Friday, 30 May 2014

Evangelical or progressive Christian ? That is the question

I recently read a blog from Emily Wierenga-  'Why this Former Progressive is Returning to Evangelicalism', and what she wrote got me thinking?
She has bravely battled anorexia and she has faced death twice from this terrible disease, I commend her bravery and fortitude in writing about her battles I am sure she has helped many others caught up in this turmoil.

I think If we met I would like Emily, she is very sincere and has a beautiful way with words, one of my favourite thoughts from the blog is when she speaks about God
'And every time it rains it smells like Him. But you can’t find Him.'
And when she finds her way, she says,
'And you sit up in bed and realise you can still smell the rain.'
What a beautiful way to speak about finding God in the ordinary.

In a three part blog she unpacks her journey from Progressive Christianity back to her evangelical roots.
She found writers that I admire and also have found pivotal in my journey, Brian Mclaren. Rob Bell, Anne Lamott, Madeleine L’Engle and Nadia Boltz-Weber.
She credits them with helping her find Jesus again and be herself, so many live their lives behind a facade showing others the polished front they believe is what people really want to see.

This can be especially problematic for those who grow up in a fundamentalist home. It is clear this was her experience, in her own words.
'I was raised in a good Christian home. I was a polite pastor’s kid. We had the right Serenity Prayer wall hangings. We said grace at every meal and went to church every Sunday and we flossed and said Please and Thank You and never were even given a chance to think a sinful thought for all of the worship music on the radio and all of the Christian books on our bookshelves. I wasn’t allowed to play with Barbie dolls or look at fashion magazines for fear that I’d get an eating disorder, and we were given purity rings and books to read by Dr. James Dobson. There wasn’t a lot of room for error. But this was the problem. Because all we do when we keep our children in bubbles is we raise very nice little heathens.'

Emily says 'But when you’re taught your whole life that your worth is constituted by your morality, you tend to veer far left when you find your way back to the cross.'

She says that with Progressive Christianity she felt:
'I didn’t have to be good. I didn’t have to be nice. I just had to love Jesus.'
And for a while this thinking saved her, this relationship with Jesus with in her words - no strings attached.
She continues 'There is no guilt and it’s truly freeing, this walk with Jesus and I wished I’d known it sooner.'

For Emily no strings attached led to her becoming greedy
'Because I didn’t owe God anything, I suddenly began to feel entitled.
I began to think God owed me all sorts of stuff, especially when I did things for him like taking care of my Mum for three years, or take in two foster boys for 11 months in addition to my own two, and when he didn’t? When God didn’t give me what I wanted, when he didn’t prosper me? I gave up on him.
Because I wasn’t really serving him in the first place. No, God was serving me.'

This was the second part of her series and so ending there so abruptly I was hoping part 3 would unpack the reasons progressive Christianity made her feel God owed her something.

She writes a very moving account of a counselling session she goes to here she realises,
'I don’t need to do anything. I don’t need to prove anything.
I don’t need to hear that I am beautiful or smart or powerful, because Abba’s very presence says I am perfect, accepted, loved, redeemed, cherished, delighted in, and sung over.
The God of the Universe wants to spend time with me. That is enough.'

Now this sentence was very similar to what she said in part 2 relating that to her newly found progressive understanding of faith:
'I didn’t have to be good. I didn’t have to be nice. I just had to love Jesus

So clearly there must be a reason for the journey back to her evangelical roots?
She explains that she was raised to view life through the glasses of missiology (how we live), which informs ecclesiology (how we do church) which then finally informs Christology (how we view the life of Jesus). Instead of interpreting the world and church through the life of Christ–instead of starting with Christology–I’d been taught to view the church, and world, through my behaviour.

That's what evangelicalism taught her and she goes on to say,
 'And my behaviour was either wrong or right, and there was no middle-ground, there was no grace, because I didn’t start with Christ.' And so we understand, 'It’s not bad to have rules. In fact, it’s good, and sin is something we battle from day one, and we need saving from it. We need to overcome it, and live in the fullness of the resurrection. We need sanctification, justification, and one day–glorification.
And to end 'And this, where I find myself resonating more with Evangelicalism because no longer do I desire to make Scripture suit my needs, but rather, my life meet the requirements of Scripture.'

For me being a progressive Christian is certainly is not about making Scripture suit my needs but I refuse now to read it in the way I was originally taught in my youth in the local Pentecostal church. I have a high view of Scripture as the inspired word of God, but I also recognise it was written 2,000 plus years ago, translated from other languages into English. I want to know what's been lost or added in translation? I think God is big enough for me to ask these questions. I can look at it from a wider perspective not just words on a page but what is the theme, the trajectory? What pattern emerges from the whole reading?
It's not a flat book but a library, written by many authors with many styles.

I think like Emily I never set out to be progressive, honestly I had never heard the term. I am just another pilgrim walking this narrow path the best way I know how too.
I have been fortunate to have those in my world who have stretched my faith and helped shape my belief. Good pastors and teachers, a great husband and soul mate with whom I share my faith.  I have been involved in leadership for many years. This really helps hone your thoughts, after all you have to share and teach others.

In the film the Matrix there is a scene where Neo the hero has to choose between the red or blue pill. If he chooses the blue is eyes will be opened and there will be no way back to his current life. Fortunately and for the sake of the matrix trilogy he chooses the blue pill- so did I. I am not even sure when this pill was metaphorically swallowed but over last few years my eyes I feel have been opened to a new way of seeing my faith. Rob Bell says it well:

 “The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God.” -Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith.

I look back and see that I had a faith where belief in God was well defined, we had
teaching/preaching twice on Sunday that taught me what I was to believe.
But then the years passed and terrible and tragic things happened to myself, others I loved and across our world and somehow these beliefs did not 'wholly satisfy'. I was an avid reader of all things 'Left Behind' and like all my fellow Christians was just waiting for that unknown moment when all the 'saved' would be whisked away leaving utter chaos here on earth.

But that darned blue pill came my way, it started with Donald Millers 'Blue like Jazz', apt colour for my pill popping. Then Rob Bell, Brian McLaren. Social networking and blogs from across the world. Tom Wright New Testament theologian whose book 'Surprised by hope' turned my views on heaven and escape from here on its head.

These books written by men and women on the same journey both Emily and I are on, are not competing with Scripture they are trying to make the best sense of what it is saying today. The Bible and it's 66 books written over many hundreds of years  by several authors, to an ancient people is open to interpretation and has been throughout history.
It is not enough for me to to say that my life must meet the requirements of Scripture after all those requirements are up for personal interpretation. I know we would disagree on women in ministry but we both claim a high view of scripture so 'who is right'?

My lovely husband Alan says the Bible gives us 'an anchor for our soul, not certainty for our mind'. I have a feeling Emily is happier with a more certain way of reading Scripture and everything therefore has it's place. I suspect although I can never fully know without speaking to Emily that for her this was what made her feel uncomfortable with the progressive view of Christianity all those questions, leaving room for doubt and possible alternative views.

I would like to bring this blog to an end with Emily's own words on finding her way back to wholeness after her early life which was extremely troubled if you read her own accounts.

On encountering progressive Christianity this revealed a Jesus who she could truly walk free with.

I would therefore like to suggest it was not her Evangelical faith with all it's rules and definite ways of reading Scripture that helped her see this, but the journey to being a Progressive Christian.

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