January 25, 2005
A little fraternal correction

I must admit that after I read Telford's new FAQ, my first thought was, "Well, whoever wrote that to him probably won't be any more satisfied than I was when I asked him those questions." And really, there is no way to attack such a big subject in such a short space. Telford has basically been in the process of answering those questions for me for the last two-and-a-half years. But still, there were a few points I wanted to make that I hope will help open the lines of communication here.

For one thing, you can really tell from the way Telford writes about "our culture" that he's a guy who's spent his life in a blue state. I have no idea where his correspondent was writing from, but if he's off in the Bible belt somewhere, Telford's description of Christianity as a counterculture that calls on you to leave your normal life behind would sound pretty foreign. Moreover, Christianity there might very well be the cop-out position, in the sense that you go along with it because everyone else is doing it. So people don't necessarily ask those questions because they've uncritically accepted liberal secularism. I can think of a few former fundamentalists who've probably asked the same questions coming from the exact opposite place.

Even people who are dyed-in-the-wool secularists don't exactly feel culturally dominant these days. I can tell you from personal experience, a lot of them think the election affirmed the rule of a bunch of Christian theocrats. I don't think that's true, but the point is that equating modern American Christians to those in the first century isn't exactly self-evident to a lot of people.

Second, the whole definition of "religion" thing. That's one of Telford's hobbyhorses, so whenever someone says something about "religion," off he goes. And I understand the point he's making. The way we define the word is pretty strange, including things as different as Islam and Taoism but excluding equally totalizing philosophies like Marxism and Objectivism. But still, I think the idea is not totally illegitimate. When Yahweh tells the Hebrews that "you will worship no other god but me", he's recognizing a category to which he belongs, even if he knows that nothing like him actually exists. When the Israelites identified El and other local gods with Yahweh, when Paul did the same with the Athenians' "unknown god," when the followers of Jesus and of Artemis got into a shouting match outside the temple, they were all recognizing this category, while still identifying only one True God.

Also, if Telford is annoyed because society presents Christianity as one of many options, well, that's because it is one of many options. I mean jeez, Telf opposes infant baptism precisely because he doesn't think people should have no choice about following Jesus. What would the other options be then? Are we just supposed to call them "Jesus" and "other stuff"?

But more to the present instance, I don't think this semantic wangling is really answering the question. If somebody asked, "Why do you think Christianity is the only way to God?" then it would be relevant. But these questions are really along the lines of, "Why do you believe in Christ, out of all the possible things you could believe?" and "Why do you believe in God when there's no evidence he exists?" and so on. I mean, even your totally pluralist Unitarian Christians have to answer those questions. There may be many roads to God, but why choose that road?

Finally, about the goodness of God. Telford, I know you remember how we spent the first, oh, year that we knew each other talking primarily about that question. I expect you remember that I brought it up yet again the last time we talked on the phone. Heck, the first chapter of your next book is about it. So I know you know it's a lot more difficult than your little two-paragraph answer indicates. But probably the most crucial question for your correspondent is, whose God are we talking about here? There are some versions of him out there that you know I would never worship, ever. And let's be honest, some of them come from your own limb of the body of Christ, evangelicaldom.

Like I said, you can't answer this with a nice five-paragraph essay. Ultimately, your answer was a relationship. You answered with all the midnight emails you wrote, the times you prayed over me when I was sick, the way you forgave me for all the times I lost my temper, all without wanting anything in return. If God is love, maybe that's the only way to explain who he is.

Posted by Camassia at January 25, 2005 08:03 PM | TrackBack

Count me among the red-state Christians who have to look hard to find instances of countercultural Christianity nearby.

As for "religion", I don't know if you've stopped by my fledgling blog lately, but I wrote a little about this recently. I agree with the rationale behind Telford's discomfort with "religion" per se. I've used it before to explain why I reject both the notion that religions are really saying the same thing *and* any kind of Christian triumphalism. (In other words, I think its wrongheaded to reduce religions to certain universally-valid doctrinal categories for analysis and critique, as you often find in apologetics.)

However, there's also a sense I want to reclaim "religion" because it tends to connote those things (liturgical and missional practices, historical identity and particular notions of authority) that help keep Christian faith from becoming merely one among many religious options for private consumption.

Posted by: Andy on January 26, 2005 06:43 AM

I think that any "Christianity" that dovetails neatly with *any* culture, may be "religion", but it is not discipleship of Christ. So, if you think you're a Christian, but you don't consider yourself a "counterculture person", you are probably misunderstanding either your culture, or your "religion". By the same token, I think it is very possible to be "religious", without being a disciple. Most of what constitutes a "religion" for many people is simply going through some standard set of prescribed motions in the company of others.

Posted by: Rob on January 26, 2005 09:20 AM

Actually Andy, I did read your post and thought of it after I posted this. But I think we're talking about different quibbles with the word "religion" here. I think the way you were using it (and the way Rob seems to be using it) refers to its institutional nature, the idea that following Christ entails participating in a community with certain rules, practices and traditions. Telford doesn't have a problem with that; his difficulty with the word is with the idea of Christianity belonging to a category of things that are fundamentally like it. I know why he does, because it's true there's been a trend in Western culture to see all religions as cultural variants of the same thing, the way different regions have different cuisines because of the locally available foodstuffs. I think he's right to object to that, but I wouldn't assume everyone who uses the word "religion" is thinking that way.

However, I do suspect Telford has picked up a bit of the anti-intellectualism you mentioned in your post. It's weird, because he's a totally intellectual guy and gives his students notoriously hard reading assignments, but I noticed when the Internet Monk asked him about Pentecostal anti-intellectualism, he basically answered, "Who wants to be an 'intellectual' anyway?" So he doesn't want his church to be intellectual, but he wants everyone to read Newbigen, Barth, Yoder and Wittgenstein. But anyway, that's another subject -- I think I've given him a hard enough time as it is!

Posted by: Camassia on January 26, 2005 09:36 AM

I think there's a division among Christians between those who think that (to simplify tremendously) there is a radical break between "nature" and "grace" and those who don't. People like T.W., Hauerwas and Yoder want to emphasize the Gospel's distinctiveness from all other religions and especially the distinctiveness of Jesus' ethic.

Others (Aquinas, C.S. Lewis) tend to see Christianity as the completion of something that we have hints of in secular philosophy and ethics as well as other religions. That is, those things point us toward the Gospel, but can't take us all the way.

Both views have their strengths and weaknesses I think. The former argue that Jesus represents a radical new way of being in the world that will inevitably be "countercultural" while the latter can argue that God is the creator and sustainer of the world and the structures of society and culture, which will therefore reflect his nature and will, if in a partial and broken way.

Posted by: Lee on January 26, 2005 01:09 PM

"Ultimately, your answer was a relationship."

Isn't that God's answer as well? In the end, it's the relationship that makes the theology and the religion possible, perhaps even attractive at times. But without that underlying relationship, it would just be interesting philosophy and hopefully supportive community.

I can't remember where I read it, but somebody commented that if God wanted us to master a subject, a philosphy, Mary could have written a book. Instead she gave birth to a son -- a fundamentally different way to relate to God.

Posted by: Regina on January 26, 2005 03:04 PM

"Moreover, Christianity there might very well be the cop-out position, in the sense that you go along with it because everyone else is doing it....I can think of a few former fundamentalists who've probably asked the same questions coming from the exact opposite place."

Hehe, you rightly linked me in that sentence. Although I lived all of my 24 years in a blue state, the first 18 of them were in Merced, a town of about ~60k people in the central San Joaquin valley, where it is by and large very conservative.

If you don't mind me offering in this space here, it wasn't exactly because "everybody else was doing it" that my fundamentalism was a cop-out, although it was very much one of the main reasons.

I was born into the Nazarene denomination as a third generation Nazarene and stayed at a Nazarene church from my birth till around 12 or 13 years of age. Something weird was going on at that church in the early 90's, and my parents felt compelled to leave. They ended up at a "non-denominational" church just a block away that was about two or three times the size, complete with two services ("traditional" for the older folks, and "contemporary" for us hoppin' youngin's) and a media production center for the different musical dramas they put on throughout the year. While I wasn't really involved in the church until my last couple years of living in Merced, some of life's struggles with a high school romance shook things up enough for me that my response was to cling to my church and try to find meaning there.

The only problem with trying to find steady ground at such a church was that none existed; the church's theology wavered with whoever was the pastor at the time, and even then, it would go from what seemed liturgical to full-on Pentacostal/charismatic hootin', hollerin', being "slain in the spirit," "holy laughter," and all sorts of other things that accompany the presence of what they called "prophetic speakers." They've since stopped bringing in such speakers to the best of my knowledge, but it sure was an interesting ride at the time.

My parents, while I would consider them fundamentalists now, were and still are somewhat just lazy at it, if that makes any sense. They were also lazy parents in other ways beyond just being equal bread winners. They worked hard in their jobs and had (and still have) good careers, but whenever they came home, there never really was any real quality family time together. My parents just wanted to eat and then watch a little bit of TV before going to bed.

I guess what happened is that because of this direction my parents leaned, and the fact that they were also somewhat lazy in their fundamentalism (but enough that it was the only thing that I knew), I inevitably found what I was looking for in the local "Family Christian Bookstore" or Berean or whatever they're called. You know, the potpourri-smelling stores where nice people work at them with only Christian music on the shelves and Christian fiction and Christian non-fiction in their appropriate sections. I don't necessarily have anything against these stores fundamentally, but it seems like they're just overflowing with horrible and harmful theologies on their shelves.

I know I'm being very wordy here, but what happened was that I found what I was looking for in the so-called "Christian" marketplace. What billed itself as some sort of "clean alternative" to the world was actually not very Christian, or at least not very helpful in turning me into somebody who wasn't monstrously judgemental. I only listened to "Christian" music (even got rid of my Braveheart soundtrack because I thought that an instrumental without words in it that mentioned "Jesus" was a "secular blackhole"). I only read "Christian" fiction and non-fiction -- namely, the stuff on the bestseller list in the bookstores that was sensationalist stuff, like the Left Behind series and stuff by Hal Lindsey (at the time, The Apocalypse Code totally rocked my socks off, even though I don't believe a word of that stuff anymore).

One of the things that fueled my fundamentalism more than anything, though, was my discovery of a certain fundamentalist evanglical named Dr. Kent Hovind. He has a 7-tape, 14-hour long seminar on why you need to believe in his version of creation as a 6-day literal concept and why you need to reject evolution because it is somehow inherently atheistic. I've already expressed my aversion to this whole topic these days here on your blog and in the comment section of Icthus, so I really don't need to go any further on this subject, except to say that Kent Hovind's rhetoric was probably the most "convincing" and guiding force for me at the time that not only turned me into a prophecy conspiracy nut, but also into a very judgemental person.

What I found is that most of the other Christians I knew at the time in my church, as well as my parents, actually didn't know about all the specifics of all these debates, but the ground was so fertile for accepting this kind of fundamentalism that when I explained it to my parents or my friends at church, they just ate it up.

I can't quite place my finger on what exactly it is, but there's something about that kind of fertile soil that convinces people that this kind of sensationalist, judgemental brand of Christianity is the best way to go. It sells really well on the bookshelves in these Christian bookstores and is the kind of thing that elicits confirming, yet suspicious nods from my fellow church-goers in my small town.

While I don't really have any friends anymore in my hometown since leaving for college, I do have an slowly increasing fear for Merced and my parents' home church and their involvement with the future of that town: The tenth University of California campus is being built just around the corner from my house, and there are plans to expand that church to be "ready" for the influx of new people to that town.

It's bad enough that I already feel just about completely helpless when I attend my parents church as it is, but hearing all the plans that they have for "expanding with the town" is just downright discouraging, especially when I am quite familiar with the kind of harmful spiritual groundwork they're attempting to lay.

I know I will do a poor job of tying this together here, but I think that the "cop-out" in my case was lazily buying into what the "Christian marketplace" had to offer. In billing itself as a "clean" and "healthy" version of the "secular" world out there, all it was really doing was re-packaging free-market consumerism with a big "God" stamp of approval. Instead of looking for the most faithful music and books in these bookstores, I always looked for the loudest and best-selling of them all. These pretty much always tended to be the super sensationalist products of fundamentalism, intolerance, and even hatred.

I guess my real cop-out was that I let Zondervan, Forefront records, Tyndale House Publishers, and any other self-proclaimed "Christian" label/publishing house become my intermediary to Christ. I let others do all the discerning for me, because as long as it mentioned "Jesus" a few times in it and sold a few million copies, then the marketplace surely couldn't be wrong, could it?!

My analysis of all this could very well be wrong, but for whatever it's worth, it's one of the reasons why whenever something "new and popular" comes out of the woodwork of the "Christian" pop culture/marketplace, I'm always super hesitant and critical of it because I know what such blind acceptance of things has done to me in the past. I hope I don't sound too smug here, but this approach lead me to be rightly critical of the Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose-Driven Life when they made the rounds as the "latest Christian thing."

I guess as Christians, though, we should be always discerning, so maybe I'm just being judgemental right back at such things that destroyed me in the first place. I dunno... it's now getting very late and I've been much too wordy as it is. So now my cop-out is that I'm going to bed! (and more importantly, I should stop hijacking the comments section of your blog!) :)

Posted by: Eric Lee on January 27, 2005 02:16 AM
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