Tag Archive | doctrine

Notable News: Week of November 10-16, 2012

Here we are, the end of another week.  We’ve had our ups and downs here, but we’ve made it to the weekend!  Tomorrow, I get to play my violin with some of the best people around—not to mention getting to play some great music!  It’s our pops concert, and the theme is movie music.  We’ll be playing selections from Superman, The Magnificent Seven, Sense and Sensibility, Catch Me if You Can, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and (of course) Star Wars.  If you’re in my area and you want to come out, please do!  I’d love to see you there at 7:30 Saturday night (you can buy tickets at the door for $9 or call the RWC box office).

Now for this weeks great blog posts:

1. No confirmation for you!

In this week’s edition of Does This Really Surprise Anyone, we learn that Minnesota teen Lennon Cihak won’t be confirmed by the Catholic Church for his support of marriage equality.  It’s actually not entirely clear if this is the case, as the priest in question has denied the allegation.  Honestly, I wish people would stop acting like it’s only the Catholic Church that does this sort of thing.  I mean, I’m not naming any names, but I know plenty of Catholics who support marriage equality and at least a few gay Catholics.  I’m aware of more than one local parish that embraces LGBT people.  Conservative evangelical protestants, on the other hand…well.  You all saw my post last week after the election, right?  Maybe I’ll start that online form to pray for my soul after all.

2. More awesome from Dianna Anderson

Man, I cannot wait until her book is published.  No pressure, Dianna!  I just have to say that in the realm of Christian feminism, she is in top form.  If you’re not subscribed to her blog, you should be.  Here are two good posts from this week: Friends with Kids, Love Stories, and Rape Culture and The Magical Mystery of Marriage.  For the first post, thanks, Dianna, for taking one for the team and watching that movie so I don’t have to.  Now I’m spreading the word so that my friends don’t waste their time and money either.  As for the second post, I’m glad someone is standing up and saying that marriage is not the answer to unhealthy sexuality, nor does it automatically make sex healthy.  I think what I like best about this post is that Dianna doesn’t offer pat answers; she calls for a conversation in which we lay aside labels.  Count me in!

3. Kill the Gays

Yeah, it passed.  That wasn’t a surprise.  Disappointing, but not shocking.  What saddens me is that some people will read this and shrug; others will be outright in support of it.  A few will probably misunderstand entirely.  I don’t have any words for this; all I can do is keep praying.

4. Twilight and Perpetual Girlhood

This is a great post about one of the things that bothered me as I read Twilight.  Now, I did enjoy the books as kind of light fare; however, I do recognize the problematic (I really hate that word, but it does apply here) elements.  Bella’s desire to remain ageless is one of them.  Sorry, folks, we normal people eventually get old.  My hair is already run through with a bit of gray.  But I don’t color it, because in my opinion, it’s natural.  What isn’t natural is to want to appear twenty for the rest of my life.  (I don’t lie about my age, either, even though some of my peers already do—and we’re hardly old!)  This article falls apart a bit at the end, but it’s still worth the read.

5. Addicted to (Controlling) Love

Thank you, Emily Maynard, for saying what I’ve been trying to say, but using fewer (and better) words.  Our bodies are not objects for male consumption, and we are not responsible for what men do.  This post, too, is a good explanation of men continuously imposing themselves on the way we dress—we must be either vixens or virgins, but not of our own free will.  I think we women need to apply these arguments to women’s health care, birth control, and abortion as well as clothing/modesty.

7. On being non-essential

I can’t express enough how much I love this post by Pam Hogeweide.  She puts it so well when she explains why we women can’t just leave the church if we’re unhappy with our position.  She also brings up something I’d never thought of: that women in leadership is usually reduced to the status of “non-essential” doctrine; that is, it has no direct bearing on our salvation.  Until reading this post, I had always felt that way myself—it doesn’t matter if a particular church rejects women as pastors, because it’s not really essential.  I can now understand the nagging feeling I always had about that, though.  Unlike the inanimate elements of communion or the inanimate practice of spiritual gifts, women are actual people; we are not “non-essentials.”  Well said, Pam!

8. Talk about “I have no idea what I feel about this”

So it turns out that Kevin Clash, voice of Elmo, is gay.  So what?  I’m sure some parents will be upset, but I’m not sure that makes much sense.  Bert and Ernie have more gay overtones than Elmo (yes, I know they’re only roommates; don’t get your panties in a bunch).  I don’t see Sesame Workshop developing any storylines where Elmo gets a gay crush or anything.  The real issue turns out to be whether or not Clash had a relationship with a minor.  Now, I’ve seen people arguing on both sides, and I’d like to tell you all to please let someone other than the media sort this one out.  Clash is on a break from Sesame Street, so chill out.  Also, could we stop seeing more “blame the victim” crap all over the place?  Yeah, the alleged victim recanted.  We don’t know why.  And his criminal record has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on whether or not Clash took advantage of him.  So no jumping to conclusions until the actual people involved get it sorted, okay?  Good.

What a week!  Lots of good stuff.  Hope you have a great weekend!  I’m off til Monday, picking back up with some more Fifty Shades goodness badness.  See you then!

You’re Doing It Wrong: Church Edition

Here’s a church practice I’d like to see permanently retired: Denomination-bashing.

There are over 30,000 denominations of Christianity worldwide.  Now, I understand that not everyone is going to practice their faith in the same way.  The problem is, we’re constantly arguing over who has the correct interpretation of Scripture.  We spend a heck of a lot of time explaining not only why our doctrine is right but why another denomination has it all wrong.

I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “The Bible is clear about [fill in the blank].”  I would be able to retire in style to a tropical island of my own.  It’s a nice sentiment, but there’s one problem.

It ain’t quite true.

If the Bible were so clear, we would have one type of Christianity.  Everyone would study the text in the same way, resulting in the same answers.  There wouldn’t be any disagreement about doctrine, because we would all understand the Scriptures to mean the same thing.  There would be no reason for our thinking or our interpretation to evolve.  There would be no need to understand cultural context and cues.

But that’s not the real problem with “The Bible is clear…” mentality.  When someone says that, it puts a period on the conversation.  It means, “I don’t agree with you, and I’m done talking to you.”  It shuts down the possibility of further discussion.  A person would be just as effective saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong.  Neener, neener.”

This little phrase reduces our faith to little more than an argument about whose doctrine is the Official Way to Practice Our Religion.  It builds walls instead of bridges.  It allows pastors to preach on the other guy—to give Sunday messages that, instead of leading us to deeper faith in Jesus, simply explain why those people can’t possibly be real Christians.

You know what?  I don’t care who’s right.  There is no situation in which I find it remotely acceptable to spend the better part of an hour lecturing on why someone else’s religion or doctrine or theology is wrong.  Just in case anyone has forgotten, neither did Jesus.  He said he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.  He healed Gentiles.  He told the Samaritan woman that one day, theological differences wouldn’t matter.

If a church is spending any time at all trying to convince people that some other church has things all wrong, then that church is putting emphasis on the wrong things.  Lead people to deeper faith; encourage spiritual discipline; help believers to live a more Christ-like life.  But lay off your superiority when it comes to differences in doctrine.  That doesn’t do anything to foster healing and wholeness.

It’s time that churches stopped saying to each other, “You’re doing it wrong.”

The Right Answer

Last night, sitting at the dinner table, my husband and I discovered that we both used to hate those stupid multiple choice questions on English Lit exams.  You know the kind I’m talking about, the ones that asked things like, “What is the major theme of this book?”  Then you have four or five options, at least three of which seem like they could apply.

The funny thing is, we disliked those questions for opposite reasons.  My husband is a big-picture thinker.  He doesn’t like to pin things down to just one way of looking at a situation or problem.  In his opinion, trying to find one single theme in a story is pointless, since different people would come to equally valid conclusions.  I hated those questions because I always thought that if there were a right answer, it ought to be obvious.  I want clear, precise direction, no ambiguity allowed.

I suppose that’s why I always liked math and science, even though I’m significantly better at language and communication.  Math has right answers.  If you add two and two, you get four.  It’s basic, simple, and numbers can be plugged into a formula.  There is no room for lying.  Even in exceptional cases, such as imaginary numbers, there is still a clear method for understanding how to work with them.  Science isn’t quite as black-and-white, but it’s close.  If we don’t actually know everything, there is at least the potential that everything is knowable.  New discoveries are made all the time, replacing old notions.  It’s comforting, somehow, to believe that somewhere out there, the Scientists are Finding Things Out.

Our discovery that our polar opposite personalities converge in this way came about while discussing (what else?) the Bible.  I had mentioned that when my Sunday school students played Jeopardy! in class, I had a hard time with one of the questions.  In theory, it should have been easy.  The kids were answering Bible trivia for 5-10-year-olds.  I know the Bible pretty well at this stage of my life.  As expected, most of the questions were simple, factual information about what’s actually written in the text., such as which Disciple denied Jesus.  The one that gave me trouble was, “What is the theme of Jonah?”

The answer my students gave, and which turned out to be correct, was “Listen to G-d.”  I suppose that’s true enough, at least in some sense.  I mean, who wants to get eaten by a fish?  At the same time, at least three other themes occurred to me: It’s never too late to repent; sometimes life isn’t fair and things don’t turn out as we expect; and G-d, not we, is in charge of the whole repentance/forgiveness department.  From other things people have written about Jonah, I gather that there are even more layers to the story than that.

As we played the game, I felt my annoyance level rising.  It was like being back in high school English class.  I never did well on those theme-related questions, because I invariably saw something different in the text from my teachers (and fellow students).  This often left me embarrassed.  I had the same sense of shame that my students could come up with a pat answer about Jonah, but I could not.  (Not that any of the other adults were aware of my predicament, as I managed to keep my mouth shut.)

This isn’t unusual for me at church.  I think there are multiple good answers, and sometimes none at all, to the question of themes within Scripture.  Unfortunately, too few people are interested in exploring more than a single right answer.  Sunday after Sunday, we’re drawn into the concrete world of “correct” interpretation.  But how can we possibly make sense of it all when branches of Christianity, denominations, and even individual churches disagree on the right meaning of Scripture?  How can we be certain that the important message of Jonah is that we must listen to G-d, when someone else says that it’s really a message of compassion for sinners?  And if, as I suspect, both are equally valid, then what do we do with that–how does it change how we live?

It can be so easy to just sit in the pews every week, waiting for the pastor to give us the answers.  I used to be like that.  Not that it didn’t affect my life during the week; I’ve never been a Sunday morning Christian.  But I used to believe that the pastor could supply the answers and I could then put them to work in my life.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that kind of faith to be flat and dull.  As much as I rebel against a big-picture, nebulous, abstract approach to the Bible, I know it makes more sense.  I can let go of the shame in finding alternate meanings, embracing it with my whole heart.  I can see the richness of the multiple themes in Jonah and rejoice that G-d has given us something so beautiful.

Where do you want to expand your views of the Bible?

Scale Theology

I’ve been thinking about the idea of Scale Theology.  That’s the snappy term occasionally used in my church (and probably others, I can’t imagine it’s unique) for a belief in salvation by good deeds.  The essence is that when you die, if the good stuff you did outweighs the bad, you get a pass into Heaven.  If not, well, you can imagine what happens.  Obviously, any church which teaches salvation by grace through faith does not subscribe to Scale Theology.

Naturally, I agree that Scale Theology is useless nonsense.  There are several reasons for this.  First, is there anyone on the planet who would believe they hadn’t done enough good?  And if there were, would it be true?  Second, everyone’s idea of what constitutes “good” deeds is different.  One person might think it means going to church, being nice to people, and respecting authority.  Another might think it means being on the front lines of battle.  Another might believe it’s all about how much money you donate.  Third, ditto on the idea of “bad” deeds.  We might all agree that, say, Hitler was one seriously bad man.  But how about the kid who bullied you all through middle school?  Is he as bad?  You might think so, if you’re the seventh grader getting beat up.  Finally, how much good one would have to do to outweigh the bad is also in question.  Take that middle school bully.  What would he need to do to make up for his childish actions?

Having established that I don’t in any way subscribe to Scale Theology, I do want to bring up one minor issue.  Churches that emphasize salvation by grace through faith sometimes fail to acknowledge that we also need to do good things.  It’s often framed in terms of “storing up our treasures in heaven” or that doing good deeds demonstrates that we are showing outward signs of an inward faith.  Sometimes, the balance is tipped in favor of volunteering at church rather than giving our time and money outside the church.  In any case, churches often go overboard in trying to make sure no one is confused about our salvation not being dependent on our actions.  Churches that encourage, emphasize, and celebrate social justice may be sneered at, and are often perceived as promoting the dreaded Scale Theology.

The problem with that kind of open condemnation is that it’s unfounded.  Social justice-oriented churches don’t necessarily buy into Scale Theology.  It’s not that anyone believes that the power of salvation rests squarely on G-d’s shoulders.  It’s that social justice Christians believe that we are called to, that we must, be obedient to Jesus.  The difference is not in whether a person or church subscribes to Scale Theology.  The difference is in why one thinks good deeds are important.  We don’t do good deeds to buy our ticket into Heaven.  We don’t do it to earn brownie points with the Lord.  We don’t do it because it’s going to make someone proud of us, look good on a college application, sound important at a job interview, or make people like us better.  We do it because Jesus expressly stated that we are to care for the needy.  He said it plainly.  He said it in parables.  He said it repeatedly.  The Apostles lived it.  Paul repeated it.  James nearly pounded it into the ground.  Which part of that are we not getting?

Another flaw when talking about Scale Theology is the belief that anyone who isn’t a card-carrying Born Again is automatically in the Scale Theology camp.  There’s no room for anyone to have natural compassion.  Doing good is dismissed as a misguided attempt at purchasing the admission to the Pearly Gates.  But what if it’s not?  What if we simply can’t admit that it isn’t the mere act of putting faith in Christ which drives the human heart?  There are people out there who, believing there is no god, think it’s our responsibility to care for one another.  There are people who sincerely don’t want others to suffer and are brokenhearted over the terrible things that happen to people.  Out of that compassion, they work to care for life on this planet in all its forms.  I know these people exist; I’ve met them.  Not one of them thinks that doing good in this world is the basis of getting into Heaven after death.  (It’s especially important to note that many of these people don’t even believe there is a heaven, or anything else, after death.  Therefore, Scale Theology is irrelevant.)

We need to stop worrying about whether focusing on doing good is sending the wrong message about salvation.  We simply need to begin living as Jesus intended us to.

What Is Sin?

I have been thinking about the concept of sin.  What is it, exactly?  Is it just a list of the things we are supposed to avoid doing or failing to do?  It must be more than that, because even Jesus didn’t seem to have this concept in mind.

Following through on that thought, I considered the ways in which what we do, even within a church, might constitute sin if we read the Bible with strict literal interpretation.  For example, some churches do not allow women to preach sermons or be senior pastors.  Are the churches that do out of alignment with G-d’s will, and therefore in sin?  Some churches believe that tongues is a gift still given in modern-day churches.  Are the ones who do not encourage the practice of this gift also failing to do as God commands?  When doctrine gets out of hand, this is the end result—that we really have no idea what is or isn’t sin anymore.

I wondered if it might mainly boil down to being selfish vs. being selfless.  In other words, what G-d wants from us is that we should live always trying to keep the other person in mind. But that has its failings, too.  For example, which is more selfless, to attack the person trying to murder your child, or to take the bullet yourself?  If sin is a matter of where your heart is, then why do we concern ourselves with the salvation of unselfish atheists?  It seems obvious that being a Christian isn’t necessarily the litmus test of one’s moral character.

My worst area of failure is when it comes to my kids.  I get so upset and disappointed when they mess up, especially when they seem to believe their behavior was justified.  I don’t show them nearly the same level of mercy and grace that G-d shows us.  I think that maybe we are looking at it wrong.  We see G-d as being more angry about our failures than he is pleased with our successes.  G-d is more upset that there are gay people than he is happy that missionaries are providing clean water in Uganda.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s true.  We are attributing a human failing to G-d.  We are more upset when our kids screw up than we are proud when they do what we expect.  We are much quicker to punish bad behavior than to reward good behavior.  Heck, this is even true in schools.  Kids are sent to the principal for hitting each other, but nor for standing up for a friend or doing well on a test.

There seems to be, as I’ve said before, a tension between personal purity and social ministry.  But the more we focus on Jesus’ own words about our conduct (mostly concerned with caring for others), the more likely we are to avoid the pitfalls of internal corruption.  Perhaps that is the summary of the difference between actual sin and doctrinal purity.That’s not how G-d sees us.  Certainly, He knows we are flawed.  But His love for us is far greater than our weaknesses.  He isn’t overwhelmingly concerned whether we’ve gotten the finer points of Biblical interpretation down.

Let’s start living like we mean our faith.

Changes

I think we are all, at least at some level, wary (if not outright afraid) of change.  Change is threatening.  A single change may affect very little, or it may appear to affect our entire way of life.  I certainly struggle with this myself.  I am highly resistant to anything that might alter the way I live or the lives of my friends or family members.

Recently, the Presbyterian Church (USA) made a change in its stated policy regarding ordination of clergy.  The change was minimal.  Language related to marriage was removed and replaced with non-specific terminology about living a godly life.  For some people, this represents a positive change, a move in the direction of greater inclusiveness.  For others, it’s a heavy blow against what they consider to be a more Biblical, faithful perspective.

I’m not here to judge either side.  This is a debate that has been raging for many years, and this blog post won’t resolve anything.  What I do want to see, however, is more respect for people’s viewpoints.  Not everyone is going to see this issue the same way.  It won’t do any good to accuse the other side of being “narrow-minded” or “unScriptural.”

The good that I see coming out of this decision is that hopefully, the dialogue has been opened.  The ordinary people who sit Sunday after Sunday in the pews may not have had a specific voice or vote in the decision.  But they do have the power to speak and listen with kindness and love.  I hope that instead of creating a culture of fear and anger, church members can help to create a culture of patience and love with one another.