When Religions Grow Up

If part of growing up is realizing that you can’t realistically expect to get everything you want, what happens to religions when they grow up?

Is it a mark of maturity for a religion that it accepts that not everyone will (or will want to) adhere to it?

I think about Jesus and the rich man — sometimes described as a “rich young ruler” — who asked him what he needed to do to gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). The man walked away from the opportunity, and what did Jesus do? Did Jesus chase the man down, berate him for his stubbornness, or threaten to take his life if he didn’t repent and convert? Not at all. Jesus let him go, and used the event as a teachable moment for his disciples.

When Christianity was in its infancy, still an underground movement, it brought in Jews and Gentiles by way of powerful testimonies and the awesome revelation that God had made a way for people to be saved and changed. Coercion never seemed to come into play, for two reasons. One, because the faith (and the nascent Church) was relatively powerless to coerce anyone to join. Second, and to my thinking more interesting, is because the faith was based on traditional Jewish belief and Judaism, being already a venerable religion, was a mature faith and one that valued being set apart, a small island of monotheistic faith in the ocean of pagan humanity.

As the capital-C Church grew into what I consider its adolescent years, and especially as it obtained official status in the Roman Empire under Constantine, it became much more belligerent. Coercion became more acceptable to church leaders, both as a means to convince people to join and as a means to enforce adherence to doctrine. (We may remember that Judaism’s early days — its adolescence, if you will — also had its coercive phase, when the Jews established themselves as a nation through military victory.)

This leads to the question of Islam, which appears to be a religion still in its adolescence. It went through an adolescent phase before, spreading through coercion and conquest and gaining worldly power that it wanted to protect and expand. Faced with mounting opposition, it retreated into relative isolation; in its recent rise to prominence (or notoriety), however, it seems again to be going through adolescent tantrums, only this time with suicide bombers and AK-47s instead of dervishes and scimitars. The question in my mind is whether Islam as a religion will grow up, will grow out of this petulant and demanding phase, and how long it may take. It seems that it will take the Muslim equivalent of Martin Luther, someone who can initiate an Islamic Reformation, in order for Islam as a religion to mature beyond the need to spread itself by intimidation. That would be a wonder to behold; remember what Luther went through, and think what a Muslim reformer would face.

It also raises the question, to me, of whether the Christian Church is growing old gracefully. It’s one thing for us as Christians to eschew violence (Jesus, you may recall from Matthew 5:38-42, didn’t go in for “eye for an eye”) and to accept that some people will hear the Gospel and remain unmoved. But it would be a shame if we became so “mature,” so insular, so content in the old-folks’-homes of our churches, that we stopped caring about and for the world around us. May it never be.

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What about an Islamic Reformation?

Typing out loud on twitter* this morning before I got into the day’s work — which, I’m doing this before getting into the day’s work, too — I wondered: what is the possibility that Islam might experience a re-thinking of its doctrines equivalent to the Protestant Reformation?

What cleric might have the courage to be the Muslim version of Martin Luther?

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*Follow me at http://twitter.com/GrayRinehart

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What Does Minas Tirith Have to Do With Church?

If you’re not up on your Tolkein, you may not know Minas Tirith from Minas Morgul — trust me, there’s a difference, but time is short and I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that Minas Tirith was the capital of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings; you can read more about it on this Wikipedia page.

With that little bit of background, you might think Minas Tirith would have little to do with church. Ah, my friend, that’s because you haven’t had the pleasure of attending the festival of geekdom that is North Cary Baptist Church, in which our beloved Pastor Mark frequently pulls in all manner of science fiction and fantasy references for our edification.

In his sermon yesterday (referencing Paul’s speech to King Agrippa as recorded in Acts 26), Pastor Mark alluded to Minas Tirith when he said there comes a time to turn the fortress where we might feel safe and secure into a lighthouse, to shine the truth outward. It wasn’t a perfect metaphor, since the beacon at Minas Tirith was lit to announce a danger to the city and call for aid from afar — but that might work, too, because sometimes it’s when we feel most under attack that we shine the brightest.

So, yes: Minas Tirith and the church. Works for me.

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My Science Fiction Church: ST Klingon References

I attend North Cary Baptist Church, and I’m frequently pleased by the large proportion of genre fans in our church. (I even blogged about that in this post.)

Yesterday Pastor Mark started his sermon by explaining that the title of the book of Acts is the Greek word, “praxis,” at which our pianist remarked that Praxis is also the Klingon moon. This prompted the pastor to point out that the Bible is being (or maybe has been) translated into Klingon — is that right, Dr. Schoen? — and to give and receive from many of us the Vulcan salute. And at least one of us (that would have been me) exclaimed “success!” in Klingon.

We have a great church, and you’re welcome to visit any time.

[BREAK, BREAK]

In other news, I passed the 85,000-word mark yesterday in MARE NUBIUM, my novel about an early lunar colony. Still hoping to make 100K, if not finish outright, by the end of the month.

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Not the El Condor Pasa Snail

Yesterday Pastor Mark made the comment that, “It was only by perseverance that the snails reached the ark.” I turned to my lovely bride and said, “That’s why it took 120 years for Noah to build the thing.” 😉

Okay, so it’s not that funny, but it seems as if some of those animals had to come from a long way away….

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They Also Serve Who Sit and Take Notes

At least that’s what I tell myself, because that’s mostly what I do as our Church Clerk. Some meetings I take lots of notes, because there’s a lot of business being conducted, but I like meetings like the one we had tonight: a Special Called Business Meeting to consider the question of extending a call to a Youth Minister candidate.

One question, one main motion to consider. It was downright relaxing.

And nicely concluded: by secret ballot, the vote in favor was unanimous. One member said it was the first time he’d ever seen that happen in the 18 years he’s been a member.

Now, if I could just figure out all the nuances to Robert’s Rules of Order. Maybe I should watch C-SPAN more often.

Then again, maybe not.

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Me, Being Ornery

I usually try not to get dragged into Web-based theological discussions, because they don’t seem to accomplish much and take time away from more enjoyable (and more productive) pursuits, but this week I slipped. I found myself embroiled in a thread on The Ornery American which linked to a video of Richard Dawkins on Bill Maher’s television show. I don’t have QuickTime on my computer, so I haven’t watched the video, but someone posted an excerpt from Dawkins’ book that I found interesting.

In his book, Dawkins printed a letter sent to Albert Einstein by the president of a New Jersey-based historical society. Dawkins wrote that the letter “damningly exposes the weakness of the religious mind,” and that, “Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice.” (Note that you can find all this on the thread on The Ornery American site. But keep in mind that while this post itself is longer than usual, since I quote so much of the thread, the entire thread spans 3 web pages now.)

I quoted that intellectual cowardice bit and wrote, “I reckon I’m not intellectual enough to understand this…”, and the fun began. A couple of people tried to explain it, but frankly I didn’t find their explanations illuminating. So I wrote back,

I think for many of the faithful it’s easier to understand our own struggles with the truth as we know it — through which we continue to believe despite the doubts that may nag us — than to understand the choice to utterly reject it.

We … would do well to remember that “many are called, but few are chosen.” Flannery O’Connor* summed up why: in many cases, “it’s harder to believe than not to.”

I’m only familiar with the Flannery O’Connor quote because it became a Steve Taylor song, but oh, did I get a response:

“Many are called but few are chosen”? If that don’t sound elitist I don’t know what does. I didn’t even get a call much less chosen.

And not just “harder” to believe, but “impossible” to believe. I’ve tried, and how anybody with a brain can “believe” is beyond me. And I know a lot of people that I consider to be very intelligent that claim to believe.

(And in a subsequent post, the same person wrote,)

It’s crazy but people think better of you for having blind unquestioning belief in a being that nobody has ever seen and for which there is not one shred of evidence exists!

Here’s my reply (“KE” and “OR” are shorthand for the handles of two Ornery members):

KE wrote, “for which there is not one shred of evidence.” I disagree. But just as two eyewitnesses can see the same event and report it differently, I do not expect KE or anyone else to draw the same conclusions I have. As for “many are called, but few are chosen” being elitist, I suppose it can be seen that way … though in practice it usually works out as “many are called, but few answer the call,” which seems to be shown in KE’s own experience: he may not feel as if he was called, but from my perspective if he wasn’t called he wouldn’t have tried to believe in anything, at anytime.

OR is right that the excellent observation that “The real test of atheism is ‘do you alter the way you live your life because you think a god exists'” applies equally as a test of whether those of us who profess to be Christians are indeed living the life. For some people, this lies at the root of why they choose not to believe: because believing would require altering the way they live their lives.

This raised the ire of yet another forum member, TomD, who wrote (emphasis in original), “You think so? Can you provide me an example of such a person — someone who would believe, but who doesn’t want to change his lifestyle and thus chooses not to?”

I wrote back,

… I think one example might be the rich young ruler with whom Jesus talked (q.v. Gospel of Mark, chapter 10). He asked Jesus what he had to do, Jesus told him, and he went away sad. Jesus asked him to make a drastic change to his lifestyle, and he wasn’t prepared to do so. (This may not be the best example since he ostensibly believed, but was not willing to put his belief into action.)

Jesus said it was hard to enter the kingdom of God. In many ways I think we make it harder than it has to be.

TomD then wrote, “I should have clarified: can you provide me examples of non-allegorical people?” So I replied,

… I disagree that the rich young ruler is allegorical.

That being said, I’ll offer a more contemporary example: me. When I was young, I rejected everything about the church. I agreed completely with an older friend who, in his first year of college, was asked, “Are you saved?” and responded, “No, I’ve got better things to do with my time.” Accepting what the church taught would have required me to moderate my behavior, and that wasn’t something I was willing to do. (For reference, I took my first drink at 13 and was well into weekend binges by 16.) For me, claiming to be an atheist (which I did, to my mom) was not an intellectual exercise — I don’t have that much intellect to exercise — but outright rebellion.

I am a different person now than I was then. Not perfect, but I think quite a bit better.

TomD wrote in again (emphasis in original), “I’m curious what your response to that question would have been.” So I answered,

My answer to, “Are you saved?” was, “No.” If pressed, I usually followed up with some variant of “And I don’t want to be” or “Leave me alone.”

If you are asking whether I would have said at the time that I was rejecting salvation because I refused to moderate my behavior, I probably wouldn’t have admitted it. I don’t recall ever being asked that question. But if pressed on the point, I imagine I would’ve tried to present any number of arguments to avoid admitting any personal moral shortcomings. Like a criminal faced with the consequences of his crimes, I would have pleaded not guilty even though I was.

Later, I pleaded guilty and threw myself on the mercy of the court. And as I said: I am a different person now than I was then.

That’s where I last left things. I suppose the conversation will continue, but we’ll see.

___
* Spelling corrected in this quote.

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Following as the Spirit Leads

For the last four days I puzzled over what song to sing in church today.* By this morning I’d narrowed it down to four choices:

– “Big Enough” by Chris Rice — “I hope you don’t mind me asking the questions”
– “Trinity” by Jennifer Knapp — “Where do I stand, on the rock or in the sand?”
– “Pray Where You Are” by the Lost Dogs — “In our hopes and fears and struggles, great or small”
– “Beautiful Scandalous Night” by the Lost Dogs — “At the wonderful, tragic, mysterious tree”

I like each one for different reasons; they all speak to me, but I wasn’t sure which one to do. I was leaning away from “Big Enough” because it’s the hardest to play; I need to practice a lot more to get the chord changes. And I wasn’t sure how many people would appreciate the whole of “Pray Where You Are.”

Then, stopped at a traffic light on my way to church this morning, I thought, “I’m a little hungry” … whereupon the song “Hungry” popped into my head: “Hungry I come to you for I know you satisfy.”

I thought, No way. (I didn’t even remember what chords it had in it.)

But when I got to church I figured I had to at least try it, so back in the music room I found it in my notebook and gave it a go. It was rough, and awkward, and I still thought hard about doing “Beautiful Scandalous Night,” but in the end I went through with it and nobody threw anything at me. It helped a lot that Pastor Mark played along on the piano (without any music, of course, the show-off 😉 ).

And all the time I think God was chuckling, pointing at me and saying to the angels, “Look what I made him do.”

___
* I wasn’t asked to sing until Tuesday evening, after choir practice.

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More Books I Want to Read

“So many books, so little time” has been a refrain in my life for years. My Christmas list is full of books, and I barely get through the ones I receive one year before the next set of gift books arrives. (I’d do better if I didn’t go to the library and pick up books from time to time.)

This evening I had a nice chat with John, a friend from church, and he told me about two books from the Barna Group that I added to my “want to read” list. The first is unChristian, and it presents “research into the perceptions of sixteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds” that “reveals that Christians have taken several giant steps backward” in terms of how we come across to nonbelievers. The second is Pagan Christianity, which traces the historical development of the church structure and service to see how different the current church is from the original church. Both of them sound fascinating to me.

In Heaven, after the feast is over, you can find me in the library. 😉

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A Visit to Whateverville

My writing friend James Maxey put up an interesting post on his blog entitled, “Why I’m not afraid of Muslims (or Christians, or Atheists, for that matter).” He uses some interesting statistics to make the point that we need not lose much sleep worrying if the Islamofascist bogeyman is going to strike us in our particular, individual situations.

However, he seems to discount the existence of Islamofascist bogeymen who, I believe, surely intend to strike somewhere, sometime. He admits that

when Muslim fundamentalists get thier fingers into the governance of a country, that country is pretty much screwed. Stonings, beheadings, hand-choppings, and the horrible [degradation] of women become the law of the land … trust me, I don’t want fundamentalist Islam holding any power at all in American politics. I’m deeply grateful for a Constitution that prevents this.

and does a good job of explaining his position vis-a-vis what he perceives as fear-mongering. But I submit that we need to remain vigilant against those whose stated aim is to attack us, and I sleep better knowing the U.S. military is on the alert and on the prowl for, as Jethro Tull put it, “folk out there who’ll do you harm.”

On another note, I was amused to learn that I drive James bonkers. He wrote (emphasis his),

I would much rather live in a nation that’s 50% Christian than 50% Muslim. I’m not trying to make the argument above that [Christians] are dangerous; 39,999 out of 40,000 of them aren’t murderers, after all. I work side by side with Christians. My whole family is Christian other than myself. I like Christians! It’s just thier beliefs that drive me bonkers.

I sent him an e-mail to let him know that my Christian beliefs drive me bonkers sometimes, too. 😀

James is an excellent writer (I highly recommend his novel Bitterwood and look forward to the sequel, Dragonforge), and I appreciate that he’s also a straight shooter. He followed up the passage quoted above with,

But, the beliefs of many of my fellow atheists drive me bonkers as well. Christopher Hitchens, after all, believes in the Muslim threat and supports the Iraq war. A whole lot of atheists I know are also liberals, and seem to drink the kool-aid on every liberal cause that comes down the pike. I know so many who call themselves “freethinkers” who are anything but.

I think the problem a lot of us have is our tendency to adhere to our beliefs and positions without thinking critically about them. And with respect to my beliefs that drive James bonkers, I probably have deeper doubts and ask more questions than is spiritually healthy. But I figure it this way: If faith can’t stand up to scrutiny, and can’t weather the storms of doubt, then what good is it?

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