Thursday, August 21, 2014

literalism, criticism, grace, and preaching: thoughts. also: wild goose

Brian McLaren, Wild Goose 2014, June 26

This summer, on my birthday, I had the pleasure of hearing Brian McLaren speak at Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. 

Wild Goose is many things to many people. 

For one, it’s a community.

And one of the things that community strives to be is a safe place

In my experience, it becomes just that quite often: 

a safe place;

a safe place, especially for people on spiritual journeys; admittedly more so, for people whose journeys tend to relate, allude to, or embrace Christian stories, practice, or piety, and, at the same time stray in one way or another from what Teresa B Pasquale calls that individual’s “religion of origin,”--which is, often, at Wild Goose, some expression of Christianity.  

Whatever the disconnect between individuals who have departed from- or are recovering from- their religion of origin, most of us at Wild Goose have not rejected faith or spirituality or even religion completely. Some of us never left. We just changed—we hope, for the better. 

Some of us have sought to reform our faith traditions where they are oppressive or judgmental or abusive, clinging to what is good. Some left institutions or congregations and have found alternative communities where we were welcomed and embraced. Some have rejected religion and spiritual practices altogether but are now dabbling in faith. Some have sought healing from our faiths of origin, from life’s pains, or from addiction, condemnation, or abuse, and found healing and recovery in spirituality and community and service. 

On the other hand, some of us inherited a faith that sought to welcome all, and to work for liberation and justice, and were simply happy to find a community that shares our values and feeds our spirits. 

From these and many other paths, we gather.  

I am at home with these people. 

Brian had a simple presentation, at which I arrived late. 

The topic was Ways Of Relating To Scripture, 

that is, within the realm of contemporary Christianity. 

He described to us four quadrants. 

The y-axis moved from what he called Innocent  to Critical. 

The x- moved from Literal to Literary

The quadrants, then included:

Innocent and Literal
Innocent and Literary
Critical and Literal 
Critical and Literary

You can imagine the commentary. 

Pretty basic stuff for those who have spent a lot of time in the world of faith, but quite useful. And a new articulation.  

Also helpful to remember when involved in conversations around scripture—or, really, any other authoritative books, traditions, rules, liturgies, missiologies, etc., in my opinion. 

Brian finished explaining the quadrants.

Then he did something really cool. 

Right in the middle of all the quadrants. Including a corner of each of them, including a piece of I, II, III, and IV, Innocent, Critical, Literal, and Literary, and all their pairings, 

right in the middle, 
where x meets y, 



a circle. 

And this circle, Brian said, 

(I’m paraphrasing), 

This circle represents people, individuals 
(and I would add communities) 

who are looking (in Scripture) for salvation from some sort of predicament. 

I would expand that: 

This circle represents people or communities who are looking for something
who need something, 
something helpful, something salvific, something meaningful, or healing, or redemptive, or liberating, or transformative, or sobering, or sanctifying…

People who are desperate, grasping, perhaps powerless, certainly in need.

This circle represents those who turn to scripture—and things other than scripture—faith, community, doctrine, tradition, spiritual practices, worship, studies, meditation…

because something is needed beyond themselves, beyond ourselves
and dear God, please let me find whatever-that-is 


At one time, not so long ago, I felt, rather arrogantly, that those who come at the faith from the critical and literary quadrant were the real faithful—they knew what it was to wrestle with God, to struggle with faith, and to grow deeper spiritually 

and find more meaning because of it. 

At that time, that is, recently, I was also often so annoyed by fundamentalists, whose approach of God said it.-I believe it.-That settles It, I rejected as bibliolatry years after receiving it in high school from a leader or two in the Ev. Free Church I attended for youth group. Fundamentalism still often annoys me. Most often when it is attached to judgment and breeds arrogance and condemnation. 

However, in my experience, a critical, literary approach to scripture can do that, too. And often does.  

More recently, I am coming to believe that, in the moments of clarity that life sometimes allows, when we find ourselves inside that desperate circle (the circle we are actually always in all along), in need of something other than or more than ourselves, 

in those moments

it’s not our belief system—our rigid literalism or our poetic imagination that matter most. 

In fact, it seems to me that, in those moments of clarity, 

our approach matters 

not at all. 

What matters, is that we are in the circle, 

at the intersection,

and what delivers us or embraces us or transforms us 
is outside of our approach, outside of our opinions, outside of our belief systems or world-views. 

That which we call salvific or redemptive or liberative is, 

simply put, 


and beyond us. 

We religious often call that experience 


In my experience, when speaking of Grace, talking about God, or describing that middle circle, that intersection of x and y, 
and using the words of Scripture to do so—be it in Bible Study, or preaching, or conversation—individuals and groups respond differently to different approaches. 

And different approaches are appropriate at different moments within the same group or the same person.  

This is no revelation to anyone who has spent any time in a faith community. 

The use of a new scriptural approach in a community or with a person immersed mostly in one or the other scriptural approach can sometime sound like a foreign language, and without translation, can fail to express the deeper truth, toward which the words attempt to point, as that truth relates to the hearer’s experience of Grace and desperation and God. 

The challenge of people of faith who journey in community, and especially of those foolish enough to attempt preaching, I think, is not to convert the hearer to his or her Scriptural Approach. That is, for the literalist to convert those literary, or for the disciple of the Historical Critical Method to "enlighten" or demythologize the seeker whose hermeneutic is less suspicious. 

The challenge, rather, is to lift up Grace. 

And to lift up the Source of Grace, found outside (even if also within) our self,

And to use whatever approach conveys both 
our situation 
and our hope, 

in accord with both 
our experience, 
and the experience, approach, and language of the hearers of the message.

An appropriate challenge for we who preach might be found not in challenging this scriptural approach or that, literal, literary, innocent, or critical, 

but, instead, 

in challenging the use of any and all of these approaches, 

when these approaches frustrate, distract from, or negate that message. 

We might also listen for that message articulated to communities in languages and approaches that are different from those closer to our heart. 

This understanding is a shift for me, as the innocent and literal approach was something I needed liberation from in order to articulate and name Grace as I attempt to do today. 

But in my experience (especially in serving a parish), 

I’ve learned that 
although my experience of grace happened and happens in certain contexts, 
and happened when I believed certain beliefs 
and benefited from certain scriptural approaches, 
that experience of Grace extends far beyond my experiences. 

In fact, Grace has happened in and through endless and varied beliefs 
and in spite of all of those scriptural approaches 
for countless people and countless communities. 

The experience of Grace, Reconciliation, and Liberation is within, among, and beyond them, and beyond us, all. 

Quite the revelation. God is bigger than our experience. 

God is beyond us. 

And God is within and among us all. 

And so, we do well, I think, to be cautious to avoid universalizing our own particular experiences,
even as we seek to acknowledge the universal in our particularities.

I’m glad I got to hear Brian McLaren speak on my birthday. 

And I’m grateful for Wild Goose. 

And I am glad to experience Grace, even when it is difficult to understand. 

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