Thursday, October 19, 2006

The curse of Folk Theology

I almost entitled this post "Surviving the Church", but that wouldn't have been entirely accurate. I also thought about entitling it "Christianity for Grown-ups", but that's a title I want to save for another time.

Over the past 6 years, and especially over the past year, I've felt more and more strongly about getting people to actually think about their Christian lives. To actually think through what they believe and why. To be honest with themselves about how silly sounding some of our sayings as Christians are. To be more thoughtful and reflective about things like Love, and Forgiveness, and Grace. When things get confusing or tough I want people to not throw up their hands and say "The Bible says it, so it must be true", and instead say "What exactly is the Bible saying here? Somehow, this has to make sense."

So, over the past year I've been trying things in my church to get people started. To put it mildly, it hasn't gone too well. And, quite frankly, I feel pretty beat up about it.

The problem is something I (and others) call Folk Theology. Folk theology is the kind of theology practiced by people who think that 'real' theology is anti-spiritual, that theology muddies the clear water of Christian truth, that it is a purely philosophical pusuit that has nothing to do with reality. Folk theology is what happens when people reject loving God with their minds, and instead blindly believe because they think that's what faith is. Folk theology is what happens when people love their stories about Christianity more than they love God.

Here's an example. Last week, I was talking to a group of Christians about some stuff, and as part of this conversation, I gave an example of something that Christians frequently believe, but that isn't in the Bible. They didn't believe me, so we looked at scripture, and I walked them through the issue. At the end, of of them said, "Yeah, yeah, but my old way of thinking about it COULD be true, right? Well, there you go."

This is the curse of Folk Theology. Instead of having scripture form how we should think about a certain thing, those who practice Folk Theology let how they think about things form scripture. And when that happens, people can find justification for everything. They can find justification for slavery, for domestic abuse, for the lower status of women, for hate and anger under the guise of "justice". If people chose their own stories and THEN go to Christian scripture, they can find anything they want. The Bible COULD be saying anything. (But it isn't.)

The curse of Folk Theology goes deeper, though. It's one thing to be caught in the curse of Folk Theology and not know it. That's the fault of the teachers, pastors, and leaders within the church. It's quite another thing to have the error of your Folk Theology pointed out to you, and to choose it anyway. When that happens, people are choosing to believe whatever they want. They're not choosing to follow the story of God's activity through human history, they're instead choosing a story of their own and calling it Christianity. And when they cling to these so-called "Christian" stories, even though they're wrong, they're showing that they love their stories about Christianity more than they love God's story about humanity.

Whatever happened to the scriptural encouragement to love God with all of your mind?
Whatever happened to the proverb, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another"?
Whatever happend to "Come, let us reason together"?
Whatever happened to the Christian intuition that we should do everything for the glory of God?
Where are the people who pant for God the same way the deer pants for water?

My fear, week after week, is that there is no one like this in our churches anymore - that they've all drown under the sea of Folk Theology.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Some people might call me an idealist or a fool, others might call me misguided or brainwashed, but I believe the Christian story is the greatest story ever told.

I mean, think about it. The revelation of God throughout history is a wonderful story. God didn't just wind up creation like a giant clock and then let it tick away. Instead, he participated in it. He didn't just let humanity wallow in its violence and hate, but He has worked throughout history to break the cycle. God doesn't lord over us the fact that we need forgiveness, but instead we are forgiven in such a way that we are freed to participate in God's work of redemption. We deserved karma, but got Grace. As Christians, this is the story we find ourselves in - God's story.

But, like any story, its effectiveness is directly related to its ability to have psychological impact. No one sits around a campfire and tells a scary story by saying:
"This guy one time had a hook for a hand and killed people. No one knows what happened to him. The End."
Instead, they say:
"It was a night, much like tonight. After eating smores and singing songs around the campfire, everyone went off to sleep. Two minutes before midnight, a boy named John woke up and needed to use the bathroom. He wondered out into the bushes to relieve himself when he heard a sound off in the woods. A sound like cold sharp metal scraping against the bark of trees..."

Somehow as Christians we've forgotten how to tell a good story. We've forgotten how to tell a story about the God we serve in a way that viscerally connects with people. We've forgotten how to paint a picture through words and actions that capture the minds of people looking for a place to belong - a story to find themselves in. In short, we've allowed the Greatest Story Ever Told to become worn out and boring.

As a Christian, I'm appalled by this; I'm ashamed by this. And I'm genuinely surprised that the majority of evangelical Christianity isn't outraged by it as well. Instead, what I hear increasingly is that evangelical Christianity needs to have a renewed focus on its Biblical roots, and on its old theology. As if those stories are any different or more effective than the ones we've been using.

Why, I wonder, is there such resistance to change? Why is there such resitance to finding stories about our infinite God that can grip us, that can hold us in their sway, mesmerized by the very thought of a God who encompasses more than creation? Why is there such a tendancy to cling to static formulations of God when, as one of my good friends recently remarked, the most stable things in creation are things that move? Things like electrons, planets, galaxies, seasons, a kid on a bicycle, the ocean. These things are dynamic - they are moving, just like our God. Our God is constantly doing a "new thing" (Isaiah 42-43), constantly revealing himself to us through the Spirit. He is constantly bringing into contact with His infinity and revealing to us the harmonious ways in which He holds together wonderful contradictions - such as losing our lives to save it. Contradictions that tell us the first have to be last. That God became man not to BE served, but TO serve.

Yet our stories are no longer able to convey this in such a way that our culture gets it. We are no longer able to tell this story and have it be good news. We've lost our ability to be salt and light, not because we stopped believing, but because we've stopped understanding what it takes to be healing agents.

This is my quest. My quest is to understand the hurts and frustrations of postmodern life, and meet people there. My quest is to learn how to become salt and light, not by repeating the same old tired stories, but by finding new stories that speak of God in exciting ways. Stories that paint forgiveness as something that frees us for right living, not just something that gets us off the hook. I'm looking for stories that invite us in to explore the infinite God in such a way that we meet with the need for salvation within the very core of our being. This is my quest.

But it takes bravery to do it. Bravery to to teach stories in Sunday School people have never heard before. Bravery enough to be labeled a liberal because of it. It takes the courage to say that some things about the Bible only make sense after you become a Christian. It takes a willingness to talk to people about Christ without *gasp* only quoting scripture. It takes enough maturity to see God as someone who doesn't need us to run to His defense every time someone feels God has mistreated them or not lived up to the hype.

So, as I think about whether or not it matters where you come from, I've come to the conclusion that it does matter. Not because I've come from somewhere (e.g., from point B to C to D in my Christian walk), but it matters because I'm coming from a place where I will do just about anything to make the evangelion - the good news - actually good news. It doesn't matter that I came from a particular church, or came from a particular school of thought - that's old news. It matters that my actions today come from the place God has put me today.

To me, this realization has made the words "Give us this day our daily bread" all the more meaningful and special. No one wants stale bread.

What we want and what we need is to have the greatest story ever, told.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Marathon Runner

On Sunday of last week we had the Twin Cities Marathon. Somewhere around 10,000 people ran in the marathon. It was a huge event.

My coworker and friend, Joe, came in 89th place overall with a time of 2:50:52. He came in 70th in the mens. Not bad for a 26.2 mile run. I was reading about the results in the paper, and looking for Joe's name when I came across an article about this nut:

His name is Dean Karnazes, and he has committed to running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. Yup, you heard me right, a marathon a day for 50 days.

Why would he do such a thing? you might ask. According to the paper, it is to "promote fitness among children".

Dude, did that guy just say he was doing it to get kids to exercise more? Cuz, I gotta be honest with you, just thinking about running a marathon every day makes we want to sit on the couch and eat a pack of candy bars. You know, for energy.

This makes me glad I'm an engineer. I'm pleasantly plump, reasonably intellegent, and sorta healthy. I have no delusions that doing what I do is going to inspire kids get into shape.

Plus, after he runs his 50, then what? Me, I'll still be able to sit here and make fun of him for a looooong time.

In any case, congrats, Joe.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Does it matter where you come from?

I've been wrestling with some theological stuff lately, and I would like to get some feedback on it. The stuff I've been wrestling with isn't the content of my theological thought, but is instead how to teach said theological thought, if it should be taught at all.

At some point in recent memory, my friend Amy - you can see her blog here - commented on the ways her fellow BSU-ers theology has changed over the years. I said something about how it would have been better if we would have known then what we know now. She replied by saying that that spiritual stage was good for us.

I'm torn on this. Was it really good for us to be borderline legalistic? Was it really good for us to be so foundationalist that we thought we grasped all the truth? Was it really good for us to be ignorant of the very complicated issues surrounding Biblical inerrancy?

Now, there were good things, too, about our faith back then. It was incorrigible in the sense that we would not abandon it despite the ambiguity life threw at us. It kept us safe and sane. It made us respectable. And it delivered us to the place we are today. It wasn't all bad.

But as I teach people in my church, especially the youth, I wonder how far to go. When they ask questions about the origin and interpretation of scripture, I wonder how far to go into textual criticism and hermeneutics. When they ask about the character of God, I wonder how far to go into theological concepts like Futurity, robust infinity, and God's relationship to evil. When they ask about Satan, I wonder if I should tell them that the Bible doesn't ever tell us that Satan is a fallen angel and that we really don't know what the heck he is or where he came from.

In short, I wonder if I tell them all the things I've learned through hard research and soul-searching if it would make them better Christians. In the Christian life, does it make a difference how you get to where you are? Does it matter where you come from?

In the now defunct Bonhoeffer book study, I came across an idea that stuck with me. Bonhoeffer says that a professor can assert after many years of work that knowledge is meaningless, but a freshman in college cannot make the same assertion. Is the same true for Christian spiritual maturity? If it is, why can't discipleship just be a workbook?

I don't know. I just don't know. On the one hand, part of me wants to teach all of the things that make me excited about Christianity. The scary part is that what makes me excited is seeing a new way of thinking about God that was different from what I was taught as a youth. On the other hand, another part of me wants to teach the same things I was taught - even though those things are borderline wrong and unscriptural - because that's where I came from.

So here's the question I wrestle with: Does it matter that I went from fundamentalist to post-conservative, or (with the proper teacher) could I have gone directly to post-conservative and saved myself 15 years?

What do you think?