Monday, February 18, 2008

the problem of wineskins

I've been reading Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (by Rob Bell) for awhile now. I read about a third of it last fall, and then finished it over the last week or so. His writing style drives me nuts at times, but his target audience is probably mostly people in their teens and twenties, so I tried to keep that in mind. But style aside, he has some interesting things to say. I found myself at various different points wanting to wave it around and say, "See, someone else thinks about these things, too!" Particularly when he was talking about inerrancy, although I don't think he ever uses that term. That was the high point of the book for me, since he covers many of the same difficulties in interpreting scripture that I have in this blog. He also pokes holes in many of "sacred" beliefs that turn out to be just part of middle class American culture. For example, he makes the point that he is put off by any political group that would call themselves "Christian" because of the assumption that all Christians will have the same opinions. What if he feels, as a Christian, that the most Christian thing he can do is vote in the exact opposite way? All along these bits, I was nodding my head vigorously, happily.

But I ended up being disappointed. He still seems to come down on the side of mostly conservative Christianity. He never really gets specific about many issues, so it's hard to say. It reminded me of a book by Philip Yancey that I read years ago, Disappointment with God. In both books, the author does a bang-up job of running through all the inconsistencies and difficulties of what happens when Americanized, middle-class-ized Christianity runs up against the wider world, although neither of them phrases it exactly like that. But also in both books, the author ends up defaulting (in my opinion) in favor of staying in a church that would be clearly recognizable as having most of the same flaws that they spent the first half of the book pointing out. The message, in both books, seemed to me to be, "Well, yes, you can argue that the theology of middle-class American Christianity is flawed here, here, here and here; but you know, they're mostly good guys, so let's just keep paddling along in the same boat with them anyway." In other words, let's continue to vigorously evangelize people of other religions, let's feel comfortable condemning the sexual lives of people we know nothing about, let's all vote Republican. I'm exaggerating, of course. And it's more of an exaggeration with Bell than it is with Yancey (although it's been ten years since I read that book, so maybe I shouldn't even say that). But what about those of us who can't do that? Who have proceeded far enough out on the limb that it just doesn't feel right coming back in?

It's exactly the problem of putting new wine in old wineskins. Jesus' use of this analogy is recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). If you put new wine in old wineskins, the old wineskins will burst. It's a common enough metaphor, one that has been used by Christians for centuries in all sorts of contexts. Once you reach the point where your understanding has changed, where your reading of scripture has gone beyond the point of just being further out on the bell curve of the variety of opinions in your church, can you continue to put yourself in the same old container, the same old church, with the same old label? Can you just give in and say, "Oh, well, I'm staying here because....." insert reason here... it's easier than rocking the boat? my family would be so disappointed if I left the church? I really love the people in this church even though I disagree with them?

It's just so damn complicated. Because all of those are the reasons why I still go to a Christian church a couple of times a month, however grudgingly it may be on certain Sundays. Most of the time I don't have a problem with considering myself to be a Christian, as in "a follower of the teachings of Christ" (a definition I first heard in an interview with Bono). But my belief system has become so far out there that I'm pretty sure that if I were to spell out exactly what I believe, most of the Christians I know would say that I'm not Christian. One writer I read last year said he quit going to church when he could no longer say the creeds, since the creeds were (to him, anyway) the essence of what it means to be Christian. It's been years since I could say the creeds, but I'm still going to church.

I guess my question is, at what point are you so far out there that you can no longer participate? You need a new wineskin. I think I'm getting there. Neither Bell nor Yancey has reached this point, I think, since they leave this question almost entirely unaddressed. In the final page of his book, Bell says you have two choices: become bitter and filled with hate and leave the church; or remain hopeful and "reclaim the innocence" of your faith and stay in the church. But of course there are plenty of other options out there, including remain hopeful and reclaim your innocence and leave the church. which is why I was disappointed. I'd like to have some advice here, some input into how one figures this out. But it wasn't in Velvet Elvis.


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