Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Such Cute Dogs, Though!, Revisited

If you haven't had a chance to read my one-act "play" of two door-to-door evangelists conversing, erm, forcefully with me about my doctrinal error-addled self, please take a few minutes to do so. It's well worth your time, and I promise to still be here when you're done.

My initial sharing of my one-act play (really, an encounter with door-to-door evangelists from a local church that became intensely uncomfortable almost immediately) garnered some pretty funny-slash-sympathetic reactions when I first shared it, but it is very important to dig beneath the initial funnies at seeing your beloved local pastor get the full Spanish Inquisition treatment by a pair of zealots, because there are attitudes displayed in that "play" that must be unpacked and honestly confronted if Christianity is going to make anything vaguely resembling a recovery from the nadir it currently inhabits in the hearts of many.

Because, look, Christian doctrine is easy. And I say that knowing full well that we have come up with all sorts of complicated words to label it and describe it, from premillennialism to antinomianism to all sorts of -isms. But as Ferris Bueller said, "-ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, "I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me." Good point there. After all, he was the walrus."

I'd substitute out believing in ourselves with believing in God in that quote. We make belief in God *sound* complicated, when in truth it doesn't have to be or even need to be. Upon love of God and love of neighbor, Jesus says when asked what the most important law is, hangs the entirety of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).

So if belief in God isn't complicated, why does it matter whether I teach that good works are a part of what God desires for us to do in this life and on this world?

In a word--control.

The church has, at many turns, confused passionate belief with control over belief, and while the latter may certainly overlap or stem from the former, the former can exist without the latter. I am passionate about a number of political and theological beliefs I hold, but I cannot, should not, and must not wedge my congregation into sharing those beliefs, no matter how passionate I am about them.

What is at hand, then, is a fundamental difference in the view of how one sees the function of the clergy: do pastors like me exist to tell you what to believe, or to train you up to determine your own beliefs? Because those are most certainly not the same thing.

In truth, American Christianity, though it trumpets liberty (especially of the religious or armed variety), often seems to have a soft spot for authoritarianism. We like our rules. There is appeal in the black-and-white outlook of fundamentalism, no matter how many shades of gray the world exudes (spoiler alert: it's way more than fifty). And part of that appeal was on full display in the brochure they handed me from the get-go, which laid out, in finely-honed detail, their purely transactional "way to heaven," which involved achieving salvation purely through a set of concrete steps to follow--which is pretty ironic, since reciting the Sinner's Prayer (or otherwise "asking Jesus into your heart") is very much a work...meaning that they, like me, preach salvation at least partially through works.

But what makes me truly grieve this approach is how small and manipulable it makes God--that if you do things just so, God is contractually bound to give you what you ask for (a golden ticket to paradise). That simply isn't how a relationship with God works, or what it ought to be boiled down to. God is far bigger than that, and so our relationships with God can, and should be, much bigger than simply what God can offer us when we die. That's not a deity, that's a cuddlier version of Charon, the boatman from ancient Greek mythology who exchanges boat rides across the River Styx for coins.

I would be remiss if I did not remark upon the fact that the theological aggression, as it were, was almost exclusively one-sided: at no point did I suggest that the two evangelists were heretics, or were condemned to hell, or anything of the sort of invective they repeatedly hurled at me. I know that sounds awfully high-and-mighty of me, but the minimalism of my approach to doctrine necessitates it. Far be it for me to say that someone who professes to be a Christian is not, in fact, a Christian because of their doctrinal, theological, or political differences with me.

Making room for those differences is a crucial part of being church. It is what Jesus did with the twelve disciples, which included among their number a tax collector (Matthew) and a zealot (Simon) who, as a zealot, almost certainly loathed tax collectors like Matthew for the submission to Rome that they represented. But at least as far as Jesus was concerned, none of that mattered. They both were counted. They both were included.

That inclusion represented a surrender of control by Jesus--that He knew that He needed not to homogenize His followers' beliefs to the nth degree, but that if He got them on the same page of expectations concerning who He was and the kingdom He represented, then what God desired of them could still be achieved.

Let that be instructive for us as the current body of Christ. If the flesh-and-blood Christ managed to surrender enough control to make room for a tax collector and a zealot, surely the church can do likewise nearly two thousand years later.

Otherwise, what exactly have we even learned over those two thousand years? And just how much more control over each other do we still need to surrender back to God?

And yes, the dogs are still as cute as ever.

Longview, Washington
April 18, 2017

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