670: Rediscovering Christianity in the mess of Christianity

How did Christianity get into such a mess?
That’s the hottest question in American Christianity and, this week, we’re going to share viewpoints from two popular writers, both named Philip: Philip Gulley and Philip Jenkins. Gulley is the Quaker who is beloved by fans of his many Harmony novels over the years. Gulley also is famous as a preacher and teacher. Jenkins is a historian who is known for his books exploring the past—and the future—of global Christianity.

      This is Part 1 and we’re starting now.
      Where the church stands today.
      We start in the heart of the mess of Christianity, which is where Philip Gulley starts and ends his new book, “If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus.” With a title like that, Gulley is ringing all kinds of urgent, contemporary bells. N.T. Wright’s latest book, “After You Believe,” is also about rediscovering Christian values, for example. And, theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who we’ll welcome to the pages of ReadTheSpirit in May, has devoted a lot of effort to exploring Christianity’s core values. In other words: Gulley’s book couldn’t be more timely.

      Don’t miss a day this week! On Tuesday, when we introduce Philip Jenkins’ new book, “Jesus Wars,” we’ll take you back to the roots of this mess many centuries ago. But, today, we’re going to share a brief word from Gulley’s new book so you can read for yourself why we’re using this provocative term “mess.” Later this week, you’ll learn more about Gulley’s work in our in-depth interview with him.

      You can order a copy of “If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus” from Amazon.

      Excerpt from “If the Church Were Christian,” by Philip Gulley

      “The church, it seems to me, is now captured by the very things it believed would nourish it. The inevitable accumulation of myths, creeds, traditions, and structures (both physical and institutional) have rendered the church immovable. Just when the church needs to be most nimble, it is inflexible, holding fast to customs and beliefs that more and more people are finding unhelpful and unintelligible. Is it any wonder that while an increasing number of people are defining themselves as spiritual, fewer and fewer of them look to the church as a community that can assist their journey? …

      Unfortunately, when change does come to the church, it is almost always superficial, akin to painting a steam locomotive a new color and hailing it as a revolution in transportation. …

      While people have predicted the demise of the church ever since its inception, I don’t believe the church will die altogether. There will always be persons who find meaning in the religious dimension of life, even as others will find religion meaningless. Even in my lifetime, atheism has lost its stigma. One day, sooner than later, politicians will not have to adopt the guise of piety in order to gain elective office. Ironically, even as religion will lose its cultural significance, more and more people will yearn for a spiritual dimension to their lives. They simply won’t look to the church to provide it. …

      If there is a future for the church in America, perhaps it is to raise America’s collective consciousness, so that injustice, poverty and tyranny would be moral affronts to us and we would hasten to eliminate them. Such a church would creatively and consistently call us to heed our better angels. It would actively engage our leaders, urge gracious treatment for the poor and powerless, promote peace and reconciliation among nations, challenge abusive religion, and provide a setting where people could reflect upon significant matters. The central task of this church would not be convincing us to believe doctrines about Jesus. Rather, it would help us live out the priorities of Jesus—human dignity, spiritual growth, moral evolution, and the ongoing search for truth and meaning.

      Its task would not be to confer God’s blessing upon the American way of life, but to help us transcend the parochialism that grips so many of us. That such a church is needed is clearly evident. As I write this, in the middle months of 2009, America is engaged in two wars, is suffering the economic consequences of unchecked greed, and is witnessing the rapid erosion of the middle class as more of our citizens slip into poverty. If it has not always been so, it is now obvious our nation needs spiritual communities that appropriately challenge the assumption that God has mandated our style and standard of living. Whether the same church that has walked hand in hand with the powers and principalities can now become a light unto the nations isn’t known, but if it does, it will have to radically change its role and purpose. For the world can no longer afford a myopic church, closely allied with any one nation or class.”

      ONCE AGAIN: You can order a copy of “If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus” from Amazon.

      COME BACK TUESDAY for more on Philip Jenkins’ remarkable insights into the ancient roots of the Christian mess we’re still sorting out today. And WEDNESDAY and THURSDAY for interviews with Gulley, then Jenkins.

      (Originally published at readthespirit.com)



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