211. a whole new world
Yeah, I haven’t posted anything new in a while, but it’s because I feel I’m on the verge, on the cusp of a grand new vista that’s only beginning to open up to me. And I want to break on through to the other side before writing a whole lot more, but here’s a little preview.
Last Sunday, I attended a church service at Hope Chapel Manoa and the service centered around 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 which reads:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
The bit that I connected with the most is the part in v26 which reads, “. . .I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.” And I connected with that verse because that’s the exact opposite of what most of my Christian life has been like. My (pathetic lack of) understanding of what Christianity was about was formed out of a shallow blend of group-think, herd mentality, peer pressure, and fear. Basically, I swallowed whatever the church put in front of me and I know that’s not healthy, that we’re supposed to test what pastors and teachers say against what the Bible says but they’ve got their degrees and their titles and their position so who was I to question them? Besides, I was afraid they’d revoke my Asian identity card if I made too many waves.
So I did what I was told and I believed what I was told.
But at some point, I just got tired of suppressing the questions that I had and I gave up on trying to fit into the mold that the church seemed to be trying to cram me into. Looking back now, most of my Christianity was just “running aimlessly” and “beating the air.” I was working at something but I wasn’t going anywhere, I wasn’t connecting with anything.
At the top of the blog, I mentioned how I felt on the verge of some kind of understanding, and this understanding has to do with what it was that Christ came to earth to do – what he was trying to teach us about why we’re here and how his church was to be an agent of light and change in a world of never-ending hurt and alienation. I’m discovering these things as I’m finally making my way to the end of two amazing books: The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren and Simply Christian by N.T. Wright. And I know I’ve been talking about these books for weeks, but I’m a slow reader, particularly with these books because they deserve (if not demand) a close reading.
And what I’m finding is that what Jesus wants to do in the world, and the way he wants to do it is far more amazing (shocking, in fact) than anything I have ever heard in my twenty years or so as a Christian. It’s nothing short of revolutionary and it comes, not by way of force, but by love. And that sounds all hippie and soft and PC, but think about all of those Christians in the first century who were martyred by lion, by gladiator, by stoning. Think of the Christians today in the Middle East or in China who have to live with the fear of their government coming to their homes in the middle of the night and carrying them away to torture and to jail and sometimes to death. Not to be too harsh, but do you think that they would risk all of that for the kind of feel-good-Christianity that gets preached in many churches in America today?
Okay, not to disappoint, but I’m not quite there yet. I’m catching glimpses of a vision of Christianity that is worth dying for, that is worth crawling over broken glass to share, that is crazy enough to be true, and impossible enough to be possible only with God’s help.
And here’s the coolest part. It’s not some new revelation, not some new way to read the Bible, not some radical kind of re-visioning of the Gospel. It’s quite the opposite. What McLaren and Wright are trying to do is peer back through time, back to first century Israel. They try to understand the life and message of Christ through the ears and experiences of his peers, through first century Jews and Gentiles.
Think of the Sistine Chapel. Years of varnish and soot from thousands (if not millions) of candles had darkened the ceiling painted by Michelangelo. In 1981, the Vatican undertook a massive restoration project which was not completed until 1994. When it was finally unveiled, it was a shocking revelation. Dull, muted colors (see http://www.cegur.com/Michelangelo/RestorationBefore.html) exploded with life and vibrancy (see http://www.cegur.com/Michelangelo/RestorationAfter.html). The results met with nearly unanimous acclaim from critics, academics, and the general public. But there were some who mourned the loss of the old version, claiming that things like the darkening patina and the later (150 years later) additions of loincloths on some of the nude figures was actually a part of the cultural history of the work. Now I’m no art expert, but I don’t think it takes a PhD in art history to appreciate the ability to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as Michelangelo originally painted it.
And I wonder if a similar kind of restoration needs to take place for Christianity. Perhaps we need to strip off the crust of two thousand years of embellishment and interpretation and tradition so that we can get back to the essence of the original message. And I’m not suggesting that we jettison all those years of critical thinking regarding the Bible, because they do offer necessary, valuable insight into what it does and does not say. But I do believe that we may have tamed too much of the Gospel through study and analysis. In making it simple and convenient to share (as if the message of Christ was a Hot Pocket), we’ve also sucked the mystery and mission out of it.
So be patient. There’ll be lots more question and commentary to come, and I’m thinking that they’re going to be big questions.