COVENANT NETWORK CONFERENCE 2003
“I wish that I had been one of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.” These, alas, are not my words. They are the opening sentence of The Making of Late Antiquity by the great historian Peter Brown, and they begin a paragraph that, of all the paragraphs I have not written, is the one I most wish I had. Brown continues: “These Christian brothers had been walled up in a cave in the middle of the third century, during the pagan persecution of the Emperor Decius (249-51). They were awakened in the early fifth century, in the reign of Decius’ direct successor, the Emperor Theodosius II (408-50), in order to enlighten that most Christian monarch on a point concerning the resurrection of the dead. Imagine their surprise when, on entering the city, they saw the Cross placed above the main gate, heard men freely swearing by the name of Christ, saw a great church and the Christian clergy busy with repairing the walls of the city, and found that the solid silver coins of a pagan emperor caused amazement in the market place. This book is an attempt to enter into their surprise.” (1)
A meditation on surprise is what you get when you ask someone trained in history, as I am, to talk about what anything, including the church, is called to be and to become. Peter Brown and Yogi Berra have probably never appeared quite this close together before, but there is clear resonance between the historian’s attempt to enter into the surprise of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and the baseball catcher’s observation that “the future ain’t what it used to be.” I do not go as far in support of Yogi as the radical critic Alfred Loisy, who one hundred and one years ago famously wrote that Jesus announced the kingdom and what we got was the church(2). But I think there are more theological puzzles than solutions lurking in the theme of this conference. The theme is not generic—What is the church to be and to become?—but personal and specific—The church we are called to be and to become. Is it presumptuous of us to think it’s we who are thus called? How do we recognize a call? There are people who hear God calling in very different tones from those I am familiar with. What is the connection between what the church is and what it is to become?
For starters, do we have any warrant for saying that our account of what the church currently is bears much resemblance to its actual state? It’s a pity that the question about what the meaning of is is will forever be associated with President Clinton’s evasiveness, because it is really a very good question, especially for churches. Can we make productive, non-defensive use of the perspective that outsiders have on us? I was both amused and abashed by a recent Washington Post story about the banning of a United Methodist Church advertisement from the electronic billboard in New York’s Times Square. Because Reuters wants to preserve its reputation as an unbiased source of information, a spokesperson said, the billboard does not carry ads that are “pornographic, political, religious, libelous, misleading, or deceptive.”(3) It is instructive, if unnerving, to learn what rhetorical company we keep in the popular mind. We have some perceived entangling alliances to extricate ourselves from. Actually, the extrication has already begun. I am pleased to report a bit of late-breaking news. The National Council of Churches web site says that the CEO of Reuters has reversed the company’s decision. The head of the United Methodist Communications Office sums up the story: “They took us seriously and have responded in a reasonable and balanced manner.” (4)
I am 10% of the way into my talk, and already I have confused issues more than I have clarified them, and compiled a catalogue of questions that could constitute a semester’s syllabus. At this point we, or at least I, need to take a deep breath and clear the mind. I will say three things that I hope will dispel some fog, then we can proceed.
First, I am more agnostic than many theologians about history’s direction. For me, the jury is out on whether history is a decline from a golden age, a story of progress, a circle, a spiral, or just one damn thing after another. A friend of mine says the bottom line of her faith is that God knows what God is doing whether she believes in it, approves of it, agrees with, or likes it. Calvin would not have put it quite this way, but there are parallels with his conviction about God’s sovereignty. Moreover, even if time’s arrow is moving in a particular, divinely ordained direction, I am suspicious of my, or anyone else’s, claim to be able to trace it definitively. The eschatological tension between “the already” and “the not yet” doesn’t solve anything, because there is such dispute about what that’s going on right now is “already” and what that’s going on right now is “not yet.” I, and many of you in this room, believe that the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson last Sunday is encouraging evidence of an eschatological “already,” but there are many Christians, probably more than there are of us, for whom that event is a sacrilege, definitive evidence of an eschatological “not yet.” Here we have two competing convictions about what the future will be if it ain’t what it used to be. I’m certainly willing to fight hard for my convictions, but my convictions on many things have changed over time (for instance, I am appalled to remember what I used to think God’s opinion of Pentecostals was), and I see no reason to suppose that what I know about God is going to stay put.
So, first, I’m agnostic about history’s direction. Second, I am agnostic about its goal. I certainly find the Messianic Banquet more appealing than the Battle of Armageddon, but I know that the movie Babette’s Feast has a lot less cultural clout these days than the Left Behind novels by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, with their sales in the dozens of millions of copies. I remember somebody once telling me that for a long time she missed the point of the Last Judgment image of separating sheep from goats because she thought goats much nicer animals than sheep. And even if there is a fixed goal, I have the same problem as with the “already” and the “not yet”—I’m suspicious of claims, my own or anyone else’s, to know for sure what it is.
Theology can learn something from the discipline of science. Cosmologist Brian Greene recently said this about how science advances: “I like to say things more than one way. I just think that when it comes to abstract ideas, you need many roads into them. From the scientific point of view, if you stick with one road, I think you really compromise your ability to make breakthroughs. I think that’s really what breakthroughs are about. Everybody’s looking at a problem one way, and you come at it from the back. That different way of getting there somehow reveals things that the other approach didn’t.”(5) Breakthrough by indirection is a better way to a goal than “damn the torpedoes full speed ahead,” especially if you think your chances of being initially mistaken about the goal are good. And maybe the goal is fixed, maybe it isn’t, and if it is, it might not be our responsibility to decide, or even guess, what it is. It could be that the last scene of the historical show will be some sitting on a hilltop enjoying the Messianic Banquet while others engage in the Battle of Armageddon on the field below, like the picknickers who went out to Bull Run to watch the Union and the Confederacy tear into each other.
I don’t want to be taken to be quite so skeptical as I might sound, however. I believe the goal is God, and God is love—but love is really mysterious as well as patient and kind. I believe God can be trusted but not taken for granted. Brian Greene is once again instructive: “The universe,” he says, “in a sense guides us toward truths, because those truths are the things that govern what we see. If we’re all being governed by what we see, we’re all being steered in the same direction. Therefore, the difference between making a breakthrough and not often can be just a small element of perception . . . that puts things together in a different way.”
So, first I’m agnostic about history’s direction; second I’m agnostic about its goal. My third agnosticism is perhaps the most heretical of all, but I have to inform you about it to complete the context for my further reflections. I’m agnostic about the indefectibility of the church. That’s a fancy word you don’t hear every day. To believe in the indefectibility of the church is to believe that God won’t let the church finally go entirely off the rails; it is to take literally Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. But even if the gates of hell won’t prevail, the church could decay from within. I suspect the church could really lose it—and a seminary president friend tells me that Presbyterians have no trouble believing that the church is thoroughly defectible! But even if I were to believe in the church’s indefectibility (which maybe I do; remember, I said agnostic, which means simply that I don’t know), it doesn’t follow that I know for sure where the church God is protecting is—there are places where two or three or two or three hundred or two or three thousand are gathered together in Jesus’ name and I have serious doubts about whether Jesus is there in the midst of them, and there are places where Jesus’ name isn’t spoken at all that I suspect he is. Remember that Jesus warned us (Matthew 25): Our saying “Lord, Lord” doesn’t mean he’ll come running, and chances are good that we won’t recognize him when he shows up.
At this point I imagine you understand why Yogi Berra’s aphorism is so attractive to me; “the future ain’t what it used to be” captures both my agnosticism about the future and my hopes for it. We’re not stuck, but we have no guarantees. We’re in a state where we can take to heart the most ecumenically fruitful words I know, some advice given by Folly in Erasmus’s great encomium to her: She proposes for the smooth functioning of human communities that we “make mistakes together or individually, . . . [and] wisely overlook things.”(6) If the future ain’t what it used to be, then we need not be paralyzed by fear that we might not get it right. We can make mistakes and wisely overlook things without automatically being branded as wishy-washy hypocrites. Maybe history is like what film director Jean-Luc Godard replied when someone said to him, by way of implied rebuke, “Movies should have a beginning, a middle and an end”—“Certainly, but not necessarily in that order.” (7)
The next rhetorical move I make may give you mental or even spiritual whiplash, but even if I don’t know where history is going, I know where this talk is going, so bear with me despite what may seem a derailment.
A few weeks ago I read about a new publication called Revolve. It offers the complete New Testament in a fashion-magazine format, replete with images of stylish, smiling young women, quizzes, and celebrity birthdays, designed to appeal to girls between the ages of 12 and 17. A Nashville 15-year-old voiced a marketer’s dream: “My friends, they don’t like to read the Bible, but once they saw it they were like, ‘I’m going to have to get me one of those.’”
It might seem a stretch from Revolve to pondering the church we are called to be and to become, but the connection was suggested to me in praise the managing editor gave the firm that created the layout: “They’re great because they don’t make things look churchy or Christiany. They have a real fresh perspective on Christian products.”(8)
I wince, as I suspect you do too, at the notion of “Christian products,” but my purpose is not to criticize the merchandising of the gospel. The editor’s distaste for things “churchy” and “Christiany” is instructive, even bracing, and I want to make the case that we are called to be and to become church and Christian, but on the way we should avoid being either “churchy” or “Christiany.”
A friend of mine in her early 20s, when I told her about the editor’s remark, immediately said that when she’s in her car scanning the dial she can tell within the first couple of seconds, just from the quality of the sound, whether it’s a “Christian” station. There’s a cloying earnestness, optimism that pretends to be hope but is really warmed-over American triumphalism, a Jesus-as-cheerleader boosterism that has little resonance in the Bible and most of Christian tradition. Things that are “Christiany” offer us saccharin when we need sugar, and things that are “churchy” make us drag though we’re designed to dance. “Churchy” and “Christiany” certainly don’t inhabit the same rhetorical stable as “pornographic, libelous, misleading, or deceptive”; maybe they don’t even cohabit with Reuters’s other allergy, “political.” But I would not consider myself complimented if someone called me “Christiany” or “churchy.”
I have been privileged through much of my life to hear preaching of the highest order. My father, who was pastor of the same Disciples of Christ congregation in Dallas for 41 years, was among the best-read people I’ve ever known—more novels and poetry than biblical commentary, although he had plenty of that too. My preacher when I was in college was George Buttrick, in graduate school Bill Coffin. And for much of my teaching career, Barrie Shepherd was my pastor. I’m not a preacher, this is not a sermon, but what I have learned from all these mentors is an appreciation for the surprises in the Bible, the places where the word skewers us or comforts us though at first glance it appears to have little or nothing to do with us at all.
And I find much light cast on the question, What is the church we are called to be and to become? by two unlikely passages of Scripture, ones that provide a compelling alternative to a life that is either churchy or Christiany or, God help us, both, and ones that remind us the future ain’t what it used to be. The first, from 1 Samuel, is the story of the last night of the life of King Saul (1 Samuel 28:20-25), before he is killed in battle with the Philistines the next day. The second, from Mark, is about dogs eating crumbs that fall from the table (Mark 7:24-30).
The story of Saul and the woman of Endor is neither Christiany nor churchy, but is a clue to the Christian gospel and to the nature of church. It’s all about hospitality, which is not, I suppose, a sufficient condition for church, but is certainly a necessary one—and I’d say there are times when it in fact suffices. Saul is desperate. The standard ways of consulting God are giving an “unexpected error” message, and there seems to be no way to reboot. Saul asks his aides to find a soothsayer. Imagine the bind this puts them in: Previously they have been ordered by the king to eliminate all such practitioners from the realm, so if they find one, they are admitting they did not do their job. Erasmus’s Folly says “Let’s make mistakes together”; Saul’s aides must wonder whether the boss will see it that way. Saul persists, they take him to the woman, she calls up the shade of Samuel—and then she is terrified, for the masks are down, and she realizes it is the king who is consulting her. She has to think it’s a trap, a sting operation. But Saul grants her immunity.
Then comes a reversal, an upending, an episode of last-shall-be-first and first-last that is resonant with the heart of the gospel. Saul hasn’t eaten all day, and the woman says to him, “I’ve risked my life in speaking to you, now you listen to me”—remember, she’s an outlaw speaking to the king—“I’m going to give you some food and you need to eat it.” He refuses, but the woman and his servants prevail on him, “and,” the text tells us, “they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.” The next day was grim indeed.
The church we are called to be and to become is about this sort of welcome, where rank and status blur, where motives mix and don’t all have to be noble, where happy faces aren’t required, where the tragic is not denied and the comic is appreciated (the scene is actually pretty funny; I can imagine Woody Allen having a field day with it). The bread and wine at the communion table are for those who are really hungry—in any time zone, at any latitude. We have betrayed Christ over and over again—as Peter did when he denied Jesus, as the disciples did when they all forsook him and fled. Still, Christ makes a place for us at the table, for all of us, and says “Eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” The woman of Endor is a type of Christ—and she is neither churchy nor Christiany. And Saul’s future ain’t what it used to be. In outline, to be sure, it is; Samuel told him that God had withdrawn favor, and Saul died as the prophet said he would. But in those last few hours of his life Saul knew the warmth of welcome and the liberation of giving up control—“Now you listen to me,” the woman said, and he listened.
The story from Mark’s Gospel of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman has features similar to those of Saul’s encounter with the woman of Endor. There’s something clandestine. Just as Saul’s cover is blown when he asks the woman to summon up the shade of the prophet Samuel, Jesus enters a house, doesn’t want anyone to know he is there, and “yet,” as Mark tells us, “he could not escape notice.” The Syrophoenician woman hears where he is, comes immediately, and begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus says No, as Saul had initially said to the woman of Endor when she urged him to eat something.
Actually, Jesus’ response is quite harsh, certainly neither churchy nor Christiany: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Those of us who cut bits off our steak to give to our dogs even before we sit down to dinner may not fully appreciate the imagery of “throwing food to the dogs,” but in first-century Palestine the words of Jesus would have had a hard edge, and the woman could have gone off raging, or at least sullen. What she does, though, is beat Jesus at his own game, turning an image of exclusion into one of inclusion: “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
I wish people who ask “What Would Jesus Do?” would pay more attention to this sort of interaction between Jesus and others. He acknowledges the challenge and praises the woman for it: “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” There is no better evidence of the Jewishness of Jesus than this kind of repartee, which is neither churchy nor Christiany. The Jesus we think keeps others out is teasing us to invite them to the table. The breakthrough to true ecumenism is made by this Gentile woman, whose riposte to Jesus is a hinge on which history turns and the future certainly ain’t what it used to be—we might even say that this day of our conference on the church we are called to be and to become is her feast day and that of the woman of Endor.
Here we are at another fork in the road, and I will follow Yogi Berra’s advice, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” We move from Endor and the region of Tyre to Los Angeles and the Academy Awards ceremony.
There is much about that event that is easily forgettable, but I will long remember the story Bill Cosby told when accepting the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award. Cosby characteristically deflected attention from himself, and paid homage to Fred Rogers. On January 1, Cosby recalled, Art Linkletter, Rogers, and he rode as marshals at the head of the Rose Parade: “The one thing that I still remember is people waving and saying, ‘Mr. Rogers, welcome to the neighborhood.’” (9)
I consider today the feast day not only of the woman of Endor and the Syrophoenician woman, but also of Fred Rogers, arguably the most influential Presbyterian minister of the 20th century. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is a place where all are welcome, and where fears are acknowledged and not belittled. In 2003, a year full of cultural and political discouragements, the most heartening thing I’ve seen is the overwhelming sense of loss our country felt when Fred Rogers died in late February. People who had probably made fun of him because he was so un-hip, so low-key, so utterly unlike the celebrities who get all the attention, came out of the woodwork in magazines and newspapers and on radio and television to wonder, without apology and without shame, how we are going to get along without him.
Carol Zaleski of Smith College, a regular columnist for The Christian Century, sums up the significance of Fred Rogers in a way that puts him right in the middle of what we are talking about today: “It’s clear,” she writes, “that this gentle and canny minister saw himself as offering through television the biblical hospitality that makes pilgrims and strangers welcome.”(10) And his hospitality is like that of the woman of Endor for Saul, like that of Jesus for the Syrophoenician woman. Zaleski again: “The disciplined, courteous, loving attention which he gave to each person, as a marvel of supreme worth, was what made Fred Rogers a source of endless comfort for his young viewers.” And, we might add, for all of us, young or not. I’m sure it wasn’t just kids shouting “Mr. Rogers, welcome to the neighborhood” on the streets of Pasadena. Fred Rogers was Christian and he loved the church, but he was neither churchy nor Christiany, and I suspect that because he lived among us, the future ain’t what it used to be.
You might appreciate a brief interlude here, to connect the dots. We began 17_ centuries ago, with the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus who woke up 150 years later to find that the future most definitely wasn’t what it used to be. That surprising future was partly good—Christians could practice their faith openly—and partly bad—to keep a shaky empire together, Christian emperors were treating heretics the way pagan emperors had previously treated Christians. I outlined my three agnosticisms that follow from the Sleepers’ surprise and Yogi Berra’s aphorism: history’s direction, history’s goal, and the indefectibility of the church. In face of these agnosticisms, I called to witness Erasmus’s Folly, who says we “must make mistakes together or individually . . . [and] wisely overlook things,” and Jean-Luc Godard, who says a movie “should have a beginning, a middle and an end—but not necessarily in that order.”
I then turned to what, with all my agnosticisms, I am quite sure the church is not called to be and become—that is, churchy and Christiany. To illustrate non-churchy and non-Christiany ways of being and becoming church, we heard the stories of Saul and the woman of Endor, Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, and Fred Rogers and the neighborhood.
Now I want to make a point that you may find initially weird, but I hope to persuade you that it makes sense. In fact, I want to take back something I said near the beginning—that “there are more theological puzzles than solutions lurking in the theme of this conference.” Often when people reveal their agnosticisms, they then tell you how they get around them so as to maintain some semblance of belief, some connection to the tradition, if only hanging on by fingernails. But my agnosticisms are not something I need to circumvent or subvert; I go right into them, in fact, and they are my clue to the church we are called to be and to become—the puzzle is the solution.
I second the motion of Justin Martyr, who in the middle of the second century said that Socrates was a Christian, because I want to claim as a Christian theological principle Socrates’s admission, “The one thing I know is that I know nothing.”(11) If, thank God, the future ain’t what it used to be, then my uncertainty about history’s direction and goal, and my sneaking suspicion that the church could go wrong, provide a resilient grounding for confidence, for hope, and for hospitality. Most important, Socrates helps spring open the box in which we would try to lock the God of surprises. To some observers of the church it might appear that a robust, unquestioning faith—“The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it”—is the ideal toward which Christians should strive, and my effort to justify my less sure faith could seem a desperate rearguard action by a spiritual weakling who just can’t manage a no-loose-ends conviction and a no-second-thoughts commitment. But I am not talking about a second-best way of being and becoming church. To borrow a phrase that the Apostle Paul uses in another context, I think it is actually a more excellent way.
A few paragraphs back I quoted cosmologist Brian Greene, and I want to reiterate what he said about the way science moves forward by indirection: “From the scientific point of view, if you stick with one road, I think you really compromise your ability to make breakthroughs.” Notice that you don’t go outside the system to survey it from some detached distance. Greene’s prescription for scientific advance implicitly acknowledges the fundamental truth of Gödel’s theorem, that any logical system contains propositions that cannot be proven true or false by the axioms of that system. In other words, you have to try out different roads and see where you go; there is no complete map to guide you. We’re like Lewis and Clark; we can’t click on Mapquest.
The Christian tradition is full of stories of people trying what Greene calls “different ways of getting there.” Narrow “faithfulness” of the “I have a hammerlock on the truth and to hell with you” sort is out of phase with the tradition through time—the tradition that includes Peter and Paul, Justin and Tertullian, Origen and Augustine, Bernard and Abelard, Luther and Erasmus, Tillich and Barth, and of course all the women, both those dead and those alive, whose voices we are now hearing as never before. And faithfulness through time, through the past that is in fact many futures that weren’t what they used to be, has implications, one theological and one both ecclesiological and anthropological.
First, the theological implication of faithfulness. God is out ahead of the church—that is, God is already at work in the world, and one of the church’s responsibilities is to discover where God is acting. The Bible is not a blueprint for the world, but a set of clues suggesting where to look, and the clues can go out of date. The church is as susceptible as is the academy to what F. M. Cornford a century ago called “The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent”: “Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.”(12) The church is not a fortress, from which Christians who have God all figured out take God to the world that doesn’t know God. Every theology is of a particular kind: There’s not some generic “theology” over against which particular theologies, for example feminist or liberation or narrative, are judged. Theology really is the search for God, not the delivery of God. The Spirit that we are promised will lead us into the truth operates within a historical indeterminacy like that of Gödel’s theorem in mathematics—we can find the truth, the future that ain’t what it used to be, only by exploration, by trying things out, by taking roads less traveled, by making mistakes individually and together and wisely overlooking things.
The ecclesiological and anthropological implication of faithfulness is grounded in the conviction that the communal body of Christ is real, and even primary for Christian identity. From this it follows that none of us is entirely responsible for the whole faith. The church is a place where my own ups and downs—some days my faith is hot, some days cold, and usually it’s somewhere in between warm and cool—are understood to be perfectly natural and faithful. Dark nights of the soul are of the soul. The church, recognizing that we are all moving targets, has a place for Peter who denied Jesus and became the first pope, for all the disciples who forsook Jesus and fled and then turned the world upside down, for the father who cried to Jesus “I believe, help my unbelief,” for those who on the mount of the Ascension, according to Matthew 28:17, doubted what they were seeing with their own eyes. The church we are called to be and to become remembers that Job’s “comforters,” who mouthed all the conventional theological platitudes, provoked God’s wrath.
There may be people for whom the faith once delivered to them has remained unchanged and unchanging, but I am pretty sure that such strict adherence to the principle of the dangerous precedent is not characteristic of the church we are called to be and to become. A grand old hymn says we’re standing on the promises of God, but I don’t think that gets the image right. The promises of God are more like a springboard, or like the wardrobe through which the Pevensy children enter Narnia. Some Christians say that Jesus’ claim to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life shuts doors. The chorus at the end of W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being comes at it, as Brian Greene would say, “from the back” and sees it differently—indeed, opens the door:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
The church we are called to be and to become is, I believe, a place where we will see rare beasts and have unique adventures. And it is a place where we will do these things together. I come, finally, to what I consider the most persuasive answer to the question posed by this conference. The church we are called to be and to become is a place where we tell our stories and listen carefully to those of others, where we all, as Carol Zaleski says Fred Rogers did, give “disciplined, courteous, loving attention to each person, as a marvel of supreme worth.”
When I was first studying the Bible, more than forty years ago, Martin Noth’s theory about the organization of ancient Israel, and hence about the formation of the Pentateuch, was all the rage. As with most scholarly fashions, its fifteen minutes of fame is long past, but his speculation is useful as a model for the church. According to Noth, the various pieces of the story of Israel’s formation—the promise to the patriarchs, the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, the wilderness wandering, the conquest of Canaan—were not originally all experienced by the same groups. But when, in a variety of ways and over a stretch of time, the tribes found their way into Canaan, they formed a league of a sort known at Delphi in Greece, called an amphictyony (“those who dwell around”), and gathered annually to recite their various stories to each other. Eventually the narratives wove together in such a way that members of a tribe who had not taken part in the Exodus could say, with conviction, “we were there when the waters parted.” Everybody’s story became part of everybody’s story.
Two recent documents offer most persuasive accounts of storytelling as a way for the church to be what it is called to become. Last month Jack Rogers spoke to the Covenant Network Northwest Regional Conference on “How I Changed My Mind on Homosexuality.” Everyone who knows Jack knows how careful a thinker he is, so there can be no suspicion that his movement is quixotic or a bending to some shifting cultural wind. And the first influence he points to is getting to know people: “I have known many homosexual people as colleagues and friends. In every instance these were people who did not fit any of the stereotypes of gays as lustful, idolatrous trouble makers. They were uniformly normal, deeply Christian, and desirous of helping the church to be its best self.”(14)
And Barbara Brown Taylor, in a stunning essay in The Christian Century called “Where the Bible leads me,” makes the same point. “I do not have a position on homosexuality. What I have, instead, is a life. I have a history, in which many people have played vital parts. When I am presented with the issue of homosexuality, I experience temporary blindness. Something like scales fall over my eyes, because I cannot visualize an issue. Instead, I visualize the homeroom teacher who seemed actually to care whether I showed up at school or not. I see the priest who taught me everything I know about priesthood, and the professor who roasted whole chickens for me when my food money ran out before the end of the month. I see the faces of dozens of young men who died of AIDS, but not before they had shown me how brightly they could burn with nothing left but the love of God to live on. . . . Other people have other stories, I know, but these are the stories that have given me my sight. To reduce them to a position seems irreverent somehow, like operating on someone’s body without looking him in the face.”(15)
That’s the key: Looking people in the face. And when you see the image of God there, you then carry what you now know back to your reading of the Bible—that is, you come at the Bible from the back, as it were, and things are revealed that your earlier approach blinded you to. Both Jack Rogers and Barbara Brown Taylor testify to the way the Bible itself becomes an agent of a future that ain’t what it used to be. Here is Rogers: “I often said that I could not change my negative attitude toward homosexuality unless I was convinced by Scripture. I have now been convinced. I had to learn to be consistent in a gracious interpretation of Scripture, not just for myself, but for all people. I should not treat individual verses as universal laws, but understand them, as Calvin recommended, in their historical and cultural context. I had to learn to apply the perspective of Jesus’ life and ministry in interpreting Scripture.”
And here is Taylor: “I love the Bible. I have spent more than half of my life reading it, studying it, teaching and preaching it. While I do not find every word of it as inspiring (or inspired) as some of my fellow Christians do, I encounter God in it reliably enough to commit myself on a daily basis to practicing the core teachings of both testaments. When I do this, however, a peculiar thing happens. As I practice what I learn in the Bible, the Bible turns its back on me. Like some parent intent on my getting my own place, the Bible won’t let me set up house in its pages. It gives me a kiss and boots me into the world, promising me that I have everything I need to find God not only on the page but also in the flesh. Whether I am reading Torah or the Gospels, the written word keeps evicting me, to go embody the word by living in peace and justice with my neighbors on this earth, whatever amount of confrontation, struggle, recognition and surrender that may involve.”
What Jack Rogers and Barbara Brown Taylor have learned is that the Bible is neither a Cliff’s Notes for life’s syllabus nor a crib sheet for life’s exam. If the Word of God is living, it’s alive, which means its future ain’t what it used to be. As Cardinal Newman used to say, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”(16) Thank God the Word is alive; otherwise we’d still be justifying slavery, we’d still be requiring women to be silent in church — I could not respect, much less worship, a God who would not want us to hear Jana Childers [professor of homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary, preacher at the previous evening’s worship service in the Covenant Conference] — we’d still be declaring suicides like my father eternally lost, divorced and remarried people like me adulterers. Jack Rogers, taking his cue from the history of futures that weren’t what they used to be, declares, “When we finally accept Christian homosexual persons as full members of the church, as we will, we will be wonderfully blessed.” I, too, believe that we will, but we are called to be that church if we are to become that church. A dear lesbian friend of mine, at whose party celebrating her and her partner’s twenty years together I was privileged to pray, wrote to me recently: “It’s true that many of us are willing to risk our lives on our loves. I do too I guess. Today, I have come to a crossroads where I feel my faith is very deep but the practice of it is almost annoying. That may sound very conceited, and I would only dare to whisper those words to you. Still, I love the music, and I love the ceremony . . . but not necessarily the coffee. Today, I find that I am all faith, no religion.” The church we are called to be and to become includes the coffee, and is a place where Robyn and Ann can find resonance between their faith and religion, for their sake and that of their daughters, and for the sake of all of us.
Being the church and becoming the church takes practice. Some Christians at one extreme think the church’s job is to follow the score note for note, adhering meticulously to all the dynamic marks. Some Christians at the other extreme think the church’s assignment is to play aleatory music, “in which elements traditionally determined by the composer are determined either by a process of random selection chosen by the composer [e.g., throwing dice] or by the exercise of choice by the performer.” (17) Those of us in the middle, where the Covenant Network lives, are devotees of theological jazz, where you have to know everything you can, and practice tirelessly, in order to go, together, where no one has gone before. The church we are called to be and to become is a jam session. Indeed, while Covenant Network is a good descriptive name, it lacks a certain zing. Maybe you should reconstitute as a jazz combo and call yourselves “The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.”
A friend told me that the best homily he ever heard was a single sentence, following a set of readings about God’s care for all that God has made. The homily was this question, nothing more: “And what part of all don’t you understand?” At a bare minimum, the church we are called to be and to become is one in which we understand all parts of all, where we are church and Christian, not Christiany and churchy, but hospitable, attentive to one another’s stories, and willing to make mistakes and allow others to make them too. Invoking saints is not traditional Presbyterian doctrine, but I conclude by asking the woman of Endor, the Syrophoenician woman, and Fred Rogers to pray for all of us and for all God’s children, everywhere and always, that we will see rare beasts and have unique adventures, and that we will all come, together, to a great city that has expected our return for years. The future ain’t what it used to be:
Thanks be to God.
Patrick Henry is author of The Ironic Christian’s Companion: Finding the Marks of God’s Grace in the World (1999; paper 2000) and editor of Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict (2001; paper 2002), both published by Riverhead Books.
1. Peter Brown, The Making of Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 1.
2. “Jésus annonçait le royaume, et c’est l’Église qui est venue,” L’évangile et l’église (1902 ; 2nd revised and augmented edition, self-published : Bellevue, France, 1903), p. 155. In context, Loisy is actually making an unexceptionable point (though he was excommunicated for it)—that no historical institution could pass the test of remaining in its original state.
3. Story printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 26, 2003, A7.
4 . http://www.ncccusa.org/news/03reutersbillboard2.html.
5. “The Future of String Theory—A Conversation with Brian Greene,” Scientific American, November 2003, pp. 68-73.
6. The Praise of Folly, trans. John P. Dolan, in The Essential Erasmus (New York: New American Library, 1964), p. 113.
7. Cited by Richard Corliss in Cinema section of Time, September 14, 1981, 90.
8. Religion News Service article, “Bible given fashion makeover to lure teen girls,” by Alexandra Alter, Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 30, 2003.
9. Associated Press story, at http://entertainment.msn.com/news/article.aspx?news=134866.
10. “Mister Rogers,” The Christian Century, April 19, 2003, p. 35.
11. Apology 1.46, in J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337 (London: SPCK, 1960), p. 63.
12. Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician (Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1908), p. 15.
13. For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, “The Flight into Egypt, IV,” in Marvin Halverson, ed., Religious Drama 1 (New York: Living Age Books, 19578), p. 68.
14. Address delivered October 11, 2003
15. The Christian Century, October 18, 2003, p. 59.
16. John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1.1.7 (1845; New York: Image Books, 1960), p. 63.