November 2, 2007

God Likes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This post got a little out of hand and is now pretty long. So here's a short summary: Some people in the church disagree with each other. The more defensive you are about it, the more insecure and fearful you usually are about your own positions. God is a mystery, and that's okay. Can we learn more about the mystery of God from our disagreements instead of developing our own forms of modern-day excommunication?

Brian McLaren is scaring the hell out of people. In the process, he's revealing an unfortunate attitude, a sort of defense system designed to guard against the horrifying fear that we could be wrong about a lot of important things. To be honest, I have trouble caring about anything that McLaren says anymore (I've been trying to plod through The Secret Message of Jesus for the last year and a half without much success), but this interesting effect he's had on the Christian community recently caught my attention.

For instance, the folks at Discerning Reader have posted a review of McLaren's new book called Everything Must Change. The reviewer appears to have a somewhat negative history with Mr. McLaren, so a negative review is unsurprising. It's not the disagreement that catches my eye, it's the defensive attitude that bubbles up around the discussion of his name.

For example, in his book McLaren apparently writes a version of Mary's Magnificat (the prayer she sings in Luke 1:46-55, giving thanks for her conception). His version, however, is supposed to be from a more Protestant perspective. I read the portion that was quoted in the review (you can too if you click the link to the review above) and I can understand how it could easily be seen as disrespectful, distasteful, or insensitive. But the Discerning Reader (DR) response goes a little further than that.

Time would fail me to even begin to address all of the doctrines he mocks and belittles even in this one paragraph. Suffice it to say that no doctrine is safe, with those closest to the heart of the gospel the ones that disgust McLaren the most. Just this one paragraph ought to shock and disgust any Christian.

One author's representation of the Protestant perspective--a perspective he's been a part of for many years--should cause all Christians to feel shock and disgust because he dared to say nasty things about us, sort of? Can you see the defensive reactivity that explodes from the page and how it seems so disproportionately intense?

Later in the review, DR continues.
With McLaren’s willingness to play fast and loose with Scripture, interpreting it as he seems fit with utter disregard for the stream of historic orthodox theology and the context of Scripture, how am I to trust his presentation of economics? If he is willing to adapt Scripture to fit his agenda and to do so at the expense of its most clear and obvious meaning, what confidence can I have that he has not done the same in other areas?

Now, maybe after reading the book, I'd sympathize more with the intensity of this response. But the content is telling, too. We're too quick to accuse others of "playing fast and loose with Scripture," forgetting that none of us has access to the One True Meaning of the Infallible Word™. We're all willing (and often required) to adapt Scripture to fit our agenda. There is rarely a clear and obvious meaning, and those that use that kind of language to describe Scripture often have the most relentless agendas of all.

We devote ourselves to the intense study of Scripture precisely because of the deep, rich meaning that lies within the text. We are all subject to interpretation, whether it's our own or the one of someone we trust (an author, a great leader, a Church tradition).

God and his word are a great and wonderful mystery. Passages like Romans 11:25, Ephesians 1:9, Ephesians 5:32, Colossians 4:3, and 1 Timothy 3:16 all speak of the great mystery of God that has been revealed to us. I used to think that it meant that what was once a mystery is now unveiled, and the mystery is gone. But it says that the mystery itself is revealed, not the answer. What Adam and Eve lost in the garden when they reached for the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Christ brought back in the form of the mystery of God.

Unfortunately, we're really uncomfortable with mystery. And consequently, most American churches are uncomfortable with questions, and especially with the answer of "I don't know". How can God predestine all things while still allowing us choice? If your answer is, "It's a mystery of God, my child," you should expect a punch in the face.

So when a group of Christians starts asking lots of questions and not giving many clear answers, the natural reaction of many in the Church is to give them a symbolic punch in the face. A friend of mine who is in seminary near Philadelphia, PA told me that his seminary teachers have instructed him to avoid all of Brian McLaren's writings. Avoid reading what someone has to say about God, because you might become confused and think of God as a mystery, instead of clearly understanding their version of the truth alone. What kind of education, what kind of Godly leadership would discourage the pursuit of knowledge and truth? Even if they disagree with every word he says, what's to be gained by advising your students to avoid them (except having the exact opposite effect, I'd guess)?

I know of several pastors who preach out against the entire "Emerging Church" movement, and any writers that they believe are involved (whether the writer actually associates with it or not). Again, besides the fact that this is the fastest way to get people to read books by these people and become interested in this movement, what is it that you're so worried about? If it's not true, and they trust you as their pastor/leader/counselor/etc, they'll start a conversation with you about it. Conversations about God and his works are good, right?

Don't freak out so much, people. Mystery is a good thing. And people who chase after the mystery of God are continually blessed by it. So by all means, please disagree with Brian McLaren, but it would help us who disagree with you if you left the shock and disgust behind.


Alex Paik said...

mystery is not good for capitalism. that's why the church is so scared.

Alex Paik said...

My first comment is too pithy and unfair.

The American Church needs God to be small enough to package into soundbytes, bumper stickers, 3 point sermons, etc or else it is too hard for it to "reach out" to other people.

The gospel is simple enough for a child to understand, yes, but if the Church continues to forget the second half of that verse where it talks about it being a stumbling block to the wise (in other words, so complex that even the wisest man cannot unravel it) the the Church will continue to lose followers.

And, when that happens, it's like Princess Leia said to Grand Moff Tarkin: "The more you tighten your fist, the more star systems slip through your fingers."