Stumbling Blocks

I recently read the book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. As I did not know much about the author, I did a little online research on her. Among other things, I learned that Held Evans died tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 37 from complications involving allergic reaction to medication. I also learned that I think I would have liked her, and am now curious to read more of her writing.

As is not surprising when looking up anything remotely involving religion online, I found widely polarized opinions about her. For example, an article from a conservative religious website claimed Held Evans was leading people to hell for daring to harbor and express doubt. (To put things into context: This same website condemned contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle for NOT condemning homosexuals.)

On Goodreads, reviews for Inspired tend to be raves or rants. In the latter category, one reviewer went on at length about what he or she considered Held Evans’s flawed theology, even putting the book on a “false teaching” shelf. (The possibility that this person’s own theology might be flawed is apparently out of the question.) Near the end of the scathing review, comes this line: “I advise readers to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care and in light of the scripture.” In other words, scripture itself is not to be questioned nor is this person’s interpretation of it. I would like to advise the reviewer “to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care,” INCLUDING scripture! (I opted not to engage in argument in the Goodreads comments.)

This highlights a very real problem for Christianity. How does a tolerant person deal with intolerance? How does someone willing to harbor doubts and ask questions confront someone who would never entertain the possibility of their own fallibility?

If you want to find ways to weaponize the Bible, it’s not hard. Want to keep women subjugated to men? Plenty of justification for it in scripture! Want to condemn homosexuality? Got it covered! Support for slavery? Too easy! Xenophobia, genocide, polygamy, incest? Check, check, check, check. Any pet prejudice can probably find support someone in the Bible, given the proper spin (sometimes requiring very little spin at all!)

For those of us who want to follow the Jesus we hear preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), this poses a stumbling block. It is hard to support the Christian church when so many of its loudest voices are those preaching intolerance, bigotry, and hate. It’s hard to admit to being a Christian when so often the church has come down on the wrong side of history. How does one stay inspired?

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Overcoming Self-Centeredness

I have been sick all this past week, and am only now beginning to feel like I am truly on the road to recovery. When one is sick, the only thing that matters is oneself, and trying to whip that self back into a healthy state. Ironically, I was just thinking along these lines when I picked up a back issue of Christian Century and began reading an article by William Brosend on keeping the self out of one’s preaching. (“Enough about me,” February 23, 2010).

Self-centeredness is a hard habit to break. I have spent much of my life attempting a career as a professional musician, and it is an occupation very given to the self. Lots of time spent practicing alone. Many auditions trying to prove one’s superiority over the competition. Scores if stage appearances basically screaming, “Look at me!” I have spent a lot of time focused on myself.

And yes, I am aware that this post is wildly guilty of shining the spotlight on myself.

Doing things with and for other people is not always easy. The rewards can be slow in coming. It can be easy to get frustrated and cry, “I’d be better off just doing this myself!”

But as difficult as it can be working with and for other people, it can be even more difficult working with and for God, especially if one has nagging doubts about the very existence of God. A lifelong habit of self-centeredness can make acknowledging God feel wildly out of character. It’s a struggle. Brosend writes, “If you saw someone that you think the congregation would like to know about, tell them about that person and get yourself out of the way.” Maybe I just need to practice getting out of my own way.

 

Priorities

For a religion class in college, I wrote a “Confessions” in the tradition of those by Augustine, Rousseau, and many others. In my Confessions, among other things, I discussed nagging doubts about my intended career as a musician. With so many big problems in the world, setting my sights on a life of music seemed frivolous.

These days, as I spend my days working in a church and devote much of my time outside of work to academic pursuits, I face similar doubts. With so many big problems in the world, is setting my sights on spirituality and books just another frivolous avoidance of my larger responsibilities?