Monday, May 02, 2005

Two Stoned Birds, Part Deux

What does one have to do with the other? Tena's question and my experience in a Sunday school class, how exactly are they related?

The church.

During the class, one of the questions was whether a group of pastors would agree with my interpretation of the scriptures. I had to confess that was very unlikely. After the class, my sister in law, a dear and delightful woman, told me I was certainly a college professor (she enjoyed the class; this was a compliment). That, however, was what many critics of my ministry had told me, in my last year at my last church: that I belonged in a classroom, not a pulpit. Why? Because I had the temperament of a professor, not a pastor? I don't think so. I think because of what I teach.

My interpretation of the last 14 verses of Luke 7 might well be idiosyncratic and even indefensible, but it would barely raise eyebrows among Biblical scholars and scriptural theologians. It wouldn't even interest systematic theologians, I suspect. It is not, in other words, controversial. Certainly not the fire-bombing of a Shelby Spong, or the radical reimagination of God of Matthew Fox or even the feminist promoters of "goddess" images and ideas. Indeed, even feminist readings of scripture are more controversial than my small effort.

But among the laity, pastors are, by and large, not supposed to say such things. Just as they are trained, by experience or inclination, not to delve too deeply into the differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and what both mean for Christian soteriology. Most pastors, in fact, are neither Biblical scholars nor theologians, and so seldom stray far from what they first learned in Sunday school. It is not too much to say the system is self-perpetuating, and the most "successful" pastors (i.e., those with the largest and wealthiest churches, which is the usual "measure"), are the least interested in theology, be it Biblical or systematic: they are interested in management, and in Dale Carnegie-style "winning friends and influencing people."

When I finally realized that Og Mandino's The Greatest Salesman in the World was about Jesus, not a successful Willy Loman, I finally understood that.

Has the church run its course in this matter? It's too apocryphal to say so, but it is certainly running out its length of rope, and will soon hang itself. The "third-world" churches are not our model for any number of reasons, not the least of which involves the different cultures. It is colonialism all over again to imagine the African churches will "save" the European ones. I am convinced, in fact, that the survival of the church in this post-Enlightenment, post modern age, will require taking the bull by the horns, not finding ways to argue that the bull isn't there. The stories of the Bible are stories of struggling with God. We are more comfortable with a pocket-sized Jesus, a Jesus covered with the ash and debris of two centuries of tradition and familiarity. Removing the stains and soot and varnish and seeing something like the original colors again (Jesus was funny? Jesus really hung out with prostitutes?) is disturbing, but it is also necessary. This particular version of Christendom has had its run. It was over in the 19th century, but like the Roman empire, its reach is so vast that the collapse will take a long time to finish, and a longer time to register.

And it is time, despite the danger it creates to pastors as paid professionals, and the discomfort it brings to church members who want their Sunday mornings to be as predictable as their work weeks, if not more so, to reintroduce the living God to people. Because that God is there anyway, and anxious at least to let Tena, and others, into the conversation.

At the end of an "X-Files" episode that I remember now only for this closing, Dana Scully is talking to her priest about what has happened that hour, and he's telling her that perhaps God is always talking to us. This doesn't comfort her; in fact, she says, it distubs her even more. "Why?," the priest asks. "Becuase that means God is talking, but no one is listening," she answers. That can be, but should not be, an indictment of the church.

(and yes, I purposely placed these so this comes up below the first post; easier to read them in order)

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