My misspent youth

Having never been part of a right-wing fundamentalist evangelical congregation, I feel like I miss out on a lot of the emotions that haunt others.

Dan Dick, for instance, has a particularly biting critique of Western culture.

Our modern Western culture had selfishly and hatefully made salvation a personal matter — as long as I am okay with my buddy Jesus, the rest of the world can go to hell. The idea that our faith is a corporate and communal affair at is heart is anathema to the individualistic, selfish and self-centered values in our culture.

I never went to the church that says the rest of the world can go to hell so long as I have Jesus. My religious background was more likely to say, “I’m busy packing flood buckets. Talk to me later.”

So, I get confused when I read comments like Dick’s or encounter someone like NT Wright furiously battling to keep the individualists at bay. Coming to Christ in the liberal wing of the United Methodist Church, I never heard anyone extolling individualism. The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” was rarely spoken unless as an illustration of the kinds of things that fundamentalists say.

From where I have come, I see a lot of people who could do with a good reminder that there is a personal side to salvation. It is not just about being on the right team or having sympathy for the right causes. It is about an honest-to-God encounter with a living and active God.

I’m not a refugee from the right-wing. I’m a spiritual offspring of the liberal mainline who discovered one day that Jesus is more than an interesting idea or a sometimes inconvenient source of radical political slogans. I discovered one day that John Shelby’s Spong’s theory about Easter being a sudden change in attitude by the apostles just did not cut it. I discovered — much to my dismay at first — that prayer is answered by a living God.

I write about this because there may be a few others out there like me and to remind myself that much of the heat and bother I read — especially on the Internet — is coming from people fighting dragons I have never seen. They hear the leathery wing beats in the air. They smell his sulphur-breath coming at them from many a dark alley. I look and listen but find nothing.

My battles are more often with rather serious people who want to assure me that there are no such things as dragons or angels and want to make it very clear that they do not think it is possible that Jonah could have actually been swallowed by a fish.

No wonder I often feel as if I am talking past people.

5 thoughts on “My misspent youth

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I understand what you’re describing, because I deal with very similar differences, at church, in my family, and in my blog. You and I are fairly dissimilar (understatement?), and our differing presuppositions, and the dragons we fight, are quite different.

    I’m going to keep this as brief as possible. When Paul talked about love covering a multitude of sins, I translate that into functional terms. In my life, with all the people with whom I come into conflict, I see love covering, not a multitude of sins, but a multitude of differences. Sometimes the differences between people, us for example, are so intense and personal that the other person doesn’t just seem different, they seem downright sinful, the very incarnation of the Dragons we fought and continue to fight.

    Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement,” so sharp that they had to part company. They literally could not work witn one another. Both had work to do, but they couldn’t do their work together.

    In our shared context, the UMC faces one or two “sharp disagreements.” Those differences may require the denomination to split once again–as it has in the past. The story of Paul and Barnabas was written as an example for us to learn from. Divisions are sometimes unavoidable, and divisions are embarrassing and financially inconvenient, but not necessarily sinful or bad, although such divisions don’t usually bring out the best in us.

    But I’m less concerned about the UMC problems than about how we work out our various Dragon problems. (No one is likely to consult me about the CTA!) I usually use a phrase like, “I wonder what personal demons he’s dealing with.”

    My dragons and yours are, I think, almost polar opposites, and our solutions are certainly polar opposites. Forgive my phrasing, but if I read you correctly, your solutions for problems always seem to incline toward taking refuge in what is officially approved, in tradition, in following the rules, in orthodoxy. That may be overstated, but that’s what I read.

    I incline toward seeing problems and inconsistencies, and my solutions (almost?) invariably focus on how tradition, structures (like denominations, buildings, systematic theology, etc.) cause or contribute to those problems. It’s easy to see how we probably wouldn’t be inclined to work together!

    Some months ago you said people’s eyes seem to glaze over when you start talking about Wesley. Well, there’s a reason why you go back to the founder of Methodism for your solutions, and there’s a reason why Wesley’s take on things doesn’t resonate for everyone today.

    John, I love you and I care about the effectiveness of your ministry. I hope you find some answers to why it seems you sometimes seem to be talking past people.

  2. Forgive my phrasing, but if I read you correctly, your solutions for problems always seem to incline toward taking refuge in what is officially approved, in tradition, in following the rules, in orthodoxy. That may be overstated, but that’s what I read.

    That’s a pretty good characterization of what I perceive too. And I’m not actually so worried about how you, John, manifest this need but I do worry about how the movement toward and for the theological right in Methodism and in Christianity manifests it.

    For my own part, I’m actually very interested in the history of Methodism and in church history in general although far from an expert. In my summer CPE class, one young woman said that it was because of things I said that she understood for the first time why church history is important.

    The thing is that rules can become an idol just like everything else and it is incredibly difficult to communicate that to people who feel that it is the rules that give them their security.

    Ultimately love and discipline are a dialectic that need to be kept in balance and tension. There are rules for maintaining discipline, there are no rules for loving.

    I believe wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in justification and saved. It’s just that I believe that The Good News is “You are justified and saved through Christ” NOT “You need to be justified and saved through Christ”

  3. Thanks for this post, John. I have a similar attitude. I was nurtured (??) in the liberal church, and that is the church I rejected in my youth. It was through the Holiness and Pentecostal folks that I actually heard a Gospel that related to life and that I thought, at the time, might be worth believing. I am thankful for that witness. I have now come to a point in my theological journey where my conservative friends see me as liberal — yet in my own heart I know I am an evangelical and always will be.

  4. I love your heart in this John. I definitely feel like I fell into orthodox Christianity while falling through the backdoor. There is definitely a help in understanding that people’s positions come in varying degrees from what they are reacting against. I hope I am formed to a larger degree by who Christ is. I believe you are.

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