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March 26, 2007



"Better to start over with a community of friends who attempt to embody the life and teachings of Jesus."

Super idea. I suspect many of us have spent far too long in "Church" meeitings we wouldn't have a frikkin clue what that cuold ever look like.


well, i'm back greg. i appreciate the contextualization of your last blog with this one. it does make things clearer. of course, if i had actually taken the time to read your ealier postings...

point very well taken on the "literal reading" of the Bible. metaphor and hyperbole can be lost on folks--

i agree with you about the nature of the church--at least i think i do. i've felt for a long time the institutional creature we call "church" doesn't really mesh well with Jesus' idea of his group of folks.

i'm not certain though i agree with your point #7. i suggest not only no world religion-but no world anti-religion answers it either (at least not satisfactorily). pragmatically most folks don't live atheistic lives--(well, maybe i overstate the case, there were a few i've wondered about...oh, sorry)--if we did who would survive? so how does our inability to explain away the difficulty of evil mitigate the existence of God?

agree with you and phil about the few friends in community. but maybe i'm just too much of a pollyana--could even institutional xianity get a glimpse? i say this cuz i'm smack in the middle of it (not a fundangelical--though some of my acquaintences and colleagues are).

i appreciate your approach to scripture--i've never seen it articulated the way you have (i believe it was in a different post than this one)--not certain i totally agree with it, but it certainly has been thought through. the primacy of the gospel i think is obvious. however, i can't help but think the process (i think it's called canon criticism--been a while since i've done that sort of reading) gave us the graphe in the form God intended. (that's why i'll stick with eternal existence--1 Cor. 15 and all that jazz). i like n.t.wright's take on it, though.

ok, i'm shutting up. i'm beginning to sound the bore now.



Welcome. I'd love to get a beer with you as well, especially on an island in the Pacific. It's got to beat the view in Oklahoma.


The problem of theodicy is not one non-theists have to answer. If we believe in God, and we believe God is good, then we have to explain how goodness includes setting up a system that allows for random decimation of innocent people. (If you were a fundangelical, this is where you'd remind me that no one is innocent. Even the babies deserve to have their heads bashed in, just like in Joshua's time, right Mrs. Pilgrim?) So, perhaps I should have said it's a huge problem for theists who believe God is good, rather than believe in God. After all, Hinduism has an explanation of sorts, in that one of the Trimurti represents destruction so that new life can follow. That is at least an attempt at theodicy, as opposed to Calvinism which would simply assert that whatever God does is good without ever answering when I ask, am I not supposed to do as God does? Other traditions take different routes, none of which exonerate God. Enter Job now to explain to me that I don't get to question God. It's not that I hate the Bible, Mrs. P, it's that it makes no sense, unless of course you're looking for a heretical Nazarene who redefined holiness and the in-group in his time.


"I simply deny that the Church does a good job of embodying, communicating, or mediating the grace and the kingdom."

I really feel like that is an issue that gets people all frenzied up. It's like if you say we need to relearn church or just do away with it and start over because it's not working anymore, an entire person's faith is destroyed.

I have to agree that for the most part the Church universal doesn't do a good job emodying Christ. I think for the system to change, certain power structures have to be realigned and certain pastoral types who understand (to the best of their knowledge) what Christ attempts to do in life.

As for theodicy. That is a new term and a new struggle I am going through right now in Seminary. I really enjoyed Fretheim's God in the Old Testament book. I felt like I got a better grasp of understanding why shit happens. But my new understanding is conflicting with my upbringing because then God is not in control because God chooses not to micromanage.

eh, I don't know. I am just a first year seminary student getting torn down. It's great.


i don't guess i communicated my point well. true, non-theists have no need to esplain the goodness of God and reconcile it with the existence of evil. h/ever any explanation of evil, why it exists and how to deal with it is mostly unconvincing. for me to believe God is capricious leaves me with a major challenge. to believe God doesn't exist gives me a headache (and several inexplicable problems all relating to the possibility of something coming from nothing...if that is too much reliance on logic, sorry--can't help it--keep running into that algebra class), i'm left with "God being good, but knowing something we just don't grasp" as being the only alternative that doesn't lead me to a suicidal existentialism. does my belief have major flaws? hey, i'm up to it. am i somewhat insane for accepting the Bible as a book that expresses reality and God's character as more than schizophrenic or psychotic? maybe so (not a literalist, though--and you're right, greg, no one really is)--and yes, i'm terribly uncomfortable with "happy are those who bash your children's heads against the walls" (lose paraphrase)! can't explain that very well. don't know if i ever will be able to. but, in your words--i can't let go of this Jesus, who seems to hold those writings as legitimate, who also seems to claim not just solidarity with God, but a unity with God unlike anyone else has. i even believe somehow those letters in the nt are accurate meditations on the gospel stories of this man/god/deity who rose from the dead.

there you have it. i'm outed. call me a christ follower (but don't call me a fundangical, please!--i know you haven't). i've never bought into the mainline protestant theology as described and shared by calvin and augustine. arminius had some good points, though...

(i'm gonna have a hard time getting any work done, now that i've found this site...)


Best. Post. Ever. Thanks for letting me know that I'm not alone. We're moving to a new area soon, and I want to start embodying some of these principles (community of friends, etc.). Question: Would this sort of thing inevitably lead to just another institution? After all, isn't that sort of how Christianity started in the first place? How do we keep from growing another many-headed Christian beast while at the same time making ourselves available as a place where people seeking this kind of conversation/community can gather?

I'm all for letting the community grow organically, but is there still something to be said for people driving down the street who see a church and come inside to find Christ? Does that ever happen? (Or is it a reflection of my fundangelical conditioning and subsequent emergent reprogramming that I automatically worry about seeker evangelism?)


"Here's the problem, nearly every argument for the continuation of the Church as institution comes from within the Church as institution. How can you make an honest argument when so much of your life, livelihood, and understanding of the faith is tied to a particular definition of church?"

I'm sympathetic to both the general content of this blog and to the ways in which our circumstances can blind us ideologically (I am, after all, an English major). But it seems dishonest for you to basically discount from the beginning the opinions and thoughts of anyone who is involved in an institutional church, and that is exactly what you are doing here.

This is the classic Marxist blunder. Marxists have long decried how people go against their own interests because they have been so thoroughly blinded by ideology that they can't recognize what is actually going on around them. Yet these sorts of arguments are so incredibly easy to turn around: one could just as easily argue that Marxists have become so caught up in their own ideological views of the world that they also have no objective, ideology-free view of reality (and this is never more true than in the many grad school types who like to think of themselves as ultra-radical socialists but who work for an institution (the academy) which largely works in support of capitalism and who are developing very expensive tastes that they hope to be able to partake in more completely when they get "real" jobs as professors; they like to feel good about themselves by saying "I'm not a capitalist," which almost guarantees that they'll become capitalists of the worst kind).

The point is this: can't someone just as easily say that you yourself can't make an honest argument about the degradation and potential uselessness of the institutional church because your own negative experiences at the hand of the church have colored your perception so as to make you unable to honestly evaluate it? I actually won't make that argument, because it does nothing but shut down conversation and because it is a particularly glaring example of the genetic fallacy (i.e., evaluating an idea based on its source and not its own merits). But mostly I won't make that argument because while I'm incredibly skeptical, I also know that I, along with everyone else, will have ideological blindspots that keep me from seeing the entire picture, but I still want others to extend me the courtesy of letting me speak from my perspective because my ideological inclinations may actually have something useful to contribute to the discussion, just as I assume yours do. To do otherwise is to place yourself in a position of having a privileged perspective over the rest of us mortals simply on the basis that you've decided to leave an institution that has done a great deal of good (and evil, I will admit) in the world and which many people still find quite meaningful but which you personally happen to find rotten to the core.

I also wonder if your own anti-institutional perspective creates its own particular biases that tend to ignore some of the facts. You say that you are fascinated by the story of Jesus, but it is incredibly unlikely that there would even be a story of Jesus still around for us to hear about it were it not for an institutionalizing of the church; the main source for our knowledge of Jesus, the gospels, are products of communities/schools that were some of the early institutions set up by the apostles (or other early followers), and the transmission of that story up until today has only happened because an institution formed by the gospels thought it best to pass on that story. So you owe a debt of gratitude to that institution which you see as nearly worthless now.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, when I read the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, I see Jesus and the apostles setting up both communities of mutual friendship and institutions. There are over seventy people following Jesus around at some points (sounds like a congregation-sized group (heck, it's larger than the church I go to), not just "a community of friends"), and the apostles are clearly given administrative roles (Peter basically a head elder, Judas as treasurer, etc.) while at the same time being part of a community of friends. While the early Acts communities who followed "The Way" do seem to be ideal, you see an incredibly involved institutional structure developed almost immediately (how could they not with 3000 converted on the first day of official ministry), especially seen when Stephen and others are appointed to help distribute food, and later when they have what seems to be a quite formal council in Jerusalem to debate issues of doctrine. So my question is this (and it is a real question, not a sarcastic one): how do you account for these institutional elements that flow so thoroughly through this story that you came to love and still have such a thoroughly anti-institutional bias?


I would say this, when you move away from the denomination as the identity of "the Church," and start seeing the "church" on an individual basis, one on one, then maybe you can move forward.

Jesus said, "narrow is the way, and few there be that find it." If 2/3 of America claim to be Christian, and the remainder atheist, (roughly) I think as a large part, either Jesus was wrong in what He said, or there is a lot organized religion that is missing the mark. (`amartia) And I would bet Jesus wasn't wrong.


I think you did actually make the argument, and for a good two paragraphs. As for the last paragraph, I dunno. All I do know is that anything that forces conformity without actually creating in people the understanding of why they should conform and the desire in themselves to conform to something is seriously flawed. Also, I've always thought the early church seemed pretty communistic. It's funny that you mentioned Marx.


W.W.K.D? What would Karl do with the modern church?



The primary difference as I see it between my argument and the Marxist argument is the issue of vested interest. I have no vested interest in the church continuing or discontinuing. I'm going to do what I do whether or not the church on the corner folds. My point was that most people who are capable of making the argument among those that want to (pastors, professors, denominational leaders, etc.) are bound up by vested interests. I'm sure the average guy in the pew wants the institution to survive, but for the most part, and this is elitist, he is not capable of making a good theological/ecclesiological argument about the necessity of the institution's survival.

I'm fully aware that I have ideological blind spots, but anyone who knows me or who has read this blog for the past three plus years knows that I've worked through much of what I believe and disbelieve about church, and I'm weary of all the arguments that assert any critique of the institution is based on anger or hurt. Is it possible to have legitimate ideological differences without there being an axe to grind? Must I always be a victim in order to criticize? This form of dismissiveness is one of the most common in the institution: "well, bill and sue left because they were hurt by a previous pastor or..." In other words, the psychological state of the critiquers is where the real weight of the argument should be placed. They were hurt; let's help fix them. That allows the institution to remain intact while admitting to some behavioral error without ever acknowledging the fundamental error of Constantinianism or instutionalization or hierarchical structures, etc.

I don't know that I'd call the seventy an institution, and I'm pretty sure that Jesus never gave primacy to anyone (Mark 10 maybe helpful). We read back into the relationships an organizational structure that is anachronistic. Jesus didn't set up congregations, and the 3000 that were "saved" at Pentecost didn't stay in Jerusalem and go to a megachurch; they went back to dozens of different towns, cities, and villages.

The story of Jesus might well have remained without the church. It's not like the church has done a good job with the message. The anabaptists believed it and tried to live it, and their reward was torture and death at the hands of Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. It seems every time some group takes the message seriously, a bishop or superintendent or president or pastor becomes an apologist for the "greater good" over against the message.

It's not like you have to have official Scriptures or institutions for the faith to survive. Hinduism has been around far longer than Christianity, with a very decentralized structure, no official holy book, and no one telling everyone what they have to believe. Imagine. Perhaps the reality of the experience could be strong enough that institutionalization isn't necessary.


My friendships have never debilitated into an institution; they have remained friendships. It's only when we decide we need an official Bible study or small group that personalities start asserting themselves for leadership. Institutionalization is not a necessary evil within a community of friends. We're still trying to make Christianity fit our notions of church, rather than try to make our lives reflect the hope and redemption implicit in the resurrection.

I feel free to say that by the end of the first century, the second and third generations after Jesus had so disassembled the radical message of the Gospel that we had men in charge and bishops and deacons and elders and silent women and so on. Pretty soon the Eucharist ceased being a meal and became a sacrifice that had to be presided over by a priest. Yet we're comfortable saying that is the way things should have gone?

Not sure how I feel about people wandering into a "church" to get saved. I'm sure it happens, but since the church in the U.S. stopped growing before I was born, let's say it doesn't happen often.


hey, maybe you were hurt, maybe you weren't. we can't totally divorce our experience from our thinking. but i do agree: suggesting vicitmization is a bit condescending. i was fired once from a church. got over it, though. i even have coffee and an occasional meal with those guys who fired me. (we still like each other, too). i don't think bad experiences necessarily have to dominate my argumentation.


in other words, greg--i take you at your word.


I confess that I went to the (pyro)Maniac's blog to read what was being said about this discussion from "within the fold of orthodoxy." I could not bring myself to read the comments because the author cut off any meaningful discussion with his "God Himself holds us responsible for believing what He has revealed." I was looking for serious dialogue and got a bumper-sticker--[God said it, I Believe it, That settles it].

But at least it was a bumper sticker with a disclaimer: "It is our duty to receive it as fully-reliable, objectively true, factually accurate, historically trustworthy, inerrant, unchanging, eternal, and divinely-revealed truth."

I assume the "it" refers back to the "what" in the previous sentence. My old theology professor would rake me over the coals for that kind of ambiguous antecedent. I wish I were more poetic. I'm sure I could come up with a response that would at least be worthy of a t-shirt. But to start a discussion, at least partially about uncertainty, with a statement of such absolute certainty and then to accuse those who are willing to acknowledge their uncertainty of false humility is just plain old arrogance. I hope somebody called him on it. I don't plan to go back to find out.


Most contemporary Marxists do not claim immunity from ideological influence for their own philososphy, but epistemological breaks do occur from time to time. Once a person is able to see part of how a particular ideology is constraining his/her thinking he can begin deconstructing the ideology and his own belief and behavior. At that point, he would be able to speak with more authority on certain things than a member of the same ideological community who has not reached espistemological break. Of course, there's no objective position from which any of us can view the whole of the argument, but it seems apparent to me that a person willing to admit so-called ideological blindspots is a step ahead on the honest search for 'truth' than the person who claims to have an ex parte affirmation of his own belief.


greg, I've really appreciated your last 2 posts. I'm pretty much in the same place, although I likely haven't been as honest and open (even to myself) about as you have.


It's my Birthday. Happy Birthday, me.


Greg, I appreciate you laying this out. It's pretty much where I'm at. After getting caught up on the posts of the past few days, wading through endless judgment and fundie tripe, I want to reiterate something I've said before: Get some advertising going here. If you have to endure that drivel (okay, fundies, we get it: you worship the Bible), you might as well make some beer money off it. In fact, think of all the money you could make by doing a post on the chocolate Jesus. Maybe you could claim to be the one who has its penis.


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