For The Someday Book

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A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-filled, Open-armed, Alive-and-Well Faith for the Left-out, Left-behind and Let Down in Us All, by Doug Pagitt, Jossey-Bass, 2008, 242 pp.

I think I have finally found what I’ve been looking for. Not the faith that Pagitt describes—I found my way to a Christianity worth believing a long time ago, and have been living it for close to 20 years. But I finally found a book that describes it in a concise, approachable, passionate, inviting way.

I had my spiritual crisis with Bible, God and church when I started college. The things I had always believed about the inerrancy of the Bible, the demands of God for Jesus’ blood sacrifice, strictures of gender and sexuality (including the gender of God) no longer made any sense. After years of struggle, I found a faith rooted in the earthly, embodied Jesus who calls us to build the real life kingdom of God by using our bodies in earthly work of peace, justice and service, welcoming all.

In my ministry, I frequently talk with people facing a similar spiritual crisis to my own—they are questioning long-held beliefs about atonement, salvation, scripture, Christology and more. For years, I have been searching for a book to share with them to help them see that there is another way, that to reject much of that theology is not to reject Christianity or a life lived with the God of Jesus Christ. I have bought and read all kinds of books in this arena—John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Peter Gomes, Diana Butler Bass. While many of them are great books, none quite fit. They were either too intellectual, too theological, too angry, to directed at church professionals or not enough about the personal life of faith.

A Christianity Worth Believing has finally given me the book I’ve been looking for. Pagitt intertwines his personal story in and out of faith with theological questions and concerns. That transforms the book from being a theological treatise trying to make an intellectual argument into a spiritual journey that connects with anyone who has ever questioned their beliefs while still trying to hold on to faith and Christian community.

Pagitt addresses almost all the same theological concerns as the other authors (with the exception of a section on gender and sexuality). Instead of emphasizing history and biblical scholarship, he talks about how he experiences God as loving and living, and how he tries to practice loving and living with God. It changes the entire tone from one of intellectual speculation about faith to an account of a real, living relationship with God and with other people trying to follow God. Pagitt does offer some history and scholarship, mostly around the influence of Greek culture on the Jewish Jesus. I thought the way he traced the most troubling issues back to the Greco-Roman dualistic world view a little bit too simple to account for everything, but it was accurate and insightful. I wouldn’t have liked the book nearly so much if he had tried to make an exhaustive Christian intellectual history. He gives a brief explanation about the roots of a particular belief to show us it is culturally bound and we can let it go.  Then he tackles the far more important task of explaining the good news of Jesus in a way we can understand.

God on one side, humanity on the other, separated by sin and death. Christ is the bridge--add another line to make it a cross and the drawing is complete.

One of my favorite sections in the book was the chapter called, “Down and In.” After describing the classic drawing about the gap between God and humanity, and the accompanying theology that the sin and death that can be overcome only by Christ’s sacrifice, he labels that image of God as “up and out.” The “up and out” God is perfect and removed, and unable to love us fully because of our imperfection. Pagitt replaces that theology with a God that is “down and in,” a God who is engaged in the world and loves us even in our sinful condition. He describes people who give up their faith in response to a life crisis because they have only known an “up and out” God: “They haven’t been given a picture of God as one who cares, who listens, sustains, cradles, cries and is right there with them all the time.” (p. 110)

Pagitt’s book connects us with the “down and in” God because his writing itself is down and in. It does not remove theology from context, but places the questions about belief squarely in the center of an earthly life seeking to be lived with God. He confesses to the struggles and mishaps of his own life, and invites us to join with God in partnering to live and love and work together to build the real-life kingdom of God right here and now.

Pagitt’s book is a great starting place for those facing a crisis of faith with the “up and out” God, or any of the traditional “fundamentals” of Christianity. Rather than just presenting an alternative theology and assuring us that there are other Christians who believe this way or think this way, Pagitt shows us that there are other Christians who actually live this new faith with passion and love for God. When you read it, you can’t help but want to be part of that exciting Christianity worth believing in. I think I’ve finally found the book I’ve been looking for. I can’t wait to start sharing it.

I am attending my conference’s annual clergy retreat. I look forward to the quiet time away with a room of my own and lots of books, good food and conversations with colleagues. I do not look forward to the presentations and featured speakers. It’s the same thing every time, and it’s always depressing.

Today, I heard basically the same presentation I have heard at the last two clergy retreats. It’s also the same basic presentation I have heard at the last two annual meetings of the conference. Today, the presenter actually cited the person who gave the previous presentation at annual meeting and showed his slides–probably not knowing he had given that presentation to us already. This same presentation is also the subject of numerous books, which I’ve been reading since seminary ten years ago (and the most recent two I have read and reviewed here on this blog). A colleague reminded me that the book the retreat is named after, The Once and Future Church, is now 20 years old.

This is not the particular fault of the presenters. They are all different, and fine presenters, and (as far as I can tell) no one has disclosed to them that this has been the theme for the last several years and they might be covering duplicate ground.

The topic is this: What went wrong with the church? What happened to the “good old days” when denominations were strong, attendance was high, churches and membership were growing and building, and everyone loved us mainline protestants? The presenter outlines the breakdown of generations (see my previous two book review posts here and here for more information), and talks about the mess we are in.

I have nothing against this particular information. I am interested enough to have read two books on the subject in the last month, and several more in the last year. It is an important and ongoing discussion. What gets me riled up is attitude of hopeless gloom and doom that can pervade the conversation. (And always seems to pervade the conversation at these conferences.)

Thinking about it, it seems there are actually two conversations going on about the exact same topic and same information. In one conversation, people are moaning and groaning, asking “how did we get into this pit?” (Literally, that’s what the presenter yesterday called it.) They are filled with fear and see the imminent demise of the church. People measure by numbers of money and persons and churches and come up wanting. You hear words like, “decline,” “shrink,” “collapse,” “fracture,” “end.” It is depressing, and the people having this conversation are depressed.

There is, however, another conversation going on at the same time, about the same topic. This conversation is bubbling over with excitement, and no one seems depressed, even though everyone is working hard and no one knows exactly what they are doing. In this conversation, you hear words like, “change,” “transform,” “connect,” “teach,” “revive,” “thrive,” “discipleship.” It sounds like this:

  • We changed our Sunday school program, and it transformed our whole community. Now, children connect to adult mentors, who teach them about church life. It has revived everyone’s faith!
  • We changed the way we do baptism, and it transformed from an old ritual to a real connection to the community. We teach people that baptism is about the community, and revived the tradition of baptism sponsors. Now everyone sees it as an important responsibility for discipleship.
  • We changed our governing structure, and transformed from committees into ministry teams. People can connect to one another, grow in discipleship and serve in ministry without having to commit to all these meetings. Our programs are thriving!
  • We have started a Facebook group to connect people, and it has transformed and revived Sunday morning fellowship time. People connect online, then in person. Instead of talking to the same old people, members are changing seats, moving around and friendships are thriving.

Tell me, which of those lists of words are Gospel words? Which are the words that Jesus used, the words of good news?

The facts are the same in both conversations–the trends, numbers, cultural realities and challenges have not changed. What’s different is the attitude of the people in response. For some of us, this is a moment of great opportunity for Christianity to be reborn, revived and re-established in its roots as a prophetic social movement critical of the powers-that-be. We feel like pioneers, venturing into new territory, discovering what it means to live in this new environment. Instead of the demise of the church, we see an entire generation who needs to hear the gospel–a mission field unseen in many generations. We emerge with new ideas and new faith. Rather than complain about biblical illiteracy, we relish the opportunity to shape people’s faith from the  ground up, to teach the Bible to a hungry crowd, to tell the stories of the faith to those who  have never heard. The advent of new technologies like social media gives us the opportunity to translate the gospel into new languages and new formats. It’s a whole new terrain, with the chance to build a whole new church that fits the changing landscape.

We are explorers and entrepreneurs, experimenters and inventors, going forth with only the Gospel of Jesus Christ as our guide–knowing that everyone in this new world needs to know about God’s love and the power of grace, to experience community and the power of hope. We see possibility everywhere, and God’s Spirit going ahead of us. When we get together, the conversation is endless, and filled with excitement, and we all depart energized by new ideas and holy power. This conversation is open–all are welcome to join.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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