Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Be afraid. Be very afraid…

For as long as I can remember, I have been haunted by the following three questions:

1) “Is ‘anal-retentive’ supposed to be hyphenated?”

2) “What if the Hokey-Pokey really is what it’s all about?”


3) “Just who are these culturally imperialistic + insular/evangelical + sectarian/protestant + knee-jerk/conservative + concrete/prosaic + hermeneutically/insensitive + blah/blah/blah + yadda/yadda/yadda + prefabricated CHRISTIANS that Brian McLaren has labored so hard to warn us about?”

Okay, so I haven’t been thinking about the third question for quite as long as the first two, but that doesn’t diminish the threat of imminent catastrophe these people bring to western civilization, which, as we all know, will reduce each and every one of us to Amway distributors. But in the (admittedly small) circles in which I travel, actually encountering one of these people seemed about as likely as an American G.I. triggering a nuclear holocaust by accidentally putting out a cigarette on one of Sadaam Hussein’s hidden A-bombs. They had apparently all masterfully blended in with the legitimate population.

Until now.

Actually, it was several months ago. I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t get out enough, and had fallen completely out-of-touch with what my fellow church goers do when they’re not in church. So when for the first time in my life I was able to attend the annual “Rebuking Your Mind” conference, hosted by D.C. Scrolls, I just had to see what it was like. It wasn’t the same as joining the church bowling league, but it would have to do for the time being.

It wasn’t cheap, and I didn’t get a very good deal on the airfare, but a friend at my church put me in touch with a guy in that area who was also attending the conference and had a spare room, so that made it affordable. His name was Cary, and when I called he agreed to pick me up at the airport.

It was a dark and rainy night. At least when I departed it was. When I arrived at my destination it was just dark. I called Cary on his cell and he met me outside. As soon as we got into his car its speakers started blaring some talk-radio program called “Barbarous Nation,” hosted by a hypertension-inducing ultra-right-winger whose actual name really is Joe Barbarous. Cary appeared to enjoy the program, but he thankfully turned the volume down as Joe launched into a loud, dyspeptic rant about moderate Republicans, “Islamo-Nazis,” and the haircut on his neighbor’s poodle. This allowed us to start making the customary small talk as we headed into the city, which was awkward at best because Cary struck me as a little odd from the get-go.

“I’m really looking forward to this conference,” I told him.

“Well—” his voice lingered a bit, and then: “I wish I could say the same.”

“Why’s that?”

“It’s just the theme they chose this year.”

“Apologetics?” I said, “That’s one of the things that attracted me to it.”

“Yeah, well I think the whole enterprise is entirely wrong-headed,” said Cary.

“Then how do you go about answering non-believers’ questions?” I asked.

“Tell ’em they shouldn’t be asking such questions in the first place!” he retorted, already getting a little heated so soon in our conversation. “The Bible is the ultimate authority! Like it or lump it!”

“Hmm,” I observed, already beginning to experience déjà vu. That seemed to settle that!

After about 20 minutes he suddenly pulled the car over up to the curb in the middle of a block, shifted into park, and turned off the engine. The street was deserted and quiet, and probably for good reason. I personally interpreted the gang graffiti spray-painted on the brick wall near the car as the equivalent of the local surgeon general’s warning to not hang around too long.

“This will take just a second,” he said, opening his car door.

“Can I help you with anything?” I asked.

“I’ll be right back.”

After the door shut behind him I listened to the sound of his shoes hitting the sidewalk and echoing off the buildings. My eyes followed him as he approached a man I just then noticed standing under the corner streetlight, and who occasionally looked over his shoulder during his brief chat with Cary. After exchanging a few words the man handed him something in a brown paper bag. As he opened his car door upon his return he tossed it into my lap with a grin.

“What’s this?” I asked, feeling more than a little leery.

“Take a look,” he said, turning the ignition, shifting into drive and pulling away.

So I turned the bag upside down and out slid a book titled, Yo! JC2!, and subtitled Chillaxin’ wit My Homey Calvin. It seemed to be some sort of on-the-street version of Calvinism. As I paged through its chessboard diagrams showing God arbitrarily knocking some of the pieces off the board into a fiery furnace labeled “Hell” I was tempted to remark on how different this was from the version of Calvinism I’d heard on D.C. Scrolls’ tapes, but a little voice in my head urged caution.

“So, uh—what church do you attend?” I asked while turning the pages.

“Well, for the last few years I’ve been going to the Church of the Absolute Foundation,” he said, “but I’m thinking of switching to Bucketseat Canyon Community Church.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I like Absolute Foundation’s emphasis on personal salvation,” he said, “but after a while it didn’t seem centered enough on my needs. So I figure it’s time to trade up.”

“Trade up?” I queried.

“Yeah. Find a church that that provides better goods and services,” he replied. “Besides, I always felt a little duped by all the emphasis at Absolute on evangelism and missions. I mean, like, what’s in that for me?”

I still hadn’t figured out why Cary’s opinions sounded so strangely familiar. I was a little preoccupied over concerns about his possible military assault weapon collection. So I pretended to continue paging through the book, but out of the corner of my eye I was checking to see if Tom Bodett had left the light on for me at the local Motel 6.

It’s not that I hadn’t already come across my share of oddballs in my evangelical wanderings. How can I forget Bill, who felt the constant need to interject his insights from a huge copy of the Septuagint he carried to our Bible studies after taking a semester of Greek? Or Nick and his traveling model Tabernacle show that took up half the church auditorium, and actually looked pretty cool, but unfortunately was accompanied by his nearly-incoherent, meandering, 40-minute messages in which he managed to find profound spiritual insights in virtually every color of thread in the Old Testament Tabernacle’s fabric? Or Angelo, who took a part-time job in a local parking garage while attending Bible school, and when the lines got long and people leaned on their horns because he was explaining the Four Spiritual Laws to the guy parked at the gate, he’d cup his hands and yell, “Hey! Can’t you see I’m trying to witness to this guy?!” (These stories are all true. Hmm. I wonder if I should have changed the names?)

I tried to stay off topics that might set Cary off. I went down a mental checklist that seemed to suggest itself to me: “Roman Catholicism?” I thought, “Scratch that! The writings of Karl Barth? Better not. Hillary Clinton? Uh, I haven’t paid this month’s life insurance premium yet…” So I decided the best course was simply to let him take the initiative in the conversation, which he was more than happy to do.

“And where do people get off with all this sissy hermeneutics baloney?” he demanded as we were pulling up his driveway. “Just pick up the Bible and read it! Take the book of Hosea: boy finds girl / boy loses girl / girl turns up on flea market clearance rack. What more do you need to know?”

He popped the trunk, we got out, and as I wheeled my suitcase into his house and passed his kitchen table I spotted a piece of mail showing his full name, Cary K. Chure, which I knew would come in handy if I needed to call 911. He pointed me upstairs to my room and invited me to come back down to his den for some coffee. When I got up there I checked under the bed to make sure there were no alien pods under it. After a few minutes I came back down and we walked into the den together.

And then I saw it.

It caught me totally by surprise. Of course, I’d read about it in A Generous Orthodoxy, but it didn’t look anything like I thought it would.

But there it was: captured, stuffed, and mounted on the wall. I struggled to find words as I stood transfixed before it in disbelief.

“That’s—! That’s—!” I slowly lifted my arm to point at the nameplate at the bottom of the huge wooden plaque on which it was mounted.

“Yep!” he said proudly, laying a gentle, avuncular hand on my shoulder. “That’s ‘Truth!’”

I turned to him in wide-eyed incredulity.

“So you’re the one McLaren was writing about!”

He just smiled and reached into a drawer to pull something out and thrust into my hands.

“Here ya’ go: one to take home!”

It was a nailed-down, freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped version of what was on the wall.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Emphatically Apophatic

“You see it all started,” said my friend, Berkley Spence, “when western Christianity forgot its eastern roots and relinquished the apophatic.”

“Gesundheit!” I said, and offered him a Kleenex.

“Uh, I’m fine,” he replied, looking a bit puzzled, and leaving an awkward pause in the conversation.

“So this, er, apophatic thing,” I recovered, “did the early Christians, uhm, wear it? Or did it come in some, er, handy applicator or something...?”

“Uh-uh,” said Berk, shaking his head, although not too impatiently, “No. It’s a way of doing theology.”

“Oh. Okay.” I was starting to warm up to the subject now.

“And the reason that today’s western church is so impoverished spiritually is because we’ve virtually abandoned it.”

“So then, this approach goes all the way back to the apostles?”

Another awkward pause.

“Well, not exactly,” replied Berk. “It was discovered by Dionysius the Pseudo-Aereopagite.”

I resisted the temptation to offer him a zinc lozenge at this point, and instead I said, “So how does it work?”

“Well, Dionysius identified two ways of talking about God: positively and negatively.”

“And,” I interrupted, “since the negative way involves a higher risk of lightning-strikes, he probably concluded—”

“No, no, no,” said Berk, for the first time sounding just a tad impatient. “Dionysius showed that the negative way is actually better than the positive way.”

“Kind of counter-intuitive, wouldn’t you say?” But I figured it was like getting a negative test result back from the doctor or something.

“Perhaps it’s more helpful to call it ‘the way of negation.’ It assumes that any positive statement about God is actually impossible, and so all we can really say about God is what He is not, instead of what He is, because His being is so ineffable. And so it’s only by unknowing that one may know Him.”

Berk went on to say a lot more after this, but with so many unfamiliar terms and names coming at me, like “apophatic,” “cataphatic,” “Vladimir Lossky,” “ecstasy,” and so on, I kind of felt like Hans Solo trying to navigate the Millennial Falcon through an asteroid field. It’s the same feeling I get when visiting many postmodern theology web sites. On such occasions I don’t know if I’m living with the consequences of my own inability to digest huge libraries of information before I turned 30, or if I’m actually experiencing something I once read about called “the Dopeler effect” (not to be confused with the Doppler effect), which is “the tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.” But since I rarely feel qualified to distinguish between stupidity and pure genius in these conversations, my tendency is to clam up and peer deeply and profoundly into the other person’s eyes—perhaps even massaging my chin thoughtfully with my thumb and forefinger—so as to give the impression that I’m not only tracking very closely with every word being said, but that I’m already developing brilliant applications of my own even as he speaks.

Looking straight back at me, Berk must have noticed the “Space For Rent” sign behind my retinas, and so he stopped talking and waited for me to say something.

“ positive statements—only negative ones?”

“Right,” said Berk. “It’s not about knowing God, but mystical union with Him.”

“Oh,” I said, wondering if anyone’s told J.I. Packer about this.

I didn’t want to change the subject, but since I’d forgotten, I asked, “What did you say the name of your church was again?”

“The Church of the Inarticulate Conception.”

There was another brief pause as Berk seemed to allow all he’d said to settle in.

“Well, I will say this: it sounds like a very clever way to get theologians to shut up,” I observed. “I mean, like, how much can you not say about God?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Berk, “maybe.”

“But what about all those Scripture texts that make positive statements about God. You know—like ‘God is love,’ and what-not?”

“You’re missing the point,” Berk said, with an expression that seemed to indicate he’d somehow covered this objection already.

“Which is—?”

“It’s only what we can’t say about God that has any ultimate meaning.”

“You don’t say!” I said.

“Exactly!” said he.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Pause for Reflection

Every once in a while I need to take a time-out from all the emerging hubbub of my life for some quiet little devotional reading. This morning I was in the book of Third Drafts, chapter 1, which reads:

[1] These are the generations of evangelicalism in the land of North America.

[2] Now congregationalism begat Pilgrims who sailed from Leiden to Massachusetts and were soon joined by their brothers, the Puritans. [3] Pilgrims and Puritans begat theocracy, which in the days of Hutchinson, also called Anne, and Williams, also called Roger, begat discontent. [4] Discontent begat Baptists, and soon all manner of church polities and creeds prospered in the land, while prosperity itself begat spiritual apathy and slumber. [5] Then came a day of Great Awakening, which begat New Lights. [6] And thus did the Old Lights squint, and great was their outcry throughout the land, [7] but the sons of Edwards and the sons of the Wesleys and the sons of Whitefield did not heed their cries, [8] for they saw the mighty works that God wrought among them.

[9] Then the sons of men listened to the Paineites, who spoke of “Common Sense,” and “The Crisis,” and [some mss. read “later” here] “The Age of Reason,” and the kings of the earth took sides and waged war, and the Montesquieuites and Rousseauites rose up in the land, [10] and they said, “Let us be called the United States of America, where no king rules from New England to Florida, and west to the Mississippi!” [11] And so every man believed that which was right in his own eyes, and thus it was even after the warring ceased.

[12] In the turmoil of those days a great darkness fell upon the land, and men looked for light, both old and new, but could not find it. [13] The sons of Calvin and the sons of Arminius cried out, and behold, the land was soon filled with Taylorites and Finneyites who imagined that they created the light themselves. [14] But nevertheless the light spread, and a Second day of Great Awakening came, which begat revivalism, and revivalism begat manipulative evangelistic techniques, and manipulative evangelistic techniques begat many verses of “Just As I Am.”

[15] Now in those days, a son of Africa was counted as three-fifths of a person, and could be owned by a son of Europe in the region of Dixie. [16] And for two generations the Foxites and the Wesleyites stirred up many of their evangelical brethren to cease this abomination, crying, “Abolition! Abolition!” [17] But before the reign of Lincoln could commence, the cries went out from Dan, Virginia, to Beersheba, South Carolina: “Secession! Secession!” [18] And, lo, 600,000 men were slain on the field of battle before the rebellion was ended.

[19] Soon after, when every man had returned to his house, behold, Moody said to Sankey, “Let us sing great hyms to large crowds in spacious halls on both sides of the Atlantic!” [20] And thus revivalism, which had begotten manipulative evangelistic techniques, now also begat mass evangelism, [21] and mass evangelism begat interdenominational cooperation, [22] and interdenominational cooperation begat organizations, and agencies, and publishing houses, and Bible conferences.

[23] But while the sons of Darby gathered in Niagara, the sons of Schleirmacher said to the sons of Darwin, “Let us circumscribe the truth of Scripture according to the limits of our scientific presuppositions.” And it was so. [24] And when the sons of Luther, and the sons of Calvin, and the sons of Arminius, and of Wesley, and even of Moody and of Darby—when they heard of these things—each one said to the other, “If the foundations are being destroyed, what should the righteous do?” [25] And thus they took up pen and ink, and each man flew to his printing press, and each man contacted his colporteur, they did great battle against the sons of Schleirmacher and the sons of Darwin, and all who would come against them. [26] Now the rest of their acts, and all they did in defense of the propositional truth of Scripture, are they not written in the books of The Fundamentals?

Oh, for those simpler times!