Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I'm not religious...I just love the Lord.

This is a line that I've seen floating around Evangelical circles in some way, shape or form since I was a kid. I think it basically means: "We love Jesus but we acknowledge that sometimes religious people have done things that are an embarrassment to our um...their religion." Anyway, that line has been floating around at least since the 70's but the Emergent Evangelicals are having their own go at is if it's something they just discovered.

I always feel bad for the Emergents, (you know Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and that guy who wrote "Blue Like Jazz").  I mean I get what they're reacting to. Somewhere in the last couple of decades American Evangelicalism seems to have reached it's zenith. Of course, this is debatable but certainly there has been a surge of Evangelical influence in the near recent past and the Emergents were not impressed. Or, if they were impressed, they also experienced a let-down. Some of their criticisms are well placed. It's just that they're wrong about what they propose as far as how to fix things.

Another Emergent, Jim Palmer, prescribes 25 Reasons Why It Is Time For A Religion-Free Bible.
However, I really think Palmer's take really begs a few questions, (which I responded with in red).
1. The Bible is not a religious book.
Question: What sort of book is it then?
History? Allegory? Philosophy? Literature? Poetry? Is the Bible only one of these without being simultaneously something else? Does the Bible always refrain from becoming "religious?" Leviticus for example, has a great deal of specific prescriptions for religious practice. Does Leviticus avoid the religious somehow?
2. The story of the Bible has value for all of humankind, regardless of your religious tradition or no religion at all.
Question: Does anyone within Christianity actually disagree with this?
3. The Bible is not owned by any particular sect of people, including institutional Christianity; the Bible is a spiritual resource for all people.
Question:  Wasn't the Old Testament first directed to, from and about the Hebrews or the Jewish sect?  I get what you're trying to say, (I think), but in opening up the Scriptures to anyone who can bear them, must you artificially divorce the Scriptures from their historical origin? If you read the Bible outside the context of it's Jewish origins you're going to be quite handicapped in your understanding of it. So why the cultural, (or even sectarian), divorce?
4. The voice of the Bible deserves to be heard, unshackled from the repressive spin often imposed upon it.
Question: Can you be specific about the repressive spin? Am I supposed to know what you're referring to here? Can you be less broad in your indictment here?
5. Contrary to what “they” say, there is more than one way to read, interpret, and understand the Bible.
Question: Is there any wrong way to read, interpret and understand the Bible? Do we need any guidance in how we read, interpret and understand the Bible? Should we be seeking that guidance from you? From someone else? You do realize that in making this statement your are claiming a position for dolling out instruction on how to interpret the Bible?
6. People need to know that the destructive and oppressive ideas they carry about God as a result of their involvement with religion are not truly “biblical.”
Question: So there is such a thing a truly "biblical" standard then?
7. In the hands of the people, the Bible can be an instrument of love, beauty, peace, acceptance and harmony in the world.
Question: Which people? Is it possible that the Bible ever becomes an instrument of chaos in the hands of the "people" as well?
8. Humankind needs permission to walk away from the lie we learned about ourselves that we are bad, not good enough, unacceptable to God, and something is wrong with us.
Question: If something is not wrong with me, why do I do bad things to others? Is it possible that you are lumping too many things in together in your statement here? I mean, is it possible that something is wrong with us, but that God still simultaneously loves us?
9. Women need to be restored to their place of sacred significance that religion stripped from them.
Question: Restored? Can you point to the time in which women were at their proper place of sacred significance? How and where has religion stripped women of their place of sacred significance? What is that place of sacred significance? Quite pointedly, is it possible that a place of sacred significance might look very similar to that which is occupied by the Blessed Mother in Catholicism's art, theology and spiritual direction as role model for both men and women? Or is it something else?
10. The Bible can be a profound inspiration for art in every form.
Question: How is this other than stating the obvious? Have you ever heard of the Sistine Chapel? (I've tipped my hand here, haven't I?) Also, what about crappy forms of art? You don't think that the Bible is really an inspiration for that do you? I mean plenty of Christians make crappy art and say it's inspired by the Bible...is it really?
11. The separation between people because of religious differences needs to be dissolved.
Question: How do you propose that we do that? Also, what about the differences between people that arise outside of religion? Should those differences also be dissolved? Is it possible that some of those difference are good and should remain? Is it possible that we can have cultural, ethnic and personal differences while we simultaneously share a common religious bond? You imply that religion has divided people but is it possible that it has also brought vastly diverse peoples together?
12. God should not be the motivation or rationale for hatred, violence, oppression and prejudice.
Question: When is God EVER truly the motivation or rational for hatred, violence, oppression and  prejudice?
13. There are a myriad of options between Fundamentalist and Atheist.
Question: Which option in that myriad is right? Are we right as long as we're not a Fundamentalist or an Atheist? Do you know any actual Fundamentalists or actual Atheists? For that matter, why not be a Fundamentalist...or an Atheist?
14. Every human being needs to know of their inherent divine worth.
Question: Who disagrees with that? Isn't that an age old tenant of religion?
15. It’s time to stop arguing about God, and start expressing the reality of the kingdom of God.
Question: Aren't you making an argument here? What if I disagree with your propisitions about God and the kingdom? Should I just be silent and go along with you just so that we do not disagree? Isn't it possible to have an argument that isn't a quarrel? Otherwise, what expression of the kingdom of God would you dictate to us? Is it perhaps time for people to stop quarreling so that they can actually start making decent arguments?
16. No human being regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or culture should be denied their status as a card-carrying beloved child of God.
Question: Again, who disagrees with that? Isn't that an age old tenant of religion?
17. Jesus could not and would not subscribe to what is often passed off as “biblical teaching.”
Question: Um...actually. No question here. I wholeheartedly agree.
18. You don’t need an MDiv or PhD in theology to embrace the simple but profound message of the Bible.
Question: Is there anything to be gained from dedicated, (and yes academic), study of theology and the scriptures? How do we understand the Bible? Especially the confusing parts like Daniel and Revelation, (and many of the words of Christ for that matter)?
19. There is no line between “sacred” and “secular.”
Question: Are sacred and secular the same thing then? That would be news to me. I wonder, (and here I am again leading the witness), do you really mean that the call of the people of God, (those who seek authentic religion), the call is to draw the secular to the sacred? To work towards a marriage of the two. Is that what you are trying to say?
20. Humankind is not separated from and condemned by God.
Question: Why do I still do bad things that I know God could not approve of? And really, let's be honest, what about rape? Do you mean that humankind that rapes and kills does not separate itself from God?
21. The world is not hopeless or too far gone to be transformed by love.
Question: What religion says that? Certainly not the Christian religion?
22. Our humanity is not the enemy or the obstacle to overcome.
Question: Again, does the Christian religion say otherwise? Doesn't the Christian religion make the unique claim that God became human?
23. Because everyday people are suffering unnecessarily because of ideas they’ve learned about God, themselves, life, and others.
Question: Is that suffering due to inauthentic religion, or just religion in general?
24. Our diversity as humankind is powerful and beautiful.
Question: Again, does the Christian religion say otherwise?
25. God has no religion.
No Question here, well a question in which I will just give the answer as well: What does God have then if he has no religion? God has Himself.  

So honestly, I've just got to say that I've always thought the whole Emergent Church things comes off as sophomoric and is palpably disingenuous.   

Ever notice how so much of the way evangelical churches, (and yes that goes for you too Emergents),  advertise themselves these days goes like this: 
  "We're not like a regular church. We're a cool church."

Who are you kidding? And who is really fooled by this stuff? I'll tell you who. Pretty much people who are already Christians long enough to have been disillusioned by other Christians.

It's a temptation here for me to presume that Palmer is trying to be edgy or radical. However, it's my responsibility to read him in good faith, to assume that he's genuinely trying to strike out and hit the truth of things. Maybe he really thinks he is opening up the Bible to people by flipping their assumptions around. But if that's the case, which people and which assumptions? Who is his intended audience? Protestant Envangelicals? Well, a lot of them already agree with him on a lot of these points. He does something or other for a living that most Americans would call...well, religious, but Palmer tries very hard to disassociate himself from that label. The guy writes about Church, Christians, God and other religious stuff, but he's not a religious guy, if you ask him anyway. His background apparently involved pastoring a mega-Church and he hit a time of personal crisis in that venture. I suppose that due to that crisis he was able to have some perspective on how some of what he was doing and working towards was really a bit hollow. He looks at a lot of his pastoral work and religious work and wants to point folks towards something more authentic. I think the best version of what Palmer is shooting for might be this: We need to follow Jesus as He leads us, by His Spirit, on a step-by-step basis.

I can relate to a lot of where Palmer is coming from. I grew up as a pastor's kids in an Evangelical home. My family and a large part of my extended family all experienced a significant encounter with Christ sometime in the late 70's and many subsequently went and devoted themselves to full time efforts in what be called "ministry." Later on, my wife and I also had a dynamic encounter with Christ in our formative years and we also had plans to respond by going out and living a life oriented towards some sort of evangelical ministry. We have had many friends that we have formed strong bonds with due to a shared encounter with Christ. Many of them have also sought to give a great deal of their lives to some form of evangelical ministry. Almost without exception, ever one of them has hit a wall in those ministry efforts. Some walls have been more devastating than others. Some walls have been in the form of intellectual dismay, or emotional exhaustion,  or loss of friendships and outright personal betrayal. Some walls have brought a loss of livelihoods and a tarnishing of reputation. Some walls, like Palmer's, have even torn marriages apart. I really can't think of anyone I know who is involved in this sort of evangelical ministry who has escaped having their face smashed into a solid structure of disappointment. I suppose you could say that sometimes the ministry disappointments involved a perpetrator that seems to only inflict the damage and yet walk away unscathed. The perps, those megalomaniacal, (or just even subtly controlling or manipulative), personalities who loudly  demand or stealthy wrench control of ministry operations so as to point them in the direction of their own interests. But really, even the perps suffer a wound, whether acknowledged or not. Often the disillusioned are those that encountered a perp only to eventually discover that they were repulsed by the perp because they themselves were also perpetuating the power plays and ministry grabs. Again, Palmer's criticisms are well placed. I understand the dismay, the let downs and the sense of utter loss when you seem to have come to the end of things. 

The ministry is now a bust. You have hit bottom. You've either been thrown out or there is something destructive going on. When you get to end of things you really only have a few options - staying put and slugging it out is not one of them. You really only have the following:
  • Screw everything: You can give up on the faith altogether, rejecting Christ and the faith as having any lasting value or meaning. You tried it. It was a bust. The people suck and God let you down. Screw 'em all.
  • Try again but this time go for a different flavor: You know that Christ came to save people that need saving and those include people in the Church. So you simply go find a new ministry in the form of a different church or "fellowship." This may be in the form of a different denomination, different "fellowship" or a different para-church effort.
  • Invent your own church. Well, over 40,000 attempts have been made at this one - all in the last 500 years. However, Palmer and the Emergent's are taking a bit of different tack on this. It could be called invent your own non-church. Reject religion but embrace Christ. How does one do that? Well, Palmer offers his spiritual direction, (remember, he's not religious so spirituality is fine here). Lots of other Emergents have published their books and started their own ministries as well. They all offer lots of guidance on how to think about God and the Bible. Is it lost on Palmer that much of his 25 Reasons involves following his guidance on how to interpret scripture? In fact Palmer goes so far as to advise people to embrace or at least tolerate heresy, (at least his particular heresies which I guess he thinks God is ok with, which is weird and makes me think that he doesn't really understand what heresy is, even after getting a Masters of Divinity). How is that not religious instruction? Also, I really do wonder how long they expect to avoid the same pitfalls that they decry in other churches that were also, not to long ago, new and radical.
  • Convert to Catholicism.
 I want to say so much more about that last bullet. It requires a book really and not a blog post. At least for now. So I'm just going to let it stand...except for this. I  have described some of the personal dismay that comes with ministry betrayal, let down and exhaustion. It is only right that I disclose that Catholicism has plenty of bad Catholics, (many of them self-proclaimed bad Catholics) who will provide plenty of opportunity for betrayal, let down and exhaustion. Don't believe me? Open any newspaper from any given major city on any given day. In addition to the normal, small and petty disappointments that go on every day, Catholics make front page news with their big personality let downs.  I have plenty more to say on that subject but for now, I'll just note that fairness dictates that I acknowledge that Catholic life is not immune from personal letdown. The rest I will just have to leave for another day.

Back to the evangelical lexicon of relationship vs. religion.  I always wonder when I hear folks make that distinction. Is this a substantive rejection of some component of the faith or is it a misunderstanding of what Christ is a calling us to or is it merely using semantics to reminds folks to get back to the basics of the faith? But it can't be a call back to the basics if you end up agreeing that the Church needs more heretics? If you don't buy the faith, just be honest about it. I have much more respect for someone who takes a "screw it, I'm done" stance than someone who takes a "maybe I'm smart enough to tweak this whole Christianity thing" stance.

Still, I do agree with the Emergents, (and really all frustrated Christians), in this:
We are all, in general, quite bad at our religion. 
 However, that doesn't mean that we need less religion or more heresy. What it may mean is that we need more religion. If there is no religion, there is just the self. If there is heresy there is tyranny. The self, when left to itself is a repressive bore. Tyrants often look compelling at first, particularly when they promise a cure for what ails us, but in the end they are worse oppressors than any normal, rote frustration. So given the end game of boredom, frustration and oppression, we might consider that perhaps it is authentic religion; the thing that we rightly fear, that is also the only thing with enough weight to merit our allegiance. As GK Chesterton so beautifully describes...
"This is the thrilling romance of orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy."
We could reject religion. But wouldn't it be bolder and braver and more of a "thrilling romance" to embrace orthodoxy, that is, religion in it's unadulterated authenticity? Nothing less will suffice.

UPDATE June 12, 2013: Good grief...and now there is this http://www.psypost.org/2013/06/spiritual-young-people-more-likely-to-commit-crimes-than-religious-ones-18416?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter Who needs anxiety and crime? Hey Christians, Christianity IS a religion. Own it!!! Or rather, go ahead and be owned by it instead of trying to pretend like you are not something that everyone knows you are.

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