Reading Unvirtuous Abbey’s article on “Unicorn Theology” prompted a conversation with the Abbey via Twitter messages and got both the UA, the illustrious proprietors if this establishment and myself thinking. I have no desire to be harsh or peremptory, but I did want to offer a few thoughts in conversation with UV and 2F1F.
I should confess my biases. I grew up in the South where Christ has fans but few followers. As Flannery O’Connor observed, we are not Christ centered, we are Christ haunted. I came to Jesus Christ in the hippie/Jesus Freak era of the 1970’s when we were baptizing people in bathtubs. I remember Larry Norman, listened to Scott Ross every night, when the entire corpus of contemporary Christian music could be played, with commentary, interviews with the composers and a lengthy discourse by Scott, in 3 hours. That was…ahem…about 40 years ago. I entered the Methodist ministry, went to an evangelical (but not fundamentalist) seminary, did my PhD in Old Testament and Near Eastern studies at Yale, and since 1987 I have taught the Old Testament in the seminary I attended. I have always been drawn to the problem passages of the Bible, so my teaching and research have turned on Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Jeremiah. While I’m most at home with the standard linguistic, historical and critical issues in biblical interpretation, I read theology avidly and have taught a PhD seminar in pre-modern interpretation for many years so I’m a fair student of early Christian thought and exegesis.
I logged some good time with Campus Crusade for Christ, side slipped into the Navigators for a while, hung out with InterVarsity, ran hard with the charismatics before finding my true home in evangelical Wesleyan theology. I’ve survived 3 or 4 “New Waves of the Spirit in these Last Days before Christ comes!” and and seen them emerge, converge, and submerge. I’ve seen about 3 phases when the evangelical protestant world flirted with universalism, ethical relativism, end-times hysteria fainting in the spirit, leg-lengthening, demon-chasing and theological pluralism, not to mention a couple of phases when evangelical protestants thought Canterbury, Rome or Constantinople a better home. Much of that ended poorly. though I have some Canterbury leanings, myself.
I’m not alone. I speak for a generation of 50 somethings who were the first fruits of the evangelical awakening that began as we woke up from the moral chaos and nightmare of the 1960’s. We were all about revolution and new things. Most of us, especially those who found Christ, realized we wanted permanent human relationships and a faith that endures, things nobody in the 1960’s thought much about. We also realized we wanted a history, a family, a community. Being an academic, I found it reading Christian thought from the church fathers up through people like John Wesley. Without being hostile toward new movements, I do view them with a certain bemused detachment.
We scholars have an innate sense of history which only grows as we study, think, pray and watch the world through our ivory tower windows. Having seen so many get fired up with each passing fad of pop-culture Christianity and then seen them deflated, I’ve developed some convictions about a faith that endures, a faith that helps me build a life-long marriage, raise children, go to work, mow the lawn, prepare for retirement, vote, speak out on issues that matter, and be happy. When the sky falls, it doesn’t matter who is cool or who looks crazy or sane or who impresses our hip friends. When the cancer diagnosis comes, the divorce summons, the report of your daughter dead in a drug overdose, your brother in jail for manslaughter…when the Son of Man appears in the clouds at the most awkward moment imaginable…when the sky falls, what matters is who has the character, the inner strength and the vision of the world that can see past the smoke and ruin to live and build another day. I’ve developed some strong convictions about that.
First: truth matters. We can only live authentically within the boundaries of what we believe. And theology is hard work. it’s brain work. No cliches and sound-bites will do the job. The earliest church, in times of marginalization and persecution, still expected every candidate for baptism to have a rigorous grasp of the details of Christian thought. Even with a mere 20% literacy rate at most, they were expected to know vast portions of the Old Testament and, as it emerged, be conversant with the letters of Paul and the gospels, usually by attending to long sessions when the scriptures were read aloud. Christians had to be able to articulate their faith in a world full of sophisticated, hostile pagans, Jewish critics and heretics seeking to hi-jack Christianity for their own profit. There foes did not just find them socially odd, but believed them to be cannibals, child-abusers, seditionists and even accused them of being atheists. One thing that troubles me about the voices I hear in the “emergent” movement is a lack very rigorous doctrinal reflection. Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins is a case in point. I still can’t decide whether I agree or disagree with him because the book is so shallow and incoherent, so thin and brittle that every time I pay it serious attention, it breaks. And yes, I read the book.
Second: relevance is over-rated. So is “seeker friendliness.” An explosively eye-opening book for me was Alan Kreider’s The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom. It’s just 100 pages or so in which, using primary sources, he outlines how you became a Christian in, say, AD 175. I’ll save you the details and just say that the early church, the church that could still tell stories about the apostles from personal memory, was closed to any but the devoted, communicant believer. No real effort to “avoid looking crazy to my friends”-they owned the scandal of the cross. And God caused this un-hip, unfashionable offshoot sect of Judaism to grow with such explosive power that within a couple centuries it had swept the known world. Only when Constantine decriminalized Christianity and it became fashionable to be a Christian did church become open to marginal believers and non-christians to attend. So in providing a version of Christian worship that is “safe” for non-believers, our “seeker sensitive” services are actually an extension of post-Constantinian Christendom!
My point…uh..I had a point here…oh yes: my point is that vital, formative Christianity did not seek a superficial pop-culture appearance of relevance because they knew this was life and death, with eternity in the balance. More than relevance, people crave integrity. What if we returned to a pre-Christendom vision in which it was “hard” to go to church because church wasn’t something you “attended” like a political rally or sales meeting? What if Church was what we actually were? Ironically, nothing could be more truly relevant than that.
Third: innovation and newness are over-rated. When we live for what is eternal, when we are a living model on earth of what is happening in heaven, when we ground ourselves what abides forever, we might periodically find ourselves out of fashion, but we will become that fixed point by which others can get a glimpse of the eternal, the ever-fresh, the unchanging.
Fourth: faith that endures is not bi-polar. It’s amazing to me how often we fall into false dilemmas. We have left and right. Conservative and Liberal. The labels actually do matter, but we naturally shy from extremes and don’t like being labeled, especially if we want to conceal the facts about what we actually think. So we end up in the murky middle. But the middle is a boring place to be. Nothing serious ever happens from the middle. Only a drunk tries to walk on both sides of the road at the same time. I’m impressed that early Christianity did something powerful in its theology. Faced with Jesus as “either” human (arianism) or divine (docetism) they forged a different model, not a compromise, not a via media, but a fresh vision of reality in which the one person of Jesus was both God and man, without confusion, in perfect harmony, one Lord Jesus Christ. From that burst forth a whole new vision of God and of human destiny. Early Christianity didn’t do the via media, it did the new creation. In doing so, they inhabited St. Pauls’ idea that the answer is not “Jew” nor “Greek,” neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, nor even something in between…but a new creation. This new creation is not novel, nor is it innovation. It is the same, historic, orthodox Christian faith that has always been there, waiting to be discovered by each generation. We boldly go where no Christian has gone before and find Irenaeus or Augustine sitting there waiting for us.
This has importance for everything we do. Merely backing away from extremes gets us nowhere. Nobody ever got anywhere that mattered by backing up. We need to look above and beyond the sterile impasses of our day and become that New Creation in which real differences are not ignored or compromised, but incorporated and transcended. Persons with rigorously worked out beliefs capable of engaging the philosophical and cultural currents of the day, but not arid and lifeless syllogisms. People who authentically inhabit our contemporary cultures, but as voices gathering up the wisdom of the millenia, representing eternity in the flow of time. We need vital compassion for all people, but not at the cost of abandoning the holy and the just. We need rich spirituality, but not at the cost of life in the flesh, in history, in culture and politics.
It’s my view that we won’t find these things by jumping on new movements with their messianic pretensions and ignorance of the past. It’s time for hard work, hard thinking seeking not to revise the faith, revive the faith, or make it relevant. It’s eternal and unchanging, it gives life and doesn’t need reviving, and it’s relevant. If it looks irrelevant, maybe we’re looking from the wrong spot.
Which in the end, might be what Unvirtuous Abbey was saying after all.