Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Liberal Jesus: Taking a Break From Church

One of my blogfriends, Greg Kendall-Ball, shared this post the other day and it really resonated with me on several levels and I was curious about other people's reactions to it. It's from a blog called Liberal Jesus.
People in my faith tradition love the Bible.

You may think that you too love the Bible, but you're wrong. We really, really love the Bible. We attend Bible class and Bible camp. Our kids learn about the Bible and compare their knowledge in "Bible Bowl". To protect our Bibles, we carry them in special zippered bags. We give one another guilt about reading the Bible. We claim that "we speak where the scripture speaks, and are silent where the scripture is silent." (By "the scripture", we of course mean "the Bible".) We even sing songs about ... you guessed it ... the Bible.

There are some good, historical reasons for this attitude, and very few people know or care about those reasons. Because in our tradition, history isn't very interesting, and neither is Biblical interpretation, really. There is no such thing as "interpreting" the Bible. It simply says what it means, and means what it says ... and what it means and says are what we've always said that it says and means.

It wasn't a bad way to grow up. I sailed along happily, riding this wave of certainty, singing about how I loved the Bible and how I wished someone would give me a Bible and how much I loved Bible camp, until one year at said Bible camp, something happened that roughened the seas a bit.

Every year, at the end of the week, the boys and the girls of each age group would engage in a Bible trivia competition. That year we had been studying 1 and 2 Timothy -- you know, the authoritarian epistles -- and we boys were, like every year, pretty much resigned to losing. The girls always beat us. But somehow, this year, perhaps buoyed up by the writer's exhortation that women should learn "in quietness and full submisssion", we eked out a win.

The girls were downcast. We were jubilant. And in the middle of our celebration, someone (I'm pretty sure it wasn't me) purloined the words of 2 timothy 3 for a victory chant:

"Weak-willed women. Weak-willed women! Weak-willed women!"

We all chanted together, rejoicing in our superior Bible knowledge.

"Weak-willed women!"

Then I noticed that one of the girls was crying, quietly.

If you've ever been a junior-high boy, you will probably know what happens when you see the tears of a junior-high girl who is kind, intelligent and more than a little bit cute.

You're utterly befuddled.

You walk back to your cabin, deeply confused. And as you process the situation, you start to notice that something is wrong. You're not quite sure what yet, but something, you know, is terribly wrong.

After a few years, you figure it out: something must be wrong with the Bible. Friends and acquaintances are abandoning their faith because they can't follow a God who would order genocide, or denigrate women, or abhor gays. And they can't simply ignore a few Bible verses and go on with their faith, because if they learned anything growing up in church, they learned this: either all of the Bible is true, or none of it's true.

But soon after, you realize that maybe nothing is wrong the Bible; maybe something is broken about how you're interpreting it. And if something is broken about how you're interpreting it, maybe something is also wrong about how you're applying those interpretations. Over time, and with quite a bit of help, you begin feeling your way out of the darkness of Christian fundamentalism and the trap of biblical literalism. You can see the contradictions in the text now, but they don't scare you. They simply point to he beautiful frailty of the real people behind the Bible, a frailty that you see all around you every day. As you change the way you interpret the Bible, you change your theology. You begin ignoring those parts of the Bible that endorse prejudice, or misogyny, or genocide. You allow other voices, like science and your own experience, to inform your understanding of God.

Then you wake up one morning and realize that you don't fit in at church. Not only don't you fit in, but you're not really welcome, and you don't particularly like being there.

And that's where I found myself a few weeks ago.

I realized that while my church is admirable in its attempts to pursue social justice and racial integration, its justifications for doing so, and its core theology, were essentially fundamentalist. My church is great in that it has no creeds, no membership, no checklist telling us who's in and who's out, but underlying all of its programs, all its deliberations about church leadership, all its expressions of worship and interactions with the surrounding community was this fundamental, axiomatic belief that the Bible is the infallible word of God. And that made church exhuasting.

Instead of singing, I spent my time trying to translate the song lyrics into metaphors I could affirm.

Instead of praying, I spent my time pondering the moral bankruptcy of a God who would grant any of our prayer requests, while every day, thousands of people starved to death. I tried not to be appalled at people who would follow such a God.

Instead of speaking the standard Jesus-speak, or providing perspectives that would contradict the established church culture, I tried to keep my mouth shut. I mostly failed at that, though, which mostly made me feel like a curmudgeonly bastard.

I became desperately grouchy, because I was always having to define my faith in terms of what I didn't believe, and I didn't have any spiritual mentors who could show me the way to a positive, progressive faith. (Thank God for the Internet, right? People like Paul and Crystal kept me afloat ... I want to kiss them.)

Finally, I realized that being at church wasn't doing me any good. It wasn't making me a more virtuous person, and it wasn't even making me feel good. Going to church was like poking myself in the eye with a sharp stick, and it would probably be better for everyone involved if I just STOPPED POKING MYSELF IN THE EYE WITH A STICK.

So I did. And now I feel better.

In the future, I may return to a church. My roots are there, my family is there, and I'd like to try to help people who are looking for an alternative to fundamentalism. But for now, I have to figure out the next few lines of my story.

I'd like to find a faith community that exhibits the virtues that I hope to learn. I'd like to find mentors who can express their progressive faith in positive terms. I'd like to see if I can learn some wisdom from other faith traditions, because there are books other than the Bible. I've even read a few of them, and while in lots of places they're as scary as the Bible in the hands of an angry fundamentalist, there always seems to be something to learn about love, or people, or God.

And one last thing: for those of you who might be worried about my apostasy, have no fear. God is out here too.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.


TCS said...

I could and do identify with so much of what Greg wrote. I think we will see more and more of that, as that way of thinking wanes. Maybe those younger than us will not have as much struggle and stick poking in the eye. They will just go and do differently. I could say a lot on this subject but will shut up for now.

TCS said...

ok, I see now Greg didn't write it.

Anonymous said...

My first reaction to this entry is that it literally scares me. I don't understand the mindset that is so recently coming into "vogue" that we can determine who God is, what his characteristics should be and have the right to judge Him on issues that bother us, i.e. genocide, starvation, terrorism, etc. I can't be convinced that judging God and His actions is not the issue here. That is what it is, no matter what politically correct spin you put on it.

The burden is ours to fit into what God's plan is...not to fit God into what we perceive makes sense in today's world. Why not spend more time in realizing the blessings that are given and praising and worshipping God in everything we do instead of analyzing verses to try to decide if they should be taken literally or not?

You may think I'm simplifying too much and don't have intellect to understand this approach, but I can assure you that is not the case. I just don't waste my time trying to understand things to the point that I completely miss the big picture...that Jesus lived, died and lived again for all of us and because of that, we should live each moment in a way that honors Him. The blog opinion of Liberal Jesus certainly does not do that.

Adam said...

Your comment got me thinking about a parable that Pete Rollins proposes in his book "How (not) To Speak of God".

basically he asks you to imagine that it's judgment day and you approach the Throne of God...

when you get there the being on the throne explains that he is not God but Satan and he has overthrown God. If you will now renounce God and swear allegiance to him you may enter unimaginable bliss in Heaven. However, if you remain faithful to Christ you will spend an eternity in Hell. What do you do?

anyway...that got me thinking...what if I'm wrong about God? What if the hyper-calvinists were right (for example)...what if God condemns people to hell or heaven by an arbitrary choice? or what if the hyper-conservative C of C guys were right and God is looking for adherance to all of these silly rules with no regard for the world, the poor, justice, etc.? What if this Way of Jesus that I've come to believe in isn't reflective of God at all, and he's actually just a tyrant threatening eternal punishment if we don't jump through hoops simply to appease him?

While I don't think that's true at all...

I decided that I would follow the Way of Love I see in Jesus anyway...that I would stand in protest of the tyrant god...and I would accept an eternity in Hell to be a part of the beautiful Way of Jesus.

Thomas+ said...

Unlike anonymous, I am not afraid. I don't know why that would be a person's first response.

I think the writer is reacting to some pretty difficult things, and I understand his need to "take a break."

I feel that most of what he is struggling with is best worked out in the faith community, rather than apart from it.

So, I am hopeful that he will eventually find himself in a godly Christian fellowship.

Anonymous said...

thank you for posting this! this short statement is EXACTLY what i was feeling when i decided to take a break. it's very affirming to see others going on the journey.
your 'canadian' comrade

Suzie said...

I see a lot of the same thoughts expressed by those who have embraced Simple Church like my friend, Jason.

john alan turner said...

Like Thomas I believe things like this are best sorted out in the context of community.

I would add that there is a reason God wisely gave the body of Christ teachers -- people who have both cultivated the skill and appropriated the gifting of God to teach through difficult issues with grace, compassion and (when possible) clarity.

There is also a reason why James warns us, "Not many of you should presume to be teachers" (James 3:1).

Justin said...

JAT and Thomas,

What does one do when the community one is in calls you a heretic for thinking these things? I would say most places in our fellowship (c of c) would not look kindly upon anyone asking these questions, no matter how "progressive" they are.

Anonymous said...

Just the phrase taking a break makes me feel weird. Jesus didn't take a break from serving. He needed some space now and then for some deeply personal alone time to be with just God. But He never took a break from being our Savior. Unless of course you count that 40 day visit to the desert, but Satan on his heels testing him left and right. I may be wrong, but I don't think that is what this writer was talking about doing. I don't think this writer anticipates going to the desert to endure testing by Satan while he takes a break.

I must say that in my own past, it's the times I've pulled away and tried to go it alone that Satan attacked me most. And won the most.

Can we really justify taking a break from being part of God's family?

A different anonymous

TCS said...

some comments make me wonder if people have more of a love (or affair) with church than they do with God. There I said it!

Phil said...

I think there would be people who would say that you can't experience Christ fully outside of the Church. If the Church is the Body of Christ, his proxy on earth as it were, then to try and have relationship with God (Father, Son, Spirit) outside of the Body is limited at best.

My argument to that would be, if people don't see Jesus in the Church, or they don't see Jesus in His purported Body, why would they want to be a part of that?

Anonymous said...

"My argument to that would be, if people don't see Jesus in the Church, or they don't see Jesus in His purported Body, why would they want to be a part of that?"

(Insert cartoon of someone's eyes popping out!) Really? Truly? Who did Jesus mingle with? The perfect? The most holy? The ones who did it all right most of the time? No, he mingled with those least like himself so that he could be their Savior. As His called, we are to mingle with those around us, even those in the church that don't reflect Jesus as well as we should.

To judge the church in this way is just as Phariseeical as the church judging someone, which we have all seen happen. We are not all perfect. We all need a Savior and He established the church for just such moments as this man is describing.

A love affair with God should bring one to love and appreciate the church not abandon it. Even when it's not all it should be. If we are waiting to find the perfect church, well it will not happen. Cause churches are filled with struggling people, just like the author. But we choose to stick it out and work through life's problems as a body of Christ, not as a loner.

It just feels like the "I'm taking my ball and go home" mentality.


Anonymous said...

And I'd think it's highly likely that someone at the author's church needs him and will be negatively affected by his attitude and decision. Maybe even fall away as a result of seeing him cut and run.


TCS said...

To be clear, I'm for church. I think as JAT that community is good and needed. But apparently some of you have never felt that the community you were in is so out of step with God's will that it feels like "poking yourself in the eye" Like it or not there is a sometimes overt but always undertone in Churches of Christ to conform. Differences and experimentation are not the strong suit of that denomination. It has some strengths. that isn't one. There is also this unfortunate belief held by some (I'm being generous with 'some') that God's kingdom exists wholly with in the Church of Christ so to leave altogether for some is easier than to leave for another community of faith.

Maybe it is taking his toys and going home. But what is the proper response from a family? Sometimes it is to encourage the "leaver" to stay, sometimes it is let them go and wish them well. And I'm not encouraging everyone with a difference of opinion to up and leave.

Phil as to can you experience Christ fully outside the Church? I don't know about that. You can't experience relationships that will help center you, you miss out on a lot. But it all comes back to the purpose of church. What is it? What's it really exist for?

Justin said...

What makes the church the church? That they call themselves that? Is it possible that the body of Christ may be no more like the actual body than a group of non believers who believe in moral living?

Anonymous said...

You are easing on into the judgmental "stick poking in the eye" TCS talked about.
No wonder the church is losing members.

Has it ever occurred to any of you that the church NEEDS us to serve? That perhaps God put us in a certain place on purpose! The church might be lacking just what we have to offer? Perhaps if we viewed being a part of a church family as our ability to serve them instead of their ability to serve us, we'd think about it much differently.

Isn't that what Jesus did? Rose up out of what was happening to him and served humanity. I'm certainly glad he didn't take a break from the people who were not doing what they were supposed to. What if Jesus had been taking a break right around the time of the cross. We'd be sunk.

Exactly what example are you following to justify taking a break?

Scriptures say Jesus is the vine, we are the branches and the gardener tends the vineyard. A branch can't just decide it wants to flourish away from the vine and the other branches. If the branch leaves the vine, the other branches and the gardener it dies. It's all interdependent. The gardener gets to decide how the pruning occurs and what is cut off. The branches don't get to get together and decide and neither does a single branch. The gardener decides.

I'll be honest with you, this is a scary conversation to me. It's just so sad to me that you are willing to wrap your arms around this concept as a means of becoming more spiritual.


Thomas+ said...

Justin asked me a question: What does one do when the community one is in calls you a heretic for thinking these things? I would say most places in our fellowship (c of c) would not look kindly upon anyone asking these questions, no matter how "progressive" they are.

If someone called me a heretic I would think about it. But, since I believe in the Nicene Creed I don't think I'm a heretic, so I think I would discount that assertion. If my community thought I was a heretic, I suppose I would either repent or depart, depending on whether or not I was convinced of my heresy.

I don't know what people in the Church of Christ would say to someone like this author, but in my tradition (Anglican) I often run into just this sort of person. And I tell them that they are greatly loved and I hope they will work out their doubts in the context of our imperfect Christian community.

To Justin's question above, I would side with Calvin that a church is a community in which the Word of God is rightly taught, the Sacraments are duly administered, and Discipline is graciously lived out. And I think it is vital to understand that without self-sacrificing love of God and one another, none of those three things are possible.

Tony Arnold said...

I know this, if I ever take a break from my church, I am going to visit Thomas+'s.

TCS said...

can you clear up a couple of things.
1. who are you saying is falling into being judgmental? Me, Justin, someone else?
and while on this to be clear "the stick poking in the eye" was a reference to the way the writer felt not the teaching about a beam/stick in the eye vs. a speck.

2. When you say no wonder the church is losing members, are you referring to a specific congregation, the Church universally or the Church of Christ?

As for has it occurring that the church needs us to serve...I don't know everyone that has posted here, but most I do know or know of most and they are all incredible servants. Giving of their time, energy and talents.

3. Can you clarify your question about what example of taking a break? are you looking for a exact example in the Bible?

4. Vine/branches. Yes that is about being cut off. But more specifically about the source of life. That is why John wrote. So that you might believe and have life. But if you take the meaning of the word 'church' as the called or called out, then attendance to a Sunday event at a building doesn't equal membership. Bad word maybe (membership) but this is written in a hurry. If you are part of a family and I am your brother and every Sunday the family gets together for Lunch. For whatever reason, I don't come, I hope I don't cease to be family. Missed, I hope; needed, I hope.

5. last, I promise. :-) you said "I'll be honest with you, this is a scary conversation to me. It's just so sad to me that you are willing to wrap your arms around this concept as a means of becoming more spiritual." First, I went back through the comments and didn't see anyone saying it was a concept (I assume his not going on Sunday's) of being "more spiritual". Now I do think it is better to have your allegiance to be to God over any particular way of doing Sunday. If someone wants to remove themselves become monastic for a while, I believe if they are seeking God they like Elijah will find they are not alone after all.

And I am sorry that you feel scared.

sorry Phil, I've become one of those blog hijackers.

Anonymous said...

Yes, a scriptural reference would be nice showing how Jesus would have embraced the concept/or decision of "Taking a Break from Church".

Perhaps I misunderstood because I don't know this group, but yes it appeared that in Justin's comment he was being very judgmental of the church in general.

It scares me as a parent to children who are growing up seeing this happen more and more. People who "take a break" from lots of things in life. Being a parent, being a spouse, being an employee, being a student, being a good citizen or even being a member of a church fellowship. People who get discouraged, blame it on someone else and leave. With no thought to how it affects those left behind.

I trying very hard to give them a life example of someone who can be discouraged from time to time, even discouraged with my church fellowship, but continue to serve wherever I am called. It's tough being a parent, especially when they see so much going on around them not just in the world, but even in the church. I try to remember we are all just people who are striving to serve the Lord. Children learn by what they see more often than what they hear.

I guess everyone has to do what they feel led by God to do, but I sure do wish that we'd remember that how we respond affects so many and possibly for many generations to come.

Thanks for the conversation.


Matthew said...

Howdy, team. I'm the original post-poster, and I find it really interesting and kind of cute to read your discussion and speculation as to my belief system and mental state. =)

One question I thought was interesting sounded to me like, "What in the Christian tradition (or Bible, or whatever) justifies taking a break from church?"

Hm. Well, the gospels depict Jesus as going off by himself fairly often. And beyond his circle of disciples, Jesus's church experience consisted of occasionally dropping into a synagogue, making everybody angry, and leaving before they killed him.

But more to the point, I've wandered far enough outside the circle of Christian doctrine that, while I'll listen to the path that the Christian tradition mandates, I'm not going to consider it the end of the available wisdom. I'm a virtue ethicist at heart, so I kind of have to make the uncomfortable assumption that I'm virtuous enough to examine the situation, examine the moral guidance that I have available, and make a decision about what's wise and good to do.

I'd be glad to answer any particular questions that you have, but it would be a bit easier if you posted them on my blog, which is here.

(Thanks for the link, Phil.)

Matthew said...

Oh, and the post in question is here.

Tony Arnold said...

"It scares me as a parent to children who are growing up seeing this happen more and more. People who "take a break" from lots of things in life. Being a parent, being a spouse, being an employee, being a student, being a good citizen or even being a member of a church fellowship. People who get discouraged, blame it on someone else and leave. With no thought to how it affects those left behind."

As a parent, a church leader, and a business manager, I completely agree with Ada. I fully acknowledge that this particular point may not apply to Matthew's situation. But I agree with the point in general.

And in reference to a scriptural example on this point, the whole of Jesus' historical record is an example. He never gave up because something was hard or unpleasant. Literally, I thank GOD for that.

Again, I am not implying that Matthew is giving up. That is not a cop-out, I just don't have enough info and don't know Matthew so as to purport an assumption.

Anonymous said...

In the church that I used to attend, I didn't have to poke myself in the eye. There was a control hungry group that could and would do it for me regularly. It's one thing to stay and work through problems with people who are struggling and seeking and flawed. It's quite another to stay and try to work through problems with people who are judgmental and controlling and abusive. The church I attended was the latter. After basically being run out of town by the last straw (which was of the 800 pound variety) quite a few of us started meeting just so we would have a place to come together and worship God and encourage one another. That was nine months ago. Since then, every week (without fail) has been so fulfilling and uplifting. Everyone has been so kind and supportive. It has been amazing. Each week a different couple plans the service from start to finish. We are known as "Outreach church of Christ" and that is exactly what we do--reach out to help those in need in our community. I thank God for Outreach and the freshness it has brought to all of us in our little town. We have grown to about 70 per week in attendance (though we did have 97 last week).
So what I'm saying is that there is hope out there for those of you who feel alienated or abused by the very entity that is supposed to lift you up. Don't give up. God Bless. Dennis

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