"Contrarians Unite!" A Theological Manifesto for the Rest of Us
My wife tells me that I am a contrarian. I prefer the term "non-conformist," but there you go.
Her assessment, which was made when I arrived in Central Florida as a newly minted Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and an Associate Pastor for Youth & Families (translation: Ordained Youth Director), followed on the heels of a lengthy diatribe from me about the narrow-mindedness and general evil intent of the Southern Baptist and "Non-Denominational" pastors in our small, Southern (well, Florida) town. I don't remember exactly what brought it on, but I do remember saying something to the effect of:
"@$%! Baptists! They're like Wal-Mart. Everyone hates 'em, but somehow they manage to keep opening stores, and packaging cheap stuff that a ton of people buy---all because people think they don't deserve anything better."
I actually don't think I used those exact words, but close enough. Oh, and I also mentioned something about how the pastors of the non-denominational churches were just Baptists who wanted to drink beer. There was a certain amount of jealousy embedded in my critique, I must confess. You see, the Baptist and non-denominational churches in my small Southern town were generally always full, didn't appear to have money problems, had lots of staff and started their cool, hip worship services at annoying, memorable times like 9:04 and 10:50.
I'm not bitter, really. I promise.
I told my wife that I was sick and tired of being around so many hard core, conservative people who I didn't feel deserved the monicker "colleague," and who didn't understand the first thing about grace, mercy, justice and all the things that I felt I had mastered. I added that when we had lived in Chicago that I had not been subjected to the kind of ignorance I had been forced to endure ever since we had returned home to the South. I finished by proclaiming that I was not going to associate with any of "them" ever again as long as I lived, that God didn't want me to suffer so, and as soon as we could we needed to discover a place that was enlightened, deeply imbedded in a theology of grace, open minded and free----and move there.
So at the end of my lengthy diatribe, my wife turns to me and says, "You are just a contrarian." I stammered a bit as I responded. "Wh-wh-what? Contrarian? I am NOT!"
Now, I must tell you that my wife is a lawyer, and a good one. She doesn't often lose, and when I say she doesn't often lose, I really mean that she never loses. My wife calmly pointed out that during our tenure in Chicago I would come home railing about how I was being marginalized by the "liberal" students, and the "liberal" faculty at the more progressive PC (USA) seminary I was attending. She reminded me that I was one of several sort of like-minded, theologically conservative (at the time) students who began gathering together for collective groaning over the progressive theology that we felt we were being force fed by our seminary.
I was forced to admit that she was right to a point, but I had a rebuttal. I told her that basically my issues generally centered around the idea that the world I was living in just didn't get me. I elaborated... I told her, while I was considered less than progressive by nearly everyone in my Chicago seminary, I was actually very progressive to Southern Baptist and non-denominational pastors in Central Florida. It wasn't my fault, I concluded, that I didn't have a place. There just wasn't a real category yet for someone whose self-described, Facebook religious status is "Moderately Radical."
I know. I was trying to be edgy and I failed.
In the end, I had to face facts. I really am a contrarian. I think it all stems from spending my formative years in fundamentalist Baptist churches where asking questions about theological issues was strictly verboten. I am not trying to make any sort of cultural inference by using the German word for "forbidden" when referring to the fascist-like church world I knew as a child. However, if you decide to make one, that's cool. I do know this about myself, though. Being self-aware is awesome, but when you don't really seek to change the icky things that you become aware of----that's not awesome.
So, I'd like to try to do things differently and err on the side of grace when it comes to my feelings about the Church and its people. I'd like to put my formidable contrarian powers to use for good and not for ill.
I've been pondering this post for a while.
Honestly, it was Carol Howard Merritt's blog entry here that got me thinking a bit more clearly about what I wanted to write. You should read it. It's awesome.
She referred to how so many of us mainliners believe that Evangelicals are dumb, and how that's not entirely a good thing. There's more, but I don't want to do her a disservice by trying to interpret her well-thought out ideas.
But I will say this. There's an undercurrent in the more progressive theological movements within [and without] the church that seems to be trying to pull us all in a direction I am not sure is helpful. That could be close to what Merritt warns about in her blog entry---sort of a "becoming the thing that you rail against" notion. At any rate, I tend to think it's true. At least it feels true.
Because of my fundamentalist upbringing, I've become rather keen over the years at sniffing out fundamentalism and dogmatism---as well as fanaticism, and several other "isms," just to be safe---within the Church. I've discovered that the non-Spiritual gift of intolerance is no respecter of persons. In a nutshell, when it comes to theological and philosophical bents, there is a fundamentalism of the "left," as well as a fundamentalism of the "right" within the Church. And there seem to be certain identifiers that are used by folk on both sides of the theological spectrum to determine where you land, at least in theory. So depending upon how you feel about homosexuality, issues of life, the authority of Scripture, etc., etc., you could very well discover that you have been labelled, positioned, categorized and perhaps even ostracized as a result. The truth of the matter is that we are all far too complex (if we are being honest with ourselves) to become the objects of such action. None of us live lives of absolutes. None of us.
So it grieves me when I hear the vitriol that is aimed at progressive Christians by those who self-describe as Evangelical, conservatives (For example: someone asked me recently, "How could anyone who calls themselves a Christian have voted for Obama?"). When I am in the presence of some of my more conservative, Evangelical colleagues and friends I wonder if some of the more progressive thoughts I think would alarm them and lead them to question my salvation. Maybe, just maybe, they will no longer want to buy me coffee or be my friend on Facebook.
But then there is the almost non-stop invective towards more Evangelical Christians that seems to perpetually flow from the progressive side of the theological spectrum. Admittedly, there is a lot that deserves critique within the Evangelical Christian world (like this multi-million dollar cross that a local Southern Baptist church erected--yeah, with homeless and hungry people all around them), but some of what occurs is just downright mean and not at all Christlike. And this from people who pride themselves on being open-minded, tolerant and grace-filled. And so, while I long to be both hip and accepted by my theologically progressive friends and Twitter-mates (www.twitter.com, if you are curious), I am self-aware (there I go again) enough to know that just might not happen. You see, there are things that I think and hold true that some progressive Christians feel might warrant my anathematization. And then I wouldn't get invited to really good parties with relevant discussions.
In the end, though, I have to stand where I find footing---and that footing is right here in my own contrarian state. The truth of the matter is, however, that I am not alone. I know that there are other Contrarian Christian leaders out there who are tired of being bandied about like a tennis ball, feeling as though there is no safe place to land without getting whacked back across the net.
So, I am calling upon all of you---the Contrarians.
Step out from the shadows of the coffee shop where you are hiding and not sharing your opinion on the Virgin Birth! Send that twitter that affirms your beliefs about the authority of Scripture! Update that Facebook status with that edgy quote you got from R.C. Sproul...or Marcus Borg---whatever! Wear your Nooma t-shirt to a lunch gathering of your Southern Baptist buddies! Hang up your "Save Darfur" sign in your church office window (I used that one because I just did!)! Dare the theological world to put you in a box! Challenge conservatives and progressives alike to pigeon-hole you. Go now, right now, and stand in the middle of the room you happen to be in as you read this and shout at the top of your lungs, "Nobody puts Baby in the corner!"
Contrarians, hear me when I say this. We need to lead the way at this point. Everyone else seems to be taking themselves way too seriously. Maybe this is our time, our destiny to finally bring some common purpose and mission to the fractious Church.
You see, [Contrarians] know the way forward for the Church is not a way that is marked by division and derision. It's sign posts aren't covered in hate-speech from Christians on the Left or the Right. The way forward is not darkened by difference.
The way forward contains signs painted with the words, "Peace," "Unity" and "Purity." The way forward will be illuminated by the Light of the World---the City on a Hill. Us. All of Us together.