Matt's blog

The story of me, an American in Edinburgh, Scotland finding my place as a musician, a husband, a father and a Christian.


How (Not) to Speak of God pt. 3

Thanks to all of you who have been reading these posts and leaving comments. If you haven't read either of my previous posts on this book, here's the first, and here's the second. Ln, I do plan on writing a bit more about my thoughts on Christianity as a journey, but I'll leave that untill after my last few comments on this book.

The second half of the book recounts ten services held at Ikon, and it is here that I find points to critique. (To be fair, Rollins points out himself that the services at Ikon do not reflect a central ideology and that one likely could not find a regular attender of Ikon, even among the leadership, who agrees with everything that is said and done.) Some of these points are rather important, and some less so, but I feel I would be doing a disservice to the idea of the Emergent conversation if I did not actively engage with the text and offer my two cents, such as they are.

Stories, poetry and parables are often used at Ikon to deepen the immediate personal impact of the topic. Many of the service examples use extended and embellished versions of biblical stories and parables, like many churches across denominational lines use. I feel there is a danger in embellishing the stories found scripture, particularly when the embellishment regards the person of Christ. One of the stories used in an Ikon service speaks of Jesus as having an “intense gaze, a look that never failed to draw you in.” This turn of phrase seems harmless enough, but at its heart if exactly the kind of idolatry Rollins spoke against earlier in his book. A Jesus with an “intense gaze” is a romanticised ideal of a leader dripping charisma, a leader which is easy to follow. I believe it’s Bonhoeffer in Life Together (someone tell me if I’m wrong) who speaks against this conception of Jesus. Bonhoeffer says the reason the fishermen drop their nets and follow Jesus when called is not because of any human charisma, but is because of the authority that flows from his very being. They follow him for no reason other than because he is Jesus. We should not love or follow Jesus because of his “intense gaze” or for any other reason aside from the fact that he is who he is. I believe that notion is more in line with Rollins intentions, but is betrayed by sentimental desire in the service.

At Ikon there are occasionally readings which are not from the Bible but are made to look like they are by a reader holding a Bible but reading or reciting something else. Sometimes this is done to make a ‘positive statement’ in addition to scripture, i.e. to read a complementary source, and sometimes it is done as parody, to read story such as Jesus collecting food from a multitude to feed his disciples to excess while the multitude starves. In both cases the Bible acts as an icon of authority, in the former to add weight to the reading and in the latter to heighten the sense of outrage by contrast. If one sees the Bible as simply a symbol with the connotation of authority, than there is no problem in using it such as a playwright might use a prop to accentuate his meaning. However, if it is more than it must be treated with more respect. I feel that even in a postmodern context the Bible is more than simply a symbol of authority. Even if you were to remove the concept of authority from the Bible, which I’m sure many approaching it from a postmodern perspective would like to do, the Bible still stands as a valuable record of God’s interaction, conversation even, with humanity for generations. As the record of such an important dialogue I feel the Bible should maintain its integrity. Certainly other literary sources can and should be used in our worship, but let the Bible be the Bible and in the same way let the other sources be themselves and stand on their own.

In one Ikon service a story is told of a wise man who asks Jesus for mercy. Jesus touches him with the words, “Your faith has healed you,” and blinds the man. The wise man then rejoices that he has been blinded by the most wonderful vision. I’m not sure if this story comes from anywhere in Christian tradition, but I’m fairly certain it doesn’t come from the Bible. I like maintaining the Bible as the sole source of the life and teachings of Jesus. By speaking of the historical person of Christ only from the scriptures, we limit (but not negate, I’ll readily admit) our ability to make Christ the spokesperson for our own ideologies. In the same way that I feel the Bible shouldn’t be used as a prop, I feel that Jesus shouldn’t be used as a stock character.

Here’s a bonus thought tangentially related to the book. Now, call me old fashioned, but I like the Bible. While scripture may not be the only way of knowing God, I agree with Wesley that it is the primary and normative authority which stands above and judges all other ways of knowing God. In this understanding it is not the scripture itself that has authority, but scripture which is the limited but adequate revelation of God’ will, who is the true authority. Hence, we treat the Bible as authority in order to always remain subject to God. This way of treating the Bible of course hinges on accepting it as the adequate revelation of God’s will. God’s will certainly exceeds the bounds of scripture, as it exceeds the bounds of comprehension, but we trust that God has made known in scripture what needs to be known. It is important to treat the Bible this way because our faith, along with our theology, should never be creative or speculative, but always responsive. Without some source of authority, even if it is one we choose to treat as an authority knowing its limitations, we run the risk of creating our own religion centered on ourselves. Treating the Bible as authority keeps us looking outside of ourselves for spiritual direction. Without this safeguard, religion degrades to humanism and acting spiritual for the sake of acting spiritual.

3 Responses to “How (Not) to Speak of God pt. 3”

  1. # Blogger Anastasia

    very thoughtful. First, I think your observations about the intense gaze as sentimental and romanticizing are dead on. That sort of thing really irks me, but I've never been able to articulate why as clearly as you've done here.

    The one question I have is about scriptural interpretation. That isn't what you're addressing here really and I do agree with you about the stuff mentioned here. Co-opting the bible's authority to present something we've devised because we think it's what? more effective than the biblical parables already contained in scripture? Yikes. Let's just...not.

    back to interpretation. the question of our religion being responsive, not devolving into humanism. I'm right with you. But how do we know that we're really responding to something external? Isn't our interpretation of the bible all we have? we can't escape our own subjectivites, so...which interpretation is normative?  

  2. # Blogger Matt

    No interpretation is normative, it's God himself who's normative. What does that mean when it comes down to the nuts and boolts of doing church? I don't know. I think the Emergent movement is about embracing diversity in opinion in order to find unity in God. They're not going for unity in doctrine, but rather unity in willingness to respond honestly and humbly to God. I think in my concluding post I'll chase out these thoughts a little more.  

  3. # Blogger Jenevieve

    I finally got around to reading this, and just wanted to let you know that I'm glad you put in your thoughts about romanticizing Jesus in the ways you mentioned. As I said before, I occasionally read things that do this, and I never really understood why they bothered me until recently. I know that people make these sort of statements as a sort of artistic rendering of Jesus' nature, but I think it is a dangerous path to follow.

    As a marginally related aside, I read a silly wee novel called *Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal* Last year, and while it was (undoubtedly) heretical, one thing it did not do was suggest that Christ's charisma was what drew people to him. On the contrary, it really focused on the fact that Christ's God-given authority and submission made him compelling. Yes, it was just a silly piece of fiction, but I thought it did a good job on this point.  

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