Sunday, May 29, 2011

Jesus Without the Church

 I was sitting in the hospital here in Michigan (where I'm at for a few days) after my Mom's knee replacement surgery on Friday when I stumbled upon this blog post from Scot McKnight.  It's about a new book by a minister named Rubel Shelly called, I Knew Jesus Before He was a Christian.  You can probably guess by the title that this is not a book that's going to celebrate all that's good with Christianity.  Here's a sample of what the book is about via McKnight:

Jesus “did not come to found a new religion that would generate still more human precepts masquerading as divine doctrine. He did not produce a creed or command us to write one. He came to ‘reveal the Father.’”

Jesus did not round up disciples to teach about the Trinity, millennium, baptismal formulas, worship protocols, head coverings, the Rapture, female clergy, or a thousand other topics that divide Christians today. He focused on the ‘fundamentals’ instead. He gave his pupils their two-question final exam on the first day of the course — and left us our lifetimes to cram for it. Question one: ‘Do you love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?’ Question two: ‘Do you love your neighbor as yourself?’”

Here’s a killer statement: “People who read the Gospel stories from the life of Jesus are attracted to him. People who know Christ only through his followers often can’t stand him” (14). Print that out, paste it on your desk or shelf or mirror and let us all remind ourselves. We have a challenge.
There was a time in my life, maybe when I was in my 20s, when such a book would make sense to me. This book and a lot of others, tend to be in the "I-would-follow-Jesus-if-it-wasn't-for-the-church" kind of book.  Somewhere along the way, as I entered my 40s, such books piss me off.

Let me explain.  I know what Shelly and others are getting at.  Jesus came preaching and teaching, he came loving people that most of us would not welcome into our homes.  The people who followed him created an organization that didn't always follow Jesus.  It started to support things like slavery or the subjgation of women or demonizing gay people.  Instead of calling people to follow Christ, it called people to follow the institution called Church.

As a gay man, I get it.  As an African American, I get it.  As someone who is autistic, I get it. The church should be called to account for the times it has so severely gone off the rails from the teachings of Christ.

But I'm still pissed off.

The first thing wrong here is that while I don't think Jesus was interested in setting up an institution, he did want people to tell others about him and pass on the teachings.  Humans being humans, they tend to set up structures to keep those teachings alive.  The second problem is that Jesus shared his life, his teachings with incredibly imperfect people.  The disciples would deny and betray him, and even after Pentecost they would still not get the whole picture.  The church, those folks who profess to follow Jesus are very human and make big, big mistakes.

Maybe its been the years working at a church, but I've come to learn that some of the most wonderful people I've met also have lives that are incredibly imperfect.  And yet, through it all, Jesus shines through.

Sometimes what I desire is a book that took the old quote from Will Campbell seriously: "We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway."  I'd like to hear more stories about how God takes all of us jerks and produces wonderful things, because that is what church has become to me.

Maybe we can have Jesus without the church, but I don't think it would be a living Jesus.  I would not learn about how Jesus is alive today if it were not for those fickle, sinful followers of Christ.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Tyler Cowen Autistic? Why Not?

One my favorite bloggers is economist Tyler Cowen. (If you haven't read his latest book on economics, read it.  It's possibly the most enjoyable book on economics I've ever read.) In an interview with the Atlantic, he reveals something I've long expected:

"In 2004 a reader of his blog suggested to him in an e-mail that he might be autistic," writes Greeley. (The reader in question was Kathleen Fasanella, a pattern maker and consultant who has Asperger syndrome.) "Offended at first, he applied himself to understanding the term, then decided he has what he calls an 'autistic cognitive style,' then wrote a book about it, Create Your Own Economy. (Cowen never sought a professional diagnosis.) ... He describes people with autism as 'infovores' who are attracted to information--the minutiae of train schedules. Or books."

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

On This Side of Heaven

When I was in college, I remember someone asking the question, is God a loving God or a just God?

The answer, according to this person was both- God is both loving and just.

In the minutes following the news last night that Osama bin Laden was dead, I commented on Facebook that I didn't celebrate his death, but I was relieved justice was served.

Someone responded what justice was served: American or God's?

Well, that left me thinking. I couldn't easy respond to that answer. I tend to believe in a God that loves all, including the sinner and including the one who has killed thousands without a twitch of his conscience.

Of course having just written those words have made me feel somewhat ill. If God can forgive someone like bin Laden, then what kind of God is that? How could the killing of innocents who were doing nothing more than taking trips and going to work be let off the hook?

That brings us to what I think is the other side of God, God's justice. I also believe that God is a just God and can't allow evil to stand. Maybe that means judgement in the hereafter, or judgement now, but either way, injustice can't be allowed to fester.

So,were the Navy Seals who took Osama out doing God's will? I'm a little wary of taking flat out saying yes, though I can say that God might understand. Maybe on this side of heaven sometimes Lovev doesn't always win, sometimes Justice has to meted out.

But justice should never be greeting with emphatic cheers. While there might be some understanding that some people were out in the streets, justice is always a grim task. It's more like oatmeal than it is chocolate cake. A Presbyterian pastor in Ohio sums it up nicely:

The military operation against bin Laden seems necessary to me, even from a Christian perspective. He was a mass murderer of thousands of Americans and of many more Muslims in the Middle East. It seems more than justifiable to go after him, to prevent him from killing any more innocent people, here or anywhere else in the world (though I harbor no illusions that bin Laden's death will end the threat of terrorism). Yet at the same time I claim to serve a Lord and Master who says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," a Savior who prayed from the cross on which he was brutally killed, "Father forgive them." And I find it almost inconceivable that this Jesus would dance to celebrate anyone's death.

The fact that operations such as the one against bin Laden are necessary speaks of the brokenness and darkness that are all too much a part of this world. That this is so seems to me a cause for lament. And while this sad state of affairs may require that we wield the sword, that we kill, there is a sense in which we are thus drawn into the world's darkness.

I don't take any joy out of what happened, only that it is now over.

Sunday's events remind me that on this side of heaven, there will still be folks like bin Laden who commit heinous acts of evil. But there are also those folks who might not kill on a massive scale, but who murder, or molest children and do other sundry deeds. On this side of heaven, sometimes force has to be used to stop evil. But we are also called to love as though we are on the other side. We are called to live in the future and in the here and now.

I think bin Laden's death was a sense of justice, but not one to celebrate. But I also look to the day when Love does conquer all, when peace reigns and when creation is made whole.

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.

Photo: this is the cover Time Magazine will use for its next issue on Thursday, May 5.