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.

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