Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Doctrine Matters

            Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more curious about the fascination some Christians have with the minutiae of doctrine. Sometimes this doctrine is hoary ancient stuff from the sixteenth century or even earlier that defines the historic basis for denominations like the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Lately, however, the doctrines that fascinate tend to be about Jesus’ expected return from heaven to judge the living and the dead and all that.

            That any contemporary Christians care much about any but the most basic doctrines ought to surprise us. We live in an anti-intellectual popular culture where reading both widely and deeply has fallen out of favor. Shakespeare is someone we sample in college, not something many of us read or watch on stage anymore.

            When it comes to the Bible, things get worse. In one of his famous "man on the street" interviews, Jay Leno asks a college student, "What is one of the Ten Commandments?" "Freedom of speech," is the reply. Leno asks a girl when Jesus lived. She thought maybe about 30,000 years ago. Not a promising answer for someone who turns out to be an Art History student. The fact is, most people seem to think that everything related to religion—and especially its doctrines—is just stuffy and irrelevant. What does matter, if anything, are personal spiritual feelings and intuitions.

            And yet, some Christians continue to care deeply about doctrine—about the nature of Jesus’ presence at the Lord’s Supper (is he spiritually ubiquitous, thus always present, or is he really the bread and wine—transubstantiation?), for example. Or, will Jesus return to earth before, during, or after a literal seven-year period of persecution (the pre-, mid-, and post-tribulation camps among premillennialists)?

            Why? What is the drawing power of learning, holding, and fighting scorched earth battles for such doctrinal positions? Why do some people—people in the pews, people who never went a to seminary a day in their lives--nevertheless take the time to study, read, and argue about these doctrinal positions?

            As much as I wish that there might be a simple answer, there probably isn’t. People probably get engaged and excited about intellectually complicated doctrines for a whole host of reasons. It might be for the sheer intellectual delight of mastering difficult bodies of knowledge. Some people are indoctrinated to believe doctrinal change represents a slippery slope to perdition. Others teach in churches or colleges or seminaries where changing your mind—or even raising difficult questions—is not allowed if you want to keep your job.

            But there is one other possible answer. Christians sometimes concern themselves about historical doctrines, or esoteric, speculative interpretations of scripture about when Jesus will return as a way to avoid the heart of scripture. Such preoccupation is an unconscious avenue for not having to deal with other more serious matters of the law, and especially the heart of the law, love of God and neighbor. A focus on doctrine leaves little room for wrestling with practical questions posed by our wealth and others’ poverty, by our relationship to the environment, by war in the Middle East, or the ways gun culture or television violence poison Western culture. I’m reminded of how one of the Teachers of the Law, one who could even recite the greatest command, was judged by Jesus, in the end, to be “not far” from the kingdom of God while still apparently missing the point of the kingdom entirely.

            Which makes me think that whatever the point of holding to doctrines might be—and as I noted above, there are a few—the bigger issue is always going to be figuring out how holding them doesn’t get in the way of the main thing. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Good News of Great Joy: A Christmas Meditation

             One of the words the Bible uses to describe itself is the Greek word “euangelion.” Translated in English, this word means “good news,” as in the words of the angel, from in the gospel of Luke: “I bring you good news, of great joy.”

            Good news. It reminds me of the time many years ago, when Irene and I went to the hospital because the time had come for her to give birth to our first child. After a visit with the doctor, we were told, "not yet. Go for a long walk around the parking garage, and then come back." So we did. When we got back we were shown to the birthing room. Our doctor came in. I applied ice on Irene’s forehead, and counted, more ice and more counting. Finally, our son   William was born at 12:15 am. I returned home a few hours later, but couldn't sleep. So at three in the morning, I picked up the phone, and I called everyone I could think of--parents, grandparents, friends, siblings. I got them all out of bed, but it didn't matter.

            I had good news, and it wouldn't wait. The good news of the Christmas is like that—only more so.

            Years later, Irene and a friend of ours, Claudia, took their kids to a beach. Irene, William, and Claudia's son, David, were playing follow the leader a few yards from shore. Claudia watched from the beach. Irene would clap her hands and the two kids would clap their hands. Irene would jump and the kids would jump. The next thing Irene knew, Claudia was shouting at the top of her lungs and running as fast as she could through the knee-deep water roughly towards where Irene was standing. Terrified, Irene turned around and realized that William was nowhere to be seen. She frantically thrashed around in the water, but couldn't find him. Meanwhile, Claudia, who had seen everything from shore, reached a spot a few feet from Irene, reached down, and pulled William out from deep under the water, and rushed him to shore.

            William hacked and coughed and spit out a lot of water. He said, "Mom, it was dark, I couldn't find you. Where were you?" He had fallen into a lakebed pit that was over his head. Claudia saved his life. But once everyone was calm and sitting on shore again, Claudia said it all when she said to Irene, "You know, sometimes we receive our children twice."

And you can be sure that, with tears of joy and thanksgiving, we shared that good news, once more, with family, friends, and anyone who would listen. William was saved. The gospel is like that, joyful good news, except--more so. Because, as the angel said, this is not good news just for the few who know and love me or my son, but it is good news "for all the people."

            Good news. John the Baptist says, "The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And – in this child – all humankind will see God's salvation" (Luke 3:5,6). Good news. Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, and to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Good news. Like the angels sang: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”