Week 47: Olive Branch Community, 23 November 2008

Week 47, in which Michael, unable to contain himself, gets in a pointless and fruitless discussion with a well-meaning but strident evangelical on the topic of biblical infallibility, which will no doubt result in his soul getting a really super good dose of prayer this week.

Once upon a time ago, when we were part of a church plant that met in an elementary school, we were making the move to a middle school, and trying to figure out the new configuration of the pulpit (a music stand), and the altar (a wooden bar-height table). The priest wanted the pulpit closer to the altar, and I proffered that it ought to be a bit further away. (The discussion was crucial because I was in charge of documentation, and the microphone cable to the pulpit was supposed to be taped down for each service).
I wasn’t itching for a fight, but I decided to make my case. I stood behind the pulpit and said that the priest was like me, a gesticulater. I noted that he usually put one hand in his pocket and used only the other, because, I suspected, like me, he might get going to fast and hit something. I noted that he didn’t like to stand behind the pulpit, and that he often wandered out from behind it, until what time he needed his notes again, and, doubling back, I noted that he’d return to check them and move on. He was taller than me, and I said the relative proximity of the pulpit to the stage right candle on the altar brought his gesticulating dangerously close to the candle, and that we ought to move it just a smidgen more away. I think it was my noticing all of these details that caused his face to fall. I’d been trained in acting and had spent a good deal of time “on stage” as a professor for nearly a decade. I taught my students about stage presence, and I noticed things about speakers – including the priest.
Maybe they don’t critique stage performance in seminary, but my observations were met with a somewhat icy reception from a normally warm priest.

Michael and I seem to have this effect on nice church people. Mine generally comes from a combination of irreverence and not being very good at keeping my big mouth shut. His usually has more to do with a deep desire to be understood, even in the face of an obvious hopeless conversation.

This was the case last night.

After the church service, we were talking to a woman who’d given us a warm welcome—about which I was complimenting her, and making a suggestion that she contact a sister church (one we’d visited, Vintage Faith) to answer the call Pastor Steve there had put out, when he observed that Vintage Faith was a congregation that wasn’t very good at welcoming new people. I said that I thought she had done a good job of it, and that, as someone with a lot of recent experience on the subject, I thought she had a lot to offer, because we did very much feel welcomed by her in particular.

I’m not sure exactly how the conversation got to this point, but it went something like this.
She asked what Episcopalians believe, and we said that it’s a creedal, not a doctrinal church, so most Episcopalians believe the Nicene Creed, and there’s a lot of room for discussion and differences beyond that. She wasn’t familiar with the Nicene Creed, and sounded suspicious that there might be so much latitude for belief, so we decided to try a different route. And then there was a bunch of stuff that I don’t remember exactly, and then Michael said that, for example, the Olive Branch Community‘s statement of beliefs includes a line about biblical infallibility, something that he has a hard time with. “You don’t believe the Bible?” she asked him.

No, that wasn’t it.

“The Bible has been proven to be true,” she said with great earnestness, “It’s been proven over and over to be historically and factually true.”

He tried to explain further what he meant – that we bring a lot of cultural and historical baggage to the text of the Bible. That, for instance, the “green pastures” the shepherd of the 23rd Psalm takes his sheep to is not the verdant English pastoral scene of the British Romantics or Thomas Kincaid. The countryside of Israel makes Spokane look lush and brimming with greenery. The occasional wadi oasis in the country are few and far between. When we think about a rolling green lawn, we’re imposing a western, modern worldview on the text. Or, for example, the text about Jesus making his return “like a thief in the night” – this one is one of his favorites, though I was concerned he was going to approach it with his usual crescendo-ing verve and intensity as he explained that the Biblical thief in the night was not the modern cat burglar who wants in and out with the stuff, silently robbing the home. No, he usually says, with growing volume, the thief comes to the home with his band of not-so merry men, bangs down the door, and kills everyone in the home before taking off with the loot. By the time he gets to this last bit, he’s usually kind of loud to make his point that the thief in this point in history is neither subtle nor silent.

She wasn’t buying it, and was increasingly concerned that we a) didn’t believe the bible was true b) were probably some kind of Catholics c) might be part of a cult d) might think we were Christian when we really weren’t. I think this last one was particularly troubling to her because it was part of her own story, that she alluded to.

She’d said that she had been part of a church for a long time, and thought she was a Christian, but it wasn’t until she had come to the mother church of the Olive Branch Community that she realized she wasn’t actually a Christian, and became one.

This opens a whole new can of worms that I’m really glad we dropped pretty quickly, but that we discussed at length with Farmergirl on the way home: What makes a Christian?

The problem with the conversation at hand, was that the woman we were speaking with was coming at it from the point of view that the Bible is unchanging, and that, if we interpret it differently at different times, then it is an error on the part of the reader, because it’s God’s unchanging word. So the fact that modern evangelical Christian focus is on a personal relationship with Jesus, which is in stark contrast with the 12th century view of salvation as part of defending God’s “honor.” Both things are there, but different people at different times have glommed onto different parts of it.

Because she had been part of (or knew someone who had been part of) a pentecostal church that insisted that speaking in tongues was something that a person who was “really” saved would do right after being “saved” through their baptism, and her friend, an otherwise devout believer spent years tormenting herself over not evincing this gift of the spirit. She thought this was a terrible thing, so I pointed that out . . . many people in many churches that do not emphasize the “gifts of the spirit” nonetheless allow for their exercise among other believers to varying degrees of comfort. I pointed out that the bible does point to the exercise of speaking in tongues as a good thing . . . but that this particular congregation she’d brought up emphasized it more than the one we were standing in, or our home Episcopal congregation. It wasn’t that either church was “right” or “wrong” in doing or not doing it, but that the emphasis was different.

No, if the speaking in tongues wasn’t orderly and accompanied by a translation, then it wasn’t right. I decided I’d struck out, and gave up. But she was really concerned that we might leave with the wrong understanding of the bible and its infallibility. I silently willed Michael to let her have the last word, because it was apparent she was going to stick with it until she did. The psychic connection was online, and he took the next opportunity.

It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t maybe understand that the culture and milieu and era they come from is cultural and worldview baggage they bring to the text. I find myself so often short sighted because I think of childhoods as involving two family cars, and larger homes with multiple bathrooms, and television and radio and recorded music. We keep having these rural moments when things like our lost sheep (er, goat) bring home an agrarian parable of Jesus. Even knowing I drag this baggage doesn’t prevent me from continuing to look at the text through its lens. I know my view of hell is formed as much by Dante as it is the Bible, that my view of Satan is informed by Milton and Hollywood and Jack Chick, that my view of Jesus is unfortunately tied to THAT 40s painting of Jesus. You know the one. Warner E. Sallman’s “Head of Christ.” You’ve seen him. Even if he wasn’t hung in your house when you were a child, you’ve seen that picture of him. It’s only slightly less famous than Da Vinci’s Last Supper picture of him. People know it’s Jesus as sure as they know Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe or Mickey Mouse. That one.
Michael ultimately tried to take it home with an explanation that he didn’t find the infallibility issue all that useful . . . that he felt the grace and mystery of God were more important and more useful to the Christian life than statements on the infallibility of scripture. He’s probably getting prayed for, nonetheless . . . but really, who can’t use a little more of that?

Well, I’ve managed to write over 1600 words and not tell you anything at all about the service. One of the striking things was that neither of us knew most of the music it they played. I would call it “neo-gospel” as far as the music itself. Michael rather liked the words. I was annoyed, because most of the time I couldn’t see the words (beamed onto a screen that was set too low for having the congregation stand) and therefore couldn’t sing along. Like many of the emergent-ish congregations we’ve visited, they had a break mid-service, before the sermon. One person we talked to said it probably wasn’t like any other kind of service we’d attended, which I thought was odd, and before I could reel it in, I opened my big mouth and said that most non-denominational services included times of praise and worship, an offertory, and a sermon that was somewhere between 20 and 50 minutes. The person I said this to looked a little taken aback. I forget, sometimes, in this project, that most people have been to as many other kinds of churches as Farmergirl had been to when we started, and that they don’t really know how very similar more protestant church services, denominational or not, are. The person I was talking to said the pastor promised the 5:30 service would be done at 7pm (it being Sunday night in a rented building, and many people in the congregation having children who would probably be headed to school the next day), but the 22 minutes remaining weren’t enough for his three point sermon, which took the better part of 45 minutes. I suspect that the time of sharing what folks were grateful for, and the lighting of the advent candle at the beginning of the service took more time than originally anticipated, and instead of reducing the length of the music, or condensing the sermon, the pastor just ran with it.

The Olive Branch Community is one of the few churches we’ve been to that provides bibles (well, technically a copy of the New Testament), and encourages guests to take the bibles with them as a gift. We did actually take one along, and it’s been interesting reading, because I think it was edited with the following question in mind: “If someone who didn’t know the first thing about Christianity or the church were to pick up this bible, how would you explain how to live the evangelical Christian life?”

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