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What is it Good For?

January 7, 2008

With the cable TV still down, I’m moving through a stack of books at a satisfying rate (Incidentally, I’ve gone from worrying that our hosts will not get the TV back on, to worrying that they will, since it’ll mean the end of my recent productivity. Apparently, I’m powerless to television.).

Yesterday afternoon, I finished The Shaping of a Life (a great book which I was sad to close), and last night was Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Church. A good book, and a nice format of five friends sharing their ideas and responding to one another. I obviously went through it pretty quick, partly because it was fairly familiar content, and partly because it just wasn’t too terribly interesting.

Oh, sure, I felt a kind of morbid enjoyment with watching the pugnacious Mark Driscoll push his way around the pages (he basically offers outlines of systematic theology– the same stuff most of his readers have sitting on their shelf) and commit all manner of logical fallacies in denouncing his (supposedly) ‘unfaithful’ and ‘liberal’ brethren. Most astounding was his cavalier dismissal of Karen Ward’s chapter: he smugly notes the ‘small size’ of the church she leads, then offers a multi-point excursus on why women should not be church leaders. Nice.

But in the end, I think the thing that left me cold was that I find systematic theology so uninteresting. Now, this may be due to my overexposure to same, and I should certainly note my appreciation for my professors in college and grad school, who gave me great grounding in the Bible and in theology (or at least the slice of theologies that were permitted by those educational institutions). I can probably afford to be a little blase about these things, since they are so ingrained in my brain.

At the same time, my brain isn’t me. Of late, I’m much more interested in how God is revealed and active in us, and in our world– in the practices of people, rather than their beliefs. And besides, I think this idea of systemic understanding is a myth. No one– save a few folks gifted with huge intellect and near-perfect memory– is able to achieve it. I think I’ve seen behind the curtain, and realized that the enlightenment ideal of intellectual mastery is just that– an ideal (though it just might find its fulfillment in a post-enlightenment ability to upload information into the human brain, ala The Matrix). Just as many fresh-out-of-college junior staffers on Capital Hill learn to expect desperate calls from their Congressperson asking, “What’s my position on X issue?”, so too many professionally religious people are snatching their Big Book of Theology (and no, that’s not the Bible…) off the shelf when a parishioner calls with a question (which doesn’t actually happen that often, since normal people seem to have an intuitive sense that this stuff isn’t practical or all that helpful). Yet for some reason, the shrill demands for more clear statements of theology from certain people continue, and so the books keep coming. People keep pointing fingers, saying, “Why don’t these emerging people just tell us what they believe? What are they hiding?”. Well, maybe some of these emerging people see a truth that’s been so marginalized for so long that it sounds like heresy: our beliefs aren’t that important.

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7 Responses to “What is it Good For?”

  1. Steve says:

    You serious, Clark?

  2. Ken Tennyson says:

    Excellent post…I gave you a Digg!

  3. Okay, intentional overstatement rules, and I’m hesitant to add anything to this, but:

    It’s not that I’m completely dismissing belief, but that I’m more interested in *real* belief, i.e., our actions, which reflect our true beliefs. Abstraction is uninteresting to me (and may invite self-delusion).

    I should be mocked for buying a book about beliefs, then being unhappy that it turned out to be a book about beliefs.

  4. maria says:

    I guess what always makes me a little squirmy in the “belief v. action/practice” discussion is that we (sometimes) speak as if belief and action aren’t of a piece, that they’re anything but 2 sides of the same coin. I mean, ask anyone (emergent or otherwise) that perplexing question, “Why are you performing this particular action? What is compelling you to do it?” Will the answer always contain at least something about belief? Or meaning? Or what? Or am I just an annoying, ex-biochem major, PhD student who’s too tied in the academy? Sheesh, maybe just annoying.

  5. Ryan says:

    At the risk of turning the comments a little bit blue, I can’t say that I’m surprised that Driskoll once again took a leak on people who fail to live up to his feeble, posturing example.

  6. Ryan says:

    Well I hit Publish instead of Preview before I’d finished typing my comment. That’s what I get for commenting at 1am.

    I think between you and Maria you’ve said pretty nicely what I think about the belief/action divide, and with far fewer swear words.

    As someone who has been accused (by persons who shall remain nameless) of identifying as strongly sympathetic to something called “Orthopraxis,” I also wish “emergent” folks would quit playing along with the games of Theology Gotcha! on this or that point of arcane doctrine that oldline churches consider to be essential. The way you get out of that is to quit letting them pick the game. We’re trying to play soccer, and they’re getting huffy because we refuse to field a baseball team. Why would you take Mark Driscoll or his ilk seriously when he’s pointing at your goalie or your centerfielder and telling you how dumb you are are for not playing a shortstop there instead? Or to rephrase in a nerdier lexicon to wash off the stink of using a sports metaphor (twice), they are basically dividing by zero and accusing us of being defective numerators because their equation keeps coming out wrong.

  7. P3T3RK3Y5 says:

    this is one of your most important posts ever mike – and i’ve loved the way you’ve said it.

    i’ll be returning to this in the future… and i’m sure i’ll link to it then… but for now just wanted to give you props and say this one’s been staying with me.

    right on, ryan. like mclaren says, we’re “up here”. its a different argument. were dumb for playing / responding within the rules of the old game. or as you described so eloquently with your metaphor – we shouldn’t be concerned when their equations have zero’s in the denominator when we feed in our new data.

    time for new wineskins, huh

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