Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Say Goodnight, Gracie

My old friend the minister is at it again, giving me material for a blog post. He just posted on Facebook:
We're beginning a new series of messages at Trinity UMC-Elkhart this weekend. Calling it BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS TRUTHS ABOUT GOD. We're wading into deep water. Talking about such BIG mysteries as the Trinity, the 2nd Coming, and the fact (this week) that grace comes in three in three ways.
In fairness to the man, he commented on his status himself right off: "Oh, for cryin' outloud, Chaplain. Get a life...or a scone... or a turnover...or muffin...or French toast...." This refers, of course, to an earlier status in which he discussed being teased because eating scones isn't manly. But he didn't really mean it, I'm sure, or he'd cancel the "series of messages." Anyway, an earlier status read thusly:
Bring your Bible. Be prepared to dig deep. We'll be exploring such big mysteries as the Trinity, the 2nd Coming, etc. Tell your friends. This weekend we're talking about the fact that the NT teaches us grace comes in three different flavors. Works in three different ways in our lives.
Three different flavors? The New Testament? I kinda wish I could be there, Mark, with my Bible. But it wouldn't be a good thing to do, even if I weren't on the other side of the planet at the moment. I'd do my best to sit on my hands, because I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about these "mysteries," but I'd probably have to be gagged to keep from behaving badly. (I can't help wondering: does "Tell your friends" include bringing outsiders like me, or better still, a competent New Testament scholar?) This is a good example of what I find objectionable about the kinds of Christians who like to think of themselves as respectable, and who are often seen as such even by non-Christians: nice, white, suburban, mild and not pushy (except for that crap about BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS TRUTHS ABOUT GOD). They mostly wouldn't talk about these things in public, and except for the more militant fundamentalist atheists, most non-Christians would either shake their heads derisively or hush themselves and tiptoe out if they hear about them, because it's a Christian thing and they wouldn't understand.

Here's what bugs me about all this. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, has certain knowledge about the Trinity, the Second Coming, or Grace, or any number of other theological issues. The Second Coming in particular is hotly controversial among Christian scholars of the Bible, and it was the topic that caught my eye and made me want to hear just what Mark is going to have to say about it. You can spin all kinds of tall tales about it, but most are no better or truer (maybe hairier) than anyone else's. Apocalyptic is basically an embarrassment to the mainline churches, who prefer to ignore the matter or obfuscate it as much as possible. You can't possibly deal with it adequately in a "message" or a "series of messages," and if you do deal with it adequately you'll end up with questions instead of answers; the same goes for his other topics, but this is the one I've spent the most time looking at myself. The Trinity and Grace are even more vacuous. There are times when I feel some sympathy for pastors who have to try to find something resembling sense in theology and pass it along to their congregations, but this isn't one of them.