O Captain! My Wesley!

On the list of movies guaranteed to make me cry, Dead Poets Society is firmly entrenched. It is right up there with the “Wanna have a catch” scene in Field of Dreams.

The scene below is not the one that makes me cry, but it is one that makes the creative writing oriented English major in me leap for joy.*

As a result of my love of DPS, it caught my attention when Stanley Hauerwas attacked the film in his book After Christendom. Indeed, he attacks one of the lines in the scene above: You must learn to think for yourselves.

I cannot think of a more conformist and suicidal message in modernity than that we should encourage student to make up their own minds. That is simply to ensure that they will be conformist consumers in a capitalist economy by assuming now that ideas are but another product that you get to choose on the basis of your arbitrary likes and dislikes. To encourage students to think for themselves is therefore a sure way to avoid any meaningful disagreement.

Hauerwas argues — or is it asserts? — that Christianity is not something you choose to be a part of, but a set of practices and skills you acquire in apprenticeship to existing masters of the art and craft of Christianity. In doing so, we develop the virtues that make it possible to have an intelligible conversation about morality as defined by the practice of Christianity. But you do not become a master at any craft by starting out thinking for yourself. You start out learning how to think — and act — as the master teachers do.

For my part, I know that I have been on a journey for several years now to understand Christianity as practiced by John Wesley. It would probably be better and easier to learn the craft from someone living today. For the time being, though, Wesley has been one of my primary teachers.

As I write this, I am reminded of an essay or talk William J. Abraham gave in which he argued that Wesley should not be viewed as a theologian but as a saint of the church — a man who shows us what it means to be a master Christian.

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of Hauerwas’ attack on a beloved movie, but I find and have long found the argument persuasive that being a Christian is less about beliefs than it is about a form of life.


*Although I loved the film when it came out, an English professor earlier this year attacked it strongly — echoing some of Hauerwas’ complaints — as a distorted view of the humanities.

My problem with pluralism

On Friday, I attended afternoon prayers at the local Islamic Center with my colleagues from CPE. After the prayers were over, one of the Muslim gentlemen came over to our group and started to evangelize us with stories about how the Quran explains that Jesus did not die on the cross.

I appreciated his efforts, even if they were a bit of an embarrassment to our host. Our host tried to get us away from our evangelizer and apologized for his brother in the faith’s tactics. As it turns out, many advocates of interfaith pluralism find evangelism awkward and uncouth.

This is a big part of why I find pluralism so difficult to embrace.

I find it difficult because I live in a culture that wants to put claims on people that are inconsistent with the gospel. And here, when I speak of the culture contrary to the gospel, I do not mean people like my Muslim evangelizer. I mean majority American culture.

Pluralism is the watchword of that culture. It says what we believe about God does not really matter, so long as we keep it to ourselves. As long as what we believe stays locked up inside our own heads and behind our church doors, everything is fine. The culture wants us buying Big Macs and paying our taxes on time. Religion gets in the way of that, and so our culture tries to keep religion a private matter, something best not shared or discussed in mixed company. Our culture uses the word “preach” as a pejorative term. “Don’t preach at me.”

Preaching itself is a struggle against the notion that every American has a God-given right to decide for himself or herself what the truth is and to live the life that they think best suits them. Opening up a Bible and saying the God revealed in its pages is the one who should determine who we are and how we live crashes head long into much of the value system promoted in American culture.

This message goes under the cover of saying Christians should not try to convert Jews or Muslims, but there is no reason at all why the logic of the message is limited to fellow monotheists. Americans have a lot of beliefs and practices that run counter to the gospel.

If we think it is wrong to try to evangelize Jews or Muslims or Hindus, then why should we consider it okay to evangelize pagans or materialists or those who are vaguely spiritual but not religious?

In other words, I have a hard time with pluralism precisely because I believe the people in the churches I serve need Jesus Christ. If I thought they could be just as well off with any set of beliefs that they happened to find suitable for themselves, then I would not bother to preach. But if I am convinced that preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel is good for the people who show up in the pews where I serve, then I should think it is good for people who worship other gods as well.

Or that is how it seems to me.

Christ, doctrine, & holiness

Joel Watts writes that matters of sexuality are not about Christ or doctrine, but holiness.

For me, the via media focuses on Christ. As a subset of this, it focuses on orthodox doctrines of the Church. For most of us, the issue of homosexuality is not a doctrinal matter (i.e., Trinity, baptism, episcopal authority) but is a matter (in Wesleyan terms) of holiness. That is why I can focus on episcopal authority even while arguing for inclusion. I can focus on orthodoxy, hold to prima scripture, and attempt to be a part of the Great Tradition while arguing for inclusion.

The way his words flow here, it reads to me as if he is saying orthodox doctrine is “a subset” of a focus on Christ but that holiness is not. Perhaps he is merely saying holiness is a different subset of the focus on Christ. Or maybe he is saying holiness is a subset of doctrine. I’m not entirely sure.

In any event, he has me puzzling a bit about the relationship between doctrine and holiness. I’ve always taken holiness — which is another word for sanctification which for Wesley is another word for salvation — to be itself part of the doctrine of the Christian Church. Holiness is what it means to live out our baptismal vows. It is what it means to be saved.

I don’t see how we can disagree about what it means to be holy and say we agree on the doctrines of justification and sanctification, for instance. Furthermore, if pressed, I’d argue that holiness comes before doctrine.

First, we focus on Christ. In this focus, what we notice overwhelmingly is his holiness. It is only after this that we begin to develop the superstructure of doctrine that gives shape and stability to our beliefs and practices. The Church was the church when all it had before it was the holiness of Christ. It did not have to wait for Nicea to become the church. All we needed was Christ and his holiness.

This is why questions about food laws and circumcision were existential issues for the church. They cut to the meaning of holiness.

Which is all a way of saying that I find matters of holiness more important than doctrine when it comes to Christian unity. And I think Wesley would agree.

This has little to do with the main point that Watts was trying to make about United Methodism and schism and so on, but it his post got my gears moving.

When it comes to questions of doctrine vs. questions of holiness, which do you think is more crucial for the unity of the church and the life of the Christian?

Learning to talk about God

One of the things I have noticed while taking Clinical Pastoral Education is how difficult it is for so many people talk about their faith and about God.

I’m not sure if people lack the vocabulary, the experience, or the comfort needed to converse about matters of the spirit, but for so many people the awkwardness of it all is profound.

Ask them about family and the words come easily. As them about work, and no problem. Ask them about their illness and they can give you details about their symptoms, their diagnosis, their treatment, and their hopes.

Ask about God, and most people are reduced to babbling cliches or sitting in silence.

It makes me see the value of those class meetings where people not only were invited each week to talk about their spiritual life but were able to hear others do the same. It must have built up a vocabulary. It meant that people could answer the question, “Do you know Jesus?” without stammering.

Recovering this ability to talk about the life of the spirit without empty cliches or stammering silence would help bring life to the church.

What are some ways we can do that?

I see a broken world

This week, I listened to a presentation that included as one of its main points the argument that the Western tradition has gone terribly wrong because it is too focused on fixing problems. The concern is that this puts an emphasis on seeing people as broken or fallen in need of saving rather than as whole and healthy in need of — well, not much really except encouragement.

As  I listened, I recalled the opening pages of GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.

In my presentation and in much of contemporary theology — so far as I can tell — the fact that human beings are radically out of alignment with God simply does not register. Awareness of this fact — which Chesterton memorably calls the only part of Christian theology that can be empirically proven — is described as a kind of morbid negativity about humanity.

I have a hard time reflecting over the arc of Scripture — Torah, the prophets, the writings, the gospels, the epistles, and revelation — and finding much foothold for the notion that we — when left to ourselves — are well-grounded and responsive to God’s will for our lives.

I have a hard time looking at the world — especially beyond the little bubble of security that we all try to hard to wrap around ourselves — and seeing that people are generally happy, joyful, peaceful, just, merciful, and righteous.

I have a hard time looking in my own heart and seeing the image of Christ stamped there without any blemish or blot.

I’ve been accused of being a gloomy Gus many times in my life, so I’m aware that there may be people with a much more positive theology running around. But I don’t see the world looking much like the Garden of Eden or the New Jerusalem.

The world looks like a place that needs God to me, not just for some encouragement on the way but for rescue, healing, and salvation. God, of course, is at work already. All good comes from God. But the work is not done. The world is broken in need of healing. It is fallen in need of lifting up. It is captive in need of liberation.

This is how it looks to me. If I am wrong, God help me to see rightly.