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Ted Dekker: Rejecting Religion?

Some months ago I read a Goodreads interview with author Ted Dekker. It answered some questions left in my mind after reading other interviews (such as, how can you write about some of the things you do without suffering spiritual damage). It also repeated something that Dekker has alluded to in other interviews I have read—namely, his distaste for conventional Christianity. He told Goodreads that he is surprised people classify him as a Christian author, since much of what he writes is “against religion.”

In one sense, Dekker reminds me of a typical youngish postmodernist who prefers spirituality to “religion,” except that Dekker is more specific about what constitutes genuine “spirituality.” (His definition: searching for the true God, not simply feeling emotional about spiritual issues.) In another sense, he is a typical exponent of the “not a religion, a relationship” mantra—albeit that he takes that idea farther than most evangelicals.

Individualism is not an entirely bad thing. In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton traces increased emphasis on the individual back to the first Christmas, when Christ was born as an outcast. “There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down…. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.” Christianity certainly upholds the importance of the individual.

But the individualism of Christianity is quite different from the individualism (sometimes better termed “self-centeredness,” and in fact quite destructive of the older individualism) that now permeates American culture.  While Dekker’s books (I’ve read something like eleven) do not espouse that sort of individualism, his conception of religion is extremely individualistic—in the American sense of the word. The individualism isn’t so much a matter of the individual being free to choose between Christian religious traditions as that of being free to follow Christ while simultaneously ignoring all Christian religious traditions.

But what if religion is the problem? We have all known Christians who were self-absorbed, or lied often, or spread gossip, or wielded their faith (which they misunderstood) like a sword. Is breaking free from them the solution?

In one sense, Dekker is quite right—Christ did not come to earth to found a religion. At least, the word appears nowhere in the New Testament. What Christ did found set Christianity apart from every other system of belief. Christ founded a church—the Church. And the Church’s existence marks Christianity as distinct from other belief systems. It may be called a religion for the sake of convenience, but, more fundamentally, it is a Church. No other belief system of my acquaintance so emphasizes unity for its own sake. We are Christ’s body—“organs of one another.” We are Christ’s building, “fitly framed together.” We are His bride. I do not believe that Dekker would necessarily deny any of the Biblical doctrines about the Church. But I believe he undervalues them.

Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor was the one who really brought my attention to exactly what it means for the Church to be Christ’s Body. The Church was not exactly a comfortable place for her, since she was, as she said, “peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness.” (I sympathize, although I suffer more from “pre-modern consciousness.”) O’Connor at any rate did not dump “religion” in favor of an isolated spirituality.  She wrote to a friend, “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.”

In a country where self-centeredness runs rampant, disguised as individualism or success, we cannot afford to sidestep the Church in our desire to be authentically Christian. According to the New Testament, it is impossible to find the authenticity we seek without the Church. As C. S. Lewis wrote in his essay “Membership”:

The Christian is not called to individualism but to membership in the mystical body….. We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

That isn’t to say that if your local church situation is toxic, that you should stay—although leaving, even when necessary, should be a matter for serious prayer. You aren’t switching hairdressers, after all. And the Church isn’t a beauty parlor. It’s more like a building under construction. Sometimes the insulation sticks out, and the loose electrical wires can be dangerous. But the builder tells us that it will be finished some day. And I’ve heard a rumor that it may become a temple.

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Posted by on September 16, 2013 in Young Adult Fiction

 

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Critiquing Chesterton

Last fall I came across an article about G. K. Chesterton in which the author said that most people, except for members of a small “Chesterton cult,” were unfamiliar with most of his writing. “Chesterton cult?” I hadn’t known that scouring the website of the American Chesterton Society made me a member of a cult. Now I do.

To be honest, I don’t think I’m obsessed with Chesterton. I do, however, value his writings—I’ve re-read Orthodoxy numerous times, and his Ballad of the White Horse helped me survive a statistics final. (I got a D and was prepared for an F. That the passage I marched off to class quoting was “That though we scatter and though we fly,/ And you hang over us like the sky,/ You are more tired of victory,/ Than we are tired of shame.” That may sound depressing, but I knew what I was in for.)

I’ve heard that Chesterton tends to be a polarizing influence—that people either love him or hate him. I’m not sure that I fit neatly into either category—perhaps admiration is the best word I can muster. C.S. Lewis seems to have felt similarly, praising Chesterton, paraphrasing Chesterton, and (sometimes) critiquing Chesterton. Because Chesterton is not always right. In fact, there are times that he contradicts himself. So why do so many of us admire him?

First of all, Chesterton is funny. By that I don’t mean he inserts jokes into his serious works so other people will read them. Rather, there is a good humor about his entire writing style. Among all the nonfiction I have read, Chesterton’s is the most entertaining. For example, Chesterton declares tradition to be “the democracy of the dead.” (Who else would put it like that?) “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarcy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.”

And, as the passage I just quoted suggests, Chesterton thinks for himself. He calls himself a liberal (in the 19th century sense) while simultaneously casting himself as a traditionalist. And both descriptions seem accurate. In an age of bipolar politics, Chesterton offers another way to look at life. He does the same thing in regards to Christianity; by starting with an informal anthropology, his book The Everlasting Man reveals Christ in a very different way.

In the end, I think one of the main reasons that I admire Chesterton is simply for his viewpoint, for his unique way of looking at things, and for his incomparable means of expressing them. As J.R.R. Tolkien said in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Chesterton’s “MOOR EEFFOC” –“COFFEE ROOM” seen backwards—is limited in its ability to make the world look new to us. It is good to realize, once in a while, that rivers really could flow backwards, or the grass be red, or houses be upside-down. But according to Tolkien (and I believe he was right) most of us cannot think that way for long. If we want to see the world in a new way, our best recourse is found in fairy tales. Yet, whatever he called his view, Chesterton’s way of thinking is that of a man permeated by the fairy tales that Tolkien so revered. Chesterton, unlike Tolkien, may never bring someone to the level of high myth. But he has convinced many people to learn what Cinderella did. If there is a pumpkin in the garden, the best response is to say “Thank you.”

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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Remembering Christmas

I think that this is perhaps the first year when I really understood that you don’t have to be a commericialized Christian to get caught up in all the holiday busyness. It’s all too easy to be so busy doing good things, necessary things, and letting these days of Christmas pass by without much thought. Yes, I intentionally typed “days.” Traditionally, Christmas has twelve of them. And, given that I celebrate Christmas longer than most people I know, you would think that it would be easier to keep my mind focused on Christ. Usually that has indeed been the case. This year–I suppose the fault lies somewhere amid family obligations, an early end to Christmas break, and my own propensity to get distracted and postpone my devotional life until a few minutes before midnight.

So maybe the problem–or, at least, my problem–has been less about commercialism and more about simply being human. It’s why we have holy days, after all. If we didn’t set aside a time to remember the important things, most of us would have a tendency to forget.

I have never heard of The Giver being connected with Christmas, but reading it during Advent brought to mind the reasons behind Christmas. For those who haven’t read The Giver, it is a rather dystopian children’s story (although it really isn’t appropriate for younger children) about a community that has managed to nearly obliterate things like pain and uncomfortable weather. Everything is organized, including employment, and every child is apprenticed during his or her twelfth year. Jonas is assigned to a man he comes to call the Giver–a counselor to the community and the only person who “remembers” the old way of living, both the pleasurable things and the painful ones. When the Giver transmits all of his memories to Jonas, then Jonas is to take his place. But when Jonas and the Giver come to realize that their neighbors’ state of induced tranquility is harmful, they come up with a plan to spread the memories to the entire community.

Christmas–all twelve days of Christmas–was intended to do exactly that. And even though we all have a tendency to allow everyday life to get in the way of our celebrating the season with full attention, Christmas certainly does make us pay more attention to the things we would usually forget. At what other time during the year do we really sit down and make ourself think about what the Incarnation means? When else do we really ponder the great mystery of God becoming man?

Christ Himself came to make us remember. Adam and Eve knew what God was like, but once they were tempted by the serpent, they began to forget. Eventually most of their descendents lost much of their knowledge about what He is like. As G. K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man (a wonderful book to read during Christmas, by the way), many so-called polytheistic religions have a background of monotheism. Above all the myths–easily told to those with questions–there was typically a belief in a supreme creator god who ruled the lesser and more humanlike “gods.” But people rarely have talked much about Him–after all, they have forgotten most of what they knew about Him, beyond His creation of the world.

Christ came for a world filled with people who had forgotten what God was like. Even those of Abrahamic descent had forgotten a great deal about God, despite having the scriptures, if the Jewish religious leaders are any indication. The world needed to remember. What would it be like if God walked among men again, as He did in the Garden? If He gave them stories to tell about Him, instead of about imaginary gods? Jesus, “the image of the invisible God,” showed us. “He was in the form of God…but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6, ESV).

If Christ came to remind us, surely we should make more effort to remember.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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