Sunday, December 26, 2010

Faith of Our Fathers

There's a recurring joke in my life that goes something like this: I don't believe in God, but somebody keeps fucking with me. I've also had a kind of rule of life in which if something comes up in three places, I should probably pay attention to it. It's kind of a "two or three witnesses thing," however hermeneutically suspect that might be.

A few weeks ago, my Methodist pastor friend dropped a hint that their piano player might be leaving. It's a small church, and they do a mixture of hymns and contemporary stuff -- not, I think, out of any particular strategy so much as by default. I have zero regrets over leaving the staff at our usual church (the closest thing in the area to a megachurch), and I assumed this meant I was done for good with church music.

But then there are those protestant guitars (kind of expensive ones) lying idle, and my chops not getting much exercise, and I wonder about that musical gap that doesn't get filled anywhere. And then one day, when I was running errands and decided to drop in on my pastor friend, he told me their music guy was definitely leaving, and the woman who picks out the music was fretting over having to pick up his load, and gosh I'd be a good fit if I decided to come out of retirement. I told him no.

The next day, I felt, in evangelical parlance, "convicted." It would probably be an easy volunteer gig: show up on Sunday morning, run through the songs somebody else picked, and be home for lunch. This would help my friend, and I wouldn't have to spend Sunday morning milling around church being fidgety, which is what I do now. I know. I'm a mess. Don't judge me. So I called my friend and told him I was in, which I think made his day.

This is one of the "witnesses" that have me thinking lately about what it means to remain not just Christian, to which I'm already committed, but an evangelical Christian, about which I've been (um, understandably) on the fence. This prospect makes me a little nervous, though the truth is I'm still at an evangelical church anyway. My blogging friend Peter Walker calls himself a "liberal evangelical," and my friend (and Religion at the Margins co-contributor) James McGrath is a liberal and, I assume, an evangelical -- he teaches Sunday School at a Baptist church, for crying out loud. He's probably a Veggie Tales DVD away from having more evangelical cred than I do. So this is not an impossible task. For the other witnesses, we need some background.

As I've mentioned before, I grew up Church of Christ, and there were three things -- three C's -- we were definitely not: Catholic, Calvinist, or charismatic. I've dabbled in all three as a result although none of them took. The CofC is the bastard stepchild of the Scottish Enlightenment, and despite some of the irrational content of faith, all those metaphysical truth-claims that are invariably taken literally, the structure of that faith is very rational and formalistic. An offshoot of Presbyterianism, we rejected predestination and church hierarchy but we kept the iconoclasm and the systematic theology and the largely disenchanted world.

On the frontier (and the CofC is very much a frontier phenomenon) Calvinism and the charismatic ran much closer together than they do now, inasmuch as charismatic ecstasies were among the signs that one might be offered to confirm they were among the elect. The Stone-Campbell movement, or Restoration Movement, out of which the CofC sprang, had no time for such nonsense. Salvation was a free choice, simple as that. Stake your claim and be done with it.

In the movie Cannery Row, Debra Winger plays a prostitute in a coastal California town in the 1940s. At one point, she's with one of her first, er, clients -- a tough, no-nonsense guy with a crew cut -- and he says "Aren't you going to take off your dress?" She replies, "I thought maybe you wanted to do it, as a lead-in." He retorts, "Lead-ins are for guys who can't cut the mustard."

That's the Stone-Campbell approach to soteriology: enough whining about whether or not you're saved, or waiting for a sign, or going to the mourner's bench and praying through, and blah blah blah. Come to Jesus and get your ass baptized. What we really needed, besides baptism (baptism is a really, really big deal for us), is to get back to the New Testament pattern of faith. We tended to read Acts 2:42 as a clip from a first-century church bulletin:
  • The apostle's teaching -- that's the sermon
  • The breaking of bread -- that's communion (and by God you better do it ever Sunday)
  • Fellowship -- this, depending on how the Greek gets parsed, is the offering
  • Prayer -- so we have a prayer for everything.
In Acts, this is really a reference to the kind of life the early disciples shared: doing the things the apostles had taught them, eating together, sharing their goods, and praying together (probably the Psalms, but that's another story). But in the CofC, these are things that you have to do every Sunday or it doesn't count as church. As far as I can tell, it wasn't about church growth or spiritual formation or creating communities of character or being "relevant" (though it was certainly a product of the times) so much as it was about getting it right.

It was also about Christian unity; they saw the divisions among denominations as running counter to Jesus' prayer in John 17 that all his followers should be one, so they were checking out of that system. If believers would give up their denominational allegiances and just get back to basics (see above), Jesus' prayer would be answered. If not, well, they could burn in hell with everybody else.

The rejection of charismatic gifts was not just based on the notion that such things were for people who couldn't cut the mustard; it was also predicated on the idea that such things were wrong; they were not part of the "getting it right" that the restorationists (so named for their desire to restore the New Testament church) were on about. After the rise of Pentecostalism in the early 1900s, it wasn't just frontier revival ecstasies that were at issue, but specifically glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. In reaction to this, we came up with new theological reasons for keeping a stiff upper lip.

For this we employed a passage from St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in which he says that "when the perfect comes," prophecies will cease and tongues will be silenced. The "perfect," in our reading, was not the eschatological horizon that frames most of the New Testament, but the compilation of the New Testament itself. Once people had NT canon, they didn't need prophecies and ecstasies, tongues and interpretations. Or miracles. Those things fell away.

What humors me is that the charismatics and the cessationists, at least of the variety I'm familiar with, are pretty much using the same logic. They both assume that glossolalia is unique to first century Christians; for the charismatics this means a sign of God's favor, and in some cases evidence that we are living in the end times, whereas for the cessationists this means the charismatics are either faking it or possessed of the devil, a perspective that does not lend itself well to interdenominational dialog. What does not seem to occur to either camp is that religious ecstasies, including glossolalia, are found in a variety of religious traditions, and may not be "supernatural" at all.

Friday, December 24, 2010

O Little Town of Bethlehem

So I'm driving my 12-year-old daughter to church for Christmas Eve, where she will be playing in the bell choir and and following in her father's footsteps on keyboard for the family service. One of the songs they're doing is "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and she's looking at the lyrics as we drive. Here's the first verse, familiar to most of us:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
"That doesn't make sense," she says. I explain the conceit of the song: "We're singing to the town of Bethlehem," I say. "The city is sleeping, but the light of Jesus is shining because that's where he is born." This seems to satisfy her.

We look at the second verse:
For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth
It's the syntax of the first part that throws her. "It's the angels that are gathered all above," I explain. "Keeping watch."

"Of wondering love," she says.

"Right," I say, "and the stars are proclaiming the birth and praising God."

"Peace," she says, almost contemptuously. "There is no peace. There will never be peace."

This seems to come from nowhere. Wow, I think to myself, that's a little dark, though I am not unsympathetic. "That's why," I say, "we need to keep the hope of the peace of Jesus." That sounds Christmas-y, right?

"But Jesus already came," she says.

"Well, yeah." I am not sure where to go with this.

"So he's coming again?"

We've been through this before. "Well, I don't think so," I say, "but that's not what I think hope is about."

"Did they think that?" They, I think, means whoever wrote the song.

"Well, maybe," I say. "But Jesus comes to us wherever we seek that peace. There are times where the bad thing we're sure should happen doesn't, and the good thing we think is impossible happens anyway. Where we find ourselves capable of peace and surprise ourselves. Times when we share bread with a neighbor, or take the time to listen. When we forgive even though it's hard, when we refuse to repay evil for evil, or when we let go of what we think should be ours because someone else needs it. Those moments come to us sometimes as a gift, when we're not expecting it, like Jesus came to Bethlehem."

"Cool," she says. "Do you think they'll have cookies at church?"