Month: September 2008

Sweet: the novel all Baptists should read

Tracy Ryan, Sweet, Fremantle Press: 2008. RRP: $26.95

Tracy Ryan’s third novel, Sweet, is the story of three women caught in the thrall of a manipulative pastor of a conservative Baptist church in the outer-suburbs of Perth circa 1986. The Reverend William King is a complex figure, genuinely caring but always controlling.

Cody is seventeen and has just lost her brother in a car accident. In her grief the church offers her a degree of purpose and meaning. Yet she seems to fall into Christianity, rather than converting through conviction. Soon, William is pressuring her to give her testimony in front of the church, the story of her conversion from the darkness of ‘Romanism’. But this story he is trying to impose on her doesn’t ring true; her nominally Roman Catholic background is neutral in her memory.

Kylie is a young mother whose husband Mick is frequently away shearing. Her Baptist neighbours take an interest in her and babysit her children; soon she finds herself sucked into the church. Mick is unimpressed by her heavy involvement and she is torn between the church and him.

Carol has been a Christian much longer and her story is about the disintegration of her externally perfect Baptist family. As problems with her daughter and husband arise, she begins to realise that life isn’t as simple as her faith has taught her.

Capturing the milieu

As someone born into this context of conservative Baptists in the 1980s, I can say that the novel has captured the milieu very well. The church services centre on the sermon where the pastor might rail against Catholics or make an altar call. There are missionary slide nights, and prayer meetings, and discussions about theology or ethics which always sound like the blind leading the blind, pooled ignorance as someone pulls out one Bible verse and another a different one.

Early in the novel, there is a cringe-inducing wedding scene, with the ‘Christians all huddling away from the drinks table with the cardboard wine casks’ (61). Good hearted Carol marches a scandalised church lady across the divide to give the bride a hug amongst the drinkers.

The women attend a group called ‘More Than Rubies’, a reference to the book of Proverbs where a good wife is said to be more precious than rubies. Amongst the women, the stifling of erroneous thinking and behaviour is achieved through gossip disguised as Christly concern and pressure, both subtle and overt.

The novel captures the cliches and language of Baptists too – Cody reflects on them never saying ‘bad luck’ or ‘good luck’, because nothing happens by chance. Kylie is censured for calling a baby an ‘old soul’ – because reincarnation is not true. We read about MKs and PKs – missionaries’ kids and pastors’ kids – the backbone of Baptist churches and always enjoying an unspoken respectability that converts do not have.

As the system begins to unravel for Cody, William asks her:

‘There’s not some kind of problem is there? I mean, in your walk with God.’
Walk with God. William was falling back on all the cliches, countering her worldly jargon with his own. Cody hated that. She preferred it when he talked to her like an ordinary person, without the verbiage. All the church women were full of it, as if they drew from the same phrase book: ‘I have to ask you this because the Lord laid it on my heart…’ ‘The Lord told me that…’ (293-294)

Depicting ‘faith’

Working as I do at what used to be the Baptist Theological College, the parts I liked reading the most were those set there as Cody is pushed by William into studying. As Cody grows in confidence, she challenges the blithe assumptions of some of the other students. She comes to this important insight into Baptists and their claim to read the Bible free of tradition:

Because they couldn’t see how their own traditions ‘gave’ them their way of reading Scripture. They thought they were so pure and free of ritual and tradition, but if you came in from the outside, it looked like nothing but. (262)

The novel’s depiction of ‘faith’ is a confronting one for evangelicals. The three women are a part of the church more out of loneliness than a strong conviction of the truth of the beliefs they take on board. ‘Faith’ in the novel is more a function of conformity to the system. The women want to be loved and accepted. They want the attention of the pastor and the approval of the other people in the system. There are a lot of people within evangelical churches for whom this will ring true.

For evangelicals, then, the novel offers a chance to see their faith explained in psychological and social terms. Of course, evangelicals will conclude that true faith is a response to the living God; but it is important to consider how the system gets in the way of God.

Sweet is a compelling novel. It kept me reading and thinking. The prose is smooth and unintrusive yet filled with flashes of beauty. The structure effectively balances and interweaves the stories of the three women connected by William King. It is at once an engrossing drama of broad interest and yet also an important portrait of the evangelical world, a world rarely depicted in literature.

A radical church or a mixed one? (Am I being inconsistent?)

Thinking further about the need for radical Christianity to offer a church to believers, I’m struck by an inconsistency in my thinking.  I have been calling for diversity to be a key commitment of the church; surely that diversity should include radicals and conservatives and liberals too?  

Our Anabaptists Anonymous group did a simulation of a Roman house church last Thursday, as per Reta Finger’s book, and it struck me how she has some of us play Gentile radicals who think the law shouldn’t apply and others Jewish conservatives who think the law still applies. We are forced to hold these opposite views while fellowshipping in the same church. This is a much bigger and wider reaching tension than many of the theological issues that divide us today. It would have caused constant conflict, and yet Paul would not have heard of them dividing over it.

I think it would take a certain kind of radical and a certain kind of conservative to co-exist peacefully in the same church. You would need to have a strong commitment to the kingdom, to Jesus above all else, and a desire to listen and love the others. A friend of mine tells me of a Uniting church he goes to where this happened effectively – an evangelical minister and a liberal elder co-operating beautifully.

I need to think some more.

“Equal but different”: applying male headship thinking to race

No-one denies that blacks and whites are equal. God created both blacks and whites in his image. They are both equally capable of leading.

But not everyone can be a leader and the Bible teaches us He created black and whites for different roles, to complement each other.

White people were created to be leaders. There is something about whiteness that makes whites need to be in charge. Whites have a need to be respected by being in charge. Their authority needs to be respected or they won’t feel like real whites.

Black people, on the other hand, were created to submit to white leadership. They don’t have the same need to lead, and when they respect the order of creation by submitting, they will feel much more fulfilled.

*

It sounds so racist and so evil! Yet a lot of evangelical Christians believe that woman, although created equal, are not permitted leadership roles and should submit to their husbands in the home. Conservatives have some strong biblical reasons for thinking like this, stronger than any attempt to make a similar argument about race. But our reaction of horror to this type of thinking in race should sound alarm bells at the blindspots that patriarchy has created in us when we think about the sexes.

My wife and I are currently doing some reading and thinking toward a theology of male and female.  I’ll just offer some preliminary responses to those who think the Bible’s teaching on male and female is absolutely clear.

1. The household codes which call on wives to submit to their husbands in the letters of Paul and Peter are revolutionary! Such was the impact of the gospel that for the first time women were viewed as moral agents with choices about how they lived. (The secular household codes which Peter and Paul have adapted do not address women but only men.) The good news had caused women to enjoy new found liberation, which some of them were using in ways which upset the spread of the gospel and scandalised conservatives. Paul and Peter are urging them in their particular situation, for the sake of the gospel, to adopt ‘revolutionary subordination’. It is not a timeless command but a response to their particular situation.

In our situation, it is scandalous to the secular world for wives to submit to their husbands. Paul and Peter may be making opposite demands on the church if they were writing to us today.

2. The trajectory of the gospel, the thrust of the Christian story is toward Galatians 3:28 where the divisions of male and female, slave and free are overcome in the body of Christ. It is this ideal toward which the church must aspire.

3. I’m well aware that this leaves some key texts which still cause problems for the egalitarian Christian. There is diversity in the Bible and it is something we may never completely resolve. But it is worthwhile wrestling with all the texts, not just the ones which support our position.

Radicals, learn from Christian Union

It’s a hard thing us radical Christians ask of people.

We ask them to join a movement without all the answers, without clear boundaries (and with common fences with both liberals and evangelicals), and without churches. So many of us have so many questions and so many problems that we’re not sure quite sure how to help other people starting out on the same way.

Basically, radical Christianity isn’t organised enough. Granted, if you get too organised, you lose your edge, you stop being radical. There’s no easy answer to this one. But conservative Christianity is often disciplined, structured and efficient. And this helps it works for people.

I’m thinking of the Christian Unions on university campuses, affiliated with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. I’m surprised by the number of people who haven’t even heard of AFES or CU. (But then I’m surprised of the number of people going to evangelical churches who don’t know what evangelicalism is, or even that it’s a movement and that there’s Christians who are following Jesus who aren’t evangelicals.) For those who get involved in CU at university, it is often a defining experience. It is an intense experience of community with other Christians united by a commitment to know the Bible and evangelise the campus.

For the first time, young people are taught to read the Bible carefully and intelligently. It is a movement with answers and a way to live, a clear path to follow. One of my friends jokes that this path means studying engineering at UWA, marrying a woman CUer who knows how to submit, earning some money and then studying at Trinity or Moore to become a AFES staffworker or a church minister.

CU is very successful. Students get involved and get committed. And I think being organised really helps. CUers know what they’re meant to do. For some of them, it really does seem to work. (Others burn out; especially those with too many questions.)

I believe radical Christianity will always be small, but I also think we can be better organised. I think we can offer people some structure, even if pressing all the answers on them isn’t what we’re about. My big hope was always to offer them a church, because I really do think that the church is the way God’s people should be organised. Parachurch organisations can only take us so far. Parachurches end up being occasional meetings, they’re structured around events. They definitely have their purpose, but we need worshipping communities of disciples. And I had a church to offer people for a while, but things went wrong. I hope there’s a next time.