Faith Without Illusions 1

Within our Evergreen home community, we’ve recently started reading and discussing Faith Without Illusions; Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint by Andrew Byers.  The subtitle grabbed me as I consider myself an in-process, recovering cynic.  I’ve been contemplating the source of cynicism lately as it’s something that easily plagues any human that carry with them stories of hurt, betrayal, and disappointment (isn’t that everyone?).  What better defense mechanism to future, potential hurts is so easily available to us than cynicism?

In the first two chapters, Byers prefaces the book by sharing his story of disillusionment, particularly with God and the church.  He says that this kind of disillusionment is natural and healthy, because of course, who wants to live with an “illusion”?  But how we respond to that disillusionment drastically shapes the kind of people we are to become.  And unfortunately, it’s common for that disillusionment to lead us to a general state of cynicism as defined as: “to be contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives (pg. 9).” Honestly, “human nature and motives” give us a LOT to be distrustful about (even within ourselves) which makes living cynically all too easy.

In the midst of telling his story of his journey of disillusionment and cynicism he makes three observations that profoundly resonated with me:

1.  “Though there is indeed a great deal of disenchantment with God these days, “Christian” cynicism seems most often directed toward the church.  As an untidy conglomeration of imperfect people from all walks of life, the margin for human error in the church is quite high, isn’t it?  We are a dysfunctional family of sinful siblings, repeatedly failing and injuring one another.  Christians must constantly nurse in-house wounds.  Thus the descent, whether immediate or gradual, into cynicism.  So many believers have now slid into those dark pits that cynicism is becoming vogue in many Christian circles as a self-identifying trademark of a new spirituality-the edgy spirituality of the jaded.  Since cynicism is emerging as a hip new way to be ‘spiritual,’ religious disenchantment is often hailed as a spiritual virtue (Pg. 8).

2. “For obviously reasons the anti-institutional attitude of cynicism does not comport well with the stablished church.  Cynical Christians are therefore situated on the fringes of Christian fellowship.  Their position on the margins allows them to be close enough to the church to (often amusingly) criticize its mistakes while maintaing a degree of allegiance to Jesus (whose harangues against the established religious leadership of his day become favorite Scripture passages).  Cynics praise themselves for taking the red pill of “reality,” and then they stick it to “the Man” by unplugging themselves from the “matrix” of the institutional church” (Pg. 9).

3. “In reaction to my own former zeal, I became skeptical of anything that smacked of religious enthusiasm” (Pg. 22).

I’ll admit that while I have (and am still) dealing with bouts of cynicism, I have never walked away from the local church.  And looking back at the last 16 years that I’ve spent in church, I’m thankful that even in my most cynical moments I haven’t done so.  In fact, I think the community is the only place we’ll find healing for chronic cynicism, but ironically, it’s that same cynicism that keeps us away from the very healing we need.   Staying on the fringes and critiquing from the outside simply cannot move us beyond cynicism into the realm that Byers calls “hopeful realism”.

But it is the third quote that I’ve posted that cuts the deepest personally as I find myself constantly being “skeptical of anything that smacks of religious enthusiasm.”  I have realized that this truly is a spiritual illness (just as Byers describes it).  Why am I skeptical of religious enthusiasm?  I think for three reasons:

  1. “Religious enthusiasm” generally comes off as superficial and void of any transformative power or lasting presence.
  2. I’ve seen “religious enthusiasm” (and language) used to conceal all kinds of unhealthy psychological and/or spiritual sickness and thus avoid the unpleasantness of having to deal with those issues.
  3. What’s the easiest way to not be disappointed?  To ALWAYS refrain from showing any kind of enthusiasm or excitement.  If no one sees me excited about something, then they won’t have to pity me when I’m disappointed by it.  Showing enthusiasm is to take a risk that what your enthusiastic about is not going to let you down and I’m typically rather not set myself up to be disappointed or to be the recipient of other’s pity. (On a semi-related note, I’ve never understood people that regularly desire and solicit pity from others!)

Looking at this I realize how sad this all sounds.  Cynicism continually sucks all of the joy out of life and has a paralyzing effect which makes it impossible to act, risk, express, create simply because the fear is always present that: “I could get hurt.”  “I could fail”.  “People could think I’m foolish for caring so much.”  And so I will take the easy way out and simply mock, and belittle, and disdain and not have to risk more hurt.

I’ve realized that I need to grow up.  It’s not that I desire to resurrect the old illusions of creating or experiencing the idyllic church community or life.  That isn’t the answer.  But I know that cynicism isn’t the way forward in a life that is intentional about following Jesus either.

To be continued….

Advertisements

Do We Really Need Another Article About Rob Bell?

Rob Bell. The name instantly ignites polarizing emotions within churches and conversations. Some people LOVE him and have made pilgrimages to Mecca (Grand Rapids) to hear him speak on his own stage. Others DESPISE him for what is interpreted as misleading people from “historic-orthodox Christianity (is their one version of this?)”.

He’s had quite a year in the news. I’m actually surprised that he has received this much press, especially from the secular news media. However, I suppose the media thrives on controversy, so what is better than a young, hip pastor questioning the Evangelical Christian faith which the media loves to hate. I was more surprised to see the news of his departing from Mars Hill from secular sources. I imagine they’re connecting the dots in the sense of: Controversy=Resignation. Which may or may not actually be the case.

All we really know is what he’s written in his official statement that he’s decided that it’s time to leave Mars Hill for the purpose of writing and teaching to a broader audience. He’s starting that venture by moving to L.A. which I find to be a curious choice.

My most cynical self wants to make a statement like: “Gone are the days when pastors hear God calling them to live in pallid conditions to proclaim the good news to native tribesman who may or may not kill them. Now pastors are growing large churches and “hearing a call” to move to an affluent celebrity-saturated city and leave the difficulties of pastoral ministry to live off of royalties of books that without the weird spacing would amount to about a mid-length term paper.” Is that cynical enough for you?

My most understanding self wants to cut the guy a break. “Who KNOWS all that has led up to this decision and where it will lead. Who am I to judge his motives? What do I know about what God has in store for him? Any attempt to write on this is fairly speculative and will fall short and possibly even misrepresent what is going on.” Is that TOO gracious?

I’ll admit that maybe I’m over-thinking this, perhaps I’m misjudging his motives or being overly critical. But regardless, the feeling I’m left with in thinking about Rob Bell’s trajectory is disappointment. Why? Because the inherent message is the typical American dream mindset of I’m sure God wants me to be “reaching a wider audience”, “expanding my influence”, etc. And the assumption is, this is not possible WHILE being a pastor in a local church. Somehow either the church administration or association hinders the influence of this one individual.

(Which I think if Augustine teaches us anything it is that while he may have resented the burdensome amount of time that many of his pastoral and administrative tasks took, he was still able to write more works than you will ever read AND be quite influential).

In my more negative moments I speculate Rob Bell’s departure doing a few things:

  1. His leaving makes those who have faded from a local expression of church because it’s “hard” to be in community with such a diversity of people feel vindicated for their decision. In fact, it almost makes it virtuous. “We TOO have left our church to make God’s message of love known to a broader audience.” (To which I would ask: “who are you telling about Jesus?”) It also remains to be seen how leaving Mars Hill will lead to him teaching to a wider audience.
  2. Rob Bell will continue to embrace his identity as a “celebrity preacher”, tour, write books, make lots of money and be a guest on Dancing with the Stars in 5 years (God forbid that show still exist). And ironically, those that are most judgmental of celebrity-ism, the misuse of wealth, and the lack of serving the poor in the church will still LOVE him.
  3. The motivation to reach a wider audience is a dangerous one at best. When musicians aim at this, it typically involves compromising musical integrity and putting out any number of songs you hear on popular radio. I would hate to see that same kind of compromise happen with Rob Bell’s theology and teaching (although some believe it to be too late for that). Obviously, controversial books sell and make A LOT of money. It’s a temptation for every pastor and writer to put out what is appealing to our modern sensibilities and tells us what we want to hear.

However, in my more optimistic, hopeful moments, this is where I hope it all leads:

  1. When Rob Bell moves to Los Angeles, he gets connected to a local church where he is committed to living his life of faith in community with other people. People he can serve, encourage, and challenge, and who will serve, encourage, and challenge him back. No one, even Rob Bell is beyond the need for community in terms of coming to maturity in Jesus.
  2. I also hope he continues to creatively teach people about Jesus. I have been personally encouraged and challenged by a number of Mp3’s and conference sermons from him in the past. I hope to continue to benefit from those.
  3. I would love to see Rob Bell write a book that is not founded and marketed on controversy, but is founded on solid and substantive theology and exegesis. He clearly has it in him, someone just needs to show him how to create footnotes to cite his work. 🙂

Some of you may be wondering, why does it matter what you want him to do? Honestly, it doesn’t. What this event does bring up is something of a much more personal nature as someone who is committed to the local church.

The question I am forced to ask myself is: What would I do if I had this same opportunity? (don’t laugh) If I was financially secure (due to book sales or anything else), would I continue to do ministry in the local church? Would I persevere through the difficult seasons and challenging people? Or would I head for greener pastures trading in the complexities and headaches of ministry for something more attractive and potentially less challenging? Devin Vaughn asks me these kinds of hypothetical questions ALL THE TIME. “If Deschutes Brewery offered you 150,000 dollars to come brew for them, would you give up ministry?” (As you can see, his hypotheticals rarely resemble reality). But he’s looking for my bottom dollar. He’s essentially asking, “How committed are you to this thing? How much do you believe in it?”

I would like to say that I would trust that Jesus is right; that His body comprised of odd-balls, sinners, addicts, children, saints and all the rest is worth investing and rooting myself in. I also know that I don’t always feel this way. Ask me this question on a Sunday afternoon after a particularly humbling morning, or after a particularly frustrating interaction and I may quite a different disposition (ask my wife).

But we do need to ask ourselves the question: Is participating in the local expression of church ‘worth it’? If we are seeking to be people who are growing in love, forgiveness, compassion, patience, kindness, etc. is there a context more fitted to do that than the local church? If everyone has a price, what is yours? When does church become too “hard” to be worth it? Or when does something else become too attractive to stick around? These are hard questions, but they’re helpful in gauging our own level of commitment to Jesus and His family. And if for nothing else, I believe these kinds of questions are worth another tiresome article on Rob Bell.

Should We Always Strive to Be Authentic?

Authenticity has been a buzz word in church circles for the last 10 years (at least?). It is one of the most sought after and prized “virtues” in the Christian community. Are you being authentic? Are you being true to yourself? Are you being genuine?

I understand the drive to increased authenticity in the church. This clearly comes from a reaction against the phoniness that we’ve felt and experienced in our past church experiences. People get dressed up, they put on a smile, the answer to “how are you doing?” is always “GREAT!”, etc. WIth a tiny bit of intuition and a small period of time, it’s easy to know when people are being phony. And life is simply too short to be a part of a church where people fake their way through life.

Therefore, to strive for more honesty among fellow Christ-followers makes sense. But in our quest to be authentic at all times, it’s not long before you’ve got to ask the question: “What if your authentic self sucks?” Or “Is it always helpful for you or for others to be authentic?” If in this present moment I’m genuinely a very greedy or lustful, or _________________ person, what good does it do me to embrace authenticity?

First, I have concluded that there are times when it is not healthy for you to be authentic with yourself. Generally speaking, simply camping out on how you feel gets you nowhere, but usually leads you deeper into the rut of whatever that feeling may be.

For instance, in the church context what do you do when you don’t feel like worshipping? What many people do is they simply “be authentic” to how they feel. They sit down and don’t make any kind of effort to do anything that their “self” doesn’t feel like doing. I don’t feel like standing, so I’m not going to stand. Maybe next week if I feel like singing praises to God, I will. If not, I won’t. And that is often admired as a virtuous act of the genuine self.

But is that the best thing for you? (or others?). I’ve come to conclude that it is not helpful for either. In fact, in scripture we get a much different sense when people don’t feel like worshiping. For instance, David in Psalm 103 infers that he may have been in a place of not feeling like worship.

But rather he preaches to the inmost depths of his being trying to stir himself up, to invigorate him to worship:

1 Praise the LORD, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the LORD, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—

He’s literally talking to himself, commanding himself to praise the Lord. How does that happen? By not forgetting his benefits. And then he goes on to recount all of the benefits of God’s loyal love. And in this way, he initially is listening to what his heart is saying. Presumably that is “I don’t feel like praising God.” But he does more than just listen and accept what his “self” is telling him. He actually goes the next step and preaches truth to his inmost being. He is telling it, “This is why you should feel like praising God.” He’s contemplating on God’s covenant love (specifically what that love tangibly cost) UNTIL he feels like praising God. We however tend to make the mistake of waiting it out, or rather anticipating that someday in the near future we may feel like worshiping God again. But there is another way that the Psalmist models for us beautifully. Should you be genuine with yourself and listen to what your heart is telling you? Yes, absolutely. Should you stay there until it changes? Definitely not. You can actually change how you feel.

Second, there are times when it is not healthy or helpful for OTHERS for you to be authentic

For some authenticity has become an excuse to air their grievances with humanity, with the church, and with themselves with no restraint and in a way that is hurtful, vindictive, selfish, and obnoxious. They come and puke up everything they’re feeling and leave the rest of the community sitting around smelling the vomit on the ground (metaphorically speaking of course!). They are slaves to the whims of their feelings and thoughts and show no restraint or thoughtfulness to what may be inappropriate in regard to context or relationship.

I have known people who have simply taken it for granted that it is always best to be honest about what they’re thinking and feeling EVEN when it is hurtful to other people. Their philosophy is,“Shouldn’t I be able to be honest with Christian brothers and sisters even if it’s hurtful or blunt? Shouldn’t they simply understand and have to forgive me?”

The simple answer is “No, you cannot.” I cannot even begin to understand how such a self-centered and narcissistic view has any merit in the body of Christ. It’s the attitude (thankfully not all that common) that I should be able to be myself and everyone just has to deal with it. I can assure you that there is nothing healthy or helpful about this approach (for yourself or for others).

In his letters to the church, Paul uses strong words in regard to your actions like “restrain, abstain, repent, correct, rebuke, etc.” Those are not words that are anything close to synonymous with “just be yourself, everyone has to deal with it.” No, Paul assumes that there are times when you being yourself is the worst possible decision in terms of other’s edification. And in those cases we must give up our right “to be ourselves” FOR the sake of others. (read 1 Corinthians for an entire test case of this).

Sometimes, out of discipline, you simply have to strive to be better than your current-self. The question of course is, when is it best to be transparent and when is it best to show restraint?

I think the answer to that is found in the nature of the relationship. Not all relationships are meant to be in the category of “intimate”. Intimate relationships are reserved for those few, close, meaningful relationships that you have with 1-3 other people including a spouse. The fact is, not everyone needs to or even should know everything about you. That is not healthy for you or anyone else. Unfortunately, in the past the church has given the impression that if a relationship isn’t moving toward intimacy, then it is failing. That simply isn’t true. (You can read further about that in The Search to Belong by Joe Myers.) Coupled with “authenticity” being one of our generations greatest virtues, the myth that all relationships should be intimate drive us to give more details about ourselves to others than are healthy or profitable.

A few questions to ponder as you wonder what is appropriate to disclose:

  • Will this be helpful to those who aren’t quite as far along in the journey of life as I am?
  • Is this going to be something that I regret or am ashamed of?
  • What is my motivation for talking about this? Am I simply venting or vomiting?
  • Am I talking about this struggle because it has become part of my identity?
  • Should I share this with trusted friends first?

Do I want to revert back to a state of peer-plasticity? No, of course not. In the church community at large I want to be as honest as I can allowing that it is beneficial to myself and to others. There are no cut and dry rules for this. It takes maturity and wisdom to understand when your authenticity is helpful, and when it is not. Many frustrations and feelings I reserve for those few who know me the best so they can lovingly guide, support, and even correct me. The wisdom of course comes in knowing the difference between what is healthy and beneficial and what is not.

This is a wisdom that we learn in community. What this means of course is that we will get to practice forbearing with people who have overstepped what is healthy and profitable in terms of genuineness and allowing others to do likewise for our own misjudgment.

[The truth is, it is possible to be authentic, or true to myself in the church community without being a distraction or a hindrance to other people. And so this article is a response not so much to the pull to be authentic, but to the misunderstanding and misappropriation of the act itself.]