Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hold the Water: Where I Ruminate about the Continued Popularity of Watered-downed Christian Apologists

I like my Christian faith the same way I like my whisky: neat. So don't water it down by explaining away the empty tomb or the virginal conception. Don’t tell me the cross is icky. Of course it is. Don’t tell me that it was just a west wind over the sea of reeds and not the mighty work of God that opened the waters for Moses and the children of Israel. Don’t tell me that the “eye of the needle” in Jesus’ parable was really the name of a narrow gate in Jerusalem that was hard to get a camel through.

Such distancing from the story reminds me of the Congregational minister in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (who turns out to be Owen’s father) who had lost his faith, and makes me wonder if sometimes losing your faith is more blessed than having one not worth keeping.

I was in seminary when Rudolf Bultmann’s de-mythologizing project still had some juice to it, and we were trained to take texts apart so there were just pieces and parts on the table at the end of the process. I remember a little jingle about Bultmann: “Hark the herald angels sing, ‘Bultmann is the latest thing!’ At least they would if he had not, de-mythologized the lot.”

I remember telling that to the organist in my first congregation in rural Maine while we were choosing Christmas hymns to demonstrate my wit, and her eyes got wide as if I had uttered an oath in church. Because I had, so to speak. So if my theological education stripped more and more of the things of my childhood faith away from me, thirty years in the parish gave more and more of them back to me. I came to realize, as Forsyth once said, that the historical critical method is a good servant but a bad master. I believe it all now.

It was not always so. For years I served sophisticated, educated people. They read books and listened to NPR. For years whenever the devil came up in a passage I felt duty bound to say, by way of apology, “Now of course we don’t believe in a literal devil with horns and a tail,” and then one day I realized I was selling the congregation short as people of imagination as well as faith. So I stopped doing it. Let the story be told, and let the Spirit work, and let the people listen and imagine and dream. Those who have ears let them hear.

So I am perplexed by the continuing popularity of Christian apologists who water things down to make them more palatable for contemporary folks. I would rather read Dawkins and Hitchens than Borg and Spong (actually that’s not true, now that I think about it! But you know what I mean.)

At the same time I have had really exemplary Christian lay folks tell me they love these guys. A man I really admire told me in the supermarket that Borg helped him finally make sense of Christian faith (I wanted to tell him it’s not supposed to make sense, but that would have been uncharitable.) Another terrific friend told me Spong had saved his faith. There’s a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit for you.

Another friend who shares my view on this was driving by a Lutheran Church where the sign-board said, “The resurrection is not a metaphor!” He liked that. I like that. So I told him the great story about the time Flannery O’Connor was at a dinner party with the novelist Mary McCarthy, and since O’Connor was a famous Roman Catholic the conversation turned to the eucharist, and McCarthy said something about Holy Communion being so symbolic, and Flannery O’Connor replied, “If it's symbolic, I say the Hell with it.” No water for her.

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