F-bombs & grace I

An Untangling Christianity listener posted the following comment in our Facebook group concerning a rather popular internet article, by Preston Sprinkle:

“So this seems to be going around the interwebs. Having a really hard time with the biblical interpretations that this guys is claiming. Thoughts?”

A number of things occured to me after reading the article and considering  some of the comments made about it.  Let me begin with what I value in the article.

I value the author’s emphasis on diversity in terms of how Christians live out their relationship with God.  In this vein, the author’s willingness to see some of these differences in Christian practice as being as much sociological as theological is helpful, as is the author’s view that human brokenness is as much a reality in biblical times as it is now.

Next, I agree with the author where he highlights the disconnect between the typical expectations within evangelical Christian culture(s) and the reality that relationship are, by their nature, complex (and that a relationship with God is even more so).  So I agree that human relationships with God will unfold in different ways for different people, given that each person will have different starting points, challenges, and advantages all playing out in different contexts and over differing amounts of time.

However, there are several points that I believe to be problematic (and which, if left as they stand, would ultimately lead us in unprofitable directions / create difficulty).

First, I think that the author’s view of what he calls ”Christian subcultures” is at least one-sided—if not under-considered—and therefore problematic. Second, I think that the listener’s emphasis on “interpretation” is quite valuable and it seems to me that interpretation has essentially been overlooked by the article’s author.  Third, the article seems to alternate between taking a sociological perspective and a theological perspective while never actually doing the work of integrating the two.  Yet given the matters under discussion, proper integration seems essential for accurate understanding.

I will address these points in order.

Beginning with point one, I’m troubled by the author’s view of Christian subcultures.  He writes, “Christian subcultures are an entertaining phenomenon.”  Some aspects of Christian subcultures are  indeed interesting.  Yet Christian subcultures can also—an d more so—be deeply dysfunctional and so ultimately hurtful for many people.

Specifically, where care is not given to distinguish the cultural from the biblical, Christian subcultures are apt to claim a (often high) degree of divine sanction for their practices and, by corollary, they also necessarily see such practices as attributable to a (often high) degree of divine Authority.

The result is that those who question these cultural practices—and particularly those who resist or criticize them—are typically viewed as troublemakers or even as outsiders,  often with the implication that they must either “get with the program” or are made you feel that this is not the right Church setting for that.

Moving to point two, the author’s argument turns on several key interpretations that are, ironically, absent from the article!  Particularly, the article focuses almost entirely on “grace” and yet the only thing that the author writes about it is: “Grace means that we are all works in progress, and God shaves off our rough edges in His timing.”

By building his entire argument around a term without defining it (or even indicating upon what he bases his sense of the term, such as citing biblical passages) the author essentially puts his readers in a take-it-or-leave-it position that both provokes scepticism and runs contrary to spirit of generosity and openness that he appears to be trying to cultivate.

More problematically still, by applying a simple, uni-dimensional sense to the word “grace” (i.e., grace = “what God does to me”) but using it within a multi-dimensional context (i.e., relationships always have at least two parties!) he appears to be unaware of—or actually ignoring?—the complexities inherent to the topic, such as how we determine what is God’s responsibility and what is my responsibility in a given situation.

Coming to point three, the author writes, “I know we’re programmed to see the 12 apostles as saints with halos and contemplative faces. But actually, they were criminals. These guys were more like prisoners than pastors.”

Once again, my thought is that while the comments have accuracy the approach is actually misleading. In other words, the approach that we should instead be taking is to apply suspicion not only to others and their practices but also to ourselves and our practices.  1

So where the author notes that Peter denies Jesus, I could see myself having done (and doing now,  in various ways) the same.  Where the author writes of Paul using violent means to accomplish his ends I must admit that similar thoughts can occur to me, given the right provocation. In fact, all of the characterisations of the Apostles offered by the author simply depict the ways in which human beings fail to be their best selves.  The fact that we—all of us—do this, regardless of whether we are Christian or not, should come as no surprise to us.

Instead, an actual integration of the sociological phenomenon (as cultural or subcultural practices) with theological phenomenon (as human expressions of human finitude and fallenness) would involve seeing Christian subcultures and Christian practices as both potentially matters of choice / open to personal taste and as acts of engagement—with self, world, and other—that have direct implications for our ability to relate rightly with God (and thus for our identity, ability to relate rightly with others, etc.).

Without this integration we risk, on the one hand, minimizing the dysfunction of our Christian subcultures and the destructive impact of our personal practices or, on the other hand, rejecting our innately human creativity and diversity because we view sin as more primary than love and law as more primary than truth.

In both cases we misunderstand God and ourselves, with the result that we live without flourishing. And flourishing is at the heart of Christian living.

Show 1 footnote

  1. From my perspective the importance of suspicion is such that the title of my graduate thesis begins: ”Reversing Trust and Suspicion, Integrating Ontology and Epistemology…”.

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