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Posts Tagged ‘Authority’

This is hard to explain and causes me a lot of anxiety, so I ask my readers to be charitable and patient with me.

Once I realized that I had become a Christian, I started reading the Bible seriously. In addition to reading reading, I also bought an audiobook of Johnny Cash reading the New Testament (it’s just amazing and I recommend it most highly) and started listening through it when I went running. I had read the New Testament a number of times before, but always filtered heavily through the lens of Mormonism. This time, I did my best to approach it without so many preconceived notions. I don’t know if that’s ever really possible, but I gave it (and continue to give it) my best shot.

I still remember exactly where I was when I heard Romans 9. It hit hard and then wormed its way into my mind. I spent the next six months, at least, just struggling and grappling with predestination. I read Augustine’s Confessions. The idea of unconditional election was really disturbing to me, and went against everything I had grown up believing (Mormonism has strong Wesleyan roots and has an Arminian-esque belief in “free agency” that is absolutely central to Mormon belief), but I could not shake the idea that it was Biblical.

So early last fall, when I was perusing Jack’s blogroll one day instead of working, I found myself on Parchment and Pen, reading some of their posts on Calvinism. I was intrigued. This was really interesting stuff, and seemed so much more filled with grace than the Calvinist stereotype. Somewhere I saw that they have a podcast, and one of their podcast series was called “An Invitation to Calvinism.” So I downloaded it and listened.

It was great stuff. Michael Patton, Tim Kimberley and Sam Storms seemed warm, earnest, knowledgeable, and authoritative. What they said made sense, and really fit with the mighty wrestlings I had been having with parts of the Bible like Romans 9. It felt like my mind was opening up to a newer and deeper faith in Jesus Christ.

I started following their blog, and then before too long I was reading the Gospel Coalition and Challies.com (which I first heard about from Tim’s blog but wasn’t really interested back then because ew, Calvinism). From there I found Reformedish and the Heidelblog. I bought the Reformation Study Bible. I read Pilgrim’s Progress. I was praying a lot more, and reading the Bible all the more eagerly. This was all so heady.

I became interested in the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. I bought a Trinity Hymnal and a Psalter.

And lo and behold, I found myself reading Calvin’s Institutes, and just loving it.

And then I heard about Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Google it if you want, but I wouldn’t bother if I were you. It’s a charismatic/Reformed network of churches that is in the middle of a child sex abuse scandal right now that will make you want to vomit. And the sexual abuse is all tied up in an abusively authoritarian system of church governance that is of obviously Calvinist provenance. Church discipline that is out of control and far worse than the worst stories I have ever heard about Mormon excommunications. “Covenants” held coercively over the heads of members. It’s all just so obviously poisonous.

And then (thanks, Wartburg Watch) I also started reading similar things about Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, and the Acts 29 Network. Not the sexual abuse, but the same kinds of authoritarian spiritual and ecclesiastical abuses. And it’s all just different flavors of the same kind of poison.

So why does that matter? It matters because then I read about how much the people at the Gospel Coalition just have fawned over Sovereign Grace Ministries and it’s founder, C.J. Mahaney. And I read about how they all basically have closed ranks around him. And it matters because Derek Rishmawy posts at the Gospel Coalition. and so does Kevin DeYoung (I’m in the middle of a book about the Heidelberg Catechism by him, and I like it a lot, except every time I pick it up I throw up in my mouth a little bit because the back cover has an endorsement by C.J. Mahaney).

It matters because Michael Patton and Sam Storms are members of an Acts 29 church. And that breaks my heart because these guys seem like just, incredibly good and smart guys who love Jesus and love to teach God’s truth. My wife and I are about 3/4 through their Discipleship Program and we’ve loved it–it’s brought us so much closer to Jesus Christ and to each other. But at the same time, it’s not like I know Michael Patton personally. How am I supposed to trust him, knowing that he’s in bed with Acts 29?

I talked to one of the partners at my firm the other day, he’s an elder in a PCA congregation nearby. I’ve visited his church, and it seems just lovely. But in our conversation he told me how much he looks up to Marc Driscoll and “those Acts 29 guys.” What am I supposed to do with that?

How do I know how far the poison goes? How do I tell the sheep from the wolves? How do I protect my family from abusive churches?

Look, I’m not naive. I was raised Mormon. I went on a mission. I was endowed. I know for a fact that a religion can seem just wonderful and happy and Jesus-centered and Holy Spirit filled but really be rotten to the core. And I don’t think I’m being crazy or alarmist here: Jesus made this stuff absolutely clear. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” The Bible warns us again and again to beware of false prophets and false teachers. And I have four kids and a beautiful wife I have to look out for. So yeah. I’m wary.

What am I supposed to do with all of this? How am I not supposed to feel betrayed and distrustful? And how am I supposed to navigate this as a new Christian?

What am I supposed to do?

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If you, as a Mormon woman, want to be ordained to the priesthood, why don’t you leave the LDS Church and join the Reorganized LDS Church/Community of Christ, where they ordain women?

Partially as a response to the late Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley’s statement in an interview that there has been no “agitation” in the Church for women to be ordained to the priesthood, a number of Mormon women have begun to step up and publicly advocate for ordination. Groups have been formed like Ordain Women. Protests have been planned. Women have told their stories and explained why having the priesthood is important.

But it all seems entirely unnecessary to me. The Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) already ordains women. If you think women should be ordained, why not vote with your feet? I don’t think that there is a good, coherent reason to stay LDS, and I’ll tell you why I think that (and I invite you to tell me if and why you think I am wrong).

Normally, the biggest reason to stay Mormon despite any difficulty you have with the Church is that, at the end of the day, you believe that the Church is the sole holder of the priesthood keys necessary for saving ordinances. But it seems to me that if you believe that the nature of the priesthood is such that the Church is this far in error and can be corrected by “agitation,” you are effectively undermining the notion of exclusive priesthood authority anyway. The point of the priesthood in Mormonism is the authority to act in God’s name. It’s a principal-agent relationship with God. And it’s not just the authority to do saving ordinances, but also the authority to organize and preside over God’s church. But by rejecting the priesthood’s exercise of this authority (e.g., the policy of not ordaining women), you are rejecting the authority itself, aren’t you? If the priesthood held by the LDS Church is God’s exclusive authority, then when God’s agents act within the constraints of their calling, it is as if God has acted, isn’t it? That’s what authority is. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t really believe that the LDS Church’s priesthood is the exclusive authority to act in God’s name after all. And if that is the case, couldn’t you theoretically get the priesthood somewhere else? My understanding is that the Community of Christ will happily give it to you.

You might reply that, even though you may reject the Church’s claims to exclusive priesthood authority, your culture is Mormon and you identify as a Mormon and your Mormon heritage means everything to you and you do not feel like you should have to give it up to get equality. But you don’t! The Community of Christ is just as “Mormon” as the LDS Church is! It’s a close branch of the same family! Joining the Community of Christ is not a rejection of your Mormon identity at all. It’s just a different organization.

You could also say that unity is important, and you don’t believe that leaving the Church for the priesthood is the right decision, but as a Mormon–a member of a schismatic Restoration sect drawn out of schismatic Protestantism from schismatic Roman catholicism–you are hardly in a place to say that. If unity of faith is the most important thing, even to the extent that you are willing to stay in a patriarchal church and work for change that may never happen, the Eastern Orthodox church is happy to welcome you back with open arms. And their patriarchs have better hats.

I know that many Mormons who reject the Church’s truth claims choose to remain members of the Church for fear of family backlash, but I honestly suspect that you would not get nearly the same negative reaction to leaving for the Community of Christ. It’s still appreciably Mormon after all. I strongly suspect that your friends and family would not feel anywhere near the rejection that they would feel if you just became an atheist or an Evangelical. You would retain a cultural common ground without having to be a part of the Patriarchy. You might even get less flak for switching to the CoC than you would for staying LDS as a dissenter.

I’ve also heard the arguments about inequality anywhere hurting all of us, and whether or not I agree with that (it’s a zinger of a statement that can stand to have come unpacking and close examination done to it, but that is outside the scope of this post), I’m not sure it applies. There’s no guarantee that “agitating” inside the Church will change anything anyway, and voting with your feet will have an immediate individual and potentially powerfully aggregate impact (you make a statement, the patriarchal Church doesn’t get your tithing money anymore, membership in the patriarchal Church shrinks, etc.).

So why not convert to the Community of Christ?

(I want to be clear–this is an honest question and I’m interested in hearing the answers. I’m not a member of the Community of Christ, so I have no vested interest there; it just seems like it would be a better option.)

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jesus heals the centurions servantAnd when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented.

And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.

The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.

When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.

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As I mentioned earlier this year, I am officiating at my sister-in-law’s wedding. To this end, I have written a nice, broadly nonsectarian spiritual-but-not-religious ceremony (from which I will post excerpts probably after the wedding), and I have done a bit of work to look the part. I bought a black suit (I needed a new suit anyway, as I am in a suit-wearing career), and even a clergy shirt with a tab collar (from Mercy Robes–great people to deal with by the way).

I’m not going to lie; I look smashing in my clerical duds, but I used the phrase “look the part” intentionally above. In my black suit and clergy collar, I don’t feel like a cleric; I feel like I am wearing a cleric’s costume. And I don’t want to feel like that, because all silliness aside, I take this kind of thing seriously. I’m not going to be playing a priest on TV; I am a priest. I don’t need an organization to validate my faith or my earnestness in acting in the name of the gods, and even if I did, I’ve got that in the bag.

What’s missing from the equation is my faith. Now, the wedding is not about me, and to my knowledge, nobody at this wedding shares my spiritual leanings to even the remotest degree. But if I’m going to perform the ceremony, my authority comes from my gods, whether I name them by name or not.

So to tack a short ending on a long story, I talked my mother into making me a clerical stole to wear over my black suit, in plain white, with peacock feathers for Hera, the goddess of marriage. I will be in her service when I perform this wedding, and I want to show it. But subtly, and tastefully. Because it’s not my wedding, after all. But if anybody asks, I’ll not hesitate to tell them: peacock feathers are a symbol of Hera, the goddess of marriage. But it doesn’t need to go further than that. The gods are a part of all of our cultural heritage, whether we call ourselves pagans or not.

So here’s my stole. It was sweet of my mother to make it for me, and on insanely short notice. She is both talented and skilled. The picture quality s not fantastic, but I will post a picture of me all dressed up soon.

Thanks, Mom.

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One of the major issues I perpetually grapple with as I figure out what I believe is a concept I have come to call “boxed religion.” By boxed religion, I mean religion where all the pieces are handed to you as if you have bought it in a complete set, with everything included in the box. The religion gives you a holy book, a way to understand it, a set of appropriate spiritual practices, a set of answers for all of your questions, a definable bunch of things you are supposed to be doing, thinking, and feeling as a member. Mormonism is a paradigmatic example of boxed religion: it is a complete package, with a program for everything, and a clearly-defined path of spiritual progression for the new convert as well as the longtime member, clear expectations, and a limited set of practices and doctrines, all made legitimate by the stamp of approval of the regulating hierarchy.

There’s something simple about boxed religion. You can throw yourself right into it headfirst; you don’t have to think about whether some doctrine or practice is appropriate for you, or if it fits, or if it brings you closer to god. If they seem wrong or unproductive, it’s you who is the problem, and needs to be brought into line.

Most major world religions aren’t as boxed as this, I think. But there’s a spectrum with coercive hierarchical NRMs like Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses at one end, and the spiritual-but-not-religious dude who pretty much does whatever seems right to him at the other.

It may seem obvious to most people that religion-in-a-box isn’t going to work for everyone. But here’s the thing: I was raised with boxed religion. For me, boxed religion–something that probably seems extreme to most people–is the norm, and departures from the model of boxed religion feel less legitimate and less valid. I’m used to being told what I am supposed to do, spiritually speaking. Without a checklist of things I am supposed to be going to be right with God, I flounder. I don’t know what to do. I don’t do anything, actually. And then I blog about how confused I am.

At the same time, I have been seriously burned by boxed religion and I have had to face the fact that boxed religion, as much as I feel like I can’t function without it, is never going to work for me. When I start to embrace religion that comes more or less out of a box, I start to feel foolish, like I am playacting or LARPing. Only boxed religion seems like it should be valid and legitimate, but boxed religion feels horribly, horribly wrong. I inevitably wind up submitting too much, and trying to change my beliefs to bring them in line with what comes out of the box in an exercise of trained deference to religious hierarchy, no matter how shaky its authoritative claim on me is. And then I feel like I have compromised myself, and I wind up really uncomfortable with the corner I have painted myself into spiritually.

And when it comes down to it, I have a hard time keeping myself from looking for boxed religion. What do I do when I have some spiritual experiences with Greek gods? Decide that I am going to practice Hellenismos, and let my religion be wholly dictated to me by ancient Greek people and modern people who want to emulate them. And it feels wrong. So I run away from it, and almost run away from the gods altogether, after I have finally had the kind of spiritual experiences I have been yearning for.

What’s the answer here? Honestly, I think I have to deal with my issues here. My gut wants to look to other people to lend legitimacy to my spiritual life. But there’s something broken about that. The fact that some dude thinks I should be doing X has nothing to do with whether doing X will really bring me closer to the divine.

On the other hand, I have a nagging feeling that there actually is something to submitting yourself to something greater, and I think tradition should not be lightly thrown away, even if I don’t give it the total, supreme deference that I used to feel like I should give Revelation From God Through His Living Prophet. The problem with that attitude in paganism generally, however, is that–all wishful fiction aside–there isn’t really much in the way of tradition to fall back on.

I need spiritual practices and a source for something like beliefs and theology, I need to feel like my spiritual life is valid and legitimate, and I think that submission to something outside of yourself–even if it is nothing but the will of the divine–is actually an important part of religious life. But boxed religion, which gives me all of those things, inevitably fails meet my spiritual needs. So what do I do?

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So, based on my experience with Dionysus, I started looking into Hellenic Reconstructionism as a possible spiritual avenue. I realized that a vague spiritual closeness to one particular god could have a number of other possible interpretations and could signal the beginning of a lot of different things, but taking it on its face seemed the simplest, at least while I was just feeling things out.

So I started poking around a bit on Reconstructionist blogs, sites, and forums. It was fruitful in a sense, because a discussion on a Hellenic Recon forum is what provoked my intense experience with Aphrodite. But moving from that point forward, Hellenic Reconstructionism seemed like a dead end, and it still does.

Part of it is a basic head-space issue. When I try to think of myself as a Hellenic Reconstructionist or a member of the religion “Hellenismos,” it just doesn’t click right. It seems foolish, even–the idea of me as a Hellenic Recon, not the idea of Hellenic Recon itself. I started looking into Sponde (which is a great site that seems to have sadly and suddenly disappeared), and reading Tim Alexander’s forum a lot, with the end result being that is just didn’t all feel right. In fact, I started to even waver in how I felt about the gods: trying to force myself into a Reconstructionist mold was actually pushing me away from the divine, not propelling me towards it.

When I realized it, I almost breathed a sigh of relief. I was getting to that same place I always get, when I wake up one morning and decide that everything I thought was so great last night is now stupid and even embarrassing. And that’s not acceptable: if Reconstructionism makes me embarrassed about my gods–gods whose presence I believe I have really felt–then regardless of the arguments for it, Reconstructionism is not for me.

Although I have had powerful experiences with gods who were worshipped by the ancient Greeks, I don’t necessarily feel like that means that I am bound to worship them or think about them the way the ancient Greeks did. In fact, I feel that there’s no particular reason at all to draw that conclusion except for lack of any other viable spiritual avenue.

This is not to say that I think the religious practices of the ancients are irrelevant or worthless: at the moment my spiritual life consists primarily of prayer, libations, and small sacrifices of barleycorns and wine to the gods. Those are practices that the ancients most certainly would recognize if they walked into my living room or kitchen today. But I can’t see myself identifying as a true Recon for a number of reasons (partly a gut thing, and partly because I’m not sure the Greek Myth paradigm punches all of the spiritual buttons that I feel like need to be punched in order to be fulfilled, but more on that in a future post), and I certainly have no interest in drawing the borders of my spiritual beliefs and practices in the range that is generally considered acceptable to Reconstructionists.

So the gods are in, but Hellenismos is out. What does that mean for me? I have indicated that I have a hunger for the divine that I want to fill, and I have an intuition that appropriate spiritual practice is an extremely important part of what I am after. So where do I get those practices? Do I look outside myself at all for the limits of my belief, or do I shoot completely from the hip, accepting the consequences and dealing with the likelihood that in the end my beliefs will be an undisciplined pile of incomprehensible, substanceless mish-mash? Or is that really true, or is it just the Mormon in me still thinking that religion is only legitimate if its borders are clearly defined and its beliefs and practices are clearly prescribed by a hierarchical authority? These are the questions that try my soul. Not as an academic exercise, but as real things for me to consider as I try to move forward spiritually.

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When I think of direction in religion and my ongoing conundrum, some of my difficulties fit the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy really well.  Simply put, in terms of Apollonian religious experience, Christianity is the most appealing and compelling to me.  Christianity (and for me I mean mostly Episcopalian/Anglican Protestantism) is beautiful: I love the liturgy, the hymns, I love the churches.  I like the idea of a professional, trained clergy, and am comfortable with a degree of hierarchical authority, especially when it is given legitimacy by the weight of tradition, and when it is unable or unwilling to exercise its authority in a heavy-handed or abusive way.  I like an authoritative clergy, not an authoritarian one.  I like the freedom of thought that is (often) preserved in Episcopalianism.  I like Christian theology and history.  I like churches and cathedrals, and the entire aesthetic of Christianity.

But on the Dionysian side, nothing happens.  Jesus does not intoxicate me.  I am not in love with Jesus.  I don’t feel a connection to Jesus, a relationship with Him.  Nothing, nada, not at all.  I have no problem with Jesus conceptually–I think he’s pretty great, and the idea of a personal, mystical relationship with the incarnate God of the Universe is amazing to me.  But I can’t figure out how to make it happen at all.

I’m sure someone is going to say that that side of religion is not important or crucial, but they’re wrong, at least when it comes to me.  I’m not just going to embrace a religion because it sounds good and looks good on paper.  I need something more.  I hunger for the divine, and the Apollonian, while really important, simply does not sate that hunger.  So I am just not okay with a spiritual direction where I don’t make some kind of contact with god.

I actually started to wonder if maybe the mystical/Dionysian side of religion either didn’t exist, or just wasn’t going to happen for me.  I was waiting for it, and trying to put myself in situations where it could happen: I didn’t want to close myself off to the possibility of some kind of Road to Emmaus moment, but at the same time I was wary about lowering the bar on mystical experience too far.  If Mormonism taught me only one thing about religion, it is how easy it is to manufacture your own spiritual experiences if you want them bad enough and are willing to deceive yourself.

So, perhaps you can imagine my surprise and the eager excitement I felt when a Dionysian experience really did happen to me.  Perhaps you can also understand the special irony in the fact that I felt this Dionysian connection not with Jesus or Yahweh at all, but of all deities, …with Dionysus.  More on that in a future post, though.  Suffice it to say that at this point, my barrier to Christianity is not just that I am not getting the mystical access to Jesus that I want and need, but that I am actually getting it somewhere else.

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When I read Emergent writers like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, I find myself nodding and agreeing with so much of what they say.  I find the emergent conversation compelling enough that I actually sought out the church that McLaren founded, and that’s where my wife and I go every Sunday these days.

There’s a lot about the emergent conversation that I really like.  But I also have some problems with it that I would like to discuss.   These problems are interrelated and difficult to make really distinct, so they don’t really lend themselves to a bullet-point list in order of importance or something like that.  Instead, I’ll just pretty much tackle the whole thing at once, starting wherever and typing until I feel like I’ve said all I have to say.

One problem I have is that I see, for the most part, the emergent conversation/emerging church is really a child of evangelical Christianity as opposed to Christianity as a whole.  In a way, it seems like a kind of mini-Protestantism, emerging from fundamentalism and evangelicalism the way Protestant Christianity emerged from Catholicism.  The thing was, in the fifteenth century, Catholicism is all there was, so the Reformation was a big thing- its adherents were birthed from the entirety of western Christianity.

By contrast, the emerging church is mostly just the product of evangelicalism, which is only a small slice of current Christianity.  Thus, I feel like it rests on many evangelical assumptions, despite trying its best to be ecumenical and “generous” in its theology and outlook.

In short, I feel like emergent Christianity (and I knowingly use the terms “emerging” and “emergent” interchangeably, Mark Driscoll’s opinions notwithstanding) begins by making evangelical assumptions, finds problems there, and simply assumes that the answers can’t be found anywhere else in Christianity.  Even in McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, which is a great book, and you should read it, the hat-tip he gives to the rest of Christianity is largely superficial, and betrays his deel evangelical/fundamentalist roots.

Why do I care about this?  Well, for one thing, I have some concerns about evangelical Christianity that the emerging church doesn’t really resolve.  Second, recent things I’ve read make me wonder if the emerging church isn’t really just trying to reinvent the wheel, while rejecting the possibility that the wheel has actually already been invented and refined if not perfected.

I just finished reading Rowan Williams’s book Where God Happens.  Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion.  I plan on posting something lengthy about Anglicanism in the near future, but suffice to say for the moment that Anglicanism is one of the paths I am seriously considering in my journey towards Jesus Christ, but I also have very serious doubts and reservations.

Where God Happens is a short book about the Desert Fathers and the relevance for people today of their teachings, sayings, and way of life.  Interestingly enough, the concepts that Dr. Williams pulls out of the sayings and practices of the Desert Fathers are in many ways extremely similar to the theological ideas and concepts of the emergent church.

This was an extraordinary discovery for me.  Until that point, the emergent conversation had been my oasis, the shining example of what it seemed like Christianity should really be about.  But here is the Archbishop of Canterbury invoking the fourth-century Desert Fathers (and Mothers; let’s not leave out Amma Syncletica) and the result is basically the same message!  In particular, the ideas about community and relationship and Christian discipleship are startlingly similar to the theological ideas of McLaren et al.  But more importantly, this same message is in a context that lends it so much more authority- or at least that makes it so much more authoritative- than the hemming and hawing we’re-just-regular-guys McLaren and Bell even come close to.  This is completely steeped in the fullness of Christian history and tradition.

The result is that I start to wonder about putting too many of my eggs in the emergent basket.  If they’re just reinventing the wheel, they’re doing it in a humble but arrogant way, assuming that the wheel hasn’t already been invented and highly refined just because they don’t find the wheel in their narrow evangelical and fundamentalist backgrounds.

If all of the things that I like about emergent theology are there for the discovering in historic orthodox Christianity, then maybe emergent Christianity isn’t as great asI thought it was, especially considering my other concerns with evangelicalism that are carried over into the emergent conversation.

Another concern I have with the emergent conversation is in terms of the practice of worship.  While one stream of the emergent conversation is concerned with reworking and refining theology, there’s another, maybe more major stream that is concerned with new and relevant ways of worship.  I am not as excited about this stream, although it is generally seen by the rest of the evangelical world as the more acceptable facet of emergent Christianity.

These new ways of worship often involve pairing religious innovation with recovered ancient Christian traditions.  Once again, my problem is that this is completely from an evangelical standpoint.  The ancient traditions of worship and spirituality are not lost; they have merely been abandoned by evangelical Protestantism.  They are still easy to find and access in many Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and even traditional Protestant churches and communities.  And when the emergent church “recaptures” these traditions, they always seem so much more… superficial than they do when seen in practice in their traditional context, in something like an Eastern Orthodox Liturgy.

Furthermore, I’m not necessarily always excited about innovative worship.  To me, it assumes that the traditional ways have been fully mined for meaning and there’s none left, so we need to make up something new.  And I challenge that assertion.  I think part of the problem is a media-soaked culture that has forgotten how to be still and reflective, how to take time, to be thoughtful, and to let spiritual things penetrate deeply.  I think if we could recover contemplation, then the traditional ways of worship, the ones that have proven themselves relevant to human beings for up to twenty centuries, will still be just as relevant as they have always been.

I think there is room for thoughtful innovation in worship, but I think it is a thing that should be done carefully and deliberately, not recklessly.

My final criticism of the emerging church is its concern with being relevant to the postmodern person, and its general marriage to postmodernism.  As a postmodern person, it seems great, but at the same time, I long for a faith that stands outside of and independent of philosophical trends and momentary (compared to the continuity of human history) ways of thinking.  Christianity existed before modernism, and I think embracing modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to Christianity (I’ll post more about this later, but in my opinion, embracing modernism means either taking the path of theological liberalism or the path of theological fundamentalism, both of which make Christianity look foolish).  At the same time, I have no real confidence that people won’t say the same thing about postmodernism in a few hundred years.  Postmodernism may be a new way of thinking and a refreshing alternative to modernism, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve “finally gotten it right.”  Down the road, postmodernism will be outdated and will be junked with all of the other antiquated philosophical frameworks that humanity has consigned to the collective cognitive dusty attic.

I think Christianity should be able to stand outside of passing waves of philosophy- it should be something that endures apart from and independent of “the way people think.”  It should be an alternative to the current philosophical trend, not just one more manifestation of it.  It might make Christianity difficult to the individual who is hesitant to set aside his conventional philosophical framework, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  I believe that there are ways in which Christianity should be difficult.  When Jesus Christ said his yoke was easy and his burden was light, I really don’t think he meant that his way meant not having to change the way we live and think.  In fact, I’m fairly convinced that he meant the opposite.

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First, before you read this post and certainly before you comment, go back and at least read The Old Limbo Crossroads, to get some background. It’s better if you’re new to this blog to get completely caught up by reading What’s Going On, but the previous Crossroads is really the bare minimum.

Okay, now on to the topic at hand, which is Evangelical Christianity.

I grew up Mormon, but I grew up in East Tennessee, which means that most of my peers were Evangelical Christians of some kind. Most of my close friends were nonreligious or Roman Catholic, but most of the Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years was evangelical.

In particular, I had one really good evangelical friend whose name was Brock. We had kind of a common understanding that meant we didn’t try to convert each other, but through him I was exposed to a lot of the people that he went to church with. This exposure was often limited, but it was significant: these were people who really believed in Jesus Christ, who lived Christ-centered lives, and who were happy about it. You could see it in their faces, that Jesus Christ had made a difference. It was something that I did not see in my fellow Mormons, and it was something that stuck with me and was not easy to reconcile, even on my mission. I often thought back to these people and wondered how, if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was really Christ’s church on earth, how these non-members could be so obviously and vibrantly Christian.

As I served my mission, my understanding of Jesus Christ developed and it drifted towards a more full understanding of grace, one which I inevitably had to try to reconcile with Mormonism (and I did it by constantly revising the Gospel According To Kullervo). Most of the doubts I had about Mormonism were laced with Evangelical concerns. My personal understanding of Jesus Christ ultimately developed into something very Protestant, with Mormonism’s specific practices and odd doctrinal quirks pretty much tacked on to the side.

Thus, last year when I finally started giving serious voice to my doubts about Mormonism, it was because I increasingly saw Mormonism as something that did not match my understanding of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and what I thought Christianity was all about.

Granted, leaving Mormonism ultimately led me to have to seriously examine, and in the end dig up and re-plant, my belief in Jesus Christ and in God. But I feel at this point that I have come full circle and I am now back in a place where I can state without (much) reservation that I believe in Jesus and I want to follow him.

Anyway, because of all of this, Evangelical Christianity is attractive to me. I have very little interest in theological liberalism (a topic that I will address in a future post), and reading some of the writers in the Emergent conversation (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller) within Evangelical Christianity has done a great deal to resolve many of my major theological concerns, showing me that I actually can be an Evangelical Christian without being a mindless fundamentalist or a rabid Republican. It has all been extremely compelling.

Right now my family is attending Cedar Ridge Community Church, which is a kind of emergent Evangelical nondenominational church, and it’s a really good place. It has a lot going for it. I agree with everything they preach form the pulpit, but in a way that challenges me instead of leaving me complacent. I am excited about their commitment to reaching out and blessing the world in so many ways. It is a church where I have few objections. But the more time goes by, and the more I find myself wanting to seriously follow, serve, and draw closer to, Jesus Christ, the more those objections seem to be a big deal.

Most of my objections have to do with Evangelical Christianity in general as opposed to the church we attend in specific.

The first is a question of authority, or more properly, of authoritative-ness. I guess I believe that all authority is given to Jesus Christ, like it says in the gospels, and that this authority still resides in Jesus, as opposed to being found in a book or in a pedigree of clergy or priesthood. Since Jesus promised us that when we are gathered in his name, he is among us, we have access to his authority when we are acting in his name.

That’s fine and good, and it’s actually kind of a tangent, because it’s not really my problem. My problem is that in the church I attend, there’s a real sense of all being on the journey together, like we’re all trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the best way we can, and we’re helping each other do that. That sounds great, but it doesn’t do the trick for me.

While there may be Authority, the kind that actually only Jesus has from the Father, I don’t feel like this set-up is very authoritative. Trustworthy. Reliable. Solid. I don’t feel like this church as an institution has much of any weight behind it whatsoever. It doesn’t feel solid. I’m not saying I think it won’t last- the church has been around for 25 years after all. But what is 25 years in the nearly 2000-year history of Christianity? What institutional experience and wisdom can there even be in an organization that is so new, especially one that is both Evangelical and Emergent, both of which in the context of church history mean some measure of rejection of broad arrays of Christian tradition?

My point is that I don’t feel like Evangelical churches are authoritative. I don’t think the Bible alone makes them authoritative, either, and I also don’t even think belief in Jesus Christ makes them authoritative.

What I’m trying to say is this- I wouldn’t feel confident going to the pastor at Cedar Ridge for personal or spiritual guidance. I feel like he’s just a guy, same as me, trying to figure thigs out. That has a certain appeal, sure, especially from the pulpit (there isn’t technically a pulpit, but that’s beside the point), but at the same time it doesn’t make me feel like he’s a spiritual leader that I could turn to. As far as I know, he hasn’t been to a seminary or anything. It’s kind of a surprise that that matters to me, growing up Mormon with a lay clergy, but as it turns out I think it actually matters a lot.

So with Evangelical Christianity, I have problems with how authoritative I feel the institutions and clergy are. My second problem is more theological. In theory, I believe in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, once for all. I believe in salvation by grace through faith. I believe that the price for my sins has already been paid, that I am already forgiven before I even did anything wrong.

My problem is that that sounds great on paper and in conversation, but it seems too abstract in practice. Let’s say I do something wrong, and feel bad about it. What am I supposed to do to be right with God? My theology tells me that inasmuch as I have faith in Jesus Christ, I am already right with God. But that doesn’t seem very real. I feel like I’m left trying to convince myself that I’m already forgiven and that it’s already taken care of and I should just be thankful for what Jesus did for me. But I still feel really bad, and all I can do is try, in vain, to talk myself out of the guilt.

It’s all abstract: I just have to trust that my wrongs were already righted 2,000ish years ago so I have nothing to worry about. But I have a hard time convincing myself of it. Maybe it’s because I really don’t have faith. Maybe it’s because I’m still stuck in a Mormon mindset that demands I earn my salvation. I don’t know. But at the very least, I would like something concrete to do, at least an outward manifestation of reconciliation, so I can have some kind of closure on my sins. I’m not talking about earning forgiveness; I know I can’t do that. I just mean that I want to be able to somehow make concrete the abstract idea of my salvation by the grace of God. And Evangelical Christianity, in my opinion, doesn’t really offer that. It has no real sacraments, no clergy to confess to. It seems like the whole religion is just about deciding you believe, and then being glad about it.

I see it seem work for other people, and in theory I think it sounds great. But in practice it doesn’t seem to have any effect. I don’t feel transformed, healed, or even justified by just “realizing it’s all okay.”

Maybe I’ve missed the point- maybe Christianity is about realizing, for real, that it is okay, that Jesus made it so when you believe in him your sins are gone, and there’s nothing you have to do but acknowledge and accept it, for real. Maybe my insistence on some external performance is holding me back from real conversion, real faith, and the kind of transformational Christianity that I’m hungry for. I acknowledge the possibility. But it doesn’t change anything. And reassurances from other Christians that I’m on the right track are nice and supportive, but they’re not authoritative- they’re just more people like me, in the same boat as I am. What do they know? How are they more trustworthy than I am?

I imagine that the person that I really should trust is Jesus, that he has told me himself that he has atoned for my sins, and that anything else would just be noise. Maybe. But it doesn’t seem to be happening, to really be connecting. Again, I am left feeling like I’m just trying to talk myself out of feeling guilty.

I’ve talked about forgiveness for sins as probably the most important example, but the principles apply to the sum total of religious life. Evangelical Christianity has all of the action happen in the long ago and far away, and thus in the inaccessible abstract.

My third problem with Evangelical Christianity is the form of worship. For the most part, praise bands and Christian pop music do absolutely nothing for me. I want the deep spirituality of liturgy and hymns. I’m not trying to be a worship-consumer or anything, but modern, contemporary worship just doesn’t feel like it has any weight behind it. It is sincere but ephemeral, and seems to be primarily a matter of emotional appeal. Part of leaving Mormonism was the realization that emotions are not the same thing as the Holy Spirit. Emotions are the product of propaganda as often as they are the product of nearness to God.

Evangelical Christianity (particularly, for me at least, the emergent conversation) is firmly rooted in scripture, reason (within the context of faith), and mysticism (i.e. the Holy Spirit), but has abandoned tradition almost entirely. I know the emergent conversation has made overtures at recapturing some tradition, but in my opinion it’s been barely more than a token effort, and comes across as superficial to me.

In fact, sometimes Evangelical Christianity seems altogether tacky and plastic, not anything like an ancient Middle Eastern (or even European) faith tradition, and certainly not anything like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Finally, I have some issues with Community. I feel like Christian community is absolutely critical, as Jesus commanded his disciples to be one even as he is one with the Father. I realize that the emergent conversation has tried to emphasize this, but in practice it seems ot not be happening. How do you have authentic community in a megachurch?

Even at Cedar Ridge, which is certainly no megachurch, it seems to me like the congregation might be too big for authentic community, and although they try really hard (and admirably) to foster community, it seems artificial. It’s like they’re trying to make a plant by mixing the component parts all together in a bowl, instead of planting the seeds, setting up the right conditions, and cultivating it as it grows.

Anyway, I have a strange love-hate relationship with Evangelical Christianity, and I’m hesitant to embrace it more fully than I already have, while at the same time, it has things that I want and need that I don’t know if I really can find anywhere else. And I feel like I must face the real possibility that my hesitation is because of the lingering effects of my Mormon roots, or maybe because I simply haven’t fully been able to understand and appreciate what Jesus Christ is all about.

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