[N.B.: I inadvertently let a draft of this slip out briefly yesterday, and if you subscribe by RSS feeder, you may have seen it in all its flailing non-sequiturness. I apologize.]
I’ve blogged before, more times than I’ll take the trouble to count, how I had trouble believing the interpretive scheme of Bible eschatology I was taught from roughly age 14 until my repudiation of it in my late 20s. I believe I was quite right to doubt it and, from the three alternatives I knew, right again in the alternative I chose.
I guess I was a weird kid. Other scriptures – ones that nobody was obsessing about like they obsessed over Daniel 7 or Revelation 20 – attracted me.
Ephesians 4: 17-19 was one, and I love it still:
That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height — to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Sigh! I was in an Evangelical boarding school (whence the goofy eschatology) and the pious kids cited scripture in yearbook signatures. I cited that one again and again one year. Little did I know that I was asking for the deification of my classmates – a doctrine we all would have rejected (even as I was powerfully drawn to a scripture that teaches it and even though “sanctification” was officially in our soteriology).
Another attractor (which also was a puzzler) was Hebrews 5:12 – 6:2:
For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
What the author describes as “milk” and “foundation” seemed to me like meaty and lofty graduate level stuff. And if you limit yourself to the Bible and Evangelical commentaries, I suspect it will seem the same to you. It doesn’t seem as puzzling to me any more. For one thing, what you build on that foundation is a life, not more doctrine.
But there was at least one passage the conclusion of which I thought was just plain wrong, or culture-bound, or something:
Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
I Corinthians 15:12-19 (emphasis added).
I had no problem with the stuff about the resurrection, though an epiphany made the resurrection more real to me a few years later. But as for being “most miserable,” although I don’t recall having heard of Pascal’s Wager, I would have endorsed it emphatically — as I think many of my classmates would have.
I’d have said, and believe I did say in substance, “Despite all that, if in this life only we American Evangelical elite kids have ‘hope in Christ,’ we’re still having a really good time.” Even in public school, there was a Protestant hegemony, a civil religion with which we were all-too-comfortable. Christianity was just the Hap-Hap-Happiest Life in the World. And if we had immortal souls, what did the body have to do with it, and why did it need to be resurrected anyway?
For some reason, I started thinking about that again lately. I now agree much more with Paul, but then (a) I’ve gone through two pretty big religious changes since high school and (b) I’m an old coot now. But still, I started wondering why I used to think (although one would never had said such a thing aloud) that Paul was wrong, and why I don’t think so any more.
Well, for one thing, Christianity was in no way a status-enhancing choice in Paul’s day. Getting killed was a real risk. It just wasn’t all that uncommon for one to have a choice of denying the faith or suffering some manner of gruesome execution. And if you lived, you fasted regularly (food and sex), prayed seven times and day, were cast out of the synagogue (the worship in which became the foundation of Christian liturgy) and, in the earliest days at least, entered voluntarily into poverty.
Yup, it was pretty miserable unless you got heaven as a reward. And the body? Well, it was so much a part of who we are that The Word became flesh to redeem it.
By my high school days, Evangelicalism had much improved the faith. We’d given up silly stuff like fasting (“bodily exercise profiteth little” and “traditions of men” were our mantras). We were developing a parallel “Christian” commercial culture. We had some nationally-known preachers, including Billy Graham who hung out with Presidents, and touring Gospel Choirs for those who loved limelight.
Thus we had done unconsciously and in reality what Constantine had done mostly in our Romophobic dreams: made Christianity respectable and remunerative, and thus attracted a lot of lukewarm and even outright hypocrites (I could name some names).
Today, we’ve kicked it up another notch and another 5 decibels: Megachurches, with rock-star pastors; niche marketing of worship styles; Christian TV Networks; seven-figure salaries for “Ministry;” Jim and Tammy Fae; Stryper and the rest of CCM; Praise Bands; Phil Driscoll; Christian Yellow Pages; and abandonment of doctrine (unless it’s “God wants you to be rich”) as divisive.
Poor Paul. If only he had known then what we know now. You can have it all. It’s like a whole ‘nuther religion. There’s even a Wikipedia entry for “Christian Atheism” now.
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If you’re one of the weird kids, and you want to be the kind of Christian, like poor Paul, for whom little matters like the Resurrection really matter, I know it’s hard to find a Church that hasn’t abandoned doctrine, asceticism, silence and prayer. If you try to take doctrine, asceticism, silence and prayer to your own Church, you’re apt to encounter dogs in the manger, yapping “traditions of men!,” “legalism!,” or some such.
You could try, in good consumerist fashion, to start your own quiet, fasting, prayerful Church. You could call it something like “emergent.”
But the Church has been here all along, though it has tended to be off-puttingly ethnic. That’s changing. We’re trying to get the word out. We just don’t know how to make some quiet good news audible over the clamor of the yapping dogs, cash registers and Praise Bands. (Does boldface help?)
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