Spencer, you're killing me here...
(Warning- this started off as a short, breezy commentary on a couple things from Spencer's book. A few hours later, my fingers are tired from typing and I'm cussing. Read on at your own risk and don't say I didn't warn you. I didn't intend to open up a can of Driscoll, but...)
Still reading a Heretics Guide to Eternity. Still not liking what I'm reading. I can see where this seems to be going, and it frustrates me. It frustrates me because I spend a lot of time arguing with schismatics that the emerging church is not rife with heresy and heretics (in the actual non-cool meaning of the word), and those same schismatics are going to make hay with this book...
I realize that's not Spencer's fault. He's just honestly trying to describe his ideas. But at this point, with all the criticism of the emerging church and the inability of the critics to differentiate between individuals and the whole, Spencer's book equals a whole lot of 'splainin' for a whole lot of us... A lot of us who see good in the emerging church, but definitely do not reside in its outer reaches of doctrinal revisionism. Yes- there are some who have lost the plot, who seem to have come up with some creative reasons why we don't need to make disciples of all nations. But they don't describe the vast majority of us who are trying to contextualize salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ for a postmodern, post-Christendom world.
More on the book itself-
It begins (and I think majors on and ends with) an argument against "religion." And the two choices Spencer seems to be providing us with are "religion" on one side, and a free-form religionless "spirituality" on the other.
"Religion, it seems," says Spencer, "is often about what makes us different and separates us, while spirituality seems to be more about what we can hold in common and what might connect us."
Now, where was that DA Carson quote again...?
I recognize that Spencer is describing a personal journey, and I'm extrememly relieved when he makes statements like
"Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that spirituality is not just personal opinions about God and the divine. Indeed, the challenge of moving beyond religion is to go beyond wallowing in some sort of of postmodern spiritual narcissism. For me, this temptation is remedied by remaining deeply committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ."But my fear is that as I continue in this book, we'll be walking down the road to "I'm deeply committed to Jesus, you are deeply committed to Krishna, and we're all good." And even if we tag "because of what Jesus did" on to the end of that statement, it still seems at odds with Scripture. It simply doesn't jibe with the words of Jesus Himself that the road to life is narrow and there are few that find it.
The whole argument against "religion" seems really wrongheaded and overly binary to me... Spencer starts with the Age of Accountability VS. the near death of his infant daughter, which of course could only turn out one way... Since "religion" didn't offer an acceptable answer in the case of infant mortality, then religion has to go. Of course, the Age of Accountability is more of a psuedo-doctrine, a straw man in this case (as opposed to the much more robust Justness of God which can pretty much stand up to anything). There are others, too numerous to mention.
One that really rankles though is this: "In the evangelical Christian tradition, you ask Jesus to take your sins. How do you get the eternal life Jesus promised? By actually praying a prayer of belief. You have to ask God to save you. Fail to ask correctly- fail to pray the prayer- and you might be out of luck."
Sorry (and excuse the language) but who the hell teaches that? Yeah, I've met a couple of intellectually-challenged fundamentalists in my day who might say something that patently dumb, but no serious evangelical would say what Spencer just said.
He continues and we begin to get to the heart of the issue with this book.
"The question, however, becomes whether or not we regard it as important that the peoples of the world call themselves Christian or that they benefit from the teachings of Christ, whether they embrace Christianity or not."
See, I understand what Spencer is saying. And that's both good and bad.
I understand what he's saying- the good: We started this whole emerging church thing because Christianity itself had over the last couple of decades done a poor job of contextualizing the Gospel to the postChristian world in which we found ourselves. We had (in the words of Dallas Willard) "buried Jesus under a heap of trivialities." When Spencer is describing this and arguing against it, it's pretty standard emerging church lingo that I can get behind. I think the American expression of Christianty needed a robust critique and I'm glad to participate in it... I don't want to see people buy into USAmerican Christianity™, I want to see people follow Jesus.
I understand what he's saying- the bad: This is the second time that he's talked about the "teachings of Jesus." See, I would love to see the world impacted by the teachings of Jesus. But the Gospel is the Good News that God Himself has come to rescue and renew creation through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. The teachings of Jesus are wonderful, but separated from the "work of Jesus on our behalf?"
Spencer says: "Could it be- that beyond religion, reason and conventional wisdom- grace is something that is opted out of rather than opted in to? Is it not something you get but something you already have?"
There's the big money question, isn't it? I understand that Spencer is positing that we all benefit from the work of Jesus on our behalf, and we do in many ways (more on this when Spencer gets to Romans later in the book), but not all of us benefit from the work of Jesus on our behalf in the same way absent any personal appropriation and acceptance of that work. I realize that Spencer is arguing the exact opposite point, but what he offers (so far at least) are questions like "what if", as in "what if we're all in already?" To which I can only reply with one of the first verses I ever memorized (I'll spare you the King James though...) "But to all who received Him, to those who believed on His name, He gave the right to be called children of God." You can posit an "opt out" system all you want... but I want to see how you handle the very clear words of the NT.
And then begins the a torrent of false choices and oversimplifications... Spencer quite literally goes off the rails...
"For years we have assumed organized religion is the only way humanity can have a relationship with the divine other- whoever that may be."
We have? Raise your hand if you believe "organized religion is the only way humanity can have a relationship with the divine other."
Hmm. No one raising their hand?
And I won't even comment on "whoever that may be."
From page 53: "I know of a group of British friends, mostly people associated with the music business, who are trying to find balance in their lives after many years of excess. Although many of these men have a complete disdain for organized religion, they frequently talk abut their spiritual experiences. They may not be religious, but they're definitely open to a relationship with a 'higher power.' It seems that the language of twelve-step groups has finally put God in loose enough categories to be palatable. Likewise, books like the Celestine Prophecy and Conversations With God have also helped these men find connections with their spiritual lives when religion has only been a barrier."
Damn it (literally).
See, if what we needed was "connection with our spiritual lives" that might be okay. But that's not what we need. We need connection with God. And He's not going to be found through whack-job rantings like the Celestine Prophecy and freakin' Conversations with God, both by new age loonies who claimed to be talking to God but were in all likelyhood talking to someone a little farther south.
I'm gonna wrap this up now and go to bed before I start sounding like Slice of Laodicea... But let me finish with one more "religion" bad/"spirituality" good dichotomy: "... there is a growing awareness that religions of all kinds are prone to blindness and idolatry that can cause immense suffering to the world."
Amen, Spencer. And let's include in that the self-worshiping religion that masquerades as "spirituality"... the one that ignores virtually the entire Bible (and pits God's love against His holiness and justice) by making statements like "Never one to judge, who'd never hold a grudge 'bout what's been done- God loves everyone" or "The expectation would be in that in the West those forms of religion that tell their followers to live their lives in conformity with external principles to the neglect of their unique subjective-lives will be in decline..."
This book is breaking my heart.