What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?

Update (11/19/10):  I am grateful for a note from a friend who reminded me of the problems of the term “North American.”  North America refers to not only the U.S., but also Canada, Mexico, Central American and the Caribbean.  By using this term in my blog post, I risk a long-standing imperial practice of defining “North America” under largely U.S. history and experience.  I appreciate this sensitivity to language.  Community of Christ/RLDS practice is certainly not innocent of this tendency.  To clarify, when I use the term “North American church” I am inclusively referring to the U.S. and Canada, those areas of the church in which I have my religious experience and heritage.

I’ve given this question attention since as early as I can remember, or at least since I started learning and doing theology.  It seems to me that Community of Christ, when considered from the vantage point of our RLDS memories and experiences, faces decisive identity questions as it moves into the future.  These are inescapable theological problems that are deeply related to our past.

On one hand, identity issues emerge because the Community of Christ has become an international church with a diverse membership across many cultures.  Many North American church members have no direct access to the true diversity of worship practices and beliefs that make up the Community of Christ today.  Instead, we in North America are more deeply rooted in our RLDS upbringing.  This RLDS upbringing shapes our sense of solidarity with one another, holds memories of defending or explaining ourselves to others…but without ever the satisfaction of that deep connection within the church.  This experience structures our deep sense of intimate community.

On the other hand, I also believe the North American church struggles with theological issues and dissension regarding basic issues of Community of Christ identity, message, and beliefs because too few of us truly grasp how the internal logic of RLDS identity has reached its logical limits.  The identity structure that held the RLDS message, identity, and experience together for much of the 20th century came to a kind of impasse.   To blame changes in RLDSism on apostate church leaders or ecumenical conversations that lured the church down the path of destructive liberalism to generic Christianity, as some conservatives and Restorationists believe, is intellectually short-sighted and reactionary.  Scapegoating does not stand up to a more faithful exploration and there are better explanations.

The Community of Christ does not emerge as a global Christian church because church leaders didn’t do enough to protect RLDS dogma and tradition.   In fact, the RLDS dogma and tradition that many cling to today belongs to the early and mid-20th century, while emerging Community of Christ identity flows from deeper currents in our North American Restoration heritage.  The post-RLDS nature or feel of Community of Christ identity comes from the internal structure of RLDS identity, which over the last 100 years has reached interminable and decisive contradictions.  The Community of Christ has responded not by diluting, but prophetically embracing the positive (verses negative) aspects of RLDS identity and heritage.  We still need to hone and clarify these positive aspects of our Restoration heritage today.

Identifying the decisive identity issues in the North American Community of Christ today is, itself, a difficult task.  But, I think its essential if the North American church is going to understand and fully embrace the transformation of the RLDS to global Community of Christ identity.  By limiting the scope of our perspective to a North American perspective, it helps provide some focus on the problems we face finding unity (let alone consensus) around theological and ethical issues that involve basic identity questions.  Some of the identity issues we struggle with emerge directly from within our North American post-RLDS context.

Taking a look at the church’s current identity issues, there are some things that become apparent.  First, the Community of Christ emerges out of its roots in early American Christianity.  Still claiming our Restoration heritage, the Community of Christ has distinct roots in American Christianity.  The same early American mythos and post-Enlightenment ideas that shaped America’s sense of promise, exceptionalism, and manifest destiny also shapes Community of Christ faith and history.  Liberal democratic principles, economic freedom, communitarianism, and our expectation that God’s promises and authority remain in human reach all shape RLDSism and the post-RLDS Community of Christ identity.  These are the legacy of our 19th century Restorationism.   Simply, the American belief in a promised land predestined for liberty and expansion only needs to be radicalized a bit to become the Restoration belief that the restoration of God’s authority, people, and promised is at hand for Christian Americans.  The RLDS focus on a Kingdom-building faith, reshaped today by critical theology and lessons from the past, remains deeply ingrained in this history.  Christ’s Kingdom as the cause of Zion remains a key witness of Community of Christ message and identity.  But, this vision is tempered by the church’s also classically held liberal beliefs: the worth of persons, personal faith formation, and non-credal tradition.  These things come together to create some of the basic challenges and tensions of Community of Christ identity today.

The second thing that becomes apparent is that RLDSism is defined by its inability to transcend its particular position within Mormon history.  I’m convinced that the reason the RLDS church is undergoing its transformation toward a new identity as Community of Christ is because RLDSism’s position between Utah Mormonism, on one hand, and American Protestantism, on the other, has reached its limits.  The liberalism that clearly sets the RLDS church apart from its Mormon cousins pushes RLDSism away from its historical sectarianism.  For the RLDS, this liberalism is expressed and felt in the RLDS emphasis on individual spirituality and internal dissent from spiritual authority, which makes the RLDS more Protestant than Mormon.    This is what has made critical scholarship (theological and historical), theological evolution, critique of authoritarian leadership, and critique of the authority of tradition possible.   Those who who reject this liberalism adhere to RLDSism’s sectarian strands, which continues to unfold in conservative RLDSism.  In the Community of Christ, however, the historical tendency toward sectarian belief and identity (i.e. the righteous remnant) is overcome by the universalizing logic embedded deep within liberal Christianity, as well as in biblical Christianity through Paul.   The theological significance of this inclusive and universal vision for Christ and Christ’s Kingdom has moved late RLDSism, its sense of community, and mission toward a more universal and inclusive center of identity.  Against the negativity of a RLDS sectarian identity structure, the Community of Christ finds its mission, message, and future in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this way, the church is becoming “more Protestant,” but only because the roots of the Restoration movement are in the universalizing vision of biblical theology and American Christianity, which shares in the universal spirit of modern Protestantism.  In this sense, the Community of Christ is not a break with RLDSism, only RLDS sectarianism and its negatively-structured identity.  It is, in fact, historically the fulfillment (cf. D&C 164:9a) of its essentially Christian Restoration vision and heritage in American Christianity.

However, the universalism of the Community of Christ’s essential Christ-centered Restoration identity bumps up against these limits when Community of Christ leaders and members, remembering their RLDS heritage, ask themselves, “What is particular about the Community of Christ?”, or ” What sets the Community of Christ apart from American Protestantism?  What about our distinctives?”  Another way to ask these questions is, “What endures of RLDSism amidst Community of Christ’s relationship to American Protestantism?”   The problem with these questions is they are reminiscent of RLDS identity in its essentially negative structure, which fueled its sectarianism and structured itself negatively between Mormonism and American Protestantism.  So, the question is better stated, “What endures of RLDS tradition, theology, and identity in the Community of Christ?  What endures positively?  In light of our roots in American Restorationism (Mormons, Disciples of Christ, congregationalism, etc.), what remains of our RLDS heritage and testimony in the Community of Christ – if RLDSism is essentially neither wholly Mormon nor Protestant.  This is what is being asked when North American church members ask, “What is distinctive about the Community of Christ?”

Here we reach the current impasse.  The problem with RLDS identity is that it has historically always been negatively defined between Mormonism and American Protestantism.   Furthermore, I believe this negativity – especially for the early and middle 20th century of the RLDS church – has been the most important and influential aspect of RLDS identity.  Identifying our distinctive place is what has kept the church alive in the 20th century as it vied for denominational legitimacy amidst American Christianity.  The negativity of RLDS identity has been reinforced by both Mormon’s and Protestants.  Historically, both have rejected core RLDS positions with regard to fundamental identifiers of Mormonism and American Christianity:  what defines scripture,  what and who defines religious authority, who are God’s elect, and perspectives on salvation and salvation history.  It is our deep emotional attachment to this negative identity and its sectarian-esque feel that leads some to schism and others to question our basic identity.

There were clearly divisive controversies with regard to each of these defining aspects of RLDS theology and identity in the decision to accept women in the priesthood in 1984.   In 1984, the issue of scriptural authority and forms of church  religious authority split the church, which separated along more sectarian and liberal lines.  More conservative RLDSers rejected the leadership of both the 1984 Conference (the church’s liberal-democratic side) and the defining leaders of the church (the church’s theocratic side) in order to preserve the traditional forms of RLDS sectarian authority:  the belief in the one true church, in the sole election of the RLDS church as righteous remnant of God’s Restoration, belief in salvation through the church and an RLDS Zion.   This dissension, tragically, culminated in the divisive question of the church’s ultimate form of spiritual authority, women or men.   More sectarian RLDSers separated from the more liberal RLDS who accepted the change in form of authority, the shifts toward ecumenism in the church, and the move toward a more inclusive sense of religious identity and salvation history.

Here, I think, we see the negative structure of RLDS identity in the relationship between the more conservative, theocratic, and sectarian tendencies of RLDSism (that resembles Mormonism) in contrast with the more liberal, democratic, and ecumenically Protestant tendencies of RLDSism which, against Mormonism, resembles American Christianity.  Against those who would claim otherwise, I’m arguing both are essential aspects of RLDS identity.

After the split of the conservative Restorationists from the more liberal-democratic RLDS, I think the negative identity structure of RLDSism has reached its culmination and its limits.    Positively, instead of refocusing the future of the RLDS church on redefining RLDS identity negatively against the schismatic Restorationists, against the Mormons, and against Protestant Christianity, the emerging post-RLDS church prophetically moves toward a positive identity.  It is symbolized powerful in the name change to Community of Christ.   Emerging out of its essentially negative position against Mormons, congregationalists, and Protestantism, the Community of Christ is now a global church that seeks a positive relationship (not merger) with American Protestantism equipped with a positive identity that is Christ-centered, community focused, and aspiring for peace and justice missionally.  (This is how the powerful counter-narrative of the Temple unfolds against the schismatic tendencies of RLDS sectarianism in light of D&C 156.)

The problem that haunts the Community of Christ internally, however, is the ghost of its negative identity.   Historically, the negative relationship of RLDSism to both Mormonism and American Protestantism is what structured RLDS sectarianism with a cherished sense of community and essentially negative identity.  The Community of Christ’s sense of community cannot be separated from its lived historical experience as a marginalized movement negatively positioned in obscurity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity.  The challenge, therefore, is to shape the negative aspect of this marginalized experience of community in a positive identity position.  I believe, consciously or not, this process has already been taking place in the church for a few decades.   As we face the future, however, I want to suggest a few places where, I hope, the positivity of RLDS identity can emerge with both historical and theological integrity.

1.  Community of Christ proclaims Jesus Christ and community as it is lived, experienced, and understood among those who are marginalized.   Moreover, the agents of Christ’s salvation community are common folk, ordinary sojourners in search of salvation with one another in their walk with Christ. The RLDS church emerged out of the American wilderness among many poor and dispossessed.  Its early communitarian experiments emerged out of concern for the poor.  The spiritual experiences of Joseph Smith, Jr and the early church testify of the Holy Spirit’s activity and testimony of Jesus Christ amidst such communities.  The Community of Christ has its roots among farmers, frontiersmen and women, and immigrants who saw God’s community brought forth by and for common women and men.

2.  Community of Christ is not a church unto itself.  Community of Christ identity does not stand alone, but is always expressed positively in relation to other Christian denominations and movements.  It would be an error for the Community of Christ to revision or reimagine its identity in a sectarian manor, negatively defined and independent of American Protestantism or global Christianity.  In truth, RLDS identity has always been defined in relationship to other Christian denominations and movements, especially when defined negatively.  The RLDS legacy has been its search, from generation to generation, for a positive expression of God’s Christianity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity.  What is emergent and unique in Community of Christ identity today is that this identity is now positively positioned in relation to other forms of Christianity.  Identity in Christ is understood in a Pauline way, in relationship to Christ’s body as it is understood internationally and denominationally, to break down barriers of the flesh that separate God’s people into righteous and unrighteous, saint and sinner, oppressor and oppressed.  In this way, Community of Christ seeks to understand itself globally as both a Christ-centered people amidst other Christians, but also unique in its history and testimony of community.

3.  Community of Christ understands salvation in light of God’s Restoration.  The cause of Zion – temporally and spiritually – is the call to discipleship in light of God’s Kingdom among us, both heavenly and earthly. RLDSism’s emphasis on the cause of Zion and its experience of community shapes both its understanding of scripture and salvation history.   Scripture is more than revelation.  It is community forming.  The millennialism and Christian primitivism that shapes Community of Christ heritage among America’s early 19th century great awakening focuses Community of Christ understanding of church and faith on living the reign of God.  This reign is wherever Christian discipleship and faith in the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is made real in the relationships of sacred community.  In this sense, the Community of Christ shares a realized eschatology, which is the experience of Zion that is available to human experience when faith and mission in both church and world.  The mission of the church to proclaim Jesus Christ and establish the cause of Zion flow from this understanding of Gospel-Acts.  That is the active presence of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Christ’s church, its sacraments, and priesthood.

There is certainly much more that should be addressed, here.  There are many questions about RLDS particularity (or distinctives) that could and should be explored.  What is important, however, is to first sketch out what  are the foremost aspects of emerging Community of Christ identity as they emerge out of North American RLDSism.  It is my contention that it is not only possible, but its necessary for RLDSism to be fulfilled in order to realize the coming of the Community of Christ.  The Temple, I believe, marks that transformation.  RLDSism is attempting to move beyond its 175 year legacy of negative identity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity to a positive identity among the world’s 2000 year old Christianities.  In this global community, the Community of Christ reflects a unique and prophetic sense of American Christianity.   In terms of Community of Christ identity, theology, and mission, I believe what I have identified here flows from the Spirit and prophetic message of our most recent sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, 161-164.  Certainly, by the grace of God, each generation is “poised to fulfill God’s ultimate vision for the church.”  (D&C Section 164:9a)  This sense of expectation and spiritual anticipation, matched with uncommon devotion, is the character of Restoration Christianity today.

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it’s not about tithing, but it is about the money…

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been tackling problems that don’t revolve around ethereal stuff like “new ideas,” “vision” and other theological talk that can lack consequence.  In fact, I’ve been so sucked into these challenges that I’ve begun to wonder whether discussing the church’s problems or their solutions really matters if the people in the discussion aren’t somehow personally and materially invested.  They, somehow, need to be givers or prepared to become givers to what we share.  A giver gives so much more than money.   But, they give money, too.  They give to something beyond themselves.

It’s not that discussing our feelings and perspectives on church isn’t  important.  But, if the people talking about the church are thousands of dollars in consumer debt or unable to substantively invest in community with their time or energy, I’m afraid airing our views – no matter how thought out and accurate – may hold only therapeutic value.   Don’t get me wrong!  Therapy is important.  But, like any other therapeutic or academic exercise, it revolves around perspectives on “the self.”  Therefore, it suffers, at some point, from the vacuum created when the self replaces shared discipleship or Christ’s call to prophetic community.  This is the vacuum slowly sucking the life out of denominationalism:  loss of a sense of shared community, shared discipline, shared practices, and shared convictions with substantial consequence.

I realize I may sound like I’m going either institutional or conservative.   But, I meant what I said in my previous post about following Jesus or saving the church.   I’m not talking about returning to some institutional position on tithing.   I’m not talking about a pay-to-play system in the church or instituting stringent requirements for Christian membership.   But, I am talking about the problem of “cheap church” and a loss of a basic sense of discipleship in community.  If our sense of faith and Christ’s community has become so separated from our relationship with our stuff, our time, our money, and energies, that we think belonging to Christ’s community is an entitlement or a service that should be provided by denominations or religious institutions, the Spirit of our movement is lost.

So, let’s talk about the money.  Why not?

We struggle on both sides.  In the church, we have many congregations that are deeply attached to their houses of worship.  75-90% of the time, those churches are paid for.   These buildings are the ebenesers, the alters, of a previous generation.  They are the hallmark of our denominationalism.   We are no longer a frontier movement.  We now have our church on the corner.  This was the success of previous generations.   Because of them, I would bet 75-90% of our congregations have no mortgage, only maintenance and monthly bills.   Five to fifty gather in them once a week.

Often, these same congregations have difficulty raising funds for missional ministries, hiring ministers, or community projects.   Also, paying for their area campgrounds are a drain.   Often these congregations have faithful givers.   Some have less money to offer and more time and skills.  Sometimes these loyal members get in the way of new life and spiritual direction.   But, sometimes these members are more than willing to see change.   The hurdle is that, after a lifetime of denominational loyalty, they do not know how to reach out, innovate, and add to the fold.   So, they maintain.  The history of decline takes its toll.   An increasing sense of need might pull downward on the congregation’s self-esteem.  In the worst case scenario, members become entrenched.  They start guarding against outsiders, usually “liberals,” denominational leaders who talk about “change,” or those “generic Christians” who might take away what’s left of our identity.  (I still don’t know what a generic Christian is, but I’ve heard church members be worried about them more than once.)  All awhile, money and time is where their mouth is – pouring into the things we think “we” need, for “us” – both on the congregational, mission center, and personal levels.

Outside the church, we also live in a day when the relationship between spirituality and economics is wholly out of whack.  Unbriddled greed and a world sold out to the god of wealth and wealth-production, has horribly contorted the relationship of our economic and spiritual needs.   All around, I see its effects in “liberal” and conservative forms.    Many Christians have literally sold out the doctrine of economic wealth and prosperity:  we can spend ourselves out of crises, whether spiritual or economic.  This not only makes absolutely no sense, wealth and prosperity – no matter how American – are false gods.   They are not the good news, but a completely alien form of religion and spirituality.   Christian faith and the call to prophetic community operates on a different kind of sense.    Christ’s community is not based on getting what you pay for.  Nor, is its growth based on profits or consuming more.  The salvation of the church, on earth as it is in heaven, is based on what is given and what is shared:  the shared grace, disciplines, practices, vision, and shared convictions.  The church is a witness to community.

We don’t need a moralistic return to a 10% tithing to fix this.  In fact, everyone can tithe and still sell out to the economic gods.   We don’t need a denominational membership system to hold people accountable.   This would be the same old legalism.  We also don’t have to start giving guilt-ridden presentations about how much money it takes to heat the sanctuary or pay for copy toner.  That would be guilt-based politics.  However, if we’re going to get together and talk about who we are, who we follow, and what our shared salvation really means, we have to agree that Christ’s community costs us something.   And, we have consistently lift up what it promises.

Discipleship costs.  And, to some extent, it is about the money.  But, it’s not about the money so the church can have alot, or any.  It’s about the money because money is the god of the world we must face. We no longer live in a biblical world where land dictates wealth and the majority are subsistence farmers.  For many of us, our economic well-being is no longer tied directly to the earth’s fertility or patterns of rain or drought.  Instead, for the first time in human history, we suffer the “weather” of an almost wholly (not holy) (hu)man-made economy.   Our global economy is designed on the idea that human beings have insatiable appetites for things.  Selfhood, selfishness and self-interest can be paths to earthly salvation and human improvement.  This religion measures health on the flow of goods and happiness on levels of consumption.   It has its own doctrines and spirituality.   It requires that we spend and spend often in order for the god’s elect to reap their fruit: profit.  They hire us to help them do that, and we are glad that it also benefits us.

Praying for the “rain to come” and for the harvest to be plenty in our world means paying homage to this religion and god of profit.  There is little getting around it.   We have to charge, buy, mortgage, refinance, and spend.   The problem is that this god will also bankrupt us if it is the God we live by.   This god has many many victims.  If we do not put something sustainable and communal at the center of our work, life, and play, this god, alone, will have its way and its reign.  The best insurance against this kind of idolatry is Christian community, a community that shares and gives.   To find it, we must give a portion of what we have away.

That is why the church is such an important vessel for Good News, sanity, and sanctuary in our world.   Christ’s call to give was never about denominational tithing or supporting a clergy class.  But, it was about where our faith could be.  The discipline of giving, even just a little, puts us in a stronger position in a world that believes profits puts us in a stronger safer position.   It puts us in a stronger position against religious economic doctrines that tell us we can spend our way to spiritual happiness or economic wholeness.  This is not the faith or the doctrine of Christ’s church.  Discipleship is not concerned with how much we earn or measuring our profit.  Nor, is it about salvation through gaining what can be had by spending.    But, it is about the money.

Christ owned no land, which meant he was broke.  He was an artisen, a blue collar carpeter, who never mortgaged a home.  He had no inheritance, but the inheritance of God’s kingdom.  Christ gave so that others could have and give.  Christ gave so that others would have something to take and share.  This was the miracle of his healings, his feeding of the 5000 and 4000, and the last supper.  It’s about the power and mystery of giving.

This the the open secret: the power and mystery of Christ’s giving.  Christ’s community is about this kind of sharing.  Giving and sharing makes community.  You don’t do one to make the other.  They happen simultaneously and it strengthens every time you repeat it.

In our world, a prophetic community must give and share.  And, it will always have more than a community that does not, that instead proclaims the good news of profit and blasts us with pictures of happy consumers who say “follow me.”    We cannot spend our way to financial health any more than we can borrow our way to a full life or spiritual wholeness.   The answer isn’t about denominational tithing or shopping for personal spirituality, but it is about the money.

Money will always be more than just credit, consumption, and profits.   Money always already has spiritual value, too.   It’s about the costs.  Expecting something from nothing makes no more sense economically than it does spiritually.   This is not faith.  Christ’s community is a divine gift, but it does not come from nothing.  Rather, it is a result of our stewardship and what we will share.   The church is a divine gift that can never be spiritually taken away.  However, it will always be what we make of it.   We are the church.   That is what takes faith.  Unlike the world, Christ’s economy is not based on getting what we pay for, wanting more, or making profits.  These things aren’t evil in and of themselves.   We just realize that after feeding of the 5000 (Matthew 14:16-26), Jesus “leftovers” were not his profit.  They were the abundance left over when the least of these, a boy with five loaves and two fishes, shared a little.

Christian Identity OR Why Christians shouldn’t have one

Whether it is the church I serve (Community of Christ) or any other, I’m troubled by how important identity is for Christians.  There’s a perennial concern among Christians and other religious groups to define themselves.   It’s an ongoing theological challenge.  The easy way is to define yourself against other religions or against each other.   Christians, it seems, get a lot of mileage defining themselves against Muslims and Mormons.

Some might argue that identity issues within Christianity aren’t as important anymore.  They might say ecumenical movements over the last few decades have opened many doors to overcome the divisions of denominational identity among Christians.   Plus, many Christians have moved away from denominational identity altogether.  Some of America’s largest churches are non-denominational.  Some go so far to say that we live in a post-denominational age.   Christians have moved beyond denominational divisions and identity issues?  Isn’t this all a sign that Christians have moved toward unity?

Maybe.  Ecumenism and post-denominational movements are important.  But, they’ve done little to curb our ongoing identity questions.  I think they’ve only revealed a change in dynamics.   Ecumenism, non-denominational churches and post-denominational sentiments indicate that Christianity is undergoing certain changes.  But, ultimately, I think these changes simply displace our identity issues by rearranging them in new ways.  As we move away from denominational definitions, there’s significant ferment around the personal and interreligious dimensions of Christian identity.    For many, Christian life is a personal journey.  For at least a generation, religious identity has moved from the traditional and religious to the spiritual.   Faith less a matter of traditional upbringing, and instead something more personal, even psychological, and evolving.   Christians are also increasingly aware of other world’s religions.  Interaction with other world’s religions also raises huge questions about Christian faith and identity.   All these factors redefine how and how much Christians concern themselves with issues of faith and identity.

Religious or spiritual or whatever, 90%+ of Americans still believe in some kind of God.  Moreover, churches, both non-denominational and traditional, must concern themselves with defining or or recreating who they are.  As Wade Clark Roof has documented, our religious lives have been infiltrated by a kind of spiritual marketplace.  Whether a fundamental or nominal Christian…born once, born again, bored, or agnostic…religious identity has been freed up from the constraints of tradition and history.  It has fallen  into the hands of the consumer.

This, not post-denominationalism, ecumenism, or the emergent movement, has been the true revolution taking place in America’s churches. The freedom to create and recreate our religious identity – to pick a religion or amongst religions and construct our own spirituality – has redefined how Christian faith is received, perceived, and lived out all around us.

Scholars and theologians, especially denominational leaders and independent pastors, no longer dictate their faith to their flocks without these dynamics.  Religious authorities, too, must learn to compete and cope with the spiritual marketplace and its influence.  Some of the most successful Christian pastors in America are successful because they’ve adapted and shaped the Christian marketplace.   Aware of it or not, they are aware we are producers and consumers of faith.  Of course, some more one than the other.

This situation is not without its ironies.  It’s often pastors and preachers who claim the Gospel stands firmly outside all worldly influences who thrive best in the Christian marketplace.  Christians who feel spiritually adrift in the ‘willy-nilly’ logic of the marketplace are attracted to a faith that stands ‘outside’ cultural influences.  It provides a secure sense of spiritual security and identity.  Many of these Christians make the mistake of blaming liberalism and see the answer as getting involved with politics.

They’d do better to dig deep into the spiritual impact of our market economy.

This may all sound like I’m being terribly negative.   But, that’s not my intention.   This is just contextual theology.  The implications of the spiritual marketplace are all around us.  Just look at the Christian market:  Christian music – rap, rock, country and ska – has exploded.  Other examples: The Purpose Driven Life, T.D. Jakes, nationally televised worship serves, and the religious fiction section at Barnes and Noble.  It even shapes the way we engage and read the bible:  The Life Application Bible, Green Bible, and True Identity Bible for Women are all available on Amazon.   I’m not picking on these people and products.  They’re only the most visible examples.  My point is, the impact of the marketplace on the way we receive and perceive Christian faith is almost immeasurable.   For most Christians, it’s become transparent.  The slow, long, but sure shift from doctrinal issues regarding traditional authority that brought us denominationalism to the search for identity in the spiritual marketplace has happened.   Market-logic continues to shape and reshape Christian faith and set the stage for our search for faith and identity.

Forgive me for getting theological a minute.  But, there’s something terribly revealing for me amidst all this.  I don’t think it’s all negative.  I just believe the Bible says something unique to us about all this, especially about our search for faith and identity.

Prayerfully consider:  At the most basic level, God’s selflessness on the cross (cf Phil 2:5-11) just doesn’t  jive with our deep and ongoing concerns about identity…or what it means to be a true Christian.   It doesn’t matter if we’re talking denominationally or personally.

We  cannot escape the identity trap by “freeing” ourselves from denominational affiliation and just spiritually trying to be ourselves.    In the end, its our actions that reveal more about who we are than our religious identity issues.  Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah, seem to be keenly aware of this (cf Isaiah 58).  True worship – lived in the rhythm of devoted study and neighborly love – begets a life beyond ourselves.  Beyond identity.

Faith is an action.  (cf. James)

Christ is God’s example.

Think of God’s horrible identity issues.

If being truly God in antiquity meant your people never lost a war, then the God of Israel was no God at all.  Followers of Jesus made it even worse.  They claimed God became incarnate…only to die a humiliating and public death between two criminals.   If we measure God’s true identity – true divinity, true power, true sovereignty – then the God in Christ just doesn’t measure up.   That God would be no God at all.

In fact, this God would have to be either a real nobody or, in some way, the God of all gods.   Now, to believe that would take faith.  Imagine that guy on the cross: The King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

His true identity would have to remain a mystery.

Christians might take a hint?

Christ beyond Christianity

Christ, of course, was not Jesus’ last name.  “Christ” was the Greek translation of “messiah,” which meant chosen one or anointed one.  By themselves, I don’t think these definitions today really get at who Jesus was and who he claimed to be.   As moderns, without a rich sense of Judaism or Christian history, much of the meaning of the messiah and messianic faith gets lost.   

Could that mean that some modern Christians don’t have a real sense of who Jesus is and what Jesus, the messiah, really means?  Without a deep sense of the messiah, there is no real sense of Christian faith.

History lessons and biblical exegesis are important to get a sense of Jesus.  In fact, I believe a life of disciplined study unites the mind with the heart and soul of faith in one of the most significant ways.  It’s one of the most ancient ways of worshiping God.

But, if the emergent church tells me anything about our today’s day and age, it’s that we live in a world that longs to feel and live this faith.  I think this is points us to a new understanding, a faith beyond words, beyond denominationalism, even beyond religion.  Unsatisfied with escapist self-centered salvation formulas and abstract cafeteria style spirituality, some hunger for a deeper relationship with God.

I’m on the search for the Christ beyond Christianity.

Knowing there’s not real substitute for worshiping God in a life of service and study, I think we can come close to grasping the meaning of the messiah if we stop and get intensely personal.  The heights of a life of faith begin in the depths. To begin to feel messianic faith, you have to get in touch with your deepest longings.   Go to that place inside where either everything matters or everything doesn’t, that place where life is a choice.  Traces of this deep human longing and hope for deliverance are literally everywhere, in our music and movies, often lingering just below the surface of the most common of things.

The seeds of messianic hope, the kind that can change the world, lie within everybody.

So, start on the surface.  Think, a minute, of a love song you just can’t hear without crying or a song that takes you over.  Spend time with that feeling.  Let it take over.  If that doesn’t work, think about a scene in a movie that absolutely grips you.  Or, an artist that somehow taps into your soul and, somehow, makes it overflow with a sense of meaning.

Dwell in that spirit.

Now, take it deeper.

Remember a time when you were literally struggling with your sanity,  battling the most profound feelings of your life.  Perhaps, you were dealing with abandonment or rage…or your deepest fears.  Whatever it was, it took you to the brink.  Maybe it was coming out.  Maybe it was a break-up, an abusive situation or  addiction.  Maybe, you are haunted by depression, a mix of impenetrable loneliness, defeat, and helplessness.  Or, perhaps, you’ve live with the most indescribable loss or rejection.

Maybe you just desperately needed someone to hold you and accept you for who you are.   Maybe you lost a loved one…and almost lost yourself.

Whatever.

Take this indescribable moment – full of breathlessness and longing – and imagine it burned deep into the memory of a people.  Give it history.  Make it an identity.  Imagine it lasting for years, its story being passed on to the generations.  The high, and its low.  Let it forge a history through the life of an entire people.  A people who were released only to be conquered.  Born, it seems, only to be abandoned.  Like a motherless child.

Remember, “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” are names of both personal and political proportions.  To know what the messiah really means, you can’t stop at a mere personal Jesus.  As isolated individuals, we only have what we have.  Plumbing the depths of our own history is only just the beginning.  To sense the hope of a people, to really know the dream of a Love to end all loves, of a Hope to end all hopes.  To know a living moment when justice really blends to mercy, and mercy bends into justice.   In a time of reckoning, where meekness really isn’t weakness.  Instead, it inherits the earth.   Joy is born of mourning.

A land is promised, a new life will come.

That is the beginning of belief…the belief in the messiah…when you can just get a glimpse.

He is coming.

To get a sense of Christ, you have to strip Christ of all religious pretensions and abstract arguments.  You have to begin to strip Christian faith of all its denominational doctrines and salvation formulas, which reduce Jesus to words.  The Christ of Christian faith lies beyond Christianity, beyond religious affiliation, beyond “Christian” identity, beyond categories and moral codes.

Jesus is not some passport to heaven.

To get a glimpse of the savior, first you must know the need to be saved.

Then, you begin to see his Kingdom.

Christianity Can’t Compete

2725050979_26ba7a5a1e_mHow can Christianity compete in a world that offers up so many promises and ways to escape?  Can a life of discipleship really compete with the endless stream of distractions that bombard us daily?  So many promises at such a low low price.

I confess: After work or after church, sometimes I do go to Burger King just so I can “have it your way.”  I mean, my way.

We live in a culture that exploits the very meaninglessness it produces.  I’m not trying to be negative or pessimistic, here.  Just honest.  I know so many who are secretly lonely, struggling with depression, or unable to accept who they have to be in a world where you have to pay to play.   While we’re being told our potential is unlimited, we’re forced to play the game.  We give ourselves and energies to so many demands and projects – which carry some reward of success and accomplishment.  Secretly, we have to take the paycheck to pay down our debt, which paid for the house or the education or credit cards that buy back our self-worth and sense of self-esteem.

How is Jesus’ cross meaningful in a world like this?

One mistake we make is to let the cross become less and less real and more and more spiritual.  Christianity becomes a message we tell ourselves to stave off the feelings we really feel or what others are saying.  Everything is fine.  God is good.  Grace abounds.  No big deal.  I’m OK.  Praise God?

Stop to think that we live in a world that can even profit on widespread depression.   In this kind of world, belief in Jesus can also become something its not.  It can quickly become something else that wards off the emptiness we accumulate by selling ourselves to a world that is supposed to value us so highly.  This is a world where you have to live for yourself in order to be anybody…or do anything.   When its at its worst, like Tylenol, Jesus on the cross becomes something we swallow to take away the pain of feeling insignificant or guilty.

If this is all Christianity is, there are better alternatives.

Just turn on the TV.

1254274220_74c7802ae2_mChristianity tells a story about suffering.  The suffering of God.  You might see why this isn’t so popular.  Or, perhaps it is, because someone else is doing the suffering.  What sense can this story make to us in the “free world?”   A free world almost “free” of anything long-lasting, but where everything has a price?

What’s the meaning of the story of a God-man, a Rabbi born a carpenter, who was driven out of church by church folk?  What does it mean that religious leaders, the ones who had the most to loose from seeing things his way, wanted him dead?   What, possibly, could this guy have been teaching?  What’s the meaning of the God-man and his suffering?

Suffering.

You know.  You have to be a Christian to even care about this story.  Either that, or you have to care about the meaning of suffering.  Or, perhaps this is what is universal about it, you have to at least know your suffering.  Once you’ve felt this, you care about the suffering of others.  Perhaps, you have to suffer to really appreciate what anothers suffering might mean.  Even the God-man’s.

So, what’s the point of this?  I’m raising questions, that don’t have shallow or easy answers.  At least, I dont’ think they do.  These questions also hold the key to something hopeful and life-giving.  They hold untold meaning.  The questions are more healing and productive than closing them up with simple answers.  But, at the same time, what makes for faith doesn’t have to be complicated.  Christianity, I think, thrives amidst people who know struggle because suffering reveals something about the universe that nothing else can.  it calls for faith precisely where life’s depth intersects with its simplicity.

The cross calls out for the end of all suffering.

Now, do you believe it?

On the cross, God’s justice and love speak their final word into a world that profits on its own meaninglessness, that entraps us in our own need to escape it, and is dizzying with its attractive alternatives and technical distractions.  Despite the way some seem to think, in this environment the cross doesn’t point us to a new and improved doctrine of self-righteousness.  “Biblical” religion does not thrive on its own righteousness and people’s shame.

To that, I offer a biblical Christianity where love and grace are one in the same.

This is what I think:  To open our eyes to see and ears to hear, without numbness or distraction; to open ourselves to our own persistent loneliness, our own sense of helplessness or depression; to feel our need for either closeness or escape; to see our dependence on distractions; to open ourselves up to our own suffering, we open ourselves to a whole new world – one in need of a savior.

602041238_a9f18c5800_m1Once you’re there, in the bottomless space of a moment of suffering, you know the simplicity of a deep faith.  You are never again alone in the story.  You know why he came.  You know why we, the religious people, ran him off.  You know why those who benefited from the way things were wanted him dead.  You know why, by constantly changing, things can still remain the same.

Christianity can’t compete.  Enemies and opposition are good for politics.   Formulaic faith, both judgmental self-righteous versions and guilt-free spirituality, make for excellent religion.   They fit well with what we need.   Meaningless is a demanding, but profitable business.

But, love and justice, who needs that?