Friday, February 16, 2007

Brickworld, Trampolines, and the Communion of the Saints

I am reading a great book right now, New Testament Theology: Communion and Community by Philip Esler. I am only about 70 pages into it, but he seems to tackle a question that I have been thinking about for a long time--What role does New Testament theology play in emergent Christianity?

Why have I been asking this question? Well, I recently read Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis, a book that that is becoming increasingly popular in Evangelical churches. Bell's ideas aren't that innovative, but he has packaged them in a way that is brilliantly accessible to the general public. Bell is an excellent communicator. That, coupled with the success of the Nooma video shorts based on his teaching, has done much to advance his flavor of emerging Christianity.

I liked Velvet Elvis. I appreciate Rob Bell's vulnerability and willingness to consider ideas that push the envelope in American Evangelicalism. However, part of the book left a bad taste in my mouth. In the first chapter, Bell contrasts his (post-modern) take on Christianity with the mainstream (modern) American Evangelical view. He notes that most American Evangelicals view Christianity as "brickworld"--a system of theological suppositions stacked upon each other. According to the illustration, if the supporting brick beliefs are compromised, the entire structure collapses. In my opinion, this is a fair critique of most American Evangelicals--they do think like that.

Instead of Christianity as "brickworld," Bell suggests that perhaps we should view it as a trampoline, with the great doctrines of that faith represented by springs rather than bricks. In a trampoline, the springs aren't the point, but they enable the point (jumping). In Christianity, beliefs aren't the point, but they enable the point (following Jesus).

Now, I understand what Rob Bell is getting at. He's not saying that beliefs aren't important. He's not even saying that orthodox beliefs aren't important. He's just saying that we overemphasize beliefs over following Jesus. I agree with Rob Bell's thesis that (in most issues) we should never be content with answers--we should always ask more questions. However, there is a subtle aspect of the illustration that makes me a bit uncomfortable.

In the trampoline illustration, the "springiness" of the springs is open-mindedness with regard to doctrines. The more wiggle room that you have in your beliefs, the "springier" that your faith will be, and the higher you will be able to jump. To me, this implies that open-mindedness is in itself a virtue. Thus, the person who says "I don't know what I believe about Jesus, but I am following Him" is more virtuous than the person who says "I believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and I am following Him." I am pretty sure that Jesus Himself with disagree with that notion. A simple reading of the Gospel according to John reveals that Jesus cared a lot about what people believed about Him.

Now, don't mistake me for dogmatic. I'm not suggesting that I have 100% knowledge of all things Christian or that I am not mistaken in any of my beliefs. I'm not that naive. Further, I will always evaluate most my beliefs. But I don't think that it is appropriate to equate open-mindedness with spirituality. There are some issues that you cannot question and call yourself a Christian. (Right now, I might limit that list to the deity of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus, and the Trinity. Then again, I reserve the right to change my mind.)

So what does all of this have to do with Esler's book? I'm getting there.

In his book, Esler argues that Christianity is largely a faith of communion and community (thus the title of his book). I couldn't agree more. Further, he argues that our community is not just with those who are like us. The communion of the saints is cross-cultural. Again, I couldn't agree more. Further still, he argues that one way that the communion of the saints is cross-cultural is that it is cross-temporal. Very nice! The 21st century is the latest scene in the cosmic drama of rebellion and reconciliation, but it is not the first. Our faith is one of communion with those who walk with us, and with those who have walked before us.

Now, I have yet to see where Esler is going with this, but I know where I would go. In a sense, Jesus and his followers started the story (or at least inaugurated a massive turning-point in the story), and recorded their thoughts on what the story was about in what we call the New Testament. Further, most Christians would agree that these thoughts in some shape or form were inspired by God (whatever that might mean). I think we can know and understand these thoughts through critical study of the Bible. Granted, we will never understand with 100% certainty what the writers of the New Testament were trying to communicate, but we can still understand it with enough certainty to say that we "know" what they meant. (In the same way, I can't understand with 100% certainty that a red light means "stop," but I usually stop anyway.)

What does all of this mean for brickworld and the trampoline? Well, to the extent that your faith resembles that of those who started the story, you are in communion with the saints. When your beliefs deviate from orthodoxy, you have broken communion with the saints. Because controversy remains with regard to biblical interpretation, there will always be a little "spring" to the faith. But if you stretch the springs too far, they break. That's when the trampoline is no longer any fun.

We can't know the teachings of Jesus 100%, but we can know it well enough. With that as our starting point, we can begin to build a trampoline that will be able to support the weight of the church.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Awaiting Redemption and "Spiritual Remorse"

It's often said in the circle that I grew up in that Satan attacks you the most right after a spiritual victory. The idea is often attributed to Charles Spurgeon, but I am not sure if it really goes back to him. True to the observation--times of spiritual lows often follow on the tail of spiritual victories. However, I have an alternate explanation as to why this might be based on my own experience--what I call "spiritual remorse."

Have you ever seen something in a store that you just "had to have"? I get this feeling mostly from books and music, and sometimes I succumb to the temptation to buy on impulse. Usually I feel bad about it afterward--a classic case of "buyer's remorse." But that's how things work. How often to we plan and save for some item--be it a house, a car, a stereo, whatever--with eager anticipation, only to experience buyer's remorse when we have pulled the trigger on the purchase? I think we've all felt that way before.

But the empty feeling accompanying buyer's remorse isn't limited to gathering material things. It also accompanies major life events. I remember thinking that once I graduated from high school, life would be good. Then it was college. Then it was getting married. Now it's getting a house. I keep setting goals, thinking that accomplishing these goals will make me happy. But they never do. (Granted, these things usually give a temporary sense of happiness, but it isn't lasting, just like that new car feels good for a little while and then loses its luster.)

My latest experience of let down has been related to graduating from seminary and moving to Washington. For six years, my wife and I longed for that day when I would be done with school. We hoped and prayed that we would be able to get a job in Washington, thinking that then we would be truly happy. So here I am, in Washington, with a great job and everything we wanted, yet I am not content. I hoped for this for so long and now that I have it, I don't know what to do.

Here is why I think this happens to us: because of the Fall we will never be truly content. God created us to enjoy a supernatural peace--what the Hebrews called shalom. Because of our rebellion against God, we will never experience (fully) the shalom that God created us to enjoy. That's why Paul says that we "groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." (Rom 8:23 NIV) When we try to find fulfillment in possessions, career, relationships, or accolades, we are destined to be let down. Only God can give us the satisfaction (the shalom) that we desperately desire.

However, part of awaiting redemption is that we will never completely experience God's shalom in this life. We will experience genuine shalom, but not complete shalom. There will always be a part of us that yearns for the future kingdom of God. I wonder if this is why often we experience a spiritual let down after a spiritual victory. I wonder if it is kind of a "spiritual remorse." Just like we experience buyer's remorse when a possession doesn't satisfy us the way we thought it would, I wonder if we experience "spiritual remorse" because our spiritual experiences don't satisfy us the way they ought to. No spiritual experience this side of the kingdom of God can fully satisfy our need for shalom. Just a thought . . .

So what does that mean for us? Is there any way to be happy? I agree with the author of Ecclesiastes, "However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless. Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know for all of these things God will bring you into judgment." (Ecc 11:8–9) In Christ, we can experience the joys of the kingdom in part--and we should--but there will always be a part of us that yearns for more and will be disappointed until we are renewed.

"I believe in the kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one (bleed into one), but yes I'm still running. You broke the bonds and you loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame (of my shame), you know I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for." (U2, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.")