Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Christianity Worth Believing

Doug Pagitt was nice enough to give me an advance copy of his forthcoming book called A Christianity Worth Believing (due out in May). I finished reading it and I thought I would offer some thoughts.

First, a disclaimer: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK IF YOU ARE NARROW. As is normal in emergent writing, Doug challenges some "sacred cows" that will really make fundamentalists mad. If that is you, if you can't handle controversy, if you can't handle wrestling with new ideas, ideas different than your own, if you think you have God figured out, do not read this book.

To Everyone else, I think it is a terrific book.

One of the main themes in the book is something that I had been thinking about for about a year. I heard a speaker talking about Islam say, "Islam is essentially 7th century Arabian culture put into the form of a religion." Now, I realize that is overly simplistic, but it makes a good point. It explains a lot of the details of the religion, the suppression of women, the outfits etc. Now, my thinking led me to this thought: We would be naive to think that culture has not been codified in the Bible. And, in fact, much culture is in the Bible, and at least some of what the Bible says we take as culture and no more. From the brutality of the Old Testament Law to Paul telling women not to wear jewelry, we all agree that there are elements of culture in scripture that we don't take as "absolute truth" or even as theology, but as the innerworkings of a culture that is thousands of years old and very different from ours. There is another ring of this reality where i would say most of us agree, but not all, namely the roles of women (i.e. Paul writing to Timothy). Many (perhaps most) of us take these statements to be cultural demands, not truth once and for all.

My questioning in the last year led me to think of just how much of our New Testament is culture, specifically tailored for the first century, and how much is true once and for all? One of Doug's main themes in the book deals with this very issue. More pointedly, Doug looks into the Greek influences, not so much in scripture, but in the first few centuries when our primary creeds, theologies, and beliefs about God were being formed.

For example, Doug eventually arrives at this question:

Is it necessary to convert to a particular worldview in order to hold the Christian faith? Or in this case, does a person have to be a fifth - century Augustinian in order to be a follower of Jesus? The answer, of course, is no...I believe that it is the tradition of our faith to constantly renew, rethink, and reformulate our ideas about what it means to follow God.
pg 49

And also, about those who worry about the faith being distorted over time,

Maybe they worry that the essentials will be lost over time and we will one day be left with a distorted, watered - down story that bears no resemblance to the one with which we started. But I think we have the opposite problem. The issue Christianity faces today is not that the stories are watered down; it's that they've been set in stone — often leading to the very distortion we fear.
pg 31

The first eight chapters or so are Doug sharing personal stories from his own conversion as well as a critique of modern Christianity (it is more than that, but I'm being general). The rest of the book presents new ways of looking at some age old thinking in the Christian movement. Doug challenges long held metaphors and offers some new ones on topics like sin, humanity, the Bible and others. Here are a few snapshots of what he says about different topics.

On church and state:
History has proved the idea of a state religion to be a rather troubling development in the Christian story — the institutionalization and coercion that come with empire are not really compatible with the gospel message.
pg 43

On the dangers of using the Bible as a weapon:
So much of what I've come to believe about God and humanity and Jesus and the way we are to live comes from the Bible. For me, it is a living thing. It is a member of my community and a vital source of wisdom and truth. But it's rarely used that way. Which is why I often cringe when I hear someone getting ready to use the Bible.

In my years of being a Christian, I have witnessed the most brutal fights over the Bible. I know families where some members no longer speak to one another because of disagreements over the Bible. I have heard stories of people losing their jobs because they disagree with someone about a biblical principle. Entire denominations have split over disagreements about the “proper” interpretation of the Bible. I have witnessed people saying and doing heinous things with the justification that the Bible made them do it.
pg 54

And on rethinking sin:
Sin isn't a legal problem with God; it's a relationship problem with us. In the garden, Adam and Eve were perfectly integrated with God. But when they ate from the tree, they acted outside their partnership with God and began to experience the disintegration of their relationship with God. And that's what sin is — disintegration. We were created for integration, partnering, connection with God. Sin irritates; it destabilizes. It causes us to come unraveled from the life we have with God.
pg 159

Even if you disagreed with every point he makes, it is at the very least a healthy walkthrough for rethinking some key elements of the Christian faith, which is always good. He is a great thinker and a great story teller. If you want Doug's take on rethinking some of the elements of Christianity and his vision for the Jesus story played out in today's world to challenge and inspire you, I doubt you will be disappointed.


Chip Burkitt said...

Nick, your sampled quotes don't seem very controversial to me. Why would any of this stuff make fundamentalists like me mad?

Nick said...

Hi Chip. A few things.

First, you are not the description I had in mind when I wrote the disclaimer. Even if you identify with the "fundamentalist" part, you are not narrow, you don't shy away from controversy, or can't listen to others' ideas, etc. In addition, I think they way you are using the term fundamentalist and the way I am are different.

On the other hand, though, it is true that I didn't pick the most controversial quotes for the review. The book as a whole is more challenging than the quotes I selected. Perhaps that is my short coming as a reviewer.

But, on a third hand (is that possible?), even the notion that sin isn't a legal problem is enough to place the speaker outside of orthodox Christianity to some people. This is the kind of thing that
Doug does so well: he challenged the metaphors many have held for centuries. That is controversial to some.