Credon’t: Reflections on What I Believe (most of the time)


I believe because I have to believe.  I have to believe because life doesn’t make any sense to me otherwise.

To say I believe, however, leaves open the question of the object of my belief.  That is to say, what do I believe?  I believe that God is behind all of this in some way that makes sense to God, even if it escapes me.  I know I’m supposed to have it all together, to have it systematized in some way that will hold up to scrutiny.  Yet, I’m secretly afraid, I suppose, that if I interrogate my reasons for belief too vigorously, those reasons will remain just enough beyond my reach to make me wonder, in times of darkness, whether they make sense, or even ought to be considered reasons at all.

Even so, let me venture into the fray with a few things that do make sense to me. These are neither systematic nor exhaustive, merely suggestive (and close to 250 words):

I believe that the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels has only a passing acquaintance with the Jesus we encounter in popular Christianity.

I believe that much of popular Christianity (mesmerized as it is by the atomic individual) is designed to distract middle-class white Christians from the fact that they drive Mercedes Benzes, inflict violence on people who happen to be born under different flags, and ignore the cry for justice from the margins.

I believe that Christianity operates more often than not as a mechanism for affirming what people already believe—before they ever encounter the subversive Jesus of the Gospels.

I believe that the ministry of the Jesus who died abandoned and alone is a terrible model for what most people think of as “church growth.”

I believe that heaven is God’s jurisdiction; my responsibilities require me to be present and to work here and now.

I believe that if what you believe doesn’t make somebody mad, you’re not doing it right.  Jesus wasn’t killed because he was nice.

I believe that in a world concerned only with saying yes, being taught to say no is the most loving thing that can happen to us.

I believe the church needs to quit clinging to its life as if its life were an end in itself, and needs to start getting comfortable with the notion that the church belongs to God—and God always gets what God wants.

I believe that Christian belief is only intelligible, only interesting, if it is embodied in a community of people committed to living and, if necessary, dying like Jesus.

It’s not much, but it helps me hang on.

by Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and currently a Ph.D. candidate in humanities at the University of Louisville.     Penwell once wrestled a rodeo clown while the bull stood by in stunned amazement.
He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.
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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

7 thoughts on “Credon’t: Reflections on What I Believe (most of the time)

  1. Derek, you nailed it. So, if you are saying that Jesus isn’t “nice,”, then what are we to do with those pictures of Jesus sitting with bunnies and chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday?

  2. I wonder if there is such a thing as “popular Christianity” and just what that would be? Progressive? Emergent? Liberal? Conservative? Mainstream?

    Maybe its that form of Christian faith which people are seeking wherein they find secure and unchallenged safety from the hardships, the pain, and challenges in this world? A place where its safe and warm, and everyone smiles at you – a place where the faithful find compassion and where they find answers? If this is what is under attack, is this so wrong – especially for those who are weary and worn, and mightily afraid?

    I agree that messages of Christianity can be smug and self-indulgent, but for many, that is the faithlife many desperately yearn for. And I agree that Jesus sends us into the world to do God’s work, and to be challenged, and to be afraid, and to be made weary – but is everyone called to the same task? Are not the challenges different for each of us? Some of us work all day and some for only an hour, and yet each receives the same reward, and are rebuked when we challenge the compensations paid to those who only worked an hour.

    Perhaps there is within Christianity a range of tasks and assignments – and for some the assignment is only to receive consolation. And while some of us are challenged by possibilities presented by various ministries of compassion, nurturing, teaching, and administration, others are immobilized by grief, depression, oppression, or Parkinsons. The message of Jesus cannot be one-size-fits-all. Instead, there are different messages, and we are each called to discern the content of the personal message intended for us.

    • John,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You make some nice points, and are correct to ask me to provide some definitions. First, let me say that I think the question about whether “there is such a thing as ‘popular Christianity’” is a settled matter—if only by definition (i.e., that form of Christianity that is most commonly understood to be an authentic expression of Christianity). I don’t know any set of criteria by which Progressive, Emergent, or Liberal could be construed as the commonly understood form of Christianity. That is not to say that those forms of Christianity don’t enjoy some popularity, just that those are not forms that generally pass for the Christian faith most popularly conceived. Does Conservative Christianity qualify? I think that popular Christianity is demonstrably more conservative in its theological leanings. But whether it is conservative or not is largely beside the point for my purposes.

      By popular Christianity I mean that form of Christianity that most folks think of when they hear the word Christianity. I’m going to make the assertion, without defending it through reference to sociological polling data, that the most popular conception of Christianity centers on individual belief, emphasizing a personal relationship with Jesus. This personal relationship with Jesus is touted as the answer to just about every conceivable question, but having most to do with questions of personal morality and personal salvation. In other words, how can I live a life that won’t disqualify me from getting into heaven? Popular Christianity tends to be overly consumer driven, from its church growth marketing strategies to its emphasis on the accumulation of more and more Christian approved stuff—from Christian t-shirts to Christian toasters, from Christian Rock to Christian plumbing services. Popular Christianity, as I am using it, is an attempt to establish another culture that can out-compete “worldly” culture in virtually every venue—as if to establish the premise that we can sell more Christian tennis shoes and thereby win the battle. I fear, however, that the battle with the powers and principalities has been joined not by the faithful witness of the disciples of Jesus, but by a baptized capitalism intent on conquering market share.

      Second, you “agree that the messages of Christianity can be smug and self-indulgent, but for many, that is the faithlife many desperately yearn for.” I think you’re right in this observation. However, that’s my point. Should we be satisfied that people come to Christianity to satisfy their self-indulgent natures? I can’t figure out how to make the Gospel accounts of Jesus do that—and believe me, I’ve tried.

      I understand that people have lives—that not everyone is called to “full-time Christian service,” as we used to call it. That this is true is not problematic for me, since I agree with your comments about the abundance of different gifts we each possess. However, if I read the concerns of the Emergent folks correctly, one of the issues being raised is the extent to which the church (prompted, I would argue by popular Christianity) has made it easier to avoid the difficult demands of following Jesus by convincing people that we can still get into heaven without having to go to the inconvenience of ever helping the poor, the widowed, and the outcast—except through financial gifts to approved Christian helping agencies.

      Indeed, “the message of Jesus cannot be one-size-fits-all”; but that is precisely what I fear popular Christianity achieves by its continued insistence (at least practically speaking) that there is very little distinguishable difference between middle-class American suburbanites and followers of Jesus.

  3. Hi Derek,

    As usual you write exceptionally well and are among the most thoughtful people I know (of course, for that to mean anything you have to be familiar with who I know), but one statement I would have to ask you to unpack is “and God always gets what God wants.” If God always gets what God wants – then it would seem that the world, or the church, as it is – is what God wants because that is what God is getting. I am not certain at all that God always gets what God wants – for me the issue of human freedom and the ability to choose plays a huge role in how I understand the God who created us with the ability to choose. As long as I, or we, have the ability to make a choice God may not get what God wants.

    Of course, you could argue that what God ultimatley wanted was a free world. Which in my view is the only kind of world where love can truly happen. And love, the unconditional giving of oneself for others, is ultimately what God wants from any of us.

    Peace

  4. Such covetness whenever I read your writing, my friend. Such covetness.

    And I hear all that you’re saying. But in the midst of all this, ‘God always gets what God wants’ makes me want to have a pitcher of beer and argue. Maybe I’d be more in line with “In the end, Love wins, with us or without us.”

    And if Jesus isn’t nice, how can he possibly be good enough for church?!?! I mean,c’mon……………….

  5. Mark and Molly,

    Thank you both. You’re both better friends than I deserve.

    The phrase, “God always gets what God wants,” I admit, is something of a rhetorical flourish. On the other hand, isn’t the point of Christian eschatology that, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, God’s already gotten what God wants, and that what we’re doing until that final realization is staging rearguard actions? I don’t mean it in any double-predestination sense; merely that God, through Christ, get’s what God wants—which, ultimately, is us. I’m perfectly satisfied with Molly’s version, “In the end, Love wins, with us or without us.”

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