Thursday, November 15, 2007

Not Even In A Big Brown Truck

Fr. Jake’s blog is running a post about the request of Bishop Dabney Smith of Southwest Florida to Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire asking that he decline an invitation to speak at a parish in Southwest Florida. The comments are extensive and for the most part measured, thoughtful, and reasonable. The link to this particular post is http://frjakestopstheworld.blogspot.com/2007/11/bp-robinsons-invitation-to-southwest.html

But that’s not what I want to talk about here. About halfway through the discussion one of the commenters called attention to recent articles concerning two excellent, well known journalists in the secular press who are withdrawing after many years from the “religion beat.” They are Stephen Bates of The Guardian (UK) and William Lobdell of the Los Angeles Times. See these articles; they are very good:
http://www.religiousintelligence.co.uk/news/?NewsID=1009
http://newhumanist.org.uk/1630
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-lostfaith21jul21,0,3530015,full.story?coll=la-home-center
http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2007/11/15/burnout-on-the-god-beat-second-top-religion-writer-calls-it-quits/
Mr. Lobdell’s article in particular I found very disheartening, though I certainly cannot blame him. Mr. Bates has also shown great perception particularly in covering the Church of England, and is the author of A Church At War, which has received good reviews (I haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list).

This brought to my mind my own experience of some fifteen years as a non-stipendiary priest working at a secular position in a public university (after twenty-some years in parish ministry). Most of my colleagues knew that I was a priest, although we didn’t “talk religion” very much, nor should we have in that context. I was amazed, and not a little troubled, by the number of people — good, kind, honest, loving, concerned people — who have “fallen away” from the churches of their youth. I’m not just talking about their discovery that church leaders are sinners just like everyone else. I am, we all are, everyone knows that; most of us try to be honest about it and to repent. That’s not the problem. Most honest people understand about that. The problem is the authoritarianism, the religiosity, the intellectual dishonesty, the moral and financial corruption, the cruelty, the thirst for power and control (I could go on and on) that they had encountered and experienced. Terry on Jake’s blog commented, “Christianity is losing ground not because 'secular' thought is attacking it and winning. It is losing ground because it has lost its moral authority/leadership.” I think that’s right.

If we care about proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ we need to be a lot less afraid to point to things being said and being done out there — including in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion — that are false to the Gospel. I suggest we identify a “Not Even In A Big Brown Truck Society”* and not hesitate to name names. I am NOT suggesting that we stoop to the level of those who attack everyone who disagrees with them with insult and slander. In all things we must be charitable, though also remembering that love is sometimes tough. But in response to the Robertsons, the Dobsons, yes, the Ratzingers, and yes, the Akinolas and the Duncans and the Ikers, we must say, “No, in God’s name, no!”

It’s very popular, even among “progressive” Episcopalians, to dump on Bishop Spong. To be candid, I think a lot of what I have read of Jack Spong is not very thoughtful and sometimes heretical. But I also think we need to recognize that Bishop Spong’s analysis of various “fundamentalist” and authoritarian expressions of religion claiming to be Christianity has given many people hope that there may after all be a place for them in the Body of Christ. He asks a lot of the right questions even when not all his answers are on target. We need to quit picking on him and instead to look for ways he can share more fully in our genuinely evangelical task of proclaiming the Gospel of God’s love.

“Evangelical” has also become something of a dirty word, and we certainly need to reclaim it from the Big Brown Truck Society folks. (Some of whom, alas, are within our own Communion.) The Gospel of Christ simply cannot afford what passes for “evangelical Christianity” these days. But we also need to recognize with gratitude the truly genuine and authentic evangelicalism among relatively conservative protestants — I am thinking, for example, of Jim Wallis and Randal Balmer.

We as the Church are our own worst enemies — and perhaps even God’s worst enemies. We need to stop it.

*The “Not Even In A Big Brown Truck Society”: Those who would not recognize the Gospel of Christ even if Jesus himself were to drive up to their house in a big brown truck and personally deliver it to their front door.

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