by David Faulkner
American historians and journalists seem fascinated with what they regard as “uniquely American” expressions of religion. One great historian of the 1930s, Paul Conkin, appears to have an equal fascination with both the New Deal and frontier revivalism. I am convinced that many historians write about Pentecostalism because they see it as a native religious movement. More interesting still is the historians’ curiosity about cults. In particular I have read defenses of Mormonism written by both historians and journalists which describe that strange cult as an expression of purely American religious thought. But the daily march of ordinary Christianity doesn’t interest these folks at all. What’s wrong with having an ordinary faith?
One of our tasks at seminary was to prepare, for the Theology faculty, a statement of faith. It was supposed to be at least ten pages long. The faculty was less concerned that we agreed with them than that we could support our beliefs from Scripture. I recall meeting with the professor who reviewed my paper. He remarked, “Well, it seems good enough, though I would say it is fairly doctrinaire.” I went out of there wondering what was wrong with expressing my faith in the essential teachings of the Word of God.
In my years in the pastoral ministry I have met many colleagues who like to talk about something they call, “Doing theology.” The first time I heard this term I thought, “But all the good theology has already been done.” As I listened to these folks I discovered that their true program is to take their own ideas about God and seek, often through twisting the plain meaning of the text, to justify what they already think. Often this process is called “Proof-texting.” Some of these folks have suggested that we need to, “Re-Imagine” God, as if all we have to go on is what the Hebrew prophets and Christian Apostles imagined God to be. At the least this looks like a violation of the first and second commandments (Exodus 20:2-6).
Recognizing these three trends; the fascination with “uniquely American” religion, the fear of doctrine, even in the Church, and the willingness to call our personal speculations about God, “Theology,” has led me to do some serious thinking. (By the way, in writing this column I assume that you, as college students, are also interested in serious thinking.) Are the trends related and, if so, what lies at their roots?
First, all three are products of post-modernist thinking. If truth is so relativized that it can be one thing for me and another for you, then new developments within the general theater we call “American Christendom” are no more than interesting objects to be examined in, possibly, microscopic detail. Their only value is that they are expressions of faith that lead to certain kinds of actions. They are purely social phenomena, and so can be dismissed as unthreatening by unbelievers. So a book on Mormonism I recently read stressed Joseph Smith’s creativity in creating the texts for a new religion as well as the diverse way in which his modern followers interpret and live out his ideas. In this account, truth was never an issue.
Second, modern academia puts a great deal of emphasis on, “thinking outside the box,” or “breaking new ground.” The professor who suggested the subject for my Ph.D. dissertation (never finished) told me that the conventional wisdom was that there was no Christian revival during the Great Depression, so I should look at the revival which was, in fact, taking place within Pentecostal and Holiness groups. Much of the “publish or perish” mentality in the American university is directed toward the perceived need for more carefully nuanced arguments over the smallest details of history or in some great novel.
In the Church this has given rise to what I call “theological homesteading.” The original homesteaders were people who journeyed off into the high grass and weeds of the Great Plains to carve out farms for themselves and make them grow the crops they desired. Theological homesteaders are folks who journey off into the high grass and weeds of heterodoxy or outright heresy to carve out farms for themselves that will produce a crop of followers who agree with them. I have come across such behavior hundreds of times, both in my reading of American Church History and my daily observation of pastors I know.
Thus the fear of the ordinary and the love of the new or unique work together to create a situation where truth doesn’t matter anymore, where even the Word of God becomes a tool to be manipulated in creating and promoting ideas its writers (not to mention the Holy Spirit who inspired it) never intended. The sad thing about all this is that many people have lost, because of these developments, a knowledge of how extraordinary the Gospel of Jesus Christ really is. There is nothing ordinary about the Gospel or our faith in it. Gert Bahanna once remarked, “Either this is it. Either this is the Good News, or it’s a lot of hypocritical baloney and let’s stop it.” Our problem is that we’ve grown so used to the Gospel truths, the basic stuff of doctrine, that we easily forget how extraordinary it is.
Every religion on the face of the earth, not to mention the sub-Christian cults like Mormonism, make salvation a matter of personal effort. The Christian faith tells us that God has already done enough and invites us to accept His gracious offer of salvation. Every other religion limits access to God to a professional class of priests. In Christ we are all priests and have direct access to the throne of grace (I Peter 2:9, 10; Hebrews 4:12-16). Other religions put faith in ritual, while Jesus enters into a living relationship with us when we accept God’s grace through Him. I could make the list a lot longer, but you get the idea. There’s nothing conventional about Christianity. In your life, don’t lose the wonder of that. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too conventional. In the end, there’s nothing ordinary or conventional about our faith.