Here’s a great site putting the words of mainstream Christian figures into the mouth of Jesus. Pretty funny at first and then oh so very wrong pretty quickly after that. Politicians, pundits, pastors and more, each photo links to the article quoting the original speaker. Gives a bit of perspective to the things people say who claim to be speaking in his name.
I started blogging through the book of Matthew this year, reading and ruminating on who exactly this Jesus person is who showed up out of nowhere on the planet and conducted a whirlwind ministry of healing, spiritual teaching, controversy and subversion, then died publicly and miserably, coming alive again a few days later and thus launching a massive worldwide spiritual and sociological movement (which has also unfortunately veered into the political and the violent, among other regrettable mutations.) The blog isn’t public, so don’t waste your time googling it; it’s more an electronic journal of my journey through the narrative with as much of an unbiased approach as I can humanly muster. I’m too early in the book for any verdicts, though perhaps I’ll cross post some of my thoughts here sometime.
One thing that’s struck me about this approach is the freshness of encountering this narrative from somewhat of an outsider’s perspective. It’s an easy thing for me to interact with the Bible through the lens of contemporary Christian culture, from the inside, as I’ve spent most of my life in it. But it’s also easy because contemporary Christian culture tends to speak from the inside to those on the inside. We’ve gotten much better in recent decades, at least many circles of Christianity, at broadening our scope and speaking and acting inclusively, or more specifically with broader regard for other perspectives and value systems. At least I think so. But I also think that Christians are still by and large perceived by others as speaking a message from the inside either to those on the inside, or those they hope will be on the inside. I read an article recently on Jim Henderson, a Christian and former pastor who conducted interviews with atheists on Christianity and church services trying to find out how we all come across.
“Many Evangelicals “are obsessed with conversion,” he says, and always speak of non-Christians as “lost.” The interviews show Christians immersed in their own culture and how that sounds to the people they approach.”…”Christians for quite some time have been creating events and trying to draw people into our little box, and we call that ‘outreach,’ ” he says. “This is an exciting opportunity – people are opening, listening, and seeking out spiritual things.”
It’s that sort of opportunity that has intrigued me lately. I don’t have a whole lot of personal stock in how a particular church service comes across perhaps, but what do people think of Jesus who don’t follow him? I can cite all sorts of popular Christian rationality as to why the Bible is the inspired word of God, and Jesus is the Son of God, and while on the one hand I don’t disbelieve them, on the other hand I wonder again how much is insider speak, and how they come across. I’ve had many engaging and enjoyable conversations about faith and the meaning of life (among other savory topics) with an atheist friend over the last few years which has also helped to whet my appetite for more conversations of this sort. When I look further though it seems this combination of civility and honesty is hard to come by in discussions about faith and religion. I could easily link to some examples but to do that would essentially be inviting you to waste your time. There is no scarcity of loud pontifications from both sides, with carefully constructed arguments and rebuttals, but even those that stick to intellectual and rational lines of thought and refrain from outright dismissal and name-calling still come across to me as lacking something essential – namely the faculty of listening and addressing the opposite perspective with respect for its own terms, or discovering perhaps what those terms are. This is the fundamental disconnect I’ve observed in most debates and arguments around faith.
Perhaps my conversations with my friend have spoiled me, but I have yet to find constructive dialogs of this kind on the web – not a string of message deliveries by agenda-pushers but conversations with open terms and a disposition towards listening and learning. I think like Jim Henderson and his conversation partners we all would benefit from getting to know someone from the other side.
There are many folks out there who are dropping associations with Christianity as much as possible and using other labels or identifiers, like “follower of Jesus”. Lately I’ve been one of them. It’s a simple and surface-level way to dissociate myself from the evils and cultural crap associated with Christianity as a religion. Certain people and groups have made themselves de facto authorities and spokesmen in our culture for Christianity, the voice of the religion to the country. I can’t say I identify with many of them. Rush Limbaugh, the late Jerry Falwell, George W., Fred Phelps, and all those people who bomb clinics and pray at the gas pump. These are the more extreme, perhaps; these are also the most visible. Or Joel Osteen, The Pope, or any other national Christian figurehead for that matter. Also not folks whose faith I particularly identify with. Anyone heard of John Eldredge? Michael Spencer? Dave Schmelzer? These are people in the public sphere whom I would perhaps trust more to speak for my faith.
And yet as I was recently reminded, dissociation isn’t quite enough. Changing my language in order to say I am not like them is on the one hand only changing language, and on the other hand only an implied disapproval of them. It doesn’t do much beyond perhaps prompting someone to ask why. The Christian faith, as has been true in one form or another throughout its history, has been co-opted for other means by those who presume to represent it to the world while those who perhaps better represent the life of Jesus are silenced, or maybe just silent, and protest mostly by example if at all.
I had an exchange a while ago with a friend of mine who is an atheist, who himself was frustrated with this dynamic in modern American Christianity. “It is sad to me,” he said, “that people, who outnumber the enemy I think, give in rather than stand up for what is right. What I seldom see is public outcry by Christians against this co-opting. It is my hope that rather than run/hide/rename that more Christians would protest, fight, take back what they see as the tenets of the religion.”
He understands the personal and social values of Christianity, and agrees with many of them in principle, if not with the spiritual claims of the Bible. He might even agree with me when I say there is a need in the world for the sort of love and sacrificial lifestyle Jesus demonstrated. Not that the world needs conversion to Christendom – we’ve seen how that went over. But that there is something powerful and necessary in the life and teachings of Jesus that satisfies a need in humans at large.
It’s probably worth saying at this point that most churches and ministries and Christian communities would say this is what they are about – in one form or another demonstrating to the world the life of Jesus and teaching others to do the same. But is this what the church in general is known for, at least in Western culture? Are churches the places that people go looking for help and support in their deeper needs, and growth and empowerment in their lives? Perhaps those who grew up in the church. And many of them are looking elsewhere lately.
What message then are churches sending? What do people – again, people in Western culture on these terms – think of when they think of Christianity? Or Christians? Rush Limbaugh & co.? At the very least the general hypocrisy of Christianity is glaring. Those who get the most press seem typically to be the ones resisting, categorizing and generalizing, or worse, condemning, attacking, or murdering. “Are people fighting back against them?” My friend asked me. ” Is this a concern in the modern movements?” Actually, no. Not with any visibility at least. And of course there can be a fine line between genuinely protesting the hypocritical co-opting of the faith and becoming another internet watchdog calling foul at every latest outrage from someone who is clearly less Christian than them. That of course is not what I’m thinking of here. I’m thinking of the gap between what the church is and what it could be, to put it broadly.
Culturally modern churches have taken the cool and laid back approach. Come, have coffee, let’s hang out. Which I think is pretty helpful. People need Christians to put down their guns, so to speak. My friend had a different take on it though, which frankly floored me.
“The people at your church are marketers – they want to sell me, don’t just send me a postcard about music and a good time, send me one that says I am a Christian and I don’t kill doctors. Make it very pointed. I am a Christian and I am not so stupid I think Obama is an Islamic terrorist. I am a Christian and my Christ preached love, not shooting at holocaust museums. I am tired of getting happy feel good letters and postcards – Come visit us. I want to see where they stand. I want to see them take a stand.”
The church that would send his sort of postcard probably is not the church for everyone. Then again, who would that church attract? What kind of people would walk through the doors of a church that marketed themselves like that? Troublemakers, boat rockers, idealists, activists, and thinkers. Better still, what kind of Christians would speak of themselves that way? Or live like that?
Here’s one, for starters. A Georgia pastor who has offered to take in any and all unwanted infants. Are there others?
“If only we men weren’t such junkies for risk and success, if only we weren’t so aggressive, if only we could reign in our sex drives, if only we were more like women, the world would be a much better place, right?”
photo credit: redbubble.com
My five-year-old niece sang this one to me this evening, complete with fist-pumping choreography:
You shake me
You break me
You make me again
And while my first reaction of course was to say something like, “Wow, good job, what a fun song” or some other affirming sort of schlock, my inner reaction was – Does she have any idea what she’s singing?? Do kids this age really get explained to them the humiliation and utter destruction that God brings into the lives of people who are serious about following him? Did her Vacation Bible School teachers really get into the personal cost of believing in someone who is powerful and unshakable, and who has an intentional hand in our lives? How if this is really what we believe, and not just something we say to certain people at certain times when it’s safe or socially acceptable, our lives are for all other purposes forfeit?
“OK children, once we’ve all affixed our flies and boils onto our felt Job figures, let’s recite our memory verse for the day. Repeat after me: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…”
I don’t think I would have been any more appalled had she dropped an F-bomb and pumped her hips.
In this interesting post, pastors Dave Schmelzer and Charles Park propose that the emergent movement, while currently very effective and relevant, is by its nature reaching primarily a transient population that will eventually disappear, leaving emergent-oriented churches high and dry, so to speak. The observation is essentially that the emergent movement is most attractive to the currently high volume of people leaving the church, rather than the growing population of unchurched folks, with its message, “we’re not your father’s church”, or in other words, we do church more authentically, or with more relevance, or effectiveness, and so on. It stands to reason though that eventually this outflow will stabilize as people settle out into whatever church or unchurch they choose, and the population of folks looking for what emergents uniquely offer will more or less dry up.
Now I’m all for the emergent movement, and certainly gravitated in recent years toward the values it espouses and general culture of faith it promotes. And I’m certainly not up on all the nuances and distinctions of what the emergent movement is or isn’t (what’s emergent vs. emerging, for example?). So I’m not looking for predictions or pronouncements on this question. But criticism and bickering aside about the supposed validity or theological soundness of emergent’s aforementioned nuances and distinctions, this is the first sound proposition I’ve heard that emergent is a passing phase, though one currently seeming to hit its stride.
What do you think? Are Dave and Charles’ assessments omitting something important? Or is emergent the right thing for right now, but not so much for, say, 25 years from now?