Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tradition -- The Line that wanders off the end of the page.

One of the most formative events in recent memory was when friends of ours, very scholarly in biblical matters, and deeply respected, turned to Roman Catholicism and made it integral to their Christianity.

It made me examine everything I ever knew, with the view to asking the question, "Should I do the same?" And while I gained a new appreciation for things Catholic, the answer, after years of pondering, has been a most emphatic no.

I suppose the central reason for that "no" among many, is the lack of any foreshadowing from the Gospels of the edifice that comes to mind when we think of Roman Catholicism. "I will build my church, (my assembly, my gathering)" does not presage St. Peter's Basilica or the enormous, quasi-military power structure that headquarters there, however you slice it. The Papa, the Vicar of Christ doesn't remind me at all of the one of whom he is supposed to be Vicar. I speak not of his personal life, of which I know nothing, but of his function -- he administers his organization, he is not known for casting out many demons and raising dead people to life. But, you might say, Tradition, the "line that runs off the end of the page" has taken us here and therefore it's right. Well I think there's more than a inkling that that line has wandered considerably and even erred at times (we're only human after all). At any rate, it is a legitimate argument that if the end result is so different than the beginning, exclusivity cannot be claimed-- that other end results are also possible.

I maintain that the Roman Catholic church is a cultural expression of the Roman empire expressed through medieval values. Which is not a problem -- cultural expressions are a fine thing in my view. They just are not normative or exclusive. Which means that other cultural expressions -- post Renaissance individualism, tribal collectivism, and so on are equally valid. And I don't have to give my allegiance to the pope.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Embedded Software

OK, so you're going to have to wait a post or two till I give my ideas about the bible. (don't hold your breath. It's not that exciting) I was just struck this morning how it's amazing that anyone who is into computers is not also a proponent of (can it be?) intelligent design. I mean there are some easy-to-catch markers of when your computer is infected with a virus or a trojan. It starts find new purposes for itself, like reaching out to the whole world to offer the latest in erection technology. This is not by chance, and you know it. A new subprocess has kicked in on (someone else's) purpose and the computer behaves according to his design and not yours. Compare that to human instincts. They're not just evolutionary drives. They're embedded subroutines, that are chock full of instructions. Given certain brand new stimulus, you don't just feel something, you know what to do. Think of the most intellectual male possible. And then imagine handing him a cute baby. He turns into an apparent idiot, except that all that googooing and cootchy cooing is exactly what's required with a baby. We of the computer geek society have seen that all before. It's called an interrupt driven subroutine. And it's programmed, by a designer...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What's your story? This is mine.

I'm indebted to N.T. Wright for the idea of story as a subversive element in the art of convincing your audience. If you can bring your audience with you in the story you tell, the conclusion is a slam dunk. Their worldview is subverted without them even being aware of it, and there you have them. Only second thoughts can save or damn them from your message.

Well, there are (at least) three stories circulating the Christian world (among people of my acquaintance anyways) about church history. They all have the same plot, but different players and different endpoints but very similar conclusions. Each tell of an original church long lost by a cultural shift, a church that we all should get back to -- to reclaim original Christianity, or else. The three churches are the Jewish church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox church. Each has their attraction as the original church. The villain in the story, the one who cut us loose from our foundations, is different in each story. In the Jewish church story, it's the Greeks and their Greek ideas, as well as medieval anti-semitism. For the Orthodox story (I haven't heard much of it) the villain maybe the Roman Pope who excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople and segregated Europe from the influence of the Greek church. The reformers are the obvious villains in the Roman Catholic story. They broke us away from Mother Church and we (protestants and free churchers) have been set adrift, lacking true sacraments as ministered by her anointed agents. Each story continues with you, the seeker, throwing away your worldview (if you like you can sing your own version of Weird Al's 'Everything You Know is Wrong'), adopting the worldview of your chosen original church and 'coming home' to the true church.

So if we want to be connected with the true church, which do we choose? Do we, remembering the race and home culture of our Lord, adopt Jewish terms and concepts, straining Greek concepts like gnats out of our reading of the bible and the understanding of our faith? Do we run in desperation for 'the real thing' back to one of the churches that claim succession? That's what stories like the above lead you to...

Well I've got a different story. It's a story that's familiar to anyone who's studied missions. The gospel is brought to a new culture and planted there. It thrives among the people and takes on a unique life of its own in that culture and spawns a church that makes sense in that culture. This is the missionary ideal. A famous quote by a Mr Murthi of India in the book Perspectives on the World Christian Movement says it all. “Do not bring us the gospel as a potted plant. Bring us the seed of the gospel and plant it in our soil.” So my story is that the gospel was planted among the Jews, the Greeks and the Romans, and the result is what we see before us. Take the Roman Catholic church, for example. They could not be more culturally Roman. They have a hierarchical chain of command with a senate (the cardinals) and an emperor (the Pope) to boot.

So why, I ask, why can't we have the same process for our culture? There was a cultural shift in the renaissance, that has made me what I am today. Why must I suddenly take on the worldview of the middle ages for my salvation? I can not bring myself to believe that I can decide for my children as to their eternal destiny, nor can I bring myself to believe that I am beholden to the Pope as the ultimate agent of Christ on earth. These ideas come from a different culture than my own. And I fail to understand how they can affect how I relate to Jesus, which I do. I love him and pray to him and I receive from him miraculous help without reference to anyone in the Catholic hierarchy. Can I not extend to myself what I believe must be extended to unreached peoples, that is the freedom to find what the gospel is, when it is planted by seed in my own culture. I have a friend who, on switching to the Orthodox church, reports that everything in the Bible 'makes so much more sense.' Well yes, I would answer, you've just taken on a culture 1500 years closer to that of the Bible. If I did the same, I would expect the same result. But how could I ever communicate that gospel to people of my culture. It would be as ludicrous as a triumphant quote from a misguided missionary documentary I heard in my youth. "When we came up the river, they were singing their demonic tribal music. When we left, they sang Amazing Grace." Nowadays, I would hope that missionaries would've assisted them to express their worship of Jesus in their own musical idioms. Similarly, I believe that the gospel is powerful enough to transform my individualistic western culture from the inside out without trying to impose upon it any other culture. This brings up the question, "how do we treat the bible?" but that I will cover in my next post.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The difference...

One thing that has made a lasting impression on me, is the difference between magic and Christian prayer. Magic you have to get exactly right. It's terribly legalistic. You are dealing with forces you really don't understand and if you slip up, pow! the spirits will take advantage of you and you're in trouble. In prayer you are talking to a wise friend about a problem he understands even if you don't. You depend on his help and the understanding he gives you. If you say a wrong word, it's not as if he is even surprised. He totally and intimately understands you...