Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Wider Church On My Bookshelf

Jeff P., host of the upcoming edition of the Christian Reconciliation Carnival, asks a great question:
Have you read articles, essays, or books by a Christian of a denomination other than yours -- and found yourself agreeing with much of what he or she wrote? How has this changed your understanding of the divisions in Christianity?
Because my background is a little different than suggested by the question, I will answer both about writers of denominations other than mine and about what experience most changed my understanding of divisions in Christianity.

The Christian writer that I have loved the most has been J.R.R. Tolkien. Some people value his Christian insights less than other writers because they are presented as fiction. Some see Tolkien's fiction as less Christian than Lewis' because Tolkien was more subtle than Lewis' semi-reenactments of the Bible in Narnia. On the contrary, I can almost hear Tolkien saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like two hobbits." The Lord of the Rings is a far more deeply Christian piece than many give it credit for being; the world has not yet fully realized what Tolkien has said.

But what has most shaped my view of divisions in the church? My first pastor had a vision of the Church that transcended divisions. Though Lutheran, he introduced me to Thomas Merton, held remembrance services for certain saints days (I still remember a sermon he gave at vespers on the feast of St. Martin), and encouraged reading C.S. Lewis. From the time when I was first introduced to Christianity, I was shown a vision of the church having a broad and deep unity underneath all her differences and divisions. We were taught to be Christians -- followers of Christ -- first and foremost, and to regard our membership in a Lutheran congregation and a Lutheran synod as a matter of spiritual stewardship made necessary by temporal circumstances. Given that background, it never came as a surprise to find myself in large agreement with the writings of Christians outside my camp. On the contrary, the part that has kept surprising me is the unfairness with which the various groups often treat each other.

The experience that most affected my view of our differences occurred one day after I shifted from my first church body -- a liberal church -- to a more conservative church. (The shift was interesting in itself; I discovered that each side misunderstood the other badly, misrepresented the other badly, and resisted the idea that it was behaving unjustly and uncharitably toward the other.) But one particular day stands out sharply in my mind. Have you ever heard the same sermon text preached at two different churches? It was a shock. This particular Sunday I attended both services, the one at the liberal church and the one at the conservative church. Both taught on the same text. In the sermon, the liberal church preached about "speaking the truth with love": the pastor explained how love was the key and how those awful conservatives had a loveless truth. The conservative church, that same Sunday, preached about "speaking the truth with love" and taught how truth was the key and how those awful liberals had a truthless love. And after I heard those two sermons, what I really took away as the message was that 1) everyone thinks the other person's sins are worse than their own and 2) the two groups really need each other; without each other we're each incomplete, caricatures of what we're meant to be. Every time we divide, we lose the gifts that the other side brings to the table, the gifts we didn't value as much; every time we divide (like Voldemort's soul) each remaining part becomes a little less human, a little less whole.


P.S. an after-thought said...

This is a lovely essay and really explains where your views were shaped. I have enjoyed having a "mixed" group of people in the Bible studies I've attended because they bring a slightly different viewpoint to the same scriptures.

How much we lose when we think, somehow, that we should exclude others from our inner spiritual circles.

Weekend Fisher said...

It's so tricky sometimes. There's the 9 in 10 who play nicely with others, and then there's the 1 in 10 who is just impossible. The problem is the 1 in 10 is often louder than the other 9 put together, and sees it as his job to be such ...