I’m finally getting around to writing a review of Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. The short and sweet is that Vines does a fine job walking the reader through all the Bible passages dealing with same-sex behavior, as have other authors before him. What’s new here, and what I enjoyed most about the book, is how well Vines presents the dilemma the church faces if it chooses to reject all gay relationships and prescribe celibacy for all non-heterosexual church members.
For most of the church’s two thousand years, celibacy has been understood as a free choice in response to a gift from God. Jesus emphasized this, as well as the difficulty of living out that gift, when he said, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given … He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matt. 19, emphasis mine). Apparently, Jesus saw celibacy as a gift that not everyone had and that not everyone was able to accept.
The Apostle Paul seemed to love the gift of celibacy that he had, and wished everyone else had it too, but he somewhat regretfully acknowledged that they did not. “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that” (1 Cor. 7:7, emphasis mine).
The so-called church fathers affirmed this understanding of celibacy, as a free choice in response to God’s gift. The Reformers were adamant about it as they objected to mandated priestly celibacy, and indeed in our own time we can see the problems of forced celibacy in the sex scandals of the Catholic Church. But even here, it’s important to note, the Catholic Church asserts that celibacy is a gift from God that the priest freely accepts upon entering the ministry. Celibacy is not a sentence, therefore; it is a grace received and entered into by an act of one’s own volition.
Until the late 1800s, when the concept of sexual orientation developed, it was assumed that everyone was capable of heterosexual desire and that homosexual desire was the result of lusts out of control. The prescription was not celibacy, but reigning in those desires and channeling them in a “normal” (i.e., heterosexual) manner. Even after the 1800s, once it was clear that some people simply are not wired for intimacy with the opposite sex, the assumption was that a rewiring was possible. Homosexuality was a disorder, something that went wrong in childhood, and with the right therapy and a good dose of determination, the homosexual person could develop their heterosexual potential. This was called reparative therapy. Different versions of it sprouted and gained popularity throughout the twentieth century, and wild claims of change and healing were purported. Only in 2012 did the last major so-called ex-gay ministry shut its doors, announcing what the psychological community had said for decades, that reparative therapy doesn’t work. In the last few years, most of the church has accepted this. But that’s put the church in a place it hasn’t been before: what to do with people who don’t have a “heterosexual potential” but also don’t have a gift of celibacy? One of two things has to change, and Matthew Vines does a good job illustrating the choice the church has.
“We can embrace gay relationships and maintain a traditional view of celibacy, or we can change our understanding of celibacy and keep a traditional view of gay relationships. But we cannot do both. Christians who hold, as I do, to a high view of Scripture must decide which tradition to modify.”
From there, Vines walks the reader through a historical understanding of the six Bible passages referencing same-sex behavior and demonstrating why these verses should not be understood as condemning the type of mutual, covenantal gay relationships we see today. A lot depends on whether you buy his interpretation, but again, the question is not if tradition must change, but which tradition must change.
All in all God and the Gay Christian is a wonderful introduction to the gay debate within Christendom. It’s concise—just 224 pages—but fairly comprehensive, and with an accessible style that doesn’t require you be a Bible scholar to follow along. Having just released last year, it’s also one of the most current books on the topic.
For those Christians who worry that altering our tradition regarding gay relationships means overturning the fundamentals of the faith, Vines offers a spirited defense of the traditional understanding of the Gospel and illustrates how it is perfectly consistent with embracing covenanted, lifelong gay relationships.
If I were to quibble with anything in this book, it would be that sometimes Vines writes as though his conclusions are obvious once we simply read the Bible with an understanding of its historical context. But many readers, even after understanding what Paul was likely addressing regarding same-sex practices in his time, may feel uncertain what conclusion to reach regarding gay relationships in our own time. This was true for Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network and author of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. Lee writes,
“After going through all the passages, I felt like I was back where I had started, confused and frustrated. Once more, I reviewed the evidence.
I was torn.
On one hand, yes, there was a potential explanation for each of these passages that meant it wouldn’t apply to a modern-day committed gay relationship.
On the other hand, every explicit mention of homosexuality in the Bible was negative.”
How to resolve the tension? At the risk of sounding like clickbait, in chapter 12 of Torn, Lee takes us through the famous Bible passages dealing with same-sex practices, but what he does in chapter 13 is one of the most brilliant things I’ve read in my twenty-plus years as a Christian. And it’s so simple that you’ll wonder how you’ve missed it for so long. I won’t give it away. You really ought to read it for yourself. I’ve recommended Torn before, and it remains my favorite book on the topic as a good introductory volume. Read Torn alongside God and the Gay Christian, and you’ll have a good foundation for making a decision regarding gay relationships in the church.
Some critics of these books have objected to the authors’ ages (Lee is 37 and Vines is 25). How can they know so much when they’re so young? “How can we trust these youngins?” I’ve never understood this concern. Honestly, it sounds like jealous snobbery to me on the part of those who wonder how these young whippersnappers could know something the aged don’t. But Jesus died at 33. Do we discount his ministry because it didn’t happen in his 60s? Mozart, likewise, was a genius who died at 35. Should we look askance at his powerful Requiem because he composed it at 35, not 65? Sheer jealous snobbery, I tell ya. Read these books. They’re good. The value of a book’s contents has nothing to do with its author’s age.
I’m glad I waited to read this book till at a point in my life where I wasn’t doing so just to disprove it for myself and other good Christian people. Having watched a nearly intolerable degree of religious irrationality splashed across news sites for the past few years as the country has addressed gay marriage, my frustration with most things church-related was at an all time high when I cracked The God Delusion. I was primed for Dawkins’ attacks on faith. In the end, I found the ardent atheist’s conclusions to be a mixed bag.
Does God exist? Dawkins is insistent repeatedly that he does not, even though his reasons would seem to require at least an incredulous agnosticism. One chapter is titled, “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.” Even if I bought Dawkins’ arguments that followed, that pesky word “almost” would demand I hold out at least the unlikely possibility of God’s existence. Dawkins does not and will not. He says, “… We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
For Dawkins, evolution by natural selection rules out the possibility of a complex supernatural creator. The fact that everything moves from its simplest state to a progressively more complex form renders as nearly inconceivable the possible existence of an unfathomably more complex Creator at the start of it all. I see his point and understand how he got there, but in the end he’s making an argument from the absence of evidence, every bit as much as the religious man or woman is. Perhaps predictably (and tragically, to Dawkins mind, I’m sure), I just couldn’t get where he was. Too much of a leap.
Dawkins is more successful making his case against religious expression than he is against God’s existence. He takes to task fundamentalists of the world’s three major Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–by simply reading to them their own sordid history of oppression and willful ignorance. It really is a devastating case he presents. “The will of God” has given men and women throughout time all the license they felt they needed to commit horrific crimes with absolute certainty of divine blessing.
Yes, Dawkins overreaches at times, as when he says, “One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.” That may be true of more fundamentalist believers, but I know plenty of very thoughtful Christians who are happy to add to their knowledge of the universe and will trade a literal understanding of Scripture for a metaphorical one if evidence demands it, as in the case of the creation accounts in Genesis. These people of faith do not see science and the Bible in conflict, and they don’t reflexively defend their scriptural interpretation when science objects. Dawkins is working off a caricature of believers when he suggests otherwise.
And Dawkins fails to convince that the world without religion would be markedly kinder or gentler than the world with religion. As Dawkins admits, two of the twentieth century’s greatest villains, Hitler and Stalin, were unmotivated by religion (Stalin was even an Atheist).
Still, I kept thinking as I read, I wish I could put a copy of this book in every Christian’s hands and know that they would read it seriously, not simply in an effort to find the holes. The holes are there, but they are in nearly every book on every subject. Put aside the holes, I would say, and take to heart the lessons we can learn from Dawkins, the lessons that we need to learn. We need not agree with the author on the matter of God’s existence to reap good things from his book. Consider the terrible trail of misery the major world religions have left behind–Christianity very much included. Absorb the author’s extensive retelling of the sometimes-outrageous stories in Scripture, and the inconsistencies within the Bible, and honestly ask, “What do I do with these things? How do I interpret these stories? How do I derive a set of moral values from them?” (For what it’s worth, there’s a wonderful chapter in The God Delusion that makes the argument that none of us, not even the fundamentalist, derives his or her values from the Bible.)
Much has been made by the author’s friends and foes alike that Dawkins is something of a bully in his writing, that he’s rude toward and dismissive of anyone who disagrees. I have to say, I was rather surprised by the degree of civility he maintained. I know from experience how hard that is to do when you are convinced of someone else’s stupidity. Yes, Dawkins gets sassy. Yes, he’s more terse and condescending at times than he should be, and I suppose that will hurt his credibility in some minds, but I didn’t think he was harsh. He very deeply believes that religion is damaging, and his tone bears that out. I can’t fault him for that.
The God Delusion is neither the first nor last word on atheism, and perhaps not even the best, but as a book of its genre and subject, it holds up well, and is worth the reading, whatever you think of its conclusions.
Tim Keller, a popular Christian pastor and author, has weighed in on the gay debate raging through Christendom. His stated position was not unexpected—he is opposed to gay relationships because he believes the Bible is clearly opposed. What was surprising was the manner in which he chose to state his opinion: a relatively brief blog post reviewing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian. This issue demands more than a quick blog post, particularly from someone with Keller’s reputation as a thoughtful, scholarly elder. And the choice of Matthew Vines’ book, simply because it is popular and widely read, seems odd as well. Why not, if you’re a scholar, review a scholarly work, such as James Brownson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality? Vines’ book serves as a primer on the issue; it’s not a thorough treatment of all the questions at issue on this topic. Keller has to know that. Regardless, Keller has written what he has written, which you can read by clicking here, so I will offer a few thoughts on what he has said.
Scores of Christian authors have written long works through the centuries attempting to smooth over or explain away apparent inconsistencies in the Bible–moments where the four Gospels don’t agree, two consecutive proverbs that give contradictory advice, perceived variances in the creation account(s), and just the over all sense that God’s personality changes as the timeline of Scripture progresses. Christians often get defensive when a skeptic challenges them on these very problems of Scripture.
In The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, author Peter Enns invites us to consider that the problems of Scripture are not problems at all. Not that they don’t exist, but that God isn’t worried about them and so neither should you be. God doesn’t need off the hook for errors in the Bible because he’s fine with them in there. Our attempts at defending the Bible, Enns argues, as this perfect (inerrant) work of God beamed down to us in perfect form from heaven are actually keeping us from reading the Bible as God gave it to us: God-approved imperfection that is constantly being reinterpreted by pilgrims on a journey to better understand their Creator.
If this sounds like a bunch of liberal, wishy-washy hog dung, you may be just the person Peter Enns wants to talk to. He presents his case with the Bible writers themselves as evidence, showing how even Jesus and Paul (especially Paul) reinterpreted and even jettisoned parts of Scripture in light of their growing understanding of what God was up to. His main point: the Bible is not now, nor ever was, the final word from God; Jesus is, and every other word must be continually reevaluated in light of that ultimate Word.
It’s not a new concept, but I did find his approach somewhat novel and worth reading, especially if you’re skeptical or outright disbelieving of the whole idea Peter Enns is presenting. Read it before you dismiss it. Even if you don’t totally agree with Enns, he raises questions worth every Christian’s asking. My only quibble with the book is over style, not substance. Enns, presumably wanting to appeal to the masses and not sound stuffy and overly academic, continually interrupts himself with “humor” that often falls flat and sometimes even irritates. But again, it’s only a quibble, and one forgivable in light of the book’s other qualities.
(NOTE: This is part four in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings” under Categories on the home page of this site.)
I read church history last year, and it is a true horror from about 300 AD on, at least if one focuses on the seemingly endless stream of corrupt popes and emperors. The inquisitions, the crusades, the colonizing—it’s all as bad as you’ve heard. Worse, I think. But it’s also not the whole story. While the people with power did awful things, for which they get most of the attention, the average Joes, the common men and women in the proverbial pews, were simply trying to be faithful to their God. I had two paradoxical responses to church history—revulsion and attraction. While obviously repulsed by all of the church-and-state violence that was so opposed to the life of Jesus, I felt intense longing to connect with the goodhearted saints of old, folks like San Pedro Claver of Cartagena, whose life should be required study for every Christian. (The church named for him is pictured here.)
Church history is at least partly to “blame” for my going Mainline. In The Story of Christianity, author Justo L. González notes that, at least as far back as the second century, barely a hundred years after Christ, there were two main components to a typical Sunday service: lengthy readings of Scripture with prayers and hymn singing, and then communion that ended with a benediction.
Sounds a great deal like many Mainline services today, and I absolutely love that connection with my brothers and sisters from centuries passed. Just to think that I am participating in and passing down the same traditions as those very first believers is quite a thrill for me. It just feels more meaningful to me than sitting through a long sermon (a tradition that only gained traction in the 16th century) followed by singing the latest Hillsong tune.
Nothing wrong with teaching—the church needs sound instruction—but the art of just sitting and hearing the Scriptures read is lost in many Evangelical worship settings. Nothing wrong with new songs either, or the bands that play them; in fact, I hope we’ll see some of the better recent worship songs make their way into Mainline hymnals so that we are contributing to the legacy of Christian worship. But I feel more connected to the saints who’ve gone before, the “great cloud of witnesses,” as the writer of Hebrews has called them, when I sing their songs, as well. Mainline churches are among the very few places where you can still sometimes hear early chant, Medieval and Renaissance choral works, and the later hymns of the Reformation and beyond. This is our inheritance. It is ours to preserve and pass on.
And this desire to connect with our forerunners in the faith was a value of even the very early church. González says early Christians sometimes met in catacombs, not to hide from the Roman authorities, but because,
“… Many heroes of the faith were buried there, and Christians believed that communion joined them, not only among themselves and with Jesus Christ, but also with their ancestors in the faith.
“This was particularly true in the case of martyrs. As early as the middle of the second century, it was customary to gather at their tombs on the anniversary of their deaths, and there to celebrate communion. Once again, the idea was that they too were part of the church, and that communion joined the living and the dead in a single body. It was this practice that gave rise to saints’ days; these usually celebrated, not their birthday, but the day of their martyrdom.”
Once you get past the morbidity of worshipping in a cemetery, there’s something downright beautiful about wanting to draw close, both physically and spiritually, to absent friends and saints, and to include them in the most intimate aspect of worship.
Why have I gone Mainline, at least for now? Everything is old. Tradition trumps novelty. The hymns, the Scripture readings, the emphasis on communion—it’s all old, dating back centuries, connecting present with past and joining me to the great cloud of witnesses who gave me so rich a legacy. I want to share in it, contribute to it, and then pass it on to those who hopefully will remember to include me in communion as well. This is not the only way to worship, certainly, but for now, it is mine.
(NOTE: This is part three in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings” under Categories on the home page of this site.)
Right from the start, let me say that this is not a criticism of the more popular praise song movement among evangelicals. I’m not bothered by singing the same line twenty times in the same song, especially if the tune is catchy. And to be honest, many of the Psalms are similarly written (see Psalm 136 as an example, in which “His mercy endures forever” appears 26 times).
I will say that I wish all praise song writers would strive for better than, “Lord, let your glory fall on us,” or other such theologically fuzzy lyrics. What does that even mean, “Let your glory fall on us”? As a pastor friend of mine said once, the word “glory” refers to the fullness, or full weight, of a thing—all that there is to it—so that if God’s glory ever fell on you, you wouldn’t be around afterward to say, “That was awesome!”
Modern praise choruses take seriously the psalmist’s hope that all the earth would “sing to the Lord a new song” (Ps. 96:1). Indeed, one of the complaints among evangelicals about the older hymn-style worship is that the hymns are, well, old. But that’s only a half truth since they are new to those of us who have never sung them, which is most of us. Maybe we’ve all heard “Amazing Grace” and perhaps a few others, but most Mainline denominational hymnbooks have 400 or more songs, and for all intents and purposes, they’ve still new. The music can feel dated, especially if hammered out ungracefully on a warbling pipe organ or slightly-out-of-tune piano. But the texts! The words are often rich.
One Sunday recently, I was sitting in a Methodist church, tired and generally unmoved by anything happening around me. Then we stood to sing “O Young and Fearless Prophet,” a “new” hymn.
O young and fearless prophet …
We marvel at the purpose
that held thee to thy course
while ever on the hilltop
before thee loomed the cross
The full weight—the glory, you might say—of that image jostled me out of my morning fog. I could see Jesus going about the crowds, knowing all the while what would happen in the end. Maybe at times he’d forget about it, but then a cold chill would come over him, and he would remember the cross ahead and the sense of abandonment that awaited: “My God, my God, why …” (Matt. 27:46).
O help us stand unswerving
against war’s bloody way,
where hate and lust and falsehood
hold back Christ’s holy sway
forbid false love of country
that blinds us to his call,
who lifts above the nations
the unity of all.
What a needed reminder for those of us living in the most powerful country on earth, which lately seems always at war with someone. The earliest Christians were primarily pacifists, refusing to fight in Rome’s many wars, and while I don’t buy the no-war-ever-for-any-reason mindset—hard to imagine how sitting out World War II would have been the morally preferable choice—I do wonder if we might have avoided the brutal conflicts in Iraq and Vietnam if more of us had pondered “his call, who lifts above the nations the unity of all.”
Stir up in us a protest
against our greed for wealth,
while others starve and hunger
and plead for work and health;
where homes with little children
cry out for lack of bread,
who live their years sore burdened
beneath a gloomy dread.
Not only are we the most powerful country on earth, we’re also the richest. The global economy has been slumping of late, and yet America is actually rebounding from its 2008 dip. Probably a good time for this hymn’s fresh reminder, published in 1931, during the Great Depression. If they needed a caution against greed then, during desperate times, then surely we need it now, during relatively bountiful times.
That’s just one of the many old-yet-new hymns I’m discovering. Why have I gone Mainline (for now)? The worship is so rich. And since, as we discussed before, the homily takes a lesser role in Mainline churches than in Evangelical churches, I like to know there is a little more meat on the bone in worship than what a simple praise chorus can offer. The benefit of having the hymns teach a little more and the sermon a little less, is that what’s being fed us through the music has been past many eyes and ears before it ever received entry into the hymnbook. That doesn’t guarantee the theology is sound, but it’s a sure better test than a pastor’s solitary discretion when writing his weekly sermon.
Who knows, maybe I’ll grow weary of the every-other-line-must-rhyme tendency of hymns, but for now I’m enjoying the old-yet-new of the songs that generations of Christians before me have loved.
(NOTE: This is part two in an ongoing series. For other posts on this topic, click on “Mainline Musings” under Categories on the home page of this site.)
Some time ago, I got curious about church history. How did we end up at this point in the story of Christianity? Franklin Graham had used his considerable influence to help pass North Carolina’s anti-gay-marriage Amendment One. Mega church pastor Mark Driscoll was self-destructing after years of pastoral overreach and abuse. John Piper seemed incapable of tweeting anything sensitive. And Elevation’s Steven Furtick was building a three-million-dollar, 16,000-square-foot home that he said wasn’t “that big.” How did we get here? How did we arrive at a point where Christian ministers are sometimes elevated to celebrity status, often to their own detriment and to that of the church itself?
The answer is complicated, but one factor stood out particularly as I read church history. While the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century certainly dealt with Catholic abuses, it gave the world its own set of problems. Never before had the sermon been so front and center in a worship service. For 1500 years, the taking of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, was the central act of Christian worship, something the entire congregation participated in, and for which the minister was, well, the minister, not the star. With the elevation of the sermon during and after the Reformation, the minister was the solitary participant and the one drawing the attention. The longer and more central the sermon became, the more a congregation came to associate themselves with a particular man. The church and its services became dependent on the pastor, and the pastor, who could not help but enjoy feeling essential, took on more and more of a central place in worship. Today, you will still hear people say, “What is Pastor talking about this week?” as though that were the primary concern on Sunday morning—one man and his thoughts on a topic as it relates to Scripture.
The especially dynamic pastors attracted bigger and bigger crowds to hear their teaching, and huge churches began to grow up around these Christian celebrities, almost all of which have come from the Evangelical wing of the Protestant church in America. With celebrity status comes influence; influence is power; power corrupts; abuses happen; ministers fail; the church and the world suffer. Not all celebrity pastors fall, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t almost worse when they don’t. Should any one man and his thoughts on the Divine be so elevated in the context of worship? Should we place that much importance on anyone’s sermon?
Just today I watched a message by Matt Chandler (which you can view by clicking here), one of the current rock stars of Evangelicalism. He’s young, he’s attractive, he’s eloquent, he’s firy, he grabs your attention, and he keeps it—in this case for 50 minutes. Fifty minutes! Ironically, he begins the sermon saying, “I’ve gotta go short because I want to give you an opportunity to see what [resources] we’ve got out there for you [in the lobby].” He invokes “all the boldness the Holy Spirit will grant me,” as if to say we should trust that whatever intense or excited emotions he might display are from God himself. And then there are the overstatements and outright misstatements that are inevitable when anyone speaks passionately and somewhat off the cuff, with only notes to guide him, about sublime things for nearly an hour. Chandler in this sermon calls Hitler and Stalin “brothers” and says the US has made them “look angelic” in comparison to the number of babies we’ve killed through abortion. He likens abortion after rape to tossing an old pair of jeans just because it has a tear (an odd and, I would think to any woman who’s been raped, outrageous comparison). Early in the sermon, Chandler says God has designed the intricacies of our very personalities; God even made sure Chandler had “tight vocal folds” so that he would be loud and without an inside voice all his life (pastors do love to justify and boast about their blusteriness). But then, later in the sermon, he says we are totally depraved and sinful from the moment of conception and that our personalities bear that out right from the get-go. So, are our personalities God’s design, or sin’s, or both? How do God and sin share that influence? Chandler doesn’t say. He couches his entire argument about the science of prenatal development in the decidedly unscientific Hebrew poetry of Psalms 51 and 139, the typical go-to passages on abortion, which were not written as scientific explanations of genetics. All of this goes on for 50 minutes, apparently unquestioned by any of the 10,000 (yes, 10,000) spectators observing this celebrity pastor.
And the problem is not his staunchly conservative theological views; you could easily reverse his statements to make them staunchly liberal and end up with a similarly objectionable result. The problem is that in many an Evangelical service, the pastor and what he’s talking about this week are the showpiece of the service, even if what’s being said is highly questionable. The preacher and his preaching are what we’re really there for. Yes, the music and baptisms and scripture readings and occasional observances of communion matter, but mostly only insofar as they build up and support whatever the pastor’s message that week happens to be. That leads to innumerable abuses and overextensions of pastoral importance and authority, which can, and often do, end in destruction. The recent demise of Mark Driscoll is just one in a long train of examples from Evangelical Protestantism’s past, and while Matt Chandler has not unraveled (yet), he has had to retract a “few” things–like four years worth of sermons! I did a little research on Chandler after listening to his message. Turns out, as The Blaze notes in a profile on the pastor,
“Visitors to the church’s website who want to listen to Chandler’s past sermons will notice that messages from 2002 through 2006 are gone. A note accompanying it reads in part, ‘We have removed all sermons prior to January 2006. The decision was made because of secondary concerns regarding tone, language and youthful angst over peripheral matters.'”
Secondary concerns? I wonder how secondary those concerns felt to the people who may have been hurt for four years by Chandler’s tone? We all know that how you say a thing can hurt as much as or more than what you say. Do the 10,000 people hanging on his words every week know that a few years down the road he may wish to take them back over “secondary concerns”? Only, you can never really take them back. You can retract a statement, but you cannot retract the consequences of what you said.
Why have I gone Mainline, at least for now? Because there are no Matt Chandlers. There are no celebrities. Some of that is a manifestation of Mainline Protestantism’s decline in recent decades. People aren’t flocking to the local Lutheran or Presbyterian USA church the way they still do to Evangelical churches, so there are no crowds to adore this minister or that. But part of the reason that celebrity pastors tend not to sprout from Mainline churches the way they do often from Evangelical churches is, I think, that Mainlines put less of a focus on the weekly sermon. To be sure, it’s still important; it’s just not as central as it tends to be in the Evangelical world. Time is granted for a sermon (homily, as Mainlines tend to call it), but there’s so much else that has to happen—hymns to be sung, communion to be taken, liturgy to be recited, plates to be passed, Scriptures to be read (often long passages from three different places in the Bible)—that the pastor’s sermon becomes just another part of the service. It’s important, but no more so than anything else happening. Typically in the more liturgical settings, the homily also follows the historic church calendar, so the minister feels at least somewhat less free to launch into whatever issue he or she feels passionate about that week, and I would say that is a very healthy restriction. (I couldn’t help noticing that Chandler’s abortion sermon was apparently part of a series on prayer. How in the world did he decide that, out of all the things one could say about prayer, he should devote a sermon to abortion?)
Many of us are subjected to a seemingly endless stream of commentary all week long, from television “news,” from Facebook, from our own family members. Who really wants to sit for 30 to 50 minutes on a Sunday and listen to one more person tell us what they think, based (often tenuously) on a verse here and a verse there. My brain is tired by Sunday with opinion overload. I don’t mind hearing a homily or sermon, but at this point in my life, I’m less and less comfortable with a service structure that elevates the pastor’s role in speaking above even the congregation’s role in taking Holy Communion.
Necessary qualifiers: I was a pastor. I delivered many, many sermons that were 30 minutes or longer which functioned as the centerpiece of the worship service. Millions of Christians have been nourished by this approach and I do not wish to demean their experience or the ministers who provide it (some of whom are my friends). Not all Evangelical pastors speak in the manner Chandler does. Most probably don’t. They don’t all make overreaching or careless statements about Hitler and Stalin or compare abortion after rape to tossing a pair of jeans with a tear. Chandler is merely an example to communicate a concern I have. This is not an attack on people; it’s a critique of a service structure that has traditionally granted too vaulted a place to the pastor and his thoughts—and however much a pastor may protest, they are his thoughts, and not, by extension, God’s. I’m in a transition time, where I’m asking questions and trying new things, after which I may end up right back where I started, so I’m not expecting people to abandon their church to join me down at First Methodist. I may end up Evangelical after all in terms of worship structure. For now, I really find that setting problematic. It remains to be seen whether I will, after a time, find the Mainline world more or less so.
More thoughts later …
After more than two decades in the Evangelical Protestant tradition, I recently made a switch and have been visiting Mainline churches, particularly Episcopal and Methodist congregations. At first, I’m not sure I was even aware of why I felt the need for change. Now, I think it had much to do with wanting to address concerns that had been building in me for years over how the Evangelical world worships: the style, the structure, the whole thought process behind the weekly gathering. While I may have had some misgivings over certain beliefs of evangelicals, my real problem was with what happened when we all got together on a Sunday and “did church.”
Fair warning: This may be a phase. I may end up right back where I started, at a non-denominational Evangelical church, after I’ve taken a breather, so to speak. There is much I still like and respect about that world, particularly its more progressive churches. And that reminds me, I didn’t go Mainline because Evangelicalism was too conservative. There certainly are many conservative–even fundamentalist–evangelicals, but there are many, many moderate and liberal folks there as well. When I speak of Evangelical versus Mainline, I’m more speaking of worship styles and structures, though certainly what one believes about God, the Bible, the big-C Church, and the world affects how those styles and structures form in the first place.
Also worth noting: This is not a blanket criticism of Evangelicalism (like I said, I still like much about it), and it’s almost certainly not a fully-balanced comparison. Right now, my mind is reacting to the discomfort I feel in the Evangelical worship setting, which probably blinds me to the shortcomings of the Mainline worship setting. So be it. As I said, maybe I’ll end up right back where I started after a time of toe dipping in the Mainline pool. We all need vacations.
In the next few posts, I’ll describe how the Mainline worship experience has assuaged some of the uneasiness I had been feeling in church, and if you’re as boring as I am, you might even find those musings interesting.
I’m not finished yet, but I’m so enthusiastic about what I’ve read so far, that I wanted to go ahead and recommend A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, by Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
According to the publisher’s description, the book argues that,
“… The very qualities that mark those with mood disorders—creativity, resilience, empathy, and realism—also make for the best leaders in times of crisis.”
To make his case, Nassir brings to bear biographies of some of history’s most important and effectual leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few. His chapter on Lincoln is fascinating. I knew ol’ Abe had struggled; I had no idea how much. Nassir quotes Lincoln:
“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
Nassir beautifully illustrates how Lincoln’s pain may have been the very thing that provided him with the necessary realism and empathy to successfully lead a fractured country through a brutal Civil War.
It almost doesn’t matter whether Nassir’s main thesis is correct, that a little crazy in our leaders may be better than none. Readers who know the pain of a severe mood disorder will find plenty of solace and, I think, profound hope in the life stories told here: what if our suffering will in some way make us better, and better for the world, than if we’d been well?
Readers without mental illness may walk away wishing they had a touch! And they’ll certainly walk away better understanding and appreciating the many among us who have struggled this way. A First-Rate Madness offers one of the best symptomatic descriptions of depression and mania I’ve ever read and explains why these maladies are so much more than simply elevated sadness or happiness. I remember writing my own book on depression, Losing God, and thinking, “How in the world do I describe this for people who’ve never felt it?” Nassir finds a way over and over again. Quoting a patient of his, Nassir says,
“Depression is a terrifying experience … knowing that somebody is going to kill you, and that person is you.”
I highly recommend this book, both for those who just want to understand mental illness better, and for those who understand it all too well.
I had the privilege a couple weeks ago of hearing Dr. James Brownson, professor of New Testament at Western Theological Seminary, speak in Washington, DC, on the topic of the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality in particular, how the Bible might inform our thoughts on the relatively new phenomenon of gay covenanted (married) relationships. I was so impressed with Brownson’s careful, thorough approach, combined with a calm demeanor that eschewed the often pitched emotionalism surrounding this issue, that I decided to read his book, Bible, Gender, Sexuality.
I have to say it’s one of a very few books I’ve read in the last couple of years that I thought added anything new and meaningful to the discussion, and it rightly earned its starred review from Booklist. Brownson spends roughly 300 pages asking not just what the Bible says regarding gender and sexuality, but why. What is the moral logic behind what the biblical authors say, because only in rightly understanding that will we know how to apply scriptural teaching to our own cultural context today.
Along the way, Dr. Brownson offers gentle but strong critiques of previous works on the topic from both sides of the debate. Herein lies one of the strengths of the book: Brownson seems to have read everything out there on the topic prior to his own book. I can’t think of a single argument on either side that he leaves unaddressed. True to his non-combative style, Brownson classifies the various positions of previous authors, not as “pro-gay” and “anti-gay” terms that incite more than they describe but as “traditionalist” and “revisionist.” And he is balanced in calling into question some approaches from both camps. (Particularly devastating is his analysis of traditionalist Robert Gagnon’s focus on the gender noncomplementarity of gay relationships. I mean, there is just nothing left of Gagnon’s argument when Brownson is finished, and it all unfolds in the most scholarly, respectful manner.)
What I think I appreciated most about the book is what Brownson doesn’t say. He doesn’t conclude by telling churches what they must believe. He ends by explaining why churches must wrestle. Yes, Brownson is now affirming of covenanted (married) gay relationships (a change from his previous position), but you never get the sense that he’s insisting that you must be. And so the book wraps with an exhortation to think about these things in new ways, always asking not just what the Bible says, but why. This is a book for anyone who wants to delve into the thick of the church’s most urgent moral discussion. And it’s a book that every church leader, regardless of his or her position on the matter, should rush to read.