Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 19
April 24, 2007

In the aftermath of the horrifying Virginia Tech murders, I was particularly intrigued with the nationally reported interviews of two Blacksburg clergy, a Baptist and a Presbyterian.

They both were involved in the pastoral care of family members of those killed as well as grieving VT students. In the interviews, neither man made mention of any theological concept to try and explain the terrible event. Both suggested that the proper Christian response in such a time is a ministry not of explanation but of simple presence. To offer a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold, or even a symbol to rail against, was how both pastors felt they could best serve.

I have had the good fortune to have as a friend an evangelical pastor with a very traditional and conservative theology. Over the years and as our friendship deepened, it became clear to both of us that although our theological understandings of Christianity were very, very different, our desire to follow the teachings of Jesus were remarkably similar. Certainly there were some divergence of opinion and strategy and occasionally we realized there were some issues we would probably never agree on but, by and large, when we stopped arguing doctrine and started serving others, we trod the same path. Building a food bank, assisting with housing, visiting the sick, being present for others…these were ministries to which we both could not only intellectually affirm but assist each other in actual practice. I think we both realized that authentic Christian discipleship is found in this mutual practice rather than in theological principles. All the doctrinal detailing holds little value if Christian adherents fail to follow Jesus.

One of the distinguishing marks of Progressive Christianity must be the willingness to put aside theological differences for a greater good. This, of course, is much easier said than done. To ignore the condemnation, even damnation, of a Christian claimant in pursuit of a mutually desired goal is to experience the challenge of Jesus’ call to love our enemy. If the Billy Graham Crusade or World Vision or Southern Baptist Disaster Relief is providing desperately needed goods and services to those in need around the world who might otherwise go without, it is incumbent upon us to put aside our doctrinal disputes and support their efforts. Again, this may be a terribly difficult course for some of us to follow, particularly in light of how many of us have been treated by our conservative Christian brothers and sisters, but surely the end here justifies any means available.

I suspect it is easier for many of us to reach out to non-Christian folk than align ourselves with conservative Christianity. But it may be that in finding ways of cooperating with those most critical of our own beliefs that we find ourselves more closely following Jesus.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 18
April 16, 2007

He shook his head, smiled, and dismissed a whole religion with, “And to think they believe Mohammed rode up to heaven on a horse!”

And to think we believe that a man actually rose from the dead.

Another poor Richard once reminded us that people in glass houses should be careful about what they say about other religions.

I’ve always liked the Sundays after Easter when we gain a little distance from the mythology and move a little closer to the truth. During Holy Week, a friend of mine signed his e-mail to me: “Christ is risen! (Existentially, of course.)

Several years ago, while hosting a seminar with Bishop John Spong, I received a letter from a fellow Lutheran pastor who chastised me for inviting someone “who doesn’t believe in the historical resurrection of Jesus.” I marveled at the gall of my correspondent, who, I suppose, isn’t interested in theological perspectives different than his own. I also wondered just what his theological perspective might be. I assumed he clung to the conviction that Jesus did, in fact and in body, walk out of the tomb that long ago Sunday.

As we seek to construct a Christianity for the modern mind, it is fair to ask whether literalistic declarations regarding the resurrection are either instructive or helpful. Must we have this particular form of divine authentication for Jesus’ teachings to be true? We need a physical resurrection only to validate Christianity’s thesis of atonement. Paul’s bold declaration that our faith is in vain without Jesus rising from the dead holds no power for many of us. Our commitment to the teachings of Jesus is not voided by our rejection of his physical resurrection.

A number of years ago, several members of my parish passed a book onto me that had captured their imaginations. The novel’s central theme was the discovery of the bones of Jesus in an ancient tomb outside of Jerusalem. The realization that Jesus hadn’t actually risen from the dead sent the entire world into turmoil, hurtling us toward an apocalyptic end. Thankfully, at the last minute, the bones were proven to be not those of Jesus and the world was saved from extinction. Whew! I found it, to say the least, a bit overwrought. This was pre-The Da Vinci Code or the recent claim to have found the ossuary of Jesus but it still shook up my congregants. What if the resurrection isn’t a fact of history? Would Christianity (let alone the world as we know it) come to a screeching halt? Not for me and, I suspect, not for millions of others who have found the teachings of Jesus to be a guide to discovering a life of meaning, purpose and, yes, even hope…with or without the bodily resurrection.

Ironically, there is no more powerful symbol of authentic Christianity for me than that of death and resurrection. The reality that life is a series of dyings and risings proclaims a truth that resonates deep within. “The only constant is change” someone who must have understood the metaphor of resurrection once said. All of us, sometimes very reluctantly, know that is true.

Curiously, Christianity has too often demanded acceptance of Jesus’ physical rising while missing the power of the metaphor. No institution is more resistant to the little deaths and resurrections that comprise a healthy understanding of life than the church. It is a sad paradox that insisting on a literalistic understanding of the resurrection of Jesus prevents many inquisitive Christians from experiencing the true power of the resurrection.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Practicing Progressive

Issue 17
April 9, 2007

A man I very much admire included this verse from the new Lutheran Hymnal in his Easter message:

Come to the table of mercy, prepared with the wine and the bread.
All who are hungry and thirsty, come and your souls will be fed.
Come at the Lord's invitation; receive from his nail-scarred hand.
Eat of the blood of salvation; drink of the blood of the Lamb.

I believe I understand and appreciate his message but I find his method, well, repugnant. Surely there are more theologically authentic ways of announcing God’s grace than ones that rely on this strange, and repulsive to many, obsession with blood.

I know, I know, blood is the source and symbol of life, the nectar of the gods, without it we could be folded up and carried in a suitcase, etc.…I know all that but I still don’t like it. And I continue to wonder why it maintains such a hold on Christians.

In a recent interview, Wes Craven, a movie director who has nearly perfected the blood-drenched horror film with “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream”, was asked about his profuse use of blood in his movies. He immediately began to talk of Christianity and its fascination with that same bodily fluid. He was enthralled, he said, by the fact that Christians drink it, save it, wear it, sing about it and more…and concluded his own obsession with it couldn’t be all that abnormal.

He may be right but I never go to horror films and I can only watch violent-prone movies through the gaps in my fingers clasped tight across my face. (Many years ago, I was working on a film as an assistant make-up man. The scene we were shooting that day took place in a bar and involved a machine-gunning massacre. I was assigned the job of filling condoms with stage blood, tying them off, attaching a small electrode to the tip and then taping these blood-filled beauties onto the actors who were about to be executed. This important work took the good part of the day and involved lots of laughter and black humor. But when the time came to shoot the scene and the machine guns went off and the blood burst forth, I had to put my head between my knees to keep from fainting at the sight of all that FAKE blood!) So you see I’m probably not the most objective critic here. Nevertheless, I believe I speak for more than just me on this common albeit disturbing Christian image and can offer a helpful criticism or two.

For instance, if we have moved away from the bizarre theory of Jesus having to appease God by atoning for the sins of humankind by being tortured and slowly killed, isn’t it about time we carefully scrutinize our liturgy and hymnody for vestiges of that discarded understanding? Certainly the death of Jesus must have been a bloody affair and, yes, the image of that blood letting is a powerful one as we ponder its unjust occasion but must we continue to equate Jesus’ loss of blood with our spiritual gain? Besides, didn’t Mel Gibson do enough of that already?

On this past Palm Sunday, I listened to a carefully constructed sermon that had as its main thesis the proclamation that “Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the world but because of the sins of the world.” The preacher made clear his conviction that Jesus’ death was not ordained by God but was the result of a commitment to live a Godly life, a life of compassion. It was, I thought, a most helpful invitation into Holy Week. Unfortunately, the liturgy in which this sermon sat was filled with very different images. Over and over again, the hymns that were sung resonated with the archaic atonement thinking that the preacher had just rebuked.

I recognize that the wheels of change turn slowly, especially those bearing the church, but surely I was not the only one who was troubled and confused by the incongruity. The time has come for our liturgy to support our theology. Sentiment should not be confused with sanctity. Much of what we continue to cling to in Christian worship has little to do with assisting Christians in the world today. It is time to move on.

Humbly, I offer a revised version of my friend’s lyrical Easter sentiment with the hope we continue to find new ways of proclaiming the authentic message of Jesus:

Come to the table of welcome, prepared with the wine and the bread.
All who are searching and seeking; hear what the master once said.
Come at the Lord's invitation; receive from his compassionate soul
The gift of a joyous friendship; the gift of a life made whole.