Week of Monday, October 8, 2001
Let's admit it. Going to church can at times be a dispiriting affair. For many people the idea of church attendance is a non-starter. The sermons are predictably unimaginative, the music below average. The overall dogmatic attitude can be offensive and to be sure runs counter to the way life works in science, business or finance. At times, let's be honest, we mix the truth with lies: the earth is flat, the center of the solar system, and was created in 4004 BC; in Genesis God cursed the dark races; America is somehow special to God in ways that other nations are not; or God wants you healthy, wealthy, thin and tan. We pathetically mirror and mimic our culture rather than engage and transform it. Then there is the lamentable disconnect between the spiritual cliches we blithely parrot on Sundays and what we experience the other six days of the week. The list goes on, and I am sure that you can add examples from your own experiences.
In his newest book just released last month, Soul Survivor; How My Faith Survived the Church (2001), Phil Yancey ponders his own ecclesial disenchantment:
I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church. Every writer has one main theme, a spoor that he or she keeps sniffing around, tracking, following to its source. If I had to define my own theme, it would be that of a person who absorbed some of the worst the church has to offer, yet still landed in the loving arms of God. What allowed me to ransom a personal faith from the damaging effects of religion?If you have read and enjoyed Yancey's most recent books, namely, The Jesus I Never Knew (1995), What's So Amazing About Grace? (1997), and Reaching for the Invisible God (2000), you will once again thank God for his ready pen. If you have not yet read a Yancey book, by all means do so. There is a reason his sixteen books have sold over five million copies.
In Soul Survivor Yancey returns to a theme he addressed in his slender volume Church: Why Bother? My Personal Pilgrimage (1998). Having grown up in a strict, southern fundamentalist church where racism was rampant, overt, and preached from the Bible, he is not exaggerating when he says that he has been in recovery from some of the worst abuses of the church. Like many, he almost abandoned the faith in reaction to these abuses, but in the end he has maintained a love for Jesus and a commitment to the church. He would, I suspect, resonate with what Martin Luther once said: “Yes, the church is a whore, but she's still my mother.”
How has Yancey moved beyond his dysfunctional religious past to his spiritual present? Here is where Soul Survivor is not what you might expect from the title. After a brief introduction, in separate chapters Yancey profiles thirteen people whom he considers mentors in the faith.
- Martin Luther King (civil rights leader)
- GK Chesterton (essayist)
- Paul Brand (missionary surgeon among India's lepers)
- Robert Coles (Harvard psychiatrist)
- Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky (writers)
- Mahatma Ghandi (famous pacifist)
- C. Everett Koop (surgeon general)
- John Donne (poet and pastor)
- Annie Dillard (writer)
- Frederick Buechner (writer)
- Shusaku Endo (Japanese novelist)
- Henri Nouwen (pastor-writer)
How can we survive church? Yancey and his pantheon give us three clues.
If you know even a little about some of these people, you realize they are anything but paragons of perfection. No one would ever accuse Tolstoy or Dostoevsky of psychological stability. Ghandi was decidedly and deliberately non-Christian. Chesterton was obese. Nouwen was probably gay (but celibate) and despite all his talk about inner peace was pathologically insecure. King was both a plagiarizer and a womanizer. But herein lies a first lesson.
Cultivate accountability with a fellow, fallen pilgrim. Yancey does not overlook the sins of these saints, but neither does he “pick at the scabs of the famous.” Despite their flaws, these travelers have kept him on the journey with Jesus. We too must find friends and mentors, people who will tell us the truth (especially about ourselves) and with whom we can live in community, accountability and encouragement. Who in particular has influenced you in your Christian life? As Yancey suggests in his epilogue, “Make a list of the people who have shaped your life for the better, and try to figure out why.” Ideally, he suggests, their own failings and unfulfilled longings might help you to handle your similar human frailties.
Give due diligence to both your head and your heart. What makes Yancey's many writings so effective, I think, is that he holds in tension rather than separates these two essential realms of human existence.
On the one hand, as believing people there are important questions of critical inquiry and the dilemma of doubt. In my own experience these typically boil down to four questions: the historical-critical reliability of the New Testament story, the problem of evil (Yancey's personal nemesis), the relationship between science and faith (an over-rated and over-wrought problem, in my mind), and the question of how the exclusionary message of the Gospel (Acts 4:12, John 14:6) relates to the seventy percent of the world that is not Christian. Related to this are all the many ways the church has denied and denuded the Gospel, from phony preachers to genocidal crusades to “liberate” Palestine. On the other hand, there are the matters of the heart whereby we nurture a warm and personal relationship with the living God, follow Jesus fully, and identify with His people the church.
Too often, we separate critical inquiry and passionate piety, and end up with critical doubters whom the church alienates, or mushy-minded spiritualists who spout spiritual cliches and Bible verses to solve every problem and squelch any doubt. Without ever white-washing the church's faults or candy-coating questions of critical inquiry and doubt, Yancey maintains his evangelical piety. I like to view this as something akin to what in the British political tradition is called “loyal opposition.” Protest is never stifled because it is rooted in an unswerving commitment.
Finally, beware of the constant temptation of judgmentalism. Given his past church experience and present occupation as a journalist who has interviewed the likes of presidents, Yancey has had to struggle with a sort of reverse discrimination. As he wrote elsewhere in an essay:
Remember those Christians who peeve you so much—God chose them too. For some reason, I find it much easier to show grace and acceptance toward immoral unbelievers than toward uptight, judgmental Christians. Which, of course, turns me into a different kind of uptight, judgmental Christian.Who are the Christians you scorn? Who do you look down upon in moral, intellectual, political or financial condescension? God loves them too.
If you think of the church as a hospital for the sick rather than as a hall of fame for the spiritually perfect, and understand yourself to be seriously ill, then it is much easier to drag yourself out of bed Sunday morning and show up one more time. As one wag put it, when you find the perfect church, don't join, because you'll ruin it. We are all pilgrims on the way, far from our destination, but by God's grace headed in the right direction (Philippians 3:12–14).
The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.