Why Should I Care About an Ancient Institution and Even More Ancient Book?
I am what some might call a “millennial.” I’m 31 years old. I grew up in the 90s and 00s. I remember Doug, Rugrats, Xanga, and the beginning of Facebook. I graduated from high school with a flip phone and from college with an Iphone. I am the person who churches can’t figure out how to talk to. And yet, I am bought in. I have been part of the Episcopal Church for my entire life. I have been to seminary, I have a Masters of Divinity, and I work in churches. I am of two minds, a foot in two worlds.
One in the institutional church, with committees and Baby Boomers and pledge campaigns and reverence for the clerics and fear about dying. The other is with my friends, my 20 and 30 year old community made up of people who, on the whole, are not bought in, in a good way. In a way that says, “I don’t care about your institution.” In a way that says, “I am going to need a better answer to ‘Why’ than ‘Because that’s how we do it.” In a way that is inviting the institution to evolve, to grow, and to respond to the actual needs of the world, of a new generation, with a new cultural language with which to communicate.
I am torn between these two perspective. On one side, why should a religious tradition that seems to adhere so stringently to a 2000 year old book have anything to teach me? And from the perspective of the institution, why don’t my fellow young people realize that there is something here for us?
Progress and Liberation
There is a common refrain among people who are not involved with any kind of faith community, or are estranged from one, or even those that are part of one: Christianity has become irrelevant. They say the blind morality, based on antiquated teachings, has nothing to offer a fast-paced world of progress and liberation. But even as I write that sentence, my two-sided brain has a hard time computing this idea. What I know, what I have experienced, is that if Christianity is anything, if the Bible teaches anything, if we can know anything about God, it’s that it is all about progress and liberation.
I get it, though. The church, over its 2000+ year history, has caused more suffering than healing. It has contributed to the oppression of people, and stood completely at odds with that liberation it claims to be built on. Many denominations (or non-denominations) are still doing this today. And, to the detriment of Christianity everywhere, Christian churches have done it all while claiming that the foundation for this oppression is found in the Bible.
The Bible, therefore, has become equally frustrating. It was created in a variety of contexts and cultures that are disconnected from our current cultural experience. They require a lot of background information to fully appreciate, not to mention the fact that unless we are reading these books in their original language or translating them ourselves, we are reading someone else’s interpretation right off the bat. There are layers and layers of manuscript transmission, source criticism, textual criticism, interpretation, translation and other such interpretive hurdles to hold simultaneously every time we open that book of many books. And while this might make it seem more and more irrelevant and out of touch with our current reality with every passing moment, I have a deep abiding sense within myself that it actually is doing the opposite. The more hazy and murky and confusing this beautiful, sacred, scary, weird, frustrating book is, the more it lines up with my equally hazy, murky, confusing, beautiful, sacred, scary, weird, and frustrating life.
A Book of Many Books
While we often think of this compilation of texts we call the Bible as a single book, as is constantly reinforced by references to it such as “The Good Book” or “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” it is not and has never been that. This book we call the Bible is a collection of many books, written and edited and curated over thousands of years by who knows how many hundreds of people. Thus we have the common experience of seeing all these contradictions, which make little sense if we think the whole thing is one continuous story written by a single person over the course of history but make a lot of sense if each of these books was written by a different person in different times in different places with different worldviews and different experiences of the world around them and of God.
Not only that, but they aren’t even all the same genre or style of writing. Within the book of many books there is history, poetry, biography, song, wisdom literature, apocalyptic literature, letters, orations, and all kinds of subtle variations on each of these. The Bible is not so much a single book as it is a snapshot of an entire shelf of books in your home, which happen to have all been used by a community of faith over thousands of years and thus have been bound together, but not in order to homogenize them. Just like those books on your shelf, these books are in the Bible because they have resonated truth in a community of faith for long enough that they kept them around, kept reading them, even when they moved, even when the generations turned over, even when the house burned down. They read them on specific occasions, like that summer book you always read on your first day at the beach or the poem you read every time your family gathers for a special occasion.
You see, these books that make up the Bible, and thus the Bible itself, are not true because they have been marked authentic by a high and lofty God with a giant “inerrant” stamp. There is truth in the Bible because it is made up of people telling their own truths about their experiences of God throughout these thousands and thousands of years of history. Yes, we have bound these together and marked them as sacred and holy and authoritative, but this doesn’t mean we stop interpreting them for our current context, in light of our own experience and in light of the interpretation and experiences of those who have come before us. Often, we refer to the Bible as the “living word of God,” but these words are not living if we stop interpreting them. Once they are the set-in-stone, the-Bible-says-it-so-it’s-true words, they are dead. They have no more life to give.
The Christianity that I am talking about, the thing that Jesus taught the people who surrounded him, the very foundation of the scriptures on which Christianity is built, cannot be irrelevant, because it is infinitely adaptable, always transforming and moving into new eras and contexts and times. A Christianity that is irrelevant, that is dead, that has stopped moving forward, that has stopped working for the liberation of the oppressed, is not Christianity. That is some sort of frozen idolatry subtly or not so subtly adding to the oppression from which, at it’s very core, it is supposed to be liberating people.
Jesus was not creating a new set of laws to which he expected everyone for the rest of eternity to adhere. His goal and his mission was to show us how to adapt in any time and context. How to continue to liberate ourselves and those around us. How to be present with our own suffering and the suffering of the world. How to let ourselves be transformed in that suffering, and know that when there is death, large or small, it is not so much the end of something as it is the resurrection of a new thing all together. Life, suffering, death, resurrection, transformation, and new life.
This cycle, this trajectory of our spiritual journey that Jesus taught is not tied to a time or a place or a culture, though Jesus did embody them in a particular time and place and culture, as had all those many prophets and poets and writers before him. What is true is what lies underneath all the particularity. The particularity of time and context and culture are not meant to limit relevance to that one place and time, but is meant to be the window by which we see the eternal through the particularity. We can see that there is something in our humanity that connects us across time and place and culture, there is a universality at play that manifests in particularity, and it is those particularities, each pointing to the universal, that populate this book of many books, this truth of many truths, that is the Bible, that is the foundation of the Christian tradition.
Thus we are meant to continue the exploration of this universal through our particular place and experience and situation. The Bible is the starting point, the faith tradition is a foundation on which to stand, but our experience of life and of God is just as authoritative and true now as it was for those poets and priests and prophets for so many thousands of years before us. The Bible is relevant, Christianity is relevant, God is relevant, because we are relevant. Rather than standing opposed to the witness of scripture, our experiences, our stories, are meant to extend the witness of scripture. We are the books that follow Revelation. We are part of the canon. We are relevant because each one of us is inextricably and inherently linked to the life of the divine, and that can never be irrelevant.
Where Do We Go Now?
If the Christian tradition is founded on and rooted in this book of many books, many peoples, and many truths that extend from the time-before-time all the way to the here-and-now, then its relevance is rooted in us. If there is something in the tradition of Christianity that is irrelevant, that has died, that no longer resonates, then I hope we can bury it, and thus let it grow into something new as well as something ancient. I know that the church has hurt people, but Christianity is not the church, God is not the church. God, and the truths of Christianity, are both much bigger than an institution could ever hold.
The church, at its best, is a window into God’s grace and healing power, God’s co-suffering with the world and attuned response to each and every need. It is not always, and rarely is, any of these things, but it can be. All of this is in the church’s DNA, but the further away these two worlds get — the ancientness of the tradition and the progression of the now — the less and less we are able to respond to the needs of the world. I need both things. I need the progress of our time, but I need it to be rooted in something deep and ancient, to anchor it to a reality and identity that is greater than my individual one, but is still dependent on my experience to stay alive.
There are churches, there are communities, where this is possible, and all we have to do is re-engage. Gently, cautiously, angrily even, but re-engage nonetheless. And that is our invitation to one another, to these two worlds that I live in, to these two worlds that have been tricked into thinking they are different, but yearn for the same thing: Home.
Continue The Conversation
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below and keep the conversation going. And for more from David, check out his new book, The Beautiful Letdown: An Addict’s Theology of Addiction, and other content at www.thebeautifulletdown.com