Month: March 2009

Keeping the faith

Two of my friends have lost their faith in the last three years.

‘Lost’ is a curious word to use here. They didn’t misplace it. It didn’t fall behind the couch. They’re not offering any rewards for it to be found.

I think plant metaphors are more apt here – for one of them, faith shrivelled up like a plant in the hot sun. Everything that used to make sense about it stopped making sense.  Her sense of God’s presence disappeared. She doubted every experience of God she’d ever had. The hypocricy and badness became apparent, began to be the very soil she felt her faith was planted in. (Other people’s hypocricy and badness, that is.)

For my other friend, faith kind of grew into something different. Perhaps from a tree going straight up in one direction to a vine spreading out over the garden?  I would have to say he still has faith, but not faith in Christianity. It’s a kind of humanism, that how he describes it. He believes in God still, and believes that it’s good to be good. But as for doctrines, a or a specific narrative about the people of God and God’s action in the world … well, he can’t believe in that.

It’s one of the things that eats away at my faith, these two friends who can’t believe any more. Because they’re smart people. And beautiful people. Their faith was real or realer than mine. And now they contend that what they had wasn’t real.

And I have to admit that (my) faith works at least partly by consensus. It needs others to hold that ball up in the air. A skeptic would say it requires a consensual hallucination. I know my doubts aren’t that much stronger than theirs. It’s just that I want to believe and they don’t.

Or it comes down to what I feel so sure is true: that Jesus was God’s Son and that God raised him from the dead as the herald and foundation of the kingdom. I hold onto this. I don’t believe the disciples were lying or mistaken. I don’t believe Jesus was lying or mistaken. Even when I find anything else hard to believe, I can believe that.

It’s hard for evangelicals who stop believing. It’s a good way to lose your friends, I think. It’s a ‘coming out’ process. My friends haven’t come out. I understand that. They still go to church, because it’s built into their lives. My fear is how many other people are the same as them. I wish there were more safe places for people to share their doubts. Inevitably I think most thinking people will have doubts. If there’s nothing to doubt, there’s nothing to believe. (I refused to sing a song in church yesterday with the line ‘not a doubt in my mind’.)

I don’t know what lies ahead for my friends. Or for me. I’m waiting and hoping that God would show me his presence more clearly. I know I used to feel it clearly, I used to believe without any hesitation. I trust that I’ll feel that again.

Mighty Men?

There was a Christian conference in Perth recently called Mighty Men. I don’t know much about the content of the conference, but the title bothers me. Are we called to be ‘mighty’ as disciples of Jesus? I don’t think so. I think the world wants men to be mighty warriors, but that Jesus had different values in mind. Oh for a conference attended by 2000 men called ‘Being Weak For Jesus’ or some other affront to masculine pride!

Of course, it all depends on how you define ‘mighty’ and maybe the conference defined ‘mighty’ in such a way that I could see value in it. But the problem is that on the surface it is reinforcing a patriarchal, macho masculinity.

Jesus didn’t say that the mighty are blessed. He said the meek are blessed. The mourning. The persecuted. The ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He kept emphasising not might but sacrifice, servanthood, being the least. (And I’m sure the conference tried to redefine ‘might’ along these lines.)

I keep hearing the idea that the church is failing men. (Funny that, it’s usually men in charge of churches.) I also keep hearing that feminism has caused men not to ‘know who they are’. (Does that mean identity is tied to being the patriarch for most men?) I don’t know the answer to either of these problems/ perceptions, but I don’t think it should be to christen traditional masculinity.

Feminism has not ‘gone too far’ as so many people are fond of saying. It hasn’t gone far enough yet. There’s still inequality in relationships, imbalanced power structures, different standards for judging women, and not nearly enough women given full opportunities to minister in churches.

So there’s a loose collection of thoughts brought on by seeing this phrase ‘mighty men’ everywhere.

The Shack : theological fiction for the disenchanted

Love it or hate it, in the last year it seems everyone in the evangelical world has had an opinion on William P. Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack.  Whatever its failings, it has moved a lot of people deeply and has them talking about the problem of pain, the doctrine of the Trinity and many other theological questions.

The book starts off like a conventional crime novel: Mack’s daughter Missy goes missing while a family is on holiday. The police find her bloodied dress in a shack by a lake. Despite clunky writing and implausible police procedure – would the investigating officer  immediately tell a distraught father that the ladybird pin left where his daughter went missing was the calling card of a serial killer? – this section has a strong narrative drive.

The remaining three quarters of the book is less a novel and more a series of conversations between Mack and God. It starts with Mack receiving a note from God inviting him back to the shack. When he gets there, the three persons of the trinity are waiting for him – Papa (a large black woman); Jesus (a Middle Eastern but very American sounding man) and Sarayu (an Asian woman). Mack spends the weekend hanging out with God, having all his questions answered and his pain healed.

I like the idea of God appearing in a novel, but this God, despite her ethnic diversity, is too folksy and too middle-American. Several times a page the characters smirk, laugh, chuckle and smile their way through awkward dialogue that gives Young a chance to put his theology in the most privileged place of all – the mouth of God.

The central question is the problem of pain: why didn’t God stop Missy dying? But Mack and God end up covering a lot of areas – Christology, ethics and the church among many – sometimes in a muddled, whirlwind way that may cause more confusion than good.

Often the ideas are quite familiar. On the problem of pain, Young’s answer comes down, in the end, to a free-will defence:

“If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all.” (p. 190)

Earlier, Papa assures Mack she was there with Missy as she was murdered; she doesn’t attempt to explain why she didn’t intervene. Theologians have only taken us so far past these answers; it would be too much to ask for anything startling here.

Whatever its literary and theological shortcomings, a key question in responding to The Shack is to ask why so many people love it.

I wonder if for many it’s their first exposure to theology which challenges conservative evangelical piety. I think of my friend’s grandmother who came away from it amazed by the idea that God might not be simply male.

I wonder also if Young speaks to and for the growing number of disenchanted evangelicals who have little or no attachment to a church but still identify as Christians. His novel shows a distaste for institutions and a picture of an evangelical in exile that would appeal to them.

Finally, I think The Shack‘s lack of literary and theological polish is probably a part of its appeal. Young writes as an amateur in the best sense, and the book has a naivety and simplicity which might be refreshing for a lot of people. It’s not only his God who is so very accessible and human, but his writing and his ideas too.

I miss the church year

One of the impoverishments of much of the free church and evangelicalism is its neglect of the church year. Last week the universal church started Lent, but if you went to your typical evangelical church, you wouldn’t know about it. Every year I miss out on Lent and tell myself I’m going to try to remember it next year. But if your community doesn’t remember it, you’re not going to remember it.

While the universal church follows a sacred calendar that takes them through the life of Christ and the life of the church and Israel, the free church cuts itself free from the pattern and goes where individual pastors take their congregation. The church year puts a congregation in touch with the wider church, both the historical church and the current worldwide church. It gives congregations a sense of going somewhere, of moving together through seasons. It makes sure we cover all the bases of the Christian story.

We were using the lectionary readings, structured around the church year, in our old house church and as much as I sometimes felt bound and restricted by them, a lot of the time they gave me structure and life.

I think there might be a small shift among evangelicals toward the church year; there are emerging church elements who embrace it. But only a small shift.

What am I going to do? I think I’m going to start using the lectionary readings for my daily Bible readings. And use what small influence I have on the evangelical world by writing this post. Pastors: why not try it? Please?

The revised common lectionary is found here: http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/lectionary/ for those like me who were brought up knowing nothing about it.

Tom Wright on beauty

In Surprised By Hope, Wright has a chapter on ‘Building for the Kingdom’. He sees building for the kingdom as the task of Christians today. The ‘for’ is important. It’s not building the kingdom by our own effort. Instead, it’s getting on with the tasks God’s given us, which he will – in ways we don’t understand yet – use (and is using) in his kingdom.

He explores three areas of the task – justice, beauty and evangelism. Beauty is the one which surprised me. He sees it as the task of artists to show the world beauty. Beauty, he believes, endures.

He sees an impasse between artists who show the world’s ugliness without hope and those who refuse to recognise the ugliness and whose art is thus untrue. He wants Christians to help break this impasse.

The beauty of creation, to which art responds and which it tries to express, imitate and highlight, is not simply beauty which it possesses in itself, but the beauty which it possesses in view of what is promised to it : back to the chalice, the violin, the engagement ring. We are committed to describing the world not just as it should be, not just as it is, but as – by God’s grace alone! – one day it will be. And we should never forget that when Jesus rose from the dead, as the new paradigm, first example and generating power of the whole new creation, the marks of the nail were not only visible in his hands and his feet. They were the way he was to be identified. When art comes to terms with both the wounds of the world and the promise of resurrection, and learns how to express and respond to both at once, we will be on the way to a fresh vision, a fresh mission. (235-6)

I don’t have any startling insights here. I don’t know how to think eschatologically in writing novels (my art form). I’m aware that at the moment I’m striving to be less ideologically driven in my writing – not more. I tried in the wrong way to write theological fiction and it caused problems.

But I do know that I want to write about beauty. Too long in literature I’ve been fascinated by ugliness. Perhaps in response to the kitschy sentimentalism that I felt evangelicalism was pushing me to like. Time to restore beauty. Not that it wasn’t there, but now as a conscious drive.