The church and the problem of “simplistic call and response on complex issues”

Some of the thinking I’m doing around the blog series I am currently writing, Why I Stopped Going to Church, has to do with the larger question of what the church is, particularly in its local expression, and out of that comes questions about the role it plays in public life. So it was with interest that I read a review of Jordan Ballor’s new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, written by Robert Joustra for Comment Magazine. (Robert and I have several mutual friends, and it was through them that I heard about his review.) Continue reading

Why I Stopped Going to Church, part 2.5

Read part one here and part two here.

This essay cross-posted from Jesus Needs New PR

I am still working on part three of this series, so in the meantime, I thought I’d post a passage from Frederick Buechner’s sermon Two Stories that a friend just reminded me of, from the same collection – Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons – as the Buechner sermon I mentioned in part two. I realize this means I’ve quoted Buechner four or five times in these posts so far, but one reason I do so is because I count myself among those who say they still call themselves Christians, at least in part, because of the writings of Frederick Buechner, and I’ll do everything within my power to convince others to read his work, especially his sermons and his memoirs – The Sacred Journey, Telling Secrets, and Now and Then are great introductions. Continue reading

Scott Cairns on Salvation and Jesus as Personal Savior

I’ve loved the work of poet Scott Cairns ever since I first heard him at Calvin College’s 2008 Festival of Faith and Writing. Scott is now blogging for – of all places – Huffington Post, and in his piece earlier this week on Rethinking Salvation: A One-Time Personal Event or a Continuous, Collective Effort?, he recounts what was my favorite story from the 2008 Festival, one I’ve mentioned in several blog posts over the last couple years (here and in Making Ourselves Known to Each Other and Jesus Lives in My Heart).

[W]hile salvation necessarily happens to persons, it is not to be understood as a merely personal matter.
I continue to enjoy, and enjoy repeating, the surprising response that a monk at Simonopetra gave to a man who, thinking he had come to evangelize the Holy Mountain, interrupted us to ask the kind father if Jesus Christ was his “personal savior.”

“No,” the smiling monk said without hesitation, “I like to share him.”

Thanks to the long-standing tradition that monk manifests, I have a developing sense that salvation finally must have to do with all of us, collectively, and that it must have to do with all else, as well — all of creation, in fact.

Read the full article here.

Why I Stopped Going to Church, part two

Read Part One here

This essay cross-posted from Jesus Needs New PR

Earlier this year, on the first Sunday in Lent, I walked into church hopeful that I would hear something of whatever it is we are all looking for, whatever we hope to find when we gather together with other believers, or, as Frederick Buechner says, at least would-be believers, part-time believers, believers with our fingers crossed.  And instead the congregation was treated to a bad morality tale.  The sermon delivered that morning to those hoping to hear some whisper of grace, some reason to believe or to keep on believing, some exploration of those big questions we all have, even the ones we are more often than not afraid to ask, was instead built around everyone knowing how “right” the speaker was in his opinions.  Like thousands of sermons I heard growing up, the speaker opened his sermon by assuring people how bad of a preacher he was, that whatever the sermon was about came from God and not from him.  It’s a brilliant set up, if you think about it.  It means that people know up front that if you disagree with anything they say, you are not disagreeing with them, but with GOD.  Using the phrases so familiar from my childhood, the words that provided the comfort and assurance that come from knowing you are absolutely right in everything you think, that not only is there absolute truth but that you have a complete grasp on it, the speaker that morning left no doubt that God was on his side – and you would be too, if only you weren’t so intent on rebelling against God (or him; the distinction was a little blurry by this point).

I walked out of the building that morning, squinting into the bright Nashville sun, shaking.

With anger.

With an overwhelming sense of loss. Continue reading

Why I Stopped Going to Church, part one

This essay cross-posted from Jesus Needs New PR

In When You Are Engulfed in Flames, a collection of essays published in 2008 by humorist David Sedaris, he explains his decision to stop smoking by telling a story about a friend he once had, a German woman.  Her English was less than perfect, and on one occasion, when asked if a neighbor smoked, her reply was, “Karl has… finished with his smoking.”  Sedaris writes: “She meant, of course, that he had quit, but I much preferred her mistaken version. “Finished” made it sound as if he’d been allotted a certain number of cigarettes, three hundred thousand, say, delivered at the time of his birth. If he’d started a year later or smoked more slowly, he might still be at it, but, as it stood, he had worked his way to the last one, and then moved on with his life. This, I thought, was how I would look at it.”

I’ve come to explain my decision about church attendance in much the same way, albeit without the same sense of finality.  Frederick Buechner has said that the sermons that have the biggest impact on us are those that we preach to ourselves in between the lines of whatever is being said from the pulpit, and the consequence of being in church every time the doors opened for twenty-eight years meant that the number of bad sermons I’d heard, filled with poor logic and faulty reasoning – all purportedly straight from God – had added up.  The result being that the sermons I tried to hear “between the lines” were drowned out by other voices that were disagreeing with nearly everything being said.  Every sermon point given, every phrase uttered, brought to mind the echos of a thousand past sermons, bringing with them a scrutiny of each idea presented for consideration, every word weighted down with the complex history of their past usage and the implications of the resulting arguments, as given in the Fundamentalist world. Continue reading

Faith: an escape from life?

It’s always satisfying when you find different things you’ve read and listened to coming together to form a cohesive argument, helping you to look at a subject from different angles that you wouldn’t have thought of without those outside sources informing your thinking process. Earlier this week, I was listening to the highly entertaining and informative 2008 Terry Lectures Series from Yale University, given by Terry Eagleton, on Faith and Fundamentalism: Is Belief in Richard Dawkins Necessary for Salvation? One of Eagleton’s points in his second lecture gave me an epiphany on how to make a point in an essay I had been working on over the weekend, and also connected arguments Irish philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins makes in his second book, The Fidelity of Betrayal, with the larger subject I was working on. I’ve reread a couple chapters of Rollins’ book this week, and in doing so, was reminded of this statement on faith and the “transformative truth” of Christianity, from the chapter Eclipsing God.
Continue reading

Listening into the silences…

One of the great things about the house I’m renting now is the big backyard, with a little pond that has fountains in it just outside the back door, and a deck bordered on two sides by flowerbeds. The beds need a little work; right now they contain both a red rose bush that is in full bloom and a couple stalks of corn that have wilted from the recent heat wave here in Nashville. That same heat wave has meant that the back deck has not gotten much usage yet, but one night last week, after reading a comment my friend Andrew posted on twitter – “I would like to recommend that you stop whatever you’re doing and go look at the moon” – I was prompted to move beyond my good intentions to sit out there and actually do so. I was just finishing up work for the night, music preparation on the song This Kiss, orchestrated by Carl Marsh, for a concert Beth Nielsen Chapman will be performing with the BBC Concert Orchestra in a couple of weeks (the song, which Beth co-wrote, is best known for having been a big hit for Faith Hill 12 years ago). After sending the files off for proofing, I closed my laptop, poured a glass of Scotch, and went outside to stare up at the moon and smoke my pipe (another thing, incidentally, that was recommend to me by Andrew).
Continue reading