Doctrine, Ministry, Relevance, The Meaning Of Words Part Infinity
‘No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins – Mark 2:21-22
What follows are just more semi-random thoughts prompted both by Christ UMC’s Charge Conference and the post I wrote late yesterday afternoon. It isn’t just the quick, thoughtless rush to judgment that bothers me. I have to wonder – what, exactly, does Rev. John Meunier mean by “sin” and “sinner”? I got thinking of that whole nest of snakes this morning, and I realized that at the heart of my frustration with all those who demand adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy; all those for whom ministry begins when we pronounce not release to the captives but condemnation upon this generation of vipers; all those for whom “relevance” somehow means watering down the Gospel message; all of this flows from something so simple and clear it’s easy to miss. It’s all about, as I keep saying, the meaning of words.
And, yes, words do mean things. Very important things. Life-giving, life-altering, sometimes life-ending things. Yet, few words are univocal in their meaning. When it comes to matters of faith and doctrine, we enter a minefield of meanings, some contradictory, some dispensable, some in dire need of updating. Consider the word “atonement”. The Bible actually presents evidence for three completely distinct, perhaps contradictory, perhaps complementary, “doctrines” of atonement. Which one is the “true” Biblical understanding of atonement? My guess is simple: Who cares? That it happened is far more important than the specifics of how we understand it. Atonement, after all, is nothing more than God’s eye view of Christ’s death and resurrection, something about which we can certainly speculate, but as for actual knowledge, we have not a whit.
So, too, with the idea of “sin”. Sin had been defined as all sorts of things, from rebellion through concupiscence and the inability of human beings to initiate a relationship with the Divine from our side to the reality of our world ruled by death, the result of a broken relationship with the Creator. I have often given away my own position on this matter, with this last being my preferred understanding. That does not mean I am right and the other definitions and understandings are incorrect. On the contrary, I usually work with the thought that I am quite wrong. That doesn’t keep me from moving forward, stating my understanding even as I doubt its complete veracity. All any of us can do is the best we can do as we understand it; that understanding is never complete, usually as wrong as it is right, and should only exist as a guide – or perhaps excuse or ex post facto rationalization – for our action. An action we call ministry.
And we can’t do ministry if we’re unclear about why we’re doing it because we’re arguing about the meaning of words. We can’t do ministry if we are trying to patch up an old cloak with new cloth, when perhaps it’s best to go buy a whole new coat that serves the same purpose. When I read people who search ancient writers, the Reformers, the Wesley’s even 20th century thinkers from Bonhoeffer and Barth to Tillich and Moltmann, for keys to understanding our current predicament, I have to wonder how well that stitching is holding up. Because, as Jesus understood, if you go to wash that cloak, that new cloth is going to shrink, tearing an even bigger hole, making things worse.
Which is not to deny the importance of the witness of the past. On the contrary, we need that witness if only to remind us how “doctrine”, the ministry of the churches, and the question of relevance are all part of that witness. Perhaps not explicitly. Yet, I cannot help but think of Martin Luther, for whom Satan was a real being, one he encountered in his monk’s cell, flinging crap from his pail to get rid of him. I cannot help but think of Luther, believing that when we die, our souls have to run a gamut of air filled with demons ready to grab the holiest of souls and drag it to hell. I cannot help but think of Luther insisting that the Pope was the actual anti-Christ, the Roman Church the Whore of Babylon, and that his Reformation heralded the End of Days. Luther was, without a doubt, a bear about doctrine. He was also a preacher for whom relevance was front and center. The whole Roman system of the sale of pardons, plenary indulgences, the intercessory role of the priest as opposed to conveyer of the message of redemption through the power of the Spirit in the whole worship service had become irrelevant as much as it was heretical. That millions refused to accept his verdict; that others accepted a different indictment, following the Swiss Reformers Zwingli and Calvin, is as much testimony to the question of relevance, the place of doctrine, and the centrality of ministry and the meaning of words in our lives.
Paul Anka had some fun taking some rock songs and arranging them for a swing band. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s kind of fun! All the same, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was not for nothing a song that kicked off a musical and even social change. It brought danger and threat back to a music too long tamed by record companies insisting on palatable fare. What the record companies were foisting on the public no longer spoke to them. It didn’t speak to their frustrations, their anger, their sense of betrayal and national aimlessness. A song like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reminded them there were those out there who got it. Even though poor Kurt Cobain had no desire to be the voice of a particular group or generation, it was precisely his ability to use his own contradictions and problems to represent for millions their own mixed-up feelings about the world and their place in it. What Paul Anka has done, no disrespect intended, is not only rearrange instrumentation, tempo, volume, timbre, and rhythm. He has, by doing what he did, ridiculed the very real angst of all those for whom “Smells Like Teen Spirit” said what they felt and thought but could not put in to words. He has belittled the rage and fear, making it fodder for late night comedians.
So, too, all those “doctrinal purists”, “Biblical literalists”, and others who strip from the history of the faithful the variety, contradictions, real enmities, and ongoing pluralism within the Body of Christ, insisting instead on some kind of purity of vision rooted in definitions that are not only arbitrary but ignore the marvelous diversity that is both the history and current reality of the Christian witness and ministry. We should be ready and willing to act all the while understanding that what we believe we understand about everything from the oldest doctrine of the Church – “Jesus is Lord” – to our favorite verse in the Bible undergoes radical reevaluation. If we are to be faithful to the heart of the doctrine of the Church, witnessing to the Good News of Jesus Christ whose coming even now we prepare ourselves for, we will constantly seek to make that message relevant to a world both that needs to hear it and will reject it the first, second, third, thirty-third time it hears it. Like the God who is the author of our salvation as described by St. John Chrysostom in a homily to which I linked yesterday, we must never ever ever ever give up, shrug at unreformed and unrepentant sinners, and be on our way. Even as Jesus told his disciples to shake the dust of those towns hostile to their message from their feet, I’m guessing those same disciples returned to those towns again and again and again, trying this then that then the other thing, never once forgetting the people who constantly reject the Good News are still beloved creatures of God, the God who did not spare the life of the Son.
I cannot stress enough that those who dismiss the issue of relevance are acting either in ignorance of the reality of Church history and the Biblical witness, or deliberately falsifying the matter in order to maintain some kind of power over those to whom they speak. We must always work to make the Good News intelligible, for ours is the same generation Jesus called faithless, seeking a sign when it was the repentance of Nineveh that is the sign. To those who believe relevance is some kind of insidious syncretism, I can only ask when the church has not sought to use whatever tools lay around it at the time to get its message across.