Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Story We Find Ourselves In - A helpful guide for ministers

No one can deny that the world is experiencing a major cultural and philosophical shift from what is widely regarded as Modernism. These changes are mostly observed in Western civilization and are challenging all segments of society. This new era became known as Post-Modernism. As one will see in this paper, religion and theology has been directly affected by Post-Modernism. One of the greatest advocates of the inclusion of religion into this new mood is Brian McLaren. In The Story We Find Ourselves In, McLaren reinterprets traditional theology in light of post-modern culture. McLaren takes his readers through the Meta-Narrative (the big story) presented in Scripture and gives it a fresh new interpretation. He divides God’s and human’s story into seven events (creation, crisis, calling, conversation, Christ, church, and consummation). In each event, McLaren either rejects traditional doctrine or elaborates new concepts to what already exists.

Thus, the question one should ask is how does McLaren’s new interpretation help the faithful minister to find the soul of ministry and avoid burnout? This is a tough question, especially considering the liberal aspect of McLaren’s ideas and the conservatism that permeates most of the churches.

In order to answer the question posted above, one must first understand the type of people McLaren wants to reach and the goal he wants to achieve. In order to be relevant to post-modern people, McLaren avoids all absolutes, including the absolutes found in the dogmas of the church. This is a risky step to take, especially if the minister does not understand how these theologies came about. If one wants to disagree with something, especially regarding Christian theology, one must first be aware of what he or she is dealing with. Christian theology is as old as Christianity itself. Thus, one cannot simply disregard these teachings in order to be more relevant to society. It is extremely important to the minister who wants to be relevant, first to understand how the history of the church and theology developed. Otherwise, the minister will damage people’s faith instead of building up faith. In addition to that, a minister who is not well prepared theologically and want to shift to a post-modern theology will soon discover that there are many people in churches not pleased with the outcomes of this post-modern approach.

Another point to consider is that this is not the first time in history where the church is caught in the middle of a major cultural and philosophical shift. Theological Liberalism was born as an attempt to make Christianity relevant to an “enlightened people.” This “new” type of people was a product of the new culture that was being shaped in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries called Enlightenment. The founder of liberal theology, Schleiermacher, saw that if changes were not applied to Christian theology, Christianity would become more and more irrelevant to the people. So, Schleiermacher changed Christianity from within, rejecting traditional theology and creating a new one based on human’s God-consciousness.

As one may see, history is repeating itself nowadays. McLaren can easily be considered a modern Schleiermacher. McLaren is not doing anything other than trying to be relevant to a new type of mentality, a new type of “enlightened people.” However, instead of basing his theology primarily on personal feelings as Schleiermacher did, McLaren bases his theology on the communal big story or God’s Meta-Narrative for all peoples.

With that being said, the question that arises is, how can one extract what is sound in McLaren’s theology and reject what is not? There is no easy answer for this question; first, it depends on the type of ministry one is called to do. For instance, there is no reason for one to bring this theological approach to a rural church or to an urban church composed mainly of uneducated people. The main reason not to bring these issues up is because these people are not the ones questioning traditional Christianity. Second, even in settings where traditional Christianity is being challenged, one must be careful not to deny the core of Christian beliefs as many liberal theologians (Schleiermacher included) did in the past. If a minister is not well acquainted with McLaren’s theology, he or she may fall into this trap. Another aspect the minister must consider in order to make use of new approaches to theology is the generational gap within the congregation. For instance, under the same roof one will find several generations worshiping God. Although God is the same, the understanding of God differs from person to person. Thus, a minister must be careful on his or her approach to each generation within the congregation. By approaching different generations differently, the minister is not playing with theology; instead, he is being wise and loving. Following these precautions, the minister will avoid burnout motivated by the generational gap and theological conflict within the congregation.

Even McLaren recognizes the potential for controversy in his book. He says in the preface, “I hoped that the book would quietly find its way into other hands where its main effect would be to inspire hope rather than stir contention” (pg xiii). By saying this, McLaren recognizes that some people are more open minded than others. These open-minded people are the ones a minister should approach with McLaren’s view of Christian theology. However, first and foremost, it is pivotal for the minister to first believe in what McLaren teaches. There is no reason to pass these teachings on if the minister is not sure whether he or she believes in it or not.

In The Story We Find Ourselves In, McLaren mixes several different trends of theology. One finds liberal theology, orthodox theology, and post-modern theology in this book. Therefore, it is possible that a minister finds himself or herself agreeing with some of the passages of the book while at the same time disagreeing completely with the author in other passages. This is due to the variety of theologies found in the book. Another aspect that the minister may find himself or herself agreeing with McLaren is with the idea of narrative theology. One can make use of narrative theology totally from an orthodox point of view. In fact, the Bible is mostly narratives told from the point of view of the people of God (Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament). This approach can be very helpful to the minister if he or she is not comfortable with the idea of seeing the Bible as merely a book of doctrines.

The variety of approaches found in the The Story We Find Ourselves In can also be confusing for the minister. The minister may want to embrace the practical theology taught in the book. However, this theology sometimes may be presented alongside natural theology or even evolutionism. Thus, it is important for the minister who does not embrace liberal theology to differentiate between some practical aspects of life as taught by Jesus and natural theology and evolutionism as presented in McLaren’s book.

Perhaps a minister who identifies himself or herself with Dan (character in the book) would be less likely to burnout than those who have completely bought Neo’s ideas (Neo is another character in the book). Dan is a pastor whose doubts toward Christianity are sincere. He is struggling to maintain his orthodoxy. He has been greatly influenced by Neo which may cost him his position as senior pastor of Potomac Community Church. However, Dan also struggles with liberal ideas of evolutionism and absence of hell in Neo’s theology. Thus, one finds in Dan a difficult position to be. Dan has not completely rejected traditional theology and yet is accepting more and more what Neo teaches him. What makes Dan the pastor less likely to burnout is his honesty with his new discoveries, even though he is still confused. The possibility of burnout increases the less honest the pastor is with himself or herself. Those who are struggling with theological ideas must understand that at all times sincerity followed by true love must be sought. The minister’s consciousness must be clean and willing to rest on the mysteries of God. On the other hand, the book presents Neo as the “enlightened Christian guru.” Neo is the picture of what a post-modern Christian theologian is, perhaps even more, since he is also a scientist. There is no doubt about Neo’s love for God and for Christ. However, his approach to Christianity is more from the viewpoint of science, philosophy, and Liberalism than Scripture itself. Or, as Neo mentions in the book, he is approaching Scripture sometimes from a Jewish perspective rather than Greek. The problem one may find with a Jewish approach is the level of foreignness that it carries. Christianity, since the time of the Church Fathers was highly influenced by Greek philosophy and that influence became part of Christian theology. To change the perspective from Greek to Jewish is a huge step that, if taken, must be carefully examined in order to not bring division in the body of Christ. Thus, in order to inoculate against burnout, the minister should be careful with some parts of Neo’s theology. The results of Neo’s theology in the context of the traditional Baptist church in the United States, for instance, could be disastrous. However, not all of Neo’s theology is problematic. There are parts of his teachings that match with the real teachings of Jesus. From this point on, it is important to discover what the Christian teachings (traditionally speaking) of Neo and Dan are and how it would help ministers to be more Christ like.

First, one finds in Neo’s Lord’s Supper a genuine expression of the Christian faith. Considering the size of the group Neo was ministering to, it was easier to engage in a dialogue. This could be a model for small groups in congregations. To give to the people in the group an opportunity to share their thoughts regarding a biblical passage is not a problem. In fact, in the book, this opportunity gave way to an honest discussion about people’s flaws and shortcomings. It opened to confession which is required by Christ from those who want to partake in the Lord’s Supper. The more they opened their hearts to one another, the more they received grace from Christ. Christ’s grace was expressed through the tears that rolled from the eyes of those participating. This moment had its climax when they received the body and the blood of Christ through the elements of bread and wine. They experienced forgiveness of sins and celebrated Jesus’ death as an expression of love. This approach matches with the spirit of Scripture. Even if the small group is directed by a lay person, it does still remain faithful to Scripture. Therefore, the minister who wants a more relevant and profound approach to the Lord’s Supper may use Neo’s model in his or her church.

Second, part of Neo’s account of creation can be used by the minister who is concerned about remaining faithful to Scripture. For example, Neo’s rejection of the literal seven days creation is totally acceptable from an orthodox standpoint. The literal interpretation was not the interpretation of the Church Fathers nor was it the interpretation of other great ancient Christians. The literal account of Creation is a product of the Reformation, especially with Martin Luther. Thus, talking about the Earth existing billions of years is not a heresy. There are several theories that explain the words of genesis as poetic and not literal. These theories end up agreeing with the scientific account of the Earth’s age. However, the Earth’s age does not necessarily need to match with humanity’s. God did not need to create humanity at the same time He created the Earth. Actually, to think like that, one would have to accept the theory of evolution as espoused by Charles Darwin. So, in order to avoid being related to Darwinism, the minister could embrace the Gap Theory of creation. This theory simply states that between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 there is a gap where God recreates the world.[1] According to Johnson Lim, who taught Old Testament as a visitor faculty at Truett Seminary, the Gap Theory has the following advantages:

1) Gap Theory accounts for the downfall of Satan;

2) Dinosaurs existed in the first creation. When Satan fell, there was a meteor that destroyed the dinosaurs;

3) Darkness—there was a judgment.[2]

This theory is just one among many that gives enough credit to the biblical account to be considered Christian. It is not necessary, however, to go through each theory of creation that rejects the literal view of seven days of twenty-four hours that also rejects evolutionism. The point is that a minister can be faithful to Scripture and at the same time be reasonable enough to engage in a constructive dialogue with post-modern Christians and non-Christians. However, it is important for the minister who wants to be relevant, to listen to those who have different opinions with a tender heart and without judgment. Differences of opinions on this issue do not represent people’s commitment to the Christian faith in general and Jesus Christ in particular. As Neo, many other people will consider the evolution theory legitimate and will try to conciliate it with the creationism. The minister’s task is not to diminish the value of other views of secondary themes, but to love and care for people (even if they do not agree with him or her) and to be faithful to God.

Neo’s account on Abraham is another example of a sound Scripture-based teaching that could be used by ministers. In fact, Neo’s interpretation is indeed very orthodox. The entire idea of Abraham as an instrument of blessing to others and of him being an example to us is accurate and should be used by ministers today. Neo’s specifications of what blessing means make his point even more reliable for ministers today. Neo says, “To bless in this context, they agreed, would mean to try to help, to bring resources, to encourage, to believe in, to support, to affirm, to have a high opinion of…, in summary, that it would mean to express love and support” (pg 94). Another point considered by Neo on the account of Abraham is regarding God choosing people to resist evil on Earth. This idea is not problematic if used by ministers in churches. As a matter of fact, even though election for Neo is more a matter of poetry and language in Scripture, there are many Christians that take election as literal. However, in both instances, Neo’s point is correct. Those who are elected are elected to resist evil and propagate love. Ministers who focus their efforts on making people realize the potential they have to serve others certainly have stronger ministries. Perhaps these ministries are not stronger in a financial or numeric sense, but in a discipleship sense.

The discussion about Christ as found in the book is productive and harmless. Both Dan’s and Neo’s point of view are engaging and helpful to the minister. Dan as a pastor is aware of the several theories of Jesus’ death also called atonement. Considering Kerry (another character in the book) as an intelligent person, Dan, instead of showing the theory he believes (if any), he just presents to her all the theories he knows. Some people in churches will not appreciate Dan’s presentation of several theories. For these people, pastors must stay and believe in just one doctrine because there is only one truth. The problem with this kind of absolutism regarding the atonement is lack of humility in accepting other theories as attempts to find the truth. Sticking with one theory can only create arrogance on those who hold it. Considering the magnitude of mystery that surrounds the atonement, being totally sure about the reasons God chose to sacrifice Jesus is not a very humble achievement. Thus, a minister must understand first that his or her conversation may vary according to the hearers. However, something else may happen when a minister is explaining difficult themes such as atonement. Sometimes the minister is not so sure about what position he or she should take. In situations such as these, it becomes even harder to talk to absolutist Christians. It is important for the minister to explain the lack of consensus in the theological and academic fields. He must explain that God appreciates mysteries and that there are things that Christians will never know until they get into heaven.

From Neo’s perspective, atonement is a demonstration of temporary vulnerability and eternal love. Neo calls his first theory, “powerful weakness.” His second theory, even though unnamed, has to do with “the pain of forgiving, the pain of absorbing the betrayal and forgoing any revenge, of risking that your heart will be hurt again, for the sake of love, at the very worst moment, when the beloved has been least worthy of forgiveness, but stands most in need of it” (pg 150). This poetical more than theological view of atonement is a beautiful picture of God’s eternal love for sinners. Therefore, ministers must know that there are other views of atonement that make justice to Scripture. These views are helpful tools to reach different people outside the church.

Finally, one finds in Dan’s sermon Never Be the Same Again, a great teaching for the church both practically and theologically. Even though the sermon is related to September 11th events, it is a demonstration of the revolutionary and counter-cultural aspect of being a Christian. Dan’s emphasis was that Christians are in the world to express Jesus’ sacrificial love towards all (no distinction). Dan corrects the current trend that sees the church as a club and Christianity as a belief system. He reminds his listeners of the global mission of the church and of the responsibility of each Christian towards promoting peace. He also recognizes that Christ’s mission starts locally wherever there are Christians. Christians cannot impact globally until they start making a difference with their neighbors. Dan’s implications are extremely Christ like. He goes deeper into his explanations of why Christians should not fight fire with fire. He also takes his listeners through some practical steps, especially related to their Muslim neighbors. Ministers who want to be relevant to their communities need also to reconsider their mission. They must look to their values, theology, and ask if they are being faithful to Jesus. They must be willing to go outside the walls of the church and reach those who are in the neighborhood, but who would never go into a church. It is important for ministers not to overemphasize salvation and heaven in detriment of real, messy life here on Earth. To act as new creatures does not mean to stop sinning but mainly means to really love others. To go outside the comfort zone is not desirable to many, but it is required by Jesus. Thus, Dan’s sermon, even though, considered liberal for many, has nothing strange about the teachings of the Bible. In fact, it is more in sync with the Bible than what is preached in many churches today week in and week out.

[1] Extracted from my class notes for Scriptures 1 class, Prof Johnson Lim.

[2] Ibid.

Rodrigo Serrao

Note: Copy of this material is allowed and free, since the source is cited / A reprodução dos textos é permitida e gratuita, desde que citada a fonte.

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