Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I recently finished reading Doug Pagitt's latest book, A Christianity Worth Believing. Like most books by leaders in the emergent church (Brian McLaren, Spencer Burke, etc.), Pagitt challenges his audience to reimagine what the church needs to look like to remain relevant in 21st century society.

Also like his peers, Pagitt never directly answers the questions that he raises, settling instead for sharing stories that illustrate his ideas. While some may find that lack of concrete instructions frustrating, it does have the virtue of encouraging the reader to think without dictating what conclusions one is supposed to reach.

Perhaps most valuably, Burke goes into greater depth than his colleagues have in highlighting the Greek worldview that has underpinned the majority of Christian theology for nearly 2,000 years. So many of the things we assume about God and the universe are based less on what the biblical authors actually said and more on how the Gentile believers of the early church interpreted the Bible in a way that made sense within the worldview they brought with them into the church.

One example of this is our notion of a static and unchanging God who exists outside of time. Though most Christians today regard this idea (which originated with Aristotle) as sacrosanct and any other viewpoint as heretical, the Bible repeatedly portrays God as being far more relational, experiencing the flow of time and even capable of changing his mind.

We have also inherited (from Plato) the dualistic notion that everything physical (the "flesh") is inherently corrupt and that everything spiritual is perfect. Plato is also where we get the idea that Eden was perfect prior to Adam and Eve's sin, when in Genesis 1 God merely refers to his creation as "good." By viewing the world around us as hopelessly bad, we have developed a theology that sees this life merely as something to be endured while we wait for the next life. Meeting the temporal needs of others becomes important only when it serves as a means to a more 'spiritual' end, and taking care of the rest of God's creation matters even less.

In terms of how we understand the physical universe the church has progressed slightly beyond Aristotle, but the propensity within some strains of Christian thought to view everything in strict black-and-white terms bears more resemblance to Isaac Newton's clockwork universe (and Aristotle's static, non-relational God) than it does to the far more complex universe that physicists and astronomers have uncovered since Newton's time.

That's not to suggest that science should trump all other considerations in our theology, but if we are so blind to our own presuppositions that new information is not allowed to inform our understanding of God and how he relates to us, we risk becoming a historical footnote, like medieval doctors who treated their patients with leeches and animal dung.

The "liberal" label is often hurled as an epithet at those who strive to separate their own cultural presuppositions from their interpretation of the Bible. Those doing the name calling insist that the Bible must transcend human culture altogether, or it will be completely irrelevant. Yet the Bible never comes truly alive until we set aside such false dichotomies and stop treating it as though it were a rulebook.

That discovery, however, can only come when we are willing to make an effort to view the Bible through the lenses of those it was originally written for, and then do the hard work of integrating that understanding with our current knowledge of the world around us and with what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us through other means.

The wisdom we gain may not seem as satisfying at first, since it doesn't give us the list of concrete instructions that we crave (both to take control over our own lives and to dictate to those around us). It can even make our lives harder in some ways, as it humbles us by opening our eyes to how little we really know. But it's only through such humility that God can speak to us in ways that are relevant to situations that the authors of the Bible couldn't have imagined.


CrackerLilo said...

A lot of people assume that the Greek paleo-Pagans were a far more free-wheeling and tolerant lot than today's Christians, but anyone who studies that culture with any depth knows how wrong that is. I didn't think of it as influencing today's Christianity, including so many of the parts that have sent people (like me!) fleeing the church. I don't know if this is a book I'll be getting to right away, but it's interesting to know that it exists and to read your review of it anyhow.

CrackerLilo said...

Tag, you're it!