antisemitism for nearly 2000 years, from about a century after Christ, through Martin Luther and his polemics, culminating in the holocaust. This is a total misrepresentation of Jesus’ criticism and who and what he was critiquing. He had compassion on Israel not hatred or contempt. But he was seriously concerned about the leadership of the Jews and, yes, their theology.

Jesus did things with scripture that show a certain disregard for the letter of the Law. Conservatives will often quote Matthew 5:17 “Don’t assume that I have come to destroy the Law or Prophets. I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill;” as though this makes Jesus more fastidious than the Pharisees. When you take a closer look at what Jesus quotes from scripture, and what he doesn’t, a different picture emerges. This also mirrors the difference between the evangelical and progressive approach towards the Bible. Let me explain.

When Jesus begins his public ministry, he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed Me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom to the captives and recover of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19. It is telling what he refuses to quote from that passage, in which Isaiah had continued to say, “and the day of our God’s vengeance…” There is a profound redirection of scripture that takes place in Jesus’ teachings on violence and hatred of enemies. Paul, who started out persecuting the nascent young church, catches the drift of Jesus’ teachings as well.

As Jacob M. Wright points out:

“Before his conversion, Paul had read his Bible and concluded that he should commit violence in God’s name. After his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul completely reassessed how to understand scripture, leading him to a radically different understanding.

IN ROMANS 15, for example, Paul quotes several scriptural passages to illustrate how Gentiles “may glorify God for his mercy” because of the gospel (verse 9). Highly significant is what Paul omits from these passages:

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy, as it is written: “I̶ ̶d̶e̶s̶t̶r̶o̶y̶e̶d̶ ̶m̶y̶ ̶f̶o̶e̶s̶.̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶c̶r̶i̶e̶d̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶e̶l̶p̶,̶ ̶b̶u̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶n̶o̶ ̶o̶n̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶s̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶m̶—̶t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶L̶O̶R̶D̶,̶ ̶b̶u̶t̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶d̶i̶d̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶a̶n̶s̶w̶e̶r̶ ̶.̶.̶.̶ ̶H̶e̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶G̶o̶d̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶a̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶s̶ ̶m̶e̶,̶ ̶w̶h̶o̶ ̶p̶u̶t̶s̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶G̶e̶n̶t̶i̶l̶e̶s̶ ̶u̶n̶d̶e̶r̶ ̶m̶e̶ ̶ … Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing hymns to your name.” [quoting Psalm 18:41–49]

Again, it says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people,f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶a̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶b̶l̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶s̶e̶r̶v̶a̶n̶t̶s̶;̶ ̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶t̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶v̶e̶n̶g̶e̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ ̶o̶n̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶e̶n̶e̶m̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶m̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶a̶t̶o̶n̶e̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶h̶i̶s̶ ̶l̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶.̶” [Deuteronomy 32:43]

Paul has removed the references to violence against Gentiles, and recontextualized these passages to instead declare God’s mercy in Christ for Gentiles. This constitutes a major redefinition of how salvation is conceived: Instead of salvation meaning God “delivering” the ancient Israelites from the hands of their enemies through military victory (as described in Psalm 18, above), Paul now understands salvation to mean the restoration of all people in Christ, including those same “enemy” Gentiles.

In Romans 12:19-21, Paul again quotes Deuteronomy 32, citing the Lord’s declaration “it is mine to avenge” to argue that we should not seek vengeance, but rather work to “overcome evil with good.” In its original context, however, this passage was a celebration of vengeance: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay … I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.” This passage, which originally advocated vengeance and violence, is now used to promote enemy love.

Remarking on this pattern in Paul, New Testament scholar Richard Hays once joked that Paul would have surely flunked a seminary class in exegesis. But, as Hays himself argues, Paul was in fact intimately familiar with the original context of these passages, as were his readers. This is no case of sloppy exegesis. Paul is deliberately reversing the meaning—turning the tables in order to provoke his audience.”

While Jewish leadership used scripture to justify hatred and violence of enemies, both Paul and Jesus were selective about what to use in scripture and what not. It was the difference between weaponizing scripture and disarming scripture. As the church gained more power after Constantine, it began to weaponize scripture as had the Jews. It is the difference between actively looking for scriptures to support violence and bigotry and looking for scriptures that do not. And this is where we are today. Jews have moved on, facing centuries of persecution they have wrestled with the violence in scripture and for the most part are defenders of the powerless, knowing what it is like to face oppression.

So here’s my main point of all this: the progressive movement in Christianity is a movement of repentance. As in my own experience, which is not terribly unique, progressives are merely Christians that have been convicted about their own implication in a religion that has hurt others. And it is centered, in large part, about what I have mentioned above: are we to use scripture to demonize or oppress others, one can find verses for that, or are we to go beyond that and follow Christ’s example? Are we to be comfortable and complacent in a church that has continued to be unrepentant, or are we to call the church to repentance?

And this is the major bone of contention between conservatives, those who look for “gotcha” passages and progressives that do not. Between those who see no need for repentance and those who, like the tax collector, cry, “have mercy on me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Will this be a “Damascus experience” for the church as Shane Phipps hopes? Will the church honestly address its homophobia, or see it simply as another sign that society is drifting further away from orthodoxy as defined by evangelicalism?

  https://www.facebook.com/673104386/posts/10156456213449387?sfns=mo

Church: Giving Answers to the Wrong Questions

I am reading Diana Butler Bass at the moment, “Christianity After Religion.” Tucked away in the midsection of the book is some profound statements that I believe are spot-on in describing why traditional Christianity badly misses the mark when it comes to making a connection with the concerns and needs of modern Western society. Both traditional Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism, and Catholicism start with a concept of man’s sinfulness, that we are somehow “bad” in our core, and need to rid ourselves of that core to be forgiven. Usually unspoken but inferred, is that we should feel badly about ourselves and repent of that “sinful nature.” Sin, then, is basically pride in ourselves and the refusal to admit that we are “sinful.”

I understand how the church arrived at that conclusion, based on the gospel narratives involving John the Baptist, and of course, Jesus’ calls for repentance. But the church, in its zeal to be true to scripture, has failed to understand or acknowledge that, while “the field may be ripe for harvest,” the disease affecting the crop has changed. Hubris is no longer the issue. There is a different kind of “lostness” that affects Western culture, and the church exacerbates the problem by preaching against the sin of pride.

What was shocking about both Jesus’ and John’s message is how it attacked the notion that the Jews were automatically “saved” because of their birthright: being Jewish. They had a leg-up over the Gentiles. They had superior knowledge that their enemies, the Romans, didn’t have. It was this hubris that John the Baptist, Jesus and, especially Paul riled against. It insulted those in power: the religious leadership of the first century. It attacked the very foundation of religiosity: that believing the right things made you superior to those that didn’t believe the right things.

It is why Jesus chose a Samaritan, who didn’t believe the right things, to illustrate what a loving neighbor looks like. Imagine how that hurt the Pharisees’ pride! Fast forward to the 21st century and some things have changed, some things haven’t. We still have religious Pharisees, those who “believe the right things,” who call others to repent of their pride, not realizing that it is they who are prideful. But, I will let Diana Butler Bass speak for herself:

  As Western society has been overtaken by faceless consumerism and seemingly uncontrolled technologies, do men still feel like gods? I doubt it.

    Instead, in the last fifty years, most Europeans and North Americans—male, female, gay, straight, transgender, black, white, brown—have most likely succumbed to the sins of ‘triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness,’ having lost any real sense of self in a world of broken memories, entertaining technologies, and frenzied materialism. Indeed, philosophers and popular observers alike have noted that many people are now reconstructing their sense of self through nostalgia or consumerism. Saiving’s description* of female sinfulness has come to represent much of the human condition. Thus, ‘Who am I?’ may well be the driving theological question of the day and the starting point for reflection on spirituality—that lived experience of God longed for by so many people in the once Christian West.

   If sin was once seen as a twisted, self-centered quest to become God, then salvation was deliverance from self in order to become other-centered. If the self is a problem, then the church’s job was to help people diminish the self and make room for God. Thus, salvation was freedom from ourselves, our humanity, and our ambitions. The church taught that anything self-driven was evil and shaped communal prayer, ritual, worship, and penance around stamping out our humanness and striving instead for divine ideals of goodness. In the West, Catholics and Protestants took different routes to the same end—Catholics emphasized confession, penance, and sacraments as a way out of the human dilemma; Protestants (depending on the sort of Protestant) emphasized right belief, reordered hearts, and moral action as the paths away from sin. Fundamentally, however, the outcome of salvation was the same: pushing back, replacing or burying our human nature in favor of submitting to a transcendent—and often distant—God.

   This, I suspect, is the root of many people’s anxiety about church—that religion is the purveyor of a sort of salvation that does not address their lived struggles. So those who once ‘believed’ in this sort of salvation migrate away from the church, seeking instead something they call spirituality.

   Pride and hubris do not particularly seem to be humanity’s problem at the moment—they began to erode when the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.

…Salvation is not being saved from ourselves, escaping some dreadful fate of judgement, damnation, and hellfire at the hands of a wrathful God; rather it is being saved to ourselves, finding what was lost and the joy of discovery in the hands of a loving Creator. Although the word ‘salvation’ has come to mean ‘eternal life’ in most religious circles, it is helpful to return to the word’s Latin root salvus, meaning ‘whole,’ ‘sound,’ ‘healed,’ ‘safe,’ ‘well,’ or ‘unharmed,’ as a way to understand the spirituality of salvation.”**

Understanding this, that as humans we have lost connection with ourselves, and each other, that there is an aching aloneness that pervades much of Western culture, the church would find connecting to the real needs of humanity and society much simpler. A simple illustration of this pertains to parenting. Is it effective to belittle a child with low self-esteem or is it wiser to to build them up, show them how much they are valued and loved? 

Ironically, the sin of hubris, while not a problem typical of Western society as a whole, does have a hold on the church. The danger inherent to any exclusionary social construct is that the included can feel “above” the excluded. Coupled with the belief that the church gets it right while everyone not in one’s particular religious click gets it wrong, only strengthens that conviction. Furthering the disconnect is the fact that people see beyond the facade, that those outside the church see that Christians are really no better than themselves, and the air of religious superiority is merely self-righteousness. The church would do well to understand that the gospel message of repentance and conviction of sin was largely leveled at the traditional religion of the first century. The message Jesus preached was, in large part, a deconstruction of status quo religiosity. The failure to see Jesus’ call of repentance as applicable to the institutional church is due, in large part, to the modern Western influence of “individualism,” the Western “sawdust trail.”

It is this over-emphasis on individual sinfulness that has blinded the church to its corporate sinfulness, explaining why it has been so hard for the church to see its own culpability in racism and sexual exploitation. Institutional religion is very difficult to reform from within. As we have seen in the SBC over the last few years, and more recently in the  UMC denomination, reform meets great resistance from those who rely on the “perks” their religion gives them, almost always at the expense of others. When individuals within the church see that it is all a power play, they leave, and those outside the church find their worst suspicions validated. Once seen for what it is, it cannot be unseen.

But the church cannot offer solutions to society until itself has repented. This is a core issue. Next, the church needs to understand what people need…what they are looking for. What they are lacking. Can the church meet that need? That people are broken is a given, but what is the fix? Simply quoting cherry-picked Bible verses about salvation no longer works. The way out of the situation is simple. Live Christ, be Christ, show Christ. I will further elaborate in a future post.

*Theologian Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View.”  

**Bass, pp. 181-183.

Has Christianity Outlived its Usefulness?

Has Christianity outlived its usefulness, or more to the point, is Christianity at all relevant any more in a post-modern world? Coming from an American evangelical background and graduating from an evangelical seminary, I could never have imagined I would even think these questions, let alone say them out loud. Traditional conservative Western forms of Christianity value conformity and certainty above doubt, which is seen as a lack of faith. Cognitive dissonance is to avoided at all costs. But what has been sacrificed on the altar of certainty is honesty and in the end, truth itself.

If you have followed my blog you know that the last half dozen years of my life have been a spiritual journey marked by a gradual deconstruction of what I had been taught about God, the church, the Kingdom of God and my place within the framework of a religion called Christianity. The seeds of my discontent actually go back much further, to my time in Bible School (Vanguard University, So. California) and deepening at Fuller Seminary, Pasadena California. Coming into contact with others holding more diverse views on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, a follower of the Way, creates all sorts of dissonance and raises questions about the status quo one was raised in.

I think, what we have seen in the last couple hundred years is the unraveling of Christendom: the marriage of church and state, which began with Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. By the end of the 19th century Christendom was dead in Europe replaced largely by secularism. The late 19th century in America saw a last attempt at reviving a Christianity that was in full cardiac arrest. The paddles of fundamentalism were applied to the heart of a church that was clogged with racism, nationalism and white exceptionalism. The trouble was and still is, the rest of the world has moved on, not caring whether the patient live or dies.

Like the writing on the wall seen by Belshazzar in the book of Daniel, the world has observed the church in action and found it wanting. The incongruity of a church that seeks to control other’s sexual desires and actions yet is plagued by sexual scandal itself, that has replaced spirituality and unconditional love with doctrinal certitude and litmus tests for inclusion, is now seen as the judgmental, bigoted and unloving organization that it really is.

This is not, on my part, a chastisement of individuals within the church, many who are wonderful people, but of the institutionalization of spirituality, the attempt to contain and control people in the name of religion. In her book, “Christianity After Religion,” Diana Butler Bass describes our post modern age as one of a spiritual quest, an awakening of spirituality. Less religious, in many ways, yes, but not necessarily less spiritual. For Bass and in others like Harvey Cox, what the world is experiencing is a new “spiritual awakening,” often devoid of historical religious trappings or taking a radical reinterpretation of what was past held to be immutable.

One of the major hurdles Christianity needs to overcome is its tribal nature. Religions sprung up as tribal deities were invoked as guardians, providers and for the fertility of crops and procreation. The Hebrew Scriptures are a good example of this phenomena. As such, tribal gods competed with each other and religions clashed, often violently. As tribes grew and became city states and eventually nations, the tribal spirit of competition and violence traveled along, largely unchanged. Religion was exclusionary by nature and was linked to “belonging” to a particular tribe or nation. Religion and state partnered in controlling the citizenry, enforcing religious laws. There often was no distinction between the secular and the religious.

Perhaps all of life is to be understood spiritually, and nothing, if done with understanding, is purely secular. But if all is spiritual then what do we make of the tribal competition of the world’s religions? What do we do with the almost immediate schisms that plagued Protestantism following the nailing of the 95 Thesis? Are we as spiritual beings, reflectors of God’s image to continue dividing ourselves into groups that have a “corner” on spiritual “truth?” Is spirituality to be defined by having that corner on religious doctrine?

And this leads into the second of what I believe to be a major shortcoming of the Church: the replacement of an encounter with the Divine with “knowing and defending the right views.” The Bible, for example, becomes a battleground, a bastion of facts and rules to be believed in, or your faith is in question. Without going down the rabbit hole of inerrancy that conservatives created a century and a half ago to combat liberalism, I will say that this particular theological framework, designed to take all the guessing out of Christianity, has pretty much nailed the lid of the coffin down on conservative evangelicalism. By forcing allegiance to this boondoggle of a belief system, severe damage has been done to the Christian faith in the West. Worse yet, it has engaged theologians in a worthless task of defending it instead of working on what manifesting the love of Christ in the world should actually look like.

The authoritarianism that comes from a literalist understanding of scripture, as I have pointed out in past posts, denies any meaningful reform within the conservative church, and puts it at odds with any progressive advancement or understanding in a postmodern society. Rather than a source of wisdom or a tome of spiritual truths, the Bible becomes a book (singular) of “facts.” Those “facts” are then marshaled to support the belief that Iron Age concepts of family life, governance and spirituality were meant to be adhered to today. This is why conservative churches practice subservience of women, why men try to control women’s bodies, why those churches obsess over sexual practices, have purity balls, support nationalism (racism in disguise) and abhor sexually non-binary people.

Finally, fundamentalism in Christianity, mirrors a broader movement of fundamentalism worldwide, both secular and religious. As progressivism gains more steam, the backlash has been immediate, and in places, severe. While evangelicalism declines in progressive societies like Europe, Canada and the US, it grows in Third World countries where totalitarian or fascist regimes give it sustenance. The recent resurgence in the US of a fearful, largely White conservative religious/political voting block represents one such example of the conservative backlash among modernist evangelicals trying to stem the tide of progressive reforms. It reflects the ancient belief that, like the Tower of Babel, races, peoples and nations are to be kept separate, humanity is not one, my nation is better than your nation, my race superior to your race. In short, it is an attempt to divide rather than unite. Because this is counter to the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus and because it is creates an unhealthy society, Christianity, as a religion, must ultimately fail for the good of humanity. A church that actually follows Jesus must rise instead. Will it?

Further reading:

Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass

The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox

Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray

Jesus Untangled, Keith Giles

Reformed and Always Reforming, Roger E. Olson