Last week I had a breakthrough of sorts. I had been thinking all these years that I am a cutting-edge Christian, but now I have evolved in my thinking and have come to realize that, like most of you, I am a cut and paste Christian.
I realize that the phrase “cut and paste” has a negative connotation, especially when applied to how we read the Bible. People accuse one another of taking a cut and paste approach to the Bible. What they mean is that they are critical of those who read and accept only parts of the Bible. Well, that’s not a cut and paste approach to the Bible. Choosing to ignore or downplay parts of the Bible is only cutting. But guess what? Everyone does that. Everyone reads the Bible in a selective way. We emphasize the parts we like and ignore the parts we don’t like.
At the same time, it is not just our reading of the Bible that is selective. The way we interpret the Bible is also selective. We are all selective readers and selective interpreters. Everyone does this, from the most fundamentalist to the most liberal of Bible readers. Let’s just admit it and move on.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way . . . I am also growing fond of the cut and paste image for myself in terms of my religious orientation. Why? Because, as I noted in my last book, called An Undevotional, we are all religious artists. And yes, cutting and pasting is an artform. Don’t judge.
Here are some selected statements from the introduction to my book, An Undevotional:
“Religion per se is an art form . . . the observance and practice of religion is something that each one of us fashions for ourselves much like an artist produces something that only they can produce . . . Religion is an art, we are the individual artists, and many of us belong to colonies of other religious artists . . . The Bible itself is an art collection . . . The church is a canvas, the people are the artists, and the words, music, visuals, etc. are artistic expressions beyond parallel in the secular world.”
So, fellow artists, let’s do some more cutting and pasting . . . with an emphasis on pasting.
Last week I introduced Philip Gulley, a Quaker writer from Indiana. Gulley has written many works of fiction and non-fiction. The book that I am focusing on for this series is titled, If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus.
This reminds me of the Jeff Foxworthy style of humor when he employs the phrase “You might be a redneck if.” Gulley, who exhibits a certain Southern flare in his writings (especially his fictional writings), could have titled his book, The Church might be Christian if . . .
In fact, I think I will tweak Gulley’s chapter titles in his book to reflect Foxworthy’s wording. By doing that, then last week’s topic would have been, “The Church might be Christian if . . . Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship.” If you missed my conversation on that, then go back and listen to it after you listen to my talk today.
Moving on to Gulley’s second point: The Church might be Christian if . . . Affirming our potential would be more important than condemnation our brokenness.
Since day one it seems, the Church has always had trouble being positive rather than negative. We have a “sin fixation.” Perhaps the primary reason we focus on human brokenness (sin) rather than our potential for goodness is because, dare I say it, brokenness keeps the church in business.
To keep the business going the Church has always assumed that we need a supply and demand model. Like a good business, the Church has created a system that almost guarantees repeat customers. What does this supply and demand model consist of?
Well, because the Church points out to people how broken they are, i.e. sinful, they create a demand for such things as forgiveness, mercy, and salvation. As the Apostle Paul calls it “a new creation.” In business terms, think of a new model car; think of new and improved laundry detergent; think of an upgraded cell phone or computer; think of a bicycle that needs repair.
Do you see what I’m getting at? If the Church (or any religion) can convince you that you are “broken,” then they have created a demand. And, of course, the church has the supply to meet that demand—an ample unlimited supply of forgiveness, mercy, and salvation—everything one needs to overcome one’s brokenness, i.e. one’s “sin.”
Now, I’m not saying the church is wrong. I’m just saying that it has a vested interested in making sure this business model continues. Only the bravest of churches are willing to deemphasize our brokenness and emphasize our potential.
Unfortunately, even the churches that emphasize our potential often draw upon the supply and demand business model I have just spoken about. They begin by emphasizing two specific kinds of brokenness—poverty and illness—and create a bogus supply of promises of prosperity and good health. We refer to this as the “prosperity gospel” or the “health and wealth gospel.”
Same pig; just a different shade of lipstick.
Will the business model the church has used for two millenniums ever change? Probably not. The churches or denominations that try to move beyond the business model of supply (salvation) and demand (sin), while acknowledging that the human condition is in many ways broken, are the churches or denominations that are struggling to maintain their adherents.
This is the predicament for much of what we call mainline Protestantism. My denomination, the United Church of Christ, is included in that tribe. We have deemphasized personal sin. Therefore, the demand for the ample and infinite supply of forgiveness, mercy, salvation is deemed less necessary. And if there is no demand for what the church has to offer, then there will be fewer “paying” customers.
When mainliners do emphasize brokenness, we emphasize social brokenness or social sin in contrast to personal sin. This explains why there is more talk in mainline churches about such things as racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and a host of other “isms” and “phobias.” The solution to these kinds of brokenness is therefore social in nature as well, which explains why there is more talk of “social justice” in the mainline church.
Do you see the difference? In the old business model of the church, supply and demand relates to broken individuals in need of “repair.” In the new business model of the church, supply and demand relates to broken social structures in need of “repair.” Different pig; different shade of lipstick.
The old model condemns individual brokenness; the cutting-edge model condemns social brokenness. The old model affirms individual potential only after they have been repaired. The cutting-edge model affirms individual potential whether they have been “repaired” or not.
I know I’ve been all over the map, and sort of drifted away from Gulley’s point. However, I hope I have given you some ideas for cutting and pasting in your faith journey. Next week we will talk about one or more of Gulley’s other notions on what the church needs to do if it wants to be authentically Christian.