What’s your church story?

'Church sign in Harlem' photo (c) 2007, jon rubin - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As you may have noticed, I’ve been thinking a lot about church lately. (See 15 Reasons I Left Church15 Reasons I Returned to The Church, and Better Conversations Between Churched and Un-Churched Christians.) On Friday, I featured Jessica Goudeu’s church story, and later this week, I’ll be sharing the story of a young woman whose church failed her as she struggled to process her brother’s addiction. 

Apparently, I’m not the only one thinking about church. Below are just a few conversations, stories, ideas, and tips that caught my eye recently. Each is a reminder of how important it is to listen to, and validate, one another’s church experiences—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the redeemed. 

Sarah Bessey with “In which I admit that I couldn’t be a Christian by myself

“Water in the desert came from cups fashioned by the hands of those that loved the Gospel. I found community. I found friends. I found family. I discovered that the hand of God was strong and firm, gentle and loving, in the hands, breath, and voices of the people of God. There are more of us that love God and love people, that leave the scent of grace wherever we walk, that forgive and serve without fanfare or book deals, that work for justice and mercy than I could have ever dreamed. They loved the unlovable, the marginalised, the hopeless, because of their great love for God. They believed the Jesus actually meant all that stuff he spoke while here on earth. They were on mission, they were peacemakers, they were everything I wanted to be when I grew up, you gorgeous people of God.”

Jessica Bowman with “The Five Stages of Grieving the Church” 

“No one understands God.  No one wants authentic, real life, messy, imperfect community.  It’s a lost cause.  I’m tired of dealing with people who don’t think critically about their beliefs.  I’m so tired of dealing with all of the theological parrots, just repeating what they’ve been told without studying it, examining it, praying it.  I’m done with these people."

Nadia Bolz-Weber with “Church and Crossfit and what they have in common

“Basically if I was working out at 24 hour fitness alone with an ipod I would not be getting into shape like I am now.  And if I were staying at home just reading about fitness alone on my sofa I would not be getting into shape like I am now. I would not be pushing myself and allowing someone else to teach me and encouraging someone to keep going and laughing the whole time.”

Maria Burnham with “Coming Out to My Bible Study

“And the discussion escalated into a storm of accusations, a line dividing us almost evenly down the middle, Bible verses flung like weapons, tempers flaring, and, of course, tears falling. I didn't know if I should yell back, if I should let my tears turn into the sobs they ached for, if I should storm out, or if I should bring some logic and practicality back into the argument. And the women asked me, 'Are you confessing? Is this a confession? Are you seeking repentance and solace in an attempt to overcome this sin?' I was thankful Jenny was not present to hear the attack, and I knew she would not understand that these women believed that they were coming from a loving place.”

Ed Cyzewski with “The One Thing That Matters About Belonging Church

“Seek community where there is life. Where God is present and free to move. Where people are encouraged to pursue God’s calling for their lives. Where a community moves as one toward God’s throne of grace. If you don’t feel the freedom of God’s life in a church, it will be hard to belong. It is God’s life that animates us and joins us together. We can find belonging through other means and activities, but it will never create the bonds God intended to create for his family.” 

[This post affected a major resolution I made about church last week. More on that later]]

Diana Butler Bass with “Resurrected Christianity

“Far too many churches are answering questions that few people are asking. This has left millions adrift, seeking answers to questions that religious institutions have largely failed to grasp. But this may be changing. Around the edges of organized religion, the exile Christians have heard the questions and are trying to reform, reimagine, and reformulate their churches and traditions. They are birthing a heart-centered Christianity that is both spiritual and religious. They meet in homes, at coffeehouses, in bars--even in some congregations. They are lay and clergy, wise elders and idealistic hipsters. Some teach in colleges and seminaries. They even hold denominational positions. Not a few have been elected as bishops. The questions are rising from the grassroots up--and, in some cases, the questions are reaching a transformational tipping point.”


Zack Hunt with “Taking a Sabbatical From Church" [be sure to check out all four-parts]

“What if instead of simply criticizing and condemning this phenomenon, we found a way to embrace it, reframing it in a way that could help both the individual as well as the church experience growth through this time away. I know that may sound counterproductive, but stepping away and taking a break is actually a very Biblical model. One which even Jesus himself followed.”


Richard Beck with “Freedom

“Worship at Freedom can look a bit, well, free. It's a small church with about 60 of us in attendance. There is a praise band. And during the worship it's not uncommon to have people swaying, dancing, or going up and down the aisles waving streamers. You can bring your tambourine. And pretty much everyone raises their hands with lots of 'Amen's!' and 'Praise the Lord's!' It's not Charismatic. It's just free and uninhibited. People just do what they want. And if you want to go up and down the aisle with a streamer, you go up and down the aisle with a streamer. Me? Where do I fit in? I'm not a hand raiser. I don't shout Amen. I may be the most inhibited person in attendance. But my heart soars when I'm there. The joy around me is infectious. More, I go to Freedom because the people there aren't like me. Most are poor. Many are emotionally and intellectually handicapped. Some are homeless. Many struggle with addictions of various sorts. But I love the way these people worship."

Naked Pastor with “Teaching Then And Now”, “Caution: Christians Falling,” “Fear of the Question,” and, well, his whole blog

Christian Piatt with “Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church" and "Four More Reasons Why Young Adults Quit Church"

“We Don’t Want to Be “Talked At” Any More: There’s a very strong case that can be made for the value of sermons. Jesus did it. There are times when someone in a position of expertise has something they need to share with a group, and the best way to do it is didactically. But what if people stop listening? I asked a friend of mine, who is a minister, if he was planning to attend an upcoming conference. He said no, not because the content was off-base, but because he said he couldn’t tolerate more passive learning environments where he sat back and was a receptacle for more information.”

Sharon Autenrieth with “The Problem with the Church is Me 

“Christians leave the church for a variety of reasons — doctrinal, structural, emotional and more. Those of us who stay are often so hurt by their leaving, or so threatened by what we think it says about those who stay, that we can't hear what they are telling us. We stop our ears, invalidate their experiences, and tell ourselves that everything is fine. I keep standing up and telling our church what a loving, supportive, inclusive community we are, when the reality is that I don't even exemplify those qualities myself.”

So what’s your church story? 

(Feel free to share links)

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The Canon, the Reformation, Rationalism, and Breasts

As part of our series on learning to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be, we’re working our way through a stack of fantastic books about how to read the Bible. We’ve already discussed The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Right now we’re discussing Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar. And next up is Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns, and Old Testament scholar. 

Today I want to discuss Chapter 5 of Scripture and the Authority of God. Entitled “The First Sixteen Centuries,” this chapter provides a brief but informative overview of 1600 years of church history and scriptural interpretation, specifically as it relates to questions of biblical authority. (See why I had to add "breasts" to the title?) This is meant to set the stage for Chapter 6, which discusses the Enlightenment and the profound effect it has had on modern-day assumptions (and debates) regarding the Bible and biblical interpretation. We’ll talk about that next week. 

The Canon: “Narrative Framework”  

Wright begins with a painfully short analysis of the early church and the assembling of the canon, noting that the emergence of Gnosticism and other heresies led to an emphasis among early Christians on the historical nature of the church as rooted in the Jewish story, stressing “the continuity from Jesus’ day to their own, and indeed on the continuity of the people of Abraham, transformed through Jesus the Messiah but still obedient to the same world-transforming call.” The New Testament books were highly regarded by the early Christians because they helped validate their faith in the Old Testament and make sense of it in light of Christ. 

These were the conversations surrounding the emergence of the canon, says Wright, a process that has been subjected to scrutiny by both Catholic traditionalists, “asserting the supremacy of the church over the Bible,” and by postmodern skeptics, “asserting that the canon itself, and hence the books included in it, were all part of a power play for control within the church.”

But according to Wright, such proposals represent a “serious de-Judaizing of the Christian tradition.” 

“The canonization of scripture,” he writes, “both Jewish and Christian, was no doubt complicated by all kinds of less-than-perfect human motivations, as indeed in the writing of scripture in the first place. But canonization was never simply a matter of a choice of particular books on a ‘who’s in, who’s out’ basis. It was a matter of setting out the larger story, the narrative framework, which makes sense of and brings order to God’s world and God’s people.”

 Allegorical Interpretation: Breasts = Books? 

Over the next several centuries, with what Wright considers the gradual loss of the “Israel-dimension” in the church’s understanding of itself and its scriptures, “the notion of scriptural authority became detached from its narrative context, and thereby isolated from both the fit and the goal of the Kingdom,” according to Wright.  

At this time, the Bible began to be flattened out into a rule-book or devotional series. Much of scripture was interpreted allegorically, to the extent that theologians came up with some  “fantastic and highly speculative theories.”

(I got a little taste of these “fantastic and highly speculative theories” when I was doing research on historical interpretations of Song of Songs for my upcoming book on biblical womanhood. According to Origen, for example, the two breasts that the poem’s suitor is so eager to grasp represent the Old Testament and the New Testament. The lips the suitor longs to kiss represent the Eucharist, noted another medieval scholar. The luxurious bed on which the lovers lie represents the convents of the Church, said St. Bernard. Sure. And Hooters represents the American affinity for owl culture. ) 

Four Senses: Medieval Times

According to Wright, following this imaginatively allegorical period, came the medieval emphasis on the “four senses” in which theologians distinguished four different senses of scripture: the literal, the allegorical, the anagogical, and the moral. 

The Reformation: Sola Scriptura 

The Reformers famously emphasized “sola scriptura,” a rallying cry that Wright says is often misunderstood. 

“Their insistence that scripture contains all things necessary for salvation,” he writes, “was part of their protest against the Roman insistence on belief in dogmas like transubstantiation [and the perpetual virginity of Mary] as necessary articles of faith. It was never a way of saying that one had to believe every single thing in the scriptures in order to be saved. Rather, it provided, on the one hand, a statute of limitations: nothing beyond scripture is to be taught as needing to be believed in order for one to be saved. On the other hand, it gave a basic signpost on the way: the great truths taught in scripture are indeed the way of salvation, and those entrusted with the teaching office in the church have no right to  use that office to teach anything else.”  

The Reformers emphasized the “literal” sense of scripture over the others (though, somewhat confusingly, this does not mean they interpreted all biblical stories hyper-literally—Jesus’ words at the Last Supper are a good example—but rather that they emphasized the literal sense as the sense that the first writers intended). Wright notes that “we need to note carefully that to invoke ‘the literal meaning of scripture,’ hoping thereby to settle a point by echoing the phraseology of the Reformers, could be valid only if we meant, not ‘literal’ as opposed to metaphorical, but ‘literal’ (which might include metaphorical if that, arguable, was the original sense) as opposed to the three other medieval senses...”

Wright criticizes Reformers for failing to stress “the great narrative of God, Israel, Jesus, and the world, coming forward into our own day and looking ahead to the eventual renewal of all things” so that their readings of the gospels “show little awareness of them as anything other than repositories of dominical teaching, concluding with the saving events of Good Friday and Easter but without integrating those events into the Kingdom-proclamation that preceded them.” 

He concludes with an important point:  “...the Reformers’ insistence on the authority of scripture made several important points, but left many other matters open for further discussion. Of one thing we may be absolutely sure. If the Reformers could return and address us today, they would not say, ‘We got it all right; you must follow our exegesis and theology and implement it precisely as it stands.’ What they would say is, ‘ You must follow our method: read and study scripture for all it’s worth and let it do its work in the world, in and through you and your churches.’ They would not be surprised if, as a result, we came up at some points with different, or differently nuanced, theological and practical proposals. They would encourage us to go where scripture led, using all the tools available to us, and being prepared to challenge all human traditions, including the ‘Reformation’ traditions themselves, insofar as scripture itself encouraged us to do so.” 

In response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church came up with a formulation in which Scripture and tradition are received as of equal authority. The Second Vatican Council, 400 years later, stated that scripture and tradition “flow from the same divine wellspring, merge into a unity and move toward the same goal.” 

Rationalism:  Puritan Roots? 

According to Wright, the Puritan emphasis on the right of individual interpretation of scripture ironically paved the way for eighteenth century rationalism.

He notes that Richard Hooker pushed back on the Puritan movement and its claim that since scripture alone is authoritative, only those customs and ceremonies should be admitted into the life of the church (and state, I would add) which were explicitly authorized by scripture itself. Hooker, Wright says, “saw this as an impossibly simplistic agenda,” and emphasized instead the organic nature of the church and a more holistic understanding of the interplay between reason, tradition, and scripture. 

“Hooker’s insistence on ‘reason’ was therefore not at all a way of undervaluing scripture,” says Wright, “but rather of ensuring that the community which based itself on scripture could have an appropriate healthy life and growth, not blundering forward as it were in the dark, but moving ahead by the light of reason, itself informed by scripture and in harmony with the natural law which stemmed from the creator God in the first place.”

But as time went on, Wright says, “reason” became known as an entirely separate source of information, “which could be played off against scripture and/or tradition.” 

Which brings us to the Enlightenment, and the subject of next week’s discussion. 

One thing I appreciated about this brief overview was Wright’s reminder that the Reformers didn’t settle Christianity or biblical interpretation once and for all. This seems to be something of an assumption within certain corners of evangelicalism, and one that needs challenging, I think. (For example, given Wright’s understanding of what the Reformers meant by “literal,” I wonder if they wouldn’t be open to scholarship that interprets Genesis 1 as an ancient Near Eastern temple text—see John Walton's The Lost World of Genesis One— rather than a scientific explanation for origins.) I think Protestants can be guilty of glorifying the Reformers to the point of idolization, thereby losing their original spirit and intent.

Wright’s brief overview of Christian history as it relates to scripture is a good reminder that the story of the Church is always unfolding, always evolving, always adjusting to (and contributing to) culture. 

What do you think of Wright’s summary? What questions does it raise in your mind—about scripture, about the Church, about your own understanding of the Bible and its history?

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