I make much of “aiming for the center” in my preaching and teaching. It is my desire to make much of Jesus, to hold him as the idea, the goal, the focus, and the living word of God. My spiritual development has taken me away from being propositional and boundary driven and moved me to a focus on Jesus as the living Lord and master of the living way.
This change began at Lee University when I studied theology under Dr. Don Bowdle. He assured us young theologians that he wasn’t there to confirm what we had learned in Sunday school but rather to teach us Christian theology. He was a deeply spiritual man as well as a scholar. He was a Pentecostal (Church of God, Cleveland, Tn.) yet he was deeply committed to the principles of Reformation theology. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Karl Barth was the bread and butter of his theology. He also held a deep respect for Donald G. Bloesch, a Neo-Orthodox Evangelical in the United Church of Christ.
Under Dr. Bowdle I learned that Jesus was the living word of God and that Holy Scripture bears witness to that word. Dr. Bowdle believed that scripture was both inspired and inspiring. It should always move us toward Jesus and away from any theology that did not focus on Christ.
This emphasis scared me to death. I remember being so very scared because I had grown up with a very rigid and defined doctrinal commitment that was built on a well-defined theological statement.
I grew up not doubting the rigid theology that was taught to us and defined for us “who’s in and who’s out”.
Through my experience at Lee, sitting under the teaching of Dr. Bowdle, I embraced a faith that moved away from our narrowly defined theology and toward a broader evangelical faith that was ecumenical, historically sound, Christo-centric, and rooted in scripture.
This process of change, changed me and the way that I look at the Bible. If one grows up in rigid and doctrinaire faith they are taught to use the inductive method of Bible study; searching the scriptures thematically, and creating a hodge-podge of “proof texts” to support one’s position(s).
At Lee I was able to learn a bit about the historical development of scripture, doctrine, and the various competing theologies that inform(ed) the development of my own tradition. This process introduced me to narrative theology.
Although Dr. Bowdle was a big fan of Calvin’s Institutes and Barth’s Dogmatics, he also helped us to see the big story, the story of redemption in Christ. I have discovered over time that the narrative is far more satisfying to the heart and the mind than a doctrinally rigid approach. It forces me to interact with the story and to take the Bible for all it’s worth. It forces me to let go of theological “hoop jumping” and it helped me to see that so much of pop culture American Evangelical theology is more of an expression of white conservative culture than it is historical Christianity.
So this is where the “paralyzing fear” comes in. My culture is middle class, rural/suburban, white, moderate, and United Methodist. I preach the gospel of Jesus; from the virgin birth to the resurrection. I really believe in Orthodox Christianity. I buy into the story. I take seriously the message of Jesus and I am seeking to live life by his teachings.
Doing that, I often find myself deeply disturbed by my own culture mores and norms. I recently looked at a local evangelical church website and was baffled. It showed a 6 year old boy carrying a rifle, it highlighted a story claiming that Christians were being persecuted in the army and that chaplains were resigning, it lamented the terrible state of politics (which of course was a not so veiled punch at President Obama and the push by gay citizens to seek equal rights like everyone else).
I am not really opposed to little boys going hunting, I did. I am not too keen on our current state of politics, I don’t always agree with Obama, and even though I am not homophobic, the changing culture can be a bit scary. But I have no interest in equating Christianity with guns, hating the black guy in the white house, and “fighting the gays”.
Rather I am convinced more than ever that I want to immerse myself in the good news of the message of Jesus Christ. I want to immerse myself in the narrative. I want to hear Jesus through the scripture, the church, and the Spirit; and speak/live that message in my cultural context. But it can be fearfully paralyzing to try and do that. There is a certain expectation among Evangelicals to be culturally conservative and to join the culture war. Yet I don’t Jesus anywhere near the culture war.
I see Jesus hanging out with the “sinners” and offering them a better way to live. I see Jesus feeding hungry folks and teaching them a better way to live. I see Jesus healing sick folks and teaching them a healthier way to live. I see Jesus angering the conservative establishment (Pharisees, or maybe the evangelical establishment), and getting killed for it. And to be honest I am not so much into getting killed, whether that is literally (probably not gonna happen), or in any other way (career, reputation, community standing). Yet I cannot but tell what I see and hear. I see Jesus loving and helping those deemed a lost cause by the conservative establishment. I hear Jesus saying “go and make disciples”. I see Jesus as being theologically orthodox, but socially pretty radical. And for me this is far more exciting than the white bread boredom that finds its value in rigid doctrine and who it despises. But to be honest it scares the crap out of me…