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Posts Tagged ‘Community’

I have this whole list of things I am struggling with spiritually right now. It’s a thing I do maybe every six months when my level of frustration about God and church and spirituality starts to bubble over and I lose my grip on my ability to articulate just what exactly is the problem. Because it’s never just one problem, it’s always a bunch of interconnected problems so the one-sentence answer is never really sufficient. So I try to write it all down, chart it all out, and explain it, first and foremost to myself, but also to anyone else who is trying to come alongside me and finding me frustrating. Inevitably, the list/chart/diagram/equation is completely different from what it was when I did the same thing six months earlier. I definitely have a sense of a moving target. Someone less charitable might say that I am always looking for something to be dissatisfied about, but being dissatisfied feels bad, so I am definitely not being dissatisfied on purpose.

So right now I have a new list, and at the top it says BELONGING/INTEGRATION. I don’t know that this is the most important thing on my list, but it’s arbitrarily first, so I’m going to write about it first. It also clearly connects to my previous post, about embracing my identity as a Mormon despite my non-membership and non-belief. And, of course, it’s two different things, and could certainly be two entries on the list. Sorry; this is just gonna have to be the way it is.

Deep in my gut, I feel like knowing God and following Jesus is something that should be done in deep community. This is probably partially baggage from my Mormon upbringing–I first learned about God in tight-knit Mormon spaces, as a part of a community of believers with a strong, discrete cultural identity. So, by default, that’s what it feels like how knowing God and following Jesus should be shaped.

My problem is that I don’t really have that, and I might have to make peace with the idea of never really having that.

In the past few years of so, during which I have been sort of evangelical or at least I have existed in various states of evangelical-adjacency, one thing has been crystal clear to me: evangelicals are not my people. Everything about evangelicals and evangelical culture and evangelical expressions of worship and spirituality feels like petting the cat backwards. And it’s not just a matter of unfamiliarity or newness. I have put in the time and effort, and it always feels 100% wrong. Setting aside my theological problems with evangelicalism (I will write a post about them later, but it boils down to Matthew 7:16), the whole endeavor just does not fit me right. I never feel at home.

This ill-fittingness isn’t just in evangelical churches; it’s in all evangelical spaces. I have many lovely evangelical friends with whom I love spending time and being in community, but as soon as you get more than about three of them in a group together, the air changes and I can’t breathe anymore.

I could certainly go and look for community in non-evangelical churches, but to be honest, my community bandwidth is pretty full already. My wife and I put hospitality at the top of our list of values, and we have a lot of people in our lives. And, as I alluded above, despite my dissatisfaction and difficulty with evangelical spaces, we do have a lot of community with evangelical people. So the idea of making space for a whole additional community of church people is pretty daunting, especially since church people are not exactly on my new friends wish list.

And more importantly, I have no particular reason to think that I will fully fit into any community of believers because I am coming to realize that I will never be able to be just one thing, spiritually. I can’t fully be one with my Methodist congregation (not that I have one, or am planning to; it’s just an example) because I have discovered that I still have a big part of me that has a Mormon identity. And I have some part of me that has a pagan identity, too. And probably another spiritual identity or two. I’m not going to be able to fully become part of a community because I will always be fractured. I belong too many places, so I will never really belong in any of them. In being true to myself and trying to know God with all of me, follow Jesus with all of me, I have to let go of the idea that I will be able to do that in deep community with others, because, in the wise words of Rocket Raccoon, “Ain’t no thing like me, except me!”

And that’s how we get to Integration. I am discovering that one of the biggest obstacles I have to knowing God deeply is knowing him with all of my pieces, and that means collecting them and honoring and acknowledging all of them. And that places limits on the extent to which I can truly know God in community.

I will admit that this makes me sad. It is a thing I have to mourn. I miss it. The Mormon idea of Zion, the utopian vision of a people who are deeply in community with each other and with God, of one heart and one mind with no poor among them, is an idea that is deeply embedded in my psyche. But I don’t know that I am able to be of one heart and one mind with anyone. It’s certainly not going to happen at church.

On the other hand, I had lunch today with Pastor Lura Groen, and she said that there are more people like me, with fragmented spiritual identities and messes of baggage, than I realize, and that for people like me, building a deep community can mean constructing a support system from people who are a part of or on the fringes of different groups and circles–a person or two here and a person or two there. So maybe there is still a Zion for me, even if it doesn’t look like the image of Zion that I have in my head.

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mormon-jesus-gethsemane

[After posting this, my beautiful and sexy wife pointed out the huge hole in my thesis, so I am going to re-tool the post and re-post it in the near future, but I am leaving it up for now even though it is massively flawed.]

So, in light of some frustrating discussions lately with Mormons about the nature of the Atonement (most particularly this one), I think I have managed to nail down two competing Mormon Atonement narratives or models:

1. Heavenly Father requires your perfect obedience in order for you to qualify for exaltation (“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—-and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.D&C 130:20-21). Mortals are born innocent and fully able to obey Heavenly Father’s commandments, but we have free will and we are subjected to temptation, and so each of us will inevitably, sometimes, break the commandments. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane to pay the price for all of our sins and transgressions, and because of his sacrifice, we are able to go through the repentance process and have our sins effectively erased, so that we are counted in Heavenly Father’s eyes as if you had kept the perfect standard (so mercy satisfies the irrevocably decreed demand of justice). However, over time, in the eternities, we will stumble and fall short less and less, and eventually progress to where we, like Heavenly Father, no longer need repentance.

Put simply, we qualify for exaltation by never deviating from the standard of perfection. If and when we do deviate, the Atonement erases the deviation so that it is as if we had never sinned. So our exaltation is something that we earn by perfect obedience, and to the extent we are unable to be perfectly obedient, Jesus takes up the shortfall if we have faith in him, repent and have our sins washed away by baptism (and regularly renew our baptism through taking the sacrament).

I think that this model is internally consistent, and generally more supportable from Mormon sources across the standard works and the words of latter-day prophets and apostles. I think that it reflects a Mormonism that can be found in Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness. I suspect that older Mormons, Mormons who live in more homogenous Mormon communities and more traditionally-minded Mormons are more likely to espouse this first model. If you had asked me to explain the Atonement as an adolescent or early on my mission, I would have explained it in terms of this first model.

I also think that this first model is thoroughly Pelagian.

2. Heavenly Father wants to bring about our exaltation, which is a thing of infinite worth and so it comes with an infinite price. We have no means of paying an infinite price, so justice demands that we can’t be given an infinite gift that we did not earn. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane, paying an infinite price on our behalf, essentially purchasing our exaltation for us. We can then take part in the exaltation that Jesus has bought with his sacrifice when we fulfill the requirements that he has set: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost and enduring to the end.

In this model, we do not directly qualify for exaltation. We qualify for it only indirectly through Jesus, who pays the entire price to obtain it, and then grants it to us (or gives us access to it) if we, in a separate transaction, meet the requirements he sets out. Mercy thus satisfies justice twice: once when Jesus pays an infinite price for our exaltation that we cannot pay, and once when he gives it to us for a price we can.

I also think that this second model is generally internally consistent, but I do not think it is as consistent with historical Mormon sources. We could probably have an argument about the degree of tension it has with other Mormon ideas, doctrines and texts. I think that it reflects a contemporary, PR-conscious and interfaith-dialogue-minded Mormonism that emphasizes the role of Jesus Christ and the Atonement, minimizes historic Momronism, and is influenced by Stephen E. Robinson’s Believing Christ. I suspect that younger Mormons and Mormons who live in diverse, pluralist urban centers and Mormons who are more engaged with postmodern culture are more likely to espouse this second model. I would not be surprised if, in a generation or two, this second model becomes overwhelmingly the norm among Mormons and will be taught consistently from the pulpit as if it had always been the norm. I would have explained the Atonement in terms of this second model towards the end of my mission and as a Mormon adult.

I’m not sure if the second model is Pelagian or not (kinda doesn’t matter since it’s still based on a completely and thoroughly heretical Christology). I suspect that Mormons who espouse the second model would assert that it is consistent with Protestant ideas about salvation by faith through grace, but I think you would have to look hard to find a Protestant who would agree.

Given the Mormon tendency to eschew systematic theology, I think that many Mormons probably hold oth models without giving it a lot of thought and without thinking about whether the models are consistent (not that Mormons lack the intellectual rigor to do so; I think they are just more likely to approach the atonement devotionally instead of theologically, and be satisfied* with any illustration or explanation of the Atonement that is sufficiently moving, reverent, and not obviously inconsistent with other Mormon doctrine).

To my Mormon readers: Do either of these models fairly represent your beliefs about the Atonement? Which one do you think is the most consistent with scripture and the teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles? Do you think that these models are mutually exclusive? If not, why not?

To everyone else, let me know your thoughts and observations. Let’s discuss.

*Did you see what I did there?

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Kate Douglas has written an article for the New Scientist on what the “ideal religion” would look like:

What form would the ideal religion take? Some might argue that instead of redesigning religion, we should get rid of it. But it is good for some things: religious people are happier and healthier, and religion offers community. Besides, secularism has passed its zenith, according to Jon Lanman, who studies atheism at the University of Oxford. In a globalised world, he says, migrations and economic instability breed fear, and when people’s values feel under threat, religion thrives.

Jacobs lists off four categories or basic functions of religion (sacred party, therapy, mystical quest, and school) and describes how most of the existing world religions do one of these very well and ignore or fail to excel at the others. Jacobs’s ideal religion would excel at all four:

While each appeals to a different sort of person, they all tap into basic human needs and desires, so a new world religion would have a harmonious blend of them all: the euphoria and sensual trappings of a sacred party, the sympathy and soothing balms of therapy, the mysteries and revelations of an eternal journey and the nurturing, didactic atmosphere of a school.

Numerous festivals, holidays and rituals would keep followers hooked. “Rites of terror” such as body mutilation are out – although they bind people together very intensely, they are not usually compatible with world religions (New Scientist, 19 December 2009, p 62). Still, highly rousing, traumatic rituals might still feature as initiation ceremonies, because people tend to be more committed to a religion and tolerant of its failings after paying a high price for entry.

The everyday rituals will focus on rhythmic dancing and chanting to stimulate the release of endorphins, which Robin Dunbar, also at Oxford, says are key to social cohesion. To keep people coming back, he also prescribes “some myths that break the laws of physics, but not too much”, and no extreme mysticism, as it tends to lead to schisms.

With many gods and great tolerance of idiosyncratic local practices, the new religion will be highly adaptable to the needs of different congregations without losing its unifying identity. The religion will also emphasise worldly affairs – it would promote the use of contraceptives and small families and be big on environmental issues, philanthropy, pacifism and cooperation.

I’m not sure about downplaying the value of mysticism or the necessity of pacifism, but the interesting thing (as pointed out by Sannion over at the House of Vines) is that Jacobs has basically described ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion.

As Apuleius Platonicus pointed out, Jacobs’s description is lacking in a few other areas as well. Such an ideal religion ought to honor human sexuality and celebrate reason and learning.

But these are honestly quibbles that could be worked out in the long run, or better yet, there would just be room within this kind of big-tent religion for different viewpoints. Most importantly, however, as pointed out by paosirdjhutmosu is that this kind of article and this kind of thinking undermines the notion of religions progress that people like Rodney Stark sell so hard, and that so many people seem to accept as a given, the idea that the course of human religious history has somehow been a linear progression from a darker mirror to a clearer one, and that therefore modern religions are necessarily better than older ones. Like all notions of progress, this is an extremely suspect assumption, with very little to back it up other than plain-old-fashioned massive bias in favor of the current status quo. Now must be better because it’s now. That’s nonsense. Social and cultural change happen for a host of reasons, and there’s nothing in the process that makes sure that the end-product is more functional or healthier for human beings.

I don’t think articles like this are going to turn people towards the old gods in massive numbers or anything, but I like that we see this kind of thinking more and more.

I also definitely want to point out that while this “ideal religion” describes ancient Greco-Roman polytheism fairly well, it wound not specifically have to be Greco-Roman polytheism. I for one would gladly welcome an open, mystical, transcendental, green Christianity with room to give proper honor to saints, angels, ancestors and local kindred spirits of the earth.

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I was navigating through my WordPress dashboard and once again I noticed the list of unfinished drafts sitting there. The familiar twinge of guilt came, followed by the old, habitual “You’ll get to it eventually” lie that I tell myself. It’s time I faced the truth: I am probably never going to finish writing those posts. That being said, there is no reason that the unposted ideas should simply die.

Therefore I have decided to do them all in one go, as “stubs.” A list of rough ideas for posts I never got around to actually writing and that I probably never will write, alsong with any bits of them that I think are particularly worth sharing.

So without further ado:

Are Wiccans Really Pagan?: After the hubub following the Parliament of World Religions, this is sort of a dead horse. My opinion is that labels are mostly just semantic, but they do matter because they influence how we think about things, how we generalize, and thus how we interpret the world. Despite the fact a Hellenic polytheist may pay lip service to some of the same gods as a Wiccan, I do not think that Wicca and Reconstructionist Polytheism are even in the same category of religions. The term “earth-based” gets bandied about a lot, but I think it’s bullshit rhetoric. What does it even mean to be “earth-based,” and what makes a religion “earth-based?” In what way is your religion (or mine, or anyone else’s) “earth-based?” It has been taken for granted by most that all of the disparate religions and spiritual paths that congregate under the broad umbrella of “Neopaganism” actually belong together, but it is my opinion that they do not. I think that Neopaganism as a conceptual category is a net negative: by thinking of all of these religions as related, it causes people to treat them as if they are related, and it pushes their adherents to practice them as if they are related, and in the end, I think that is bad for everyone involved. I think that a Hellenic polytheist without a neopagan background has a lot more in common with a Hindu than he or she does with most Wiccans or neo-druids.

BYU vs. The Bakkhai: Last year, Brigham Young University canceled a performance of Euripides’ The Bakkhai, because it had “adult material.” I think that’s lame for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it is a kind of religious censorship. The Bakkhai, as originally conceived and performed, was a part of the Dionysian theater festival. It wasn’t entertainment; it was religion. By not allowing the Bakkhai because of its content, BYU actually censored the exprsssion of another religion. BYU is a Mormon university, so I guess it can do that if it wants, but it’s the kind of thing that strikes me as a petty and desperate form of ideological control. The best part about it is that one of the central messages of the Bakkhai is that by denying the place of Dionysus–by denying the wildness and the transgressory reveler within us–we give rise to tragedy. Our Dionysian natures will have their expression whether we want them to or not. We either drink the wine and dance with the maenads in a controlled and ultimately harmess expression of our untamed natures, or we try to deny them, and subject ourselves to savage backlash. And that is exactly what BYU has done, and exactly what Mormonism does: by trying to deny the Natural Man completely, Mormonism only invites him to come back and haunt us in far darker and more destructive ways.

Rolling Stone Is Kind Of Lame: I subscribed to Rolling Stone because I am a music enthusiast and because it was inexpensive, but usually I find myself irritated and disappointed by every issue. As long as the magazine sticks to music, it’s decent (although sometimes unnecessarily snide and nasty, as they were with the Taylor Swift cover story), but every time it ventures into politics and society, it does so ridiculously. News Flash, Rolling Stone: knee-jerk partisan support for the Democratic Party platform is not rock and roll rebellion.

I May Be A Civilian But I Will Never Be Civilized: My end of term of service date with the National Guard came and went, which means I am no longer even an active reservist. Getting out at that time was practical and prudent, but not a day goes by that I don’t wish I was back in. I had some bad times in the Army, but I had some incredible times, too, and for the last three years, being in the Army has made me happy. My heart aches to be a soldier again., and if I can figure out a way to make it happen, I will.

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Sorry this post has been so long in coming.  I haven’t had much time to put together a long post that meaningfully addresses complex and abstract issues, and on top of that, I sunk into a period of total spiritual apathy that I might just now be coming out of.

As I indicated in the introductory post to this series, I feel like I am standing at a spiritual crossroads of sorts.  Two of the paths that I have been honestly considering in my journey towards Christ are Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

One of my concerns with Protestantism in general, and with Evangelical Protestantism in specific, is that I see a lack of authoritative-ness, both institutional and personal.  Particularly in the emergent conversation, clergymen don’t come across as trustworthy guides or wise counselors because they come across as regular people just trying to figure things out.  I’m not saying that I think clergy should have all the answers and not be on spiritual journeys of their own, but there’s a sense in which I want clergy to be something more than just another person at church, who happens to be able to give a good sermon.

So I think I am looking for a church with an ordained clergy, and a church with institutional weight.  At the very least, “having been around a long time” means having, as an institution, weathered all kinds of turmoil and change without being destroyed by it.  To me, an older church feels generally more trustworthy and reliable simply by virtue of its age, and the collected wisdom of generations that goes along with it.

What churches have that more than Catholicism and Orthodoxy?

Furthermore, I’m looking for a church that is genuinely sacramental, one that includes outward expressions of faith and repentance to accompany the inward changes that seem so elusive and ephemeral.  I also want sacraments that are something more than a clever symbol that can be changed at will.  Although I believe that sacraments are largely symbolic, I think that too much emphasis on their symbolic nature renders them weightless and inconsequential.

So far, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy seem to fit the bill most perfectly.

I’m also looking for a church where there’s a real sense of community, more than “hanging around for donuts and lemonade after church and chatting with the peopel you’re friends with.”  What impressed me so much the one time I went to an Eastern Orthodox (OCA) was that they actually all sat down together for a meal when liturgy was finished.  In both Catholicism and Orthodoxy, I think there is a sense of identity that is fundamental to community that I haven’t seen in most Protestantism.

Finally, perhaps because of tradition and institutional age and wisdom, it seems to me that Catholicism and Orthodoxy have been able to escape the twin evils of fundamentalism and theological liberalism that plague Protestantism so doggedly.

So why don’t I just become Catholic or Orthodox?  I have a couple of reasons.   First, my understanding of and belief in Jesus Christ is actually fairly Protestant.  Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would essentially involve rethinking and re-imagining everything I already believe, and I’m not sure I want to do that.  It’s not that I’m complacent or scared to re-think, but that my Protestant understanding of Jesus is intimately tied up in my decision to believe in Jesus in the first place.  adopting a totally new view of atonement and salvation would mean a complete rethinking of Christianity, and I’m not sure I want to do that.

Second, both churches have doctrines that are often troubling and in my opinion wrong: Catholicism has  it worst here, with things like the ban on contraception, the celibate priesthood, and transubstantiation.  But Orthodoxy doesn’t necessarily escape doctrinal scrutiny either.  Their beliefs and doctrines may be verifiably the oldest traditional Christian beliefs, but that doesn’t mean I agree with them.

At the same time, I have been wondering lately if submission isn’t actually an important component of Christian faith.  While there are unreasonable extremes, I wonder if it might actually be spiritually healthy to submit to authority and be teachable, and allow your opinions to conform to something greater.

If I’m just looking for the church that teaches exatctly what I believe, I might never be challenged and forced to grow.  I’m not sure.

My other problem, more one with Orthodoxy than Catholicism, is that they are in many ways very alien.  AI grew up Mormon, which claims all kinds of unique distinctiveness but in reality it has deep (and to me, obvious) roots in the frontier Protestantism of the early 19th century, so Protestantism is more culturally consonant for me.  Becoming Catholic or Orthodox would be almost as jarring as becoming Hindu.

Again, maybe that’s actually good- maybe encountering Christ shouldn’t be about being comfortable but instead should be about following him, even if it means following him into strange places.

I have a lot to think about.

Oh, and on a practical note- Orthodox liturgy is long, and you have to stand up the whole time.  I guess you get to sit down in Greek Orthodoxy, but it seems so much more of an ethnically rooted church, and, well, I’m not Greek.

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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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I’m trying to work through some things, some concerns and difficult Christianity issues, and I’m not finding an easy resolution to any of it.  In the meantime, it’s leaving me feeling extremely vulnerable.  Small.

My problem is this- I want to follow Jesus, but I don’t know the right way to do it.  I’m looking for spirituality, doctrine, theology, community, practice, a way of life, faith, the whole thing, but I’m not finding any of it.  And it leaves me with an uncertainty that’s almost as bad as the uncertainty I struggled with about the existence of God and whether I believed anything at all.

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