(The first part of my thoughts on Spencer's book can be found here)
I simply cannot believe what I am reading.
I've picked up A Heretic's Guide to Eternity again (don't think I'll link to this any more...)
Oh my sweet... It just keeps getting worse.
The second of three sections starts with some reality checks for the church. Okay- I'm always up for a few of those. Kind of a hobby for me, you could say. These "reality checks" are things like "pluralism" and people finding spiritual input from places other than "the Church" like... The Simpsons or films ike What Dreams May Come. Gotcha. This is reality.
But it's in these "reality checks" that I think we start to get a sense not just of where Spencer is coming from, but perhaps why. He makes this jaw-dropping statement: "Today, the church just doesn't have that kind of control. It may still offer catechism classes, 'discipleship' courses, and Christian maturity growth tracks in an effort to exert some control over the spiritual formation of congregants, but the reality..."
Hold up. Say what now?
Did he say "in an effort to exert some control over the spiritual formation of congregants"???
I think he did. Spencer, is that really what you think is happening? Let's leave aside all the obviously abusive situations that we could pull out in an effort to bolster this argument. Are you really suggesting that the average church has as its motivation for discipleship exerting control over people? Was that your motivation as a pastor?
I'll leave this broad-stroke slam against the pastors/elders/ministry leaders who love, care for, sweat for their people and their growth in Christ without further comment, other than to say this: Spencer, this sentence alone tells me worlds more about where you are coming from than it does about the systems you are critiqueing.
Here's a doozy. The third reality check he cites is the impact of individualization. Spencer says, starting with a quote from Robert Bellah "'The symbolization of man's relation to the ultimate condition of his existence is no longer the monopoly of any groups labeled religious... Any obligation of doctrinal orthodoxy has been abandoned by the leading edge of modern culture.' He goes on to say that in the future, individuals will have to work out their own solutions to questions about the sacred."
You know, if I was hearing this kind of stuff from a college freshman on the PSU campus I could take it in stride. It's the kind of thing I expect... But from someone with Spencer's background? From someone who even in this very book has expressed devotion for "the teachings of Jesus"?
Spencer, don't you see that the whole point of Jesus is that we can't work out our own solutions?
I could type and type and type about the mischaracterizations in this book and the tower of cards built on those mischaracterizations.
For example, even Luther gets the treatment... "He may have rejected the 'selling of eternity' via indulgences, challenged the authority of the pope, and argued for new perspectives in the way the Christian church conducted itself, but he remained firmly committed to the medieval idea of how institutions should function. He desired to be a reformer, hoping to return the church to its earlier 'innocent' state rather than looking forward to the future and the potential rebirth of the church.
What's ironic, of course, is that although Luther replaced the selling of indulgences, he went on to invent his own system of economics by which grace could be recieved. Built around his own views on the importance of the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed and the Sermon on the Mount, Luther's theory emphasized the internal concept of faith. Catholicism, on the other hand, focused on the issue of externals- good works as evidence of internal faith. Yet both were transactional deals in one form or another."
Ahh... I was wondering who came up with that whole transactional (my sin for Christ's righteousness), based-on-faith "theory"... Good to know it was Luther who made the whole thing up. Here I was thinking it was Paul, in Romans 4...
I feel another one of those headaches coming on here...
In a list of "I'm concerned" statements (a number of which I agree with, by the way), Spencer says "I'm concerned when Christianity is presented as the only way to God." Darn straight! Me too! Christianity has absolutely nothing to do with it. Christ, however, has everything to do with it. Christianity will get you nowhere. Christ, on the other hand, is the only way to God. It would be wonderful to hear Spencer affirm this. If he has, though, I've missed it. Instead, as the book goes on, we get statements that seem increasingly out of left field like "I'm concerned when the church says that a certain person or a particular group of people have no access to the grace of God because of their sexual orientation or becaue they grew up in some other part of the world under the influence of a different view of religion."
Now, raise your hand out there if you believe that anyone's sexual orientation means that someone has no access to the grace of God.
Spencer, surely you are not equating a belief that same sex eroticism is somehow counter to God's design and desire for sexuality with the idea that someone is beyond the grace of God?? Or the idea that everyone, regardless of where they are born, or into what religisous system of thought (be it Hindu, Muslim or Christian) needs to come to God through relationship with Jesus?
And here's where Spencer loses any credibility with evangelicals, post-evangelicals and all but the most theologically revisionist of us in the emerging church:
"Institutional Christians tend to have a very narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible. Christianity is the only way to reach God, certain Christians argue, because the Bible says so. It tells us that Jesus said, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'... So how do I interpret this particular Scripture? In the next chapter, I'll explore it more fully, but I don't believe it can be used to argue that Christianity is the only true religion. First, Christianity as a religion didn't exist when Jesus spoke these words. Compounding this point are two additional facts: no one actually recorded Jesus' words at the time he spoke them, so we have no proof that they are indeed his words, and what he did say, he said in Aramaic, which means that nothing in the Bible as translated into any other language can be taken literally anyway... to read this as a literal statement requires that I take the other statements about he makes about himself as literal. For example, Jesus declares that he is the bread and the vine and the Good Shepherd. Does that mean he is literally a loaf or a bread or a plant? Of course not! These are metaphors, clues to somethng about his character and person."
Aye carumba... And the sad part is, this is about as much as Spencer has (thus far, half-way through) engaged any Scripture at all.
Let me say this in wrapping up this installment of "Oh, Spencer"...
If you are going to pay lip service to "the teachings of Jesus" and declare that we should remain "deeply committed to them", then don't go pulling absolute crap like this. To affirm "the teachings of Jesus" out of one side of your mouth and then turn around and out of the other side attempt (poorly attempt, but attempt nonetheless) to pull the rug out from under those teachings which do not sit well within the new theological construct you are manufacturing out of seemingly thin air is poor, poor scholarship, poor argumentative method and shows that you really don't give a damn about "the teachings of Jesus."
Spencer, I'm sorry if I'm being harsh, but I can't see this book as anything other than evidence that you have lost the plot. I understand your frustration with "Christianity." Really, I do. I share most of it.
But in attempting to rethink "religion" you have inadvertantly shown Jesus the door as well. I understand you don't think so- but the Jesus who preached love of God and love of neighbor also spoke about belief in Him, about a narrow path to life that few find, and your idea that "we're all in unless we opt out" is not only biblically baseless, but is also quite simply, a lie.
This is a broken world and we are broken people. The good news, though, is that God Himself has come to rescue and renew all of creation through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
But telling people that they experience the saving grace of God irrespective of personal faith and trust in God's Savior, in God's provision for forgiveness is a cruel and terrible thing to do.
This book was breaking my heart... now it's just making me angry.
I'll end this by quoting Scot McKnight's words to Spencer:
"Spencer, you’re a good guy. But I have to say this to you: Go back to church. Go back to the gospel of Jesus — crucified and raised. Let the whole Bible shape all of your theology. Listen to your critics..."