online book group: Almost Christian, chapter 9

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And so we come to the end–or the beginning! This is the place where we have to finally come to grips with all the things we’ve learned over the past 185 pages, and figure out whether we throw in the towel or look for a new way of being. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is either about to win the day or to be tossed out of the church to make its own way in the world. Which will it be?

Dean makes a case for the latter. She says MTD will always be with us because, honestly, it “will outfit us better for success in American society than Christianity will. Those who want to succeed in American life…will find that being theologically bland helps immeasurably. Yet the gospel is very clear: God wants to liberate us from being defined by these circumstances, so that we are free to follow Jesus regardless of the culture we call home.” So–while MTD may help us get along in the world, be successful, and have “the good life,” it doesn’t set us free–only the gospel can do that. Will the church take up the call?

Dean believes the church has the solution, and it lies in re-learning and re-claiming our faith. That starts with knowing God–through the stories of scripture, through looking for God out in the world, and through learning our theological tradition. What have people said about God in the past? What insights might people of other times and places have for us about how God moves in the world, how God empowers us to be a countercultural community, how the body of Christ can be active in a world that’s not so interested in it? We have two thousand years of church history to look to–we are hardly the first people to experience the marginalization of our real faith because something easier and more my-success-oriented has come along. We are hardly the first people in history to be looking for the movement of the Spirit with foggy lenses. The PCUSA Book of Confessions is full of documents written at times like these–times that require a fresh retelling of our faith, an interpretation of our story for our time. Those documents show us what people in the midst of wars, in the face of brutal oppression, and on the eve of genocide have to say about God’s work in the world. Perhaps we can learn something from them.

Perhaps it’s also time to brush up on our own practice of articulating our faith. What do we believe, and how is it played out in our lives? What does my credit card statement, my calendar, my cell phone record, my internet browser history, my attitude say about where my faith lies? How do I bring my statement of faith and my life more in line with each other, and then how do I tell this story–a story of God and the world and the church and me–to others?

As Dean says, “religious formation is not an accident.” We have talked before about how we invest our time, energy, and money into teaching and learning lots of things, but not usually in teaching and learning our faith. How can we be a community that doesn’t just say that we value education, or that we value youth, or that we are constantly learning–how can we actually BE that? I suspect Dean is right in saying that it will begin with our investment–we must spend time, spend money, spend energy, give and grow love. When we invest in our own faith development, we also invest in our children. When we grow our community not just in numbers but in depth of spirit and love and knowledge and service, we also grow our children. When we take our faith seriously–when learning doesn’t stop after confirmation class, when Sunday School isn’t just for children, when faith isn’t just inside the church building, when participating in the community isn’t optional–that’s when young people look at us and learn and, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, they imitate us and learn through that more than through anything we teach them in 45 minutes on Sunday morning.

So how do we do that? Where has the church gone wrong? We know about the whole MTD thing, we can even understand how it got there, but even thinking about solving this problem gives me a bit of a headache. We know we need to spend more time with scripture, more time in prayer, more time learning about the faith of those who’ve come before…but is there a simple start? Well…usually, the answer would be no! But on page 191 Dean gives us a 2-sentence place to begin. “The earliest followers of Jesus believed in his messianic mission and that God raised him from the dead–and understood themselves to be sent, as Christ was sent, into the world as instruments of divine love. We are the inheritors of this tradition, and there is no escaping the church’s call to participate in the messianic, redemptive purpose of God’s love in Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, whose grace is what makes ministry possible in the first place.”

That’s a big mission. But we have a big God who is more than capable of equipping us for the journey.

I love the statement Dean makes on page 188: “what separates hope from doubt is hope’s ability to stand in the known and look expectantly into the unknown.” May we look expectantly.

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One response »

  1. I love your summary and your challenge. You remind me of a coach in the locker room getting the team fired up and ready to go out and “win one for the Gipper!” But instead, we’re challenged to win the world over for God’s Kingdom. It’s an exciting gauntlet to be thrown down at the feet of Christians who have come to look at their faith through the lens of MTD. How will we respond? Coach, I’m ready to go!

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