Personal Jesus: The Dangers Of A Systematic Faith

“What’s the worst thing about this college?”.

This was a question I asked at each of the three theological colleges which I was considering for my three years of study prior to being ordained in the Church of England. One particular college, the third of the three, was the one I would almost certainly attend. This wasn’t because it was my natural favourite (it wasn’t), but because it would enable me to be near my fiancée and her family as we prepared for marriage, whilst supporting her mother who was suffering from what proved to be terminal cancer. Everyone I met on the day I spent there was lovely. Especially the students. Most of them. Some of them were a tad on the over-zealous side. They were loudly talking up the benefits of the college whilst we played table-tennis. After the game concluded, I found myself in a group of (all men – not a surprise, all the would be priests here were men), continuing the conversation. As we talked, needlessly loudly given we were within a few feet of each other, I realised I was being quite literally backed into a physical corner; this probably wasn’t deliberate on the part of the students, but it felt like an apt representation of the hard-sell I received. As I found myself with nowhere left to go, I asked that question – I had a very good idea by now what the college’s perceived strong points were. I wanted to know what was wrong with it. A moment of silence: “I suppose it can be a bit intense occasionally.”, came the reply. No kidding.

I ended up studying there, mainly for the practical reasons I mentioned. I made some good friends, enjoyed some of the study because I like study and reading, and harbour a few (very few) good memories; but yes, it was intense. Theologically most of what was promoted  – by many staff and the most vocal students – was of one particular system. The system was Calvinism, most specifically what’s known as 5-point Calvinism. Now theology has exercised some of humanity’s greatest minds over the last 2,000 or so years, so it’s impossible to do justice to such an intellectually complex system as Calvinism in a few sentences. Suffice to say it covers issues like the free-will of humans to respond to God’s (irresistable) grace, and suggests (depending on quite where on a spectrum you sit), that God has chosen before time who will be saved and who won’t be. When I expressed to someone at college that I didn’t agree with these ideas I was, told that to believe otherwise was “sub-Christian”. Not everyone went that far, of course, but the message was clear; there was only one theological system to which we should adhere.

 

book cover 2

That all came back to my mind when I was reading Austin Fischer’s book “Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed“. I don’t know much about the author, but the book stood out from the crowd as conservative reformed (in this case meaning Calvinist) theology has become a louder, richer and well-publicised force in some more westernised countries. It’s a short book – 136 pages – so I wasn’t expecting much heavy theology. I was expecting a narrative reflection on the author’s experience. I did get the latter, but it surprised me how much of the former I also got, given the book’s brevity. The author describes his own experience of growing up and being trained in Calvinist/Reformed theology, and then his gradual departing from it towards something rather different. He uses logic, reason, personal and pastoral experience, the Bible and theology to do this; and he does it accessibly.

He doesn’t pretend at any point in this book that what he’s saying is the whole story. He doesn’t dismiss Calvinism (though reading some online reviews, some feel he does). True, the version he was taught is very extreme; but the issue is that many people do actually take this theology to those extremes. He is also at pains to point out that he remains grateful for what Calvinism has given him, can see why some interpret Scripture in this way and lauds the intellectual integrity of those fully committed to it. The theological landing place he finds himself in is one he feels works, but he is clear it is not the finished article, and suggests that there should be no theological worldview that is complete and unassailable. God is other and holy; infinite and ineffable; and many other things besides. To suggest we can describe him fully would be folly; humility, says Fischer, should be the theologian’s and disciple’s ultimate posture. The God revealed to us in Jesus that the author paints for us is a loving, intoxicating and attractive one. I think I agree with Fischer more than I disagree with him.

There’s the rub. Increasingly there is no one theological system I can call my own. The other day I was trying to articulate this and said I might be ‘theologically homeless’. I wondered if that might be somewhat tactless; but then a friend pointed out that maybe it was apt – accepting nourishment and provision wherever I find it. Not a perfect image, but a striking one; and one I suspect many of my homeless friends might resonate with. This doesn’t mean I don’t have fixed points – Jesus’ divinity, the resurrection, historic creeds. But these describe rather than systematise; they give parameters within which to explore. These parameters, it turns out, are surprisingly spacious, far more so than the suffocating control I found Calvinism to be (and which other people experience of other closed theological systems). Yes, I have certainties; but there’s much I don’t know. It’s a city the streets of which I’m still walking; alleys, byways and major roads which I’m still discovering; working out where the refreshing parks and coffee shops are. Is it pushing it too far to state here that Jesus said he that had nowhere to lay his head? Maybe; but the most pure revelation of God humanity has received is a person, who for three years roamed from place to place, doing what he sensed God was guiding him to do. That’s not so much a system as it is a discovery of a map, a city, a region.

If you have a theological system to defend you always have to be on the look out. You sense someone probing away at one part of is, so you have to scramble to keep it intact. If one part disappears, the whole will go with it. Such a system may look attractive, and appear safe and secure, but as soon as you find one part doesn’t work, then it all comes crashing down. For me, as for so many others, that collapse can come around God’s ‘control’ or sovereignty or whatever you want to call it. Extreme Calvinists – who take it to its logical conclusions – decide that God is in control of everything. We sort of have free will; but nothing happens to which God doesn’t say yes. And still he remains perfectly good.

Rachel

Rachel Held Evans

Many believe this with confidence and integrity; I never have. A few days ago the hugely influential Christian writer Rachel Held Evans died, painfully young, of a sudden illness, leaving behind a husband and young children. Her writing nourished many  – including me – and painted a way back to a Jesus-centred faith that many who had given up on it all could embrace. She grew up in a theological environment similar to Fischer’s, and ended up in landing place that may be a little different to his, but also has many overlaps. In the wake of her death, many are mourning. Some of my more Calvinist friends, whilst sincerely lamenting the sadness of this loss, stated her final blog post on the subject of death and loss on Ash Wednesday showed ‘God was in control’.

I admire them, but wonder if that could be said to her family. I shudder at the idea that some may say God was in the control of the terrorist’s bullet which killed my friend in Nairobi one day. I think I couldn’t worship such a God. Rachel Held Evans, Austin Fischer, and others like them provide for me and many others a picture of a Jesus-like God whom I find mysterious and other and holy and majestic; yet still truthful, kind, good and impossible to systematise or fill in all the blanks of, at least this side of the new creation. Humans aren’t made in the image of a system; we’re made in the image of a God of three persons, all in perfect relationship, all-loving, all-good. I don’t need a system to draw close to that God – much as many seem to think I do. After all, when Jesus died, a curtain that preserved a system was torn in two.

No. I don’t think that I need a system. I need a person, one whom I can know even as I am known.

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Church: there and back again

Recommending a book is a tricky business. No more so than when it comes to Christian books – especially the ones aimed at a more popular market. Recommend something and there can often be the assumption that the recommendation also means endorsement and agreement. That always seems to me to be a lazy approach to anything, let alone something so personal as a book; but there we have it. Algorithms increasingly tell us what we should read, watch, listen to next based on what we’ve liked before, and we expect people to do the same – so we get funnelled deeper into an echo chamber we may not have been aware we were making.

I value Rachel Held Evans. I don’t always agree with her; sometimes her writing on blogs or in books annoys or angers me. Which is all the more reason I need to listen to voices like hers. She is one of those who voices what many who love Jesus increasingly feel and experience. As such, whether I agree with her or not is in many senses irrelevant. I need to hear her, and through her hear those who feel she speaks for them. Her last book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, has been for me a key plank in establishing my own feminism. Her new book, Searching For Sunday, has challenged and enriched me deeply. Through a series of reflections around each of the Orthodox church’s sacraments, she tells her story of struggling with doubt; of leaving, trying to remake, and eventually reconnecting with church. Sometimes people who write or speak on these subjects put people like me (church leaders) on the back foot; we’re made to feel guilty, failures. It’s our fault, you see. Sometimes it is, of course, but such blame shifting doesn’t open dialogue or encourage learning. Searching For Sunday I found to be rather different. It was truthful, open, compassionate, humble. It spoke as much for the experience and concerns of someone in my role as it does for the skeptical and occasional pew-sitter.

It eschews easy judgements and blanket assertions; the book – and the author – is both vulnerable, but confident in her own incompleteness. It’s also her best piece of writing – some of the metaphors and imagery are startling or refreshing; I especially appreciated how the conscious use of voices, stories and metaphors associated with women opened up different perspectives.

It seems so reductive to ask myself if I agreed with everything she said. I don’t know how to answer that, or quantify it. I needed the book, and continue to need it. It speaks to me, and for me. It challenges me and refreshes me and encourages me and heals me. It sheds fresh light and depth on aspects of both my life as a disciple of Jesus and as one tasked with public ordained ministry, performing some of the sacraments on which she touches in the book.

It’s neither the first, nor the last, word on any of the issues it raises. It’s not trying to be either of those things. It’s more than that – it’s a beautiful, touching, and eloquent chapter in the story.

 I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads

Stuff Of The Year 2013, 2: Books

I’m self-indulgently posting a short series on the entertainment that’s fed, stimulated and enhanced my 2013. I’m making this up as I go along, as it’s my game and my rules, so it may not all have been produced in 2013 – the point is that the media in question have all been a big part of my year. Where possible, I’ll link to the media in question, or an article I wrote about them; click on a title to follow a link if I’ve found one suitable. This post’s about the books I’ve read in 2013 that have most shaped me. You may notice from this that star-rating books is, for me, a fairly arbitrary process. They’re in the order I finished reading them, if you’re interested, ending with the most recent.

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans Spending a year doing something and writing about it is in vogue at the moment. It lends itself to the discipline of blogging and the momentum gathering potential of social media. This book chronicles one woman’s journey through a year taking everything the Bible has to say about women literally. She’s a Christian with the desire to take both the Bible and society seriously, and the results in this book are funny, deceptively weighty without necessarily showing the academic working and respectful. Required reading, especially for any Christian (male or female) who’s ever quoted Proverbs 31 in reference to how a wife should be.

The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes  There are very few authors who can make me think of  Eugene Peterson, but Trystan Owain Hughes is one of them. Concise at around 100 pages, this is a beautiful book inviting us to humble awe, to find God and each other in the everyday and to rescue us from lazy, culturally skewed discipleship which has the powerful lording it over the powerless.

The God Of Intimacy And Action by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling  One of the very few books linking a passion for social justice with spiritual practices, aiming to deepen our relationships with God as we live with responsive awareness to the needs around us. Worth reading not just because it’s one of the few like it, but because it’s a rich book born out of deep experience.

Absolution by Patrick Flanery  A crime story; a family drama; a thriller; a mediation on present-day South Africa; a book about fear; a book about hope; a book about writing books. A masterpiece.

On Warne by Gideon Haigh Cricket has a tradition of quality writing, and this is a good addition to that history; a small, beautifully formed and written book which isn’t so much a biography of the greatest bowler in history  as a reflection on him.

Bringing Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel  I know some struggle with her style, and I understand why. I don’t, and all I can say is that I’m a believer in these books. Historical fiction made vitally relevant to all our todays; we’re one book away from this being one of English literature’s greatest set of novels.

11/22/63 by Stephen King  When he’s good, he’s very good. This is a romantic, thrilling, time-travel-love-story-thriller showcasing King’s genius for storytelling, based around the assassination of JFK. It’s not a horror novel … I urge you to read this on your next holiday, especially if you’re one of those who thinks King is populist hack. Sometimes success is awarded to those with talent and an understanding of what people enjoy. This book is the perfect illustration of that.

The Pastor by Eugene Peterson I’ll blog on this in due course – the man I’ve never met, whose beautiful books have pastored me over the years writes his memoir of a life in pastoral work. It’s beautiful, and essential for anyone who is a pastor, has a pastor or is considering being a pastor.

A Year Of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Like The Cross In The Closet, this book represents an experiment. For Timothy Kurek, that was consciously pretending to be something he wasn’t in order to better understand. That’s a version of what happens in A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, but it’s not the whole story.

The author – Rachel Held Evans, a blogger, evangelical in the Dayton, Tennessee and author of  this and Evolving In Monkey Town – is a woman who takes on a year-long project to take what the Bible says to and about women as literally as possible. She does this as one who is happy to wear the feminist label, so this was always going to be an uncomfortable journey, if one that naturally fits a book. All of this presupposes that it’s possible to distill what the Bible says to and out women into list of things to do and be. Which is, to a certain extent the point of the project.

The sometimes bizarre sub-sub-culture of evangelical Christianity is not short of opinion when it comes to gender. We’ll be tackling different aspects of that opinion on the blog over the next while. Gender and sexuality are increasingly issues of fracture for churches and individuals – they are straws which break the proverbial camels’ backs. This is the stuff which causes people to leave churches; it’s important, and goes to the core of our personal identity. Books like this and The Cross In The Closet represent, for me, an inevitably imperfect but ultimately hopeful attempt to reframe the debate and provide something solid to stand on for those of us who feel increasingly alienated by each wing of the arguments.

In the case of Rachel Held Evans her project has her focus on a different theme every month: October (month 1) is gentleness, November is domesticity, March is modesty, June is submission. Naturally division by title makes things seems more tidy than they are in reality; there’s overflow and blurred edges all the way. Rachel is married to Dan, and they are people who approach marriage as a mutual, equal partnership; so inevitably there’s going to be some bumpy places along the way. There’s also a good deal of interesting conversation with people and exploration of texts to discover what the Bible may actually be saying or not saying. Take, for instance, Proverbs chapter 31:10-31, a section often titled ‘A Wife Of Noble Character’. So often this has been seen as a list of what women in general should aspire to be as wives, or should be working towards. Held Evans, tellingly, suggests that Jewish tradition sees the passage in a quite different way: it’s aimed at husbands, as a list of general strengths and achievements to honour and celebrate when they are seen and demonstrated in a woman. She reframes this as, for her culture, ‘woman of valour’, a blessing for a man or woman to speak over a woman. A throw-away example: her husband Dan greeting her tired arrival home,  bearing take-away having not been able to cook that day, with ‘Pizza? Woman Of Valour!’. Burden becomes blessing. Who could possibly thought men could have got it so (wilfully?) wrong?

It’s at moments like that, and in describing the unlikely friendships she forms over year, that the book is at its strongest points. I got a little frustrated by not hearing more from her husband – there are excerpts from his journal, but for me not enough. I’d love to hear his view of his wife’s journey in parallel detail. Necessarily it’s a personal book, but given the profound impact such a journey is likely to have on a significant relationship, it would have been instructive to hear more from him. None of us, ever, exist in a vacuum; the conclusion of the book handles this well. I just would have liked a little more from Dan peppered throughout. Bizarrely, I was also a little annoyed by the photographs. Rachel’s usually pictured holding something she’s just described herself making; often that process has featured frustration, tears, anger. Yet in the photos she’s almost always smiling. Maybe there’s a cultural thing going on here, but to me the photos of a smiling Rachel near a passage where she describes sobbing on the kitchen floor seem a little incongruous.

I and my wife Bev have long been people who have held ‘traditional’ Christian interpretations of gender roles and characteristics at arm’s length. We don’t find ourselves as isolated from the evangelical community as Rachel Held Evans does, but we do often feel like we’re swimming upstream. Books like this give people like me hope .I don’t agree with everything she writes, but certainly I do with most of it. It’s oxygen  – proof that we’re not mad, that there are other people who want to be faithful to the Bible but don’t want to assume that a ‘Biblical’ view of some issues is always what the vocally dominant say it is. The book shed light on some things and confirmed as viable what I had often suspected may be the case but hadn’t gone to the trouble of exploring. I’m humbled by Held Evans reaching the end of her year and finding herself confronting her sense of judgement and grudge-holding against those who feel differently. Given how suffocating it can be to hold views which aren’t recognised by the majority, that’s admirable. Experience suggests that the majority may not always be the majority – that when oxygen is offered, there are plenty there ready to breathe more deeply. May we do so – and speak. There’s more to people than a 2,000+ year-old list culled from carelessly applied texts.

You can find Rachel Held Evans’ excellent blog by clicking here. I rated this book 4/5 on goodreads.com