Saturday, September 27, 2008

More stuff I am reading: The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren

You'll notice that there is alot of McLaren popping up here, I guess I am sort of bingeing.

Okay, the first thing I just have to get out of the way before I say any thing about this book is that the *Secret Message* is not really that secret. Was sort of wondering if maybe this was like a spinoff of the popularity of DaVinci Code sort of stuff where there is this secret message that most people don't see at first and you have to read a book or watch a movie to get it. I watch Alias (the TV show) and that theme runs through that show, we just watched National Treasure which is all treasure maps and whatnot and so I am thinking this just must be a very popular theme--code.

I had to sort of just ignore that aspect of the book, which wasn't too hard. But Mother Teresa knows the secret as do most people who have been Christian and have kind of looked closer at why they believe what they do...or questioned some prevailing cultural norms of the church for the past 50 years.

Beyond that, I enjoyed this book less than most of McLarens books. It was still a decent read and really the guy writes so well, and he is very intelligent that even when I don't agree with him, which is often enough, I just enjoy the conversations he initiates, or the process of thinking about "Why don't I agree?"

True to form, this work is very well organized, which I am noticing is a theme in McLaren's writing, and one that I appreciate. I feel like it is a sign of good writing when the author can organize their thoughts such.

Like most of his books, there are parts that I want to read to someone else and say "This is it exactly,". And there are other parts where I turn the page and think "Um, where is this coming from? How can he justify this point of view?"

Anyhow, I am all for a good conversation, and McLaren never disappoints. If I was going to start reading his stuff though, and I started here, I don't think I would keep reading. I have started the Ancient Practices book that he just published in August, and so far it is showing all the same strengths and weaknesses that I have seen in his other books...

Give McLaren a chance.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Some more missing the point--wrapup

Brian McLaren's Adventures in Missing the Point was a pleasant read.

Sorry y'all but I don't have a book club where I can talk to people about the stuff that I am reading, and the Man is asleep.

Before I talk about how I got to this book, I will mention a sort of time in my Christian growing up. Disillusioned is a strong word to use, but a few years back the Christian church started to really bug me. There were alot of things going on there, but probably the worst of it was that I wasn't thinking about not being a Christian, there was never a question on that, but I kept finding these strange distasteful things in churches I would go to that made me really uncomfortable. I wasn't a "church shopper", I wasn't looking for what a church could do for me, I was looking for a church that wasn't going to water itself down in order to bring in more folk.

The stuff I was seeing?

Churches that looked like a marketing team had taken over, and the goal was to sell the church to those who walked through the doors. They had catchy slogans "Refresh, repent, renew", they quit calling it a church or dropped off "God" and instead just called it a "campus". Why can't we call it a church? Is the word church so offensive?

I went to services where the pastor, the worship leaders and everyone in leadership scolded the congregation for not worshiping fervently enough, and whipped up the congregants into a moaning, dancing, flag waving worship fury.

I listened to sermons where the pastor boiled the gospel down to baby food, ostensibly so that "we" could understand it better (the service I mention was about Ephesians 6 which suffered through a comparison to Star Wars, where he showed clips of the movie and wore a mask to start the sermon-sigh-).

And I went to churches that were a sea of grey hair, and it looked like things pretty much were the same as they were 50 years ago.

The hard part was always that I felt like I couldn't talk to anyone about my frustrations, because I would be being too critical about superficial details. But my thought was, how could I bring someone to a place that I was going to feel compelled to apologize for? I decided that I would just suck it up and go, and that every time I had the urge to shake my head at an overly simplified sermon, or at worship songs that were devoid of any meaning, I would just not criticize.

It was hard because I was coming off a time of struggling with my faith because it mainly felt like a collection of rules that dictated that anything that was fun was probably not ok, and I would be judged accordingly by my fellow Christians. Lovely. It was a bad place to be with my faith, but I knew I wasn't going to stop being a Christian, just that I had to figure a way through that present quagmire.

On an aside, I am a person who is entirely comfortable with disagreement. I don't need to have everyone around me think the same way as I do. It came as a shock to me even to find out that this was maybe unusual? In speaking with a coworker, I offhandedly mentioned that my husband was republican and so was much of my family, though I often tended to lean a little further left on some things. She out of hand couldn't believe I would marry a republican, declared she never could do such a thing. Huh, I thought. I just can't imagine that it would be kind of boring to marry someone that agreed with you about everything.

So with that back story, enter a book like Missing the Point, and that is why I felt like it was a good book. Not because it was so hyper intellectual, it wasn't. He just says things that I needed to hear at some point.

McLaren has such a wonderful way of setting straight without being painfully critical. He does not do the polemic/iconoclast thing, for which I am grateful. He doesn't seek to rip everything down and declare it without value or show its lack of worth. He does point out some very obvious but not necessarily positive trends in the church, and points out that they are not, in fact, biblical whatsoever. What a relief.

I like the fact that I don't have to agree with everything the authors say. I like the fact that disagreement is written into the book with a commentary after each chapter by the co-author. I can't speak highly enough of the format, because sometimes McLaren is way more liberal that I am at, and the commentary by Campolo might be a relief because he comes back to the center.

I am appreciative that there are times when they put their finger on how things might be better, where the church has gotten off track. Each chapter tackles a different subject and one author brings up how aspects of the current status might be improved. And then the other author will make a commentary, adding, agreeing, disagreeing. It was well organized, which made it very easy to read and still interesting.

Early on in the book they point out that things that are standard procedure in churches today aren't something that really came out of the bible, but tools that are used to hold up what the church has become today. Altar calls, sinners prayer, and the heavy focus on the individual in the church are all sort of artifices that we do now, but they are not something that is biblical.

I appreciate that they do see it as the job of a Christian to be mindful of caring for the environment. I am relieved to see that level of responsibility within those who are in the church.

I think the thing I enjoyed the most was that this book spurred discussion. It makes for some very good talking points and I thought it would be great for a book club. It's books and conversations like these that can help a believer dig a little deeper, ask the right questions, start to think about what they believe and wrestle with things in a constructive way. All that is good stuff.

I would say read it. It will make you think and probably disagree with at least a thing or two, but agree with a thing or two as well.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Adventures in missing the point

I was reading fiction for awhile but then I started missing reading my books that make me think. I didn't have any recommendations to go on, so I just aimed and shot. I came up with the McKinley book "Jesus in the Margins" because what he writes is pretty reliably easy to digest, and typically interesting enough. I had just gotten off of trying to read the New Conspirators by Tom Sine. I made it like to page 60 something and while he wasn't saying anything that I strongly disagreed with, he was just had some ideas that I was having trouble stomaching.

So this here is the next foray, and I guess even though sometimes McLaren will say something that makes me want to be critical of him, more often than not I appreciate what he says, that he says it, that he is even thinking about it, and that he writes so well on the subject, he makes me think more and well, that's what I want.

It's interesting because by and large he is talking about directions and misdirections the church has taken. Points where we might have gotten a little lost. I am not enough of an expert to speak coherently whatsoever about the topic, in public at least. The book has generated several really good conversations at our house though, and here's what is coming out...

Postmodernism, McLaren says, looks like premodernism. There is more stress on experience, beauty, mystery and I might describe it as what things look and feel like rather than what they are. McLaren says that in modern times, particularly in apologetics christians were very interested in proving things, evidence, making a case and generally using a very rational approach to showing why the bible was credible.

In that time, I say, how the church looked and felt was like a judgemental somewhat self absorbed older brother or sister who were more focused on the appearance of success and making proclamations about what was ok and not, like homosexuality and rock music and the like. We had some bad mouth pieces, and on the popular culture way, they did us some harm. The way the church looked and felt was not a place that the postmodern gen wanted to find itself. So postmodernism starts to go back to creating a Christianity that is less focused on proving things but is more toward beauty and goodness. I dare to say, a Christianity that is authentically attractive for those who want to pursue the teachings of Christ.

He brings out somethings that Christians today do and practice but that were never a part of the bible explicitly, like the sinners prayer. Some may not matter but some may, as a raft of things get tagged on to our beliefs, where a verse here or there is explored so deeply that it starts to get perhaps overly emphasized. For example, in the churches I went to, there was this big thing about spiritual gifts. You were supposed to serve according to your spiritual gifting. 1 Corinthians 12:7 talks about them. My problem was that I never had a clue what my gifting might have been. Even if I did, I wasn't sure if limiting my service to that area was really what was the direction that people should be guided. It seemed to me like a tool that could easily be used by people to do little or nothing, because they didn't know what their gifting was. So since I wasn't alone, the church started helping people to figure out their spiritual gifts with inventories and questionnaires.

I don't mean to pick on the guy that came up with this idea, its not the only thing that has gotten alot of attention in the American church there are also angels, the prosperity doctrine, speaking in tongues, and a whole raft of aberrations by which people can get sidetracked if they spend too much time emphasizing the importance (or in some cases believing at all like the prosperity doctrine). But it was the kind of thing that made me scratch my head and wonder "Explain to me again how this is germane to me following the teachings of Christ?"

McLaren writes in such an easy to take style, I could take some lessons from him. He is critical without typically criticizing. He analyzes or shines a light on things without being radically and violently iconoclastic. He is knowledgeable enough to challenge me, and yet I never feel like I am supposed to believe everything he has to say.

It used to be that this stuff might not interest me, that I would feel like overly looking at these things would be missing the point in itself. But I think differently now. I am aware that the church is viewed as not the kind of place people view as a respite from the world, but rather a place they would never want to lay their sins down because too often it is where they would be judged by the ones who think they don't have sin. The church too often is a place that is misrepresented. I want to see how I can avoid doing that as well, and I suppose a little awareness is a good place to start. I appreciate this book for that...go read it!