Near Cowra, NSW 2011.

One Sheep's Bleat

August 1 2006

Northside Church has a big sign board you can't miss seeing when you pull off the highway into Gawler. Last night it proclaimed, "Evolution Disproved!" And churches wonder why Australians treat them- with scorn and derision! This is not even believing six impossible things before breakfast! It is just plain stupid.

It is also bad witness. No less a person than St Augustine said Christians should not ''talk nonsense.'' They should not interpret Bible stories about the natural world as factual and literal truth if they contradict reason and human experience. He implies that when the bible is contradicted by our experience, or by scientific evidence, it is our Christian duty to thoroughly examine the facts that contradict a literal understanding of the story. If the facts as we see them today can't be refuted, then we should accept the facts- not insist on the facticity of the biblical story. He thought people would not accept the spiritual message of Christianity if the church was speaking nonsense in other matters.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, while presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics. ... If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about the Scriptures, how then are they going to believe those Scriptures in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven? How indeed, when they think that their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? (You'll find this quoted many times on the internet, sourced from The Literal Meaning of Genesis (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim) (translated by J. H. Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, volume 41) Book 1 Chapter 19 Paragraph 39 )

We don't have to hold to Augustine's particular theological viewpoints or social attitudes to see the sense of his statements!

It would be easy, and pleasing, to dismiss places like Northside as the idiot fringe of the church. Not so, I'm afraid. For one thing, the conservative churches seem to be the ones attracting new comers. And as the church frays with the pressure of modern life and aging congregations, the fringe is creeping into the cloth. Churches and ministers, desperate for some experience that lives up to their rhetoric, spooked by the absurd claims of American pentecostalism and fundamentalism, sometimes sell out reason and faith to cheap grace, shallow theology, and counting bums on seats as growth of the kingdom. If that involves proclaiming the ridiculous, and preaching louder to assist spiritual self delusion, then so be it.

The fraying fringe is eroding the fabric of the church because the threads of the problem run through the whole cloth. We have forgotten we are but blind beggars seeking for bread, and having found it, are able to show others. (D.T. Niles) Some of us have thought we owned God, and that we knew the whole deal. We have ignored science. We have scorned philosophy. We have avoided theology, and instead read the cheap pamphlets of americanised christianity. Instead of truly seeking to know God- and let's be fair, many of us have been trying, we have been led astray by a false christianity which has been more about preserving a particular way of life as THE way to live. Others of us, more humble, have succumbed to fear of the world as it is beamed into our lounge rooms, and sought after simplistic certainties which are not there to be had. We too, have misunderstood much of what it means to be faithful.

And so those of us who have been faithful for decades, and who instinctively know there is More to life than the visions offered by John Howard and Harvey Norman, are inarticulate and dumb. We can only think and speak in a theology that has thrown in its lot with the Howards and Harvey Normans of this world. So enamoured have we become of success, and "powerful" faith, of bums on seats, and confident oratory- so sold out to the idea that true Christianity must be spectacular, that we have lost our birthright. We have lost our peculiar power, which is to affirm life and to trust our sense of more. We have lost our power to sit with the weeping without answer and simply love them. We have become the great pretenders to know, or been paralysed by the falsehood that we should. We take the easy option to shout out against things, rather than be a people who are for God and for people

I won't be going to Northside, which will be no surprise to anyone who reads this! But I'm not in church anywhere this morning. It's because what I find in Church has no relevance to my life issues.

After I helped her photocopy the news letters and Orders of Service last night, my wife commented on how uncomfortable I have become around the church and the office. She's right They are all nice people up there, but for all the work she puts in, the language and style of worship is riven through with threads that alienate me.

Most worship does not celebrate what I find holy. I have to do a constant translation, an exhausting "thinking across the top'' of what is being said and done. I can tell myself I am part of the tradition, and part of the people, and responding to the same More, but I am rarely at home. There is no safe place to talk and seek. The daily language of the church is not my language.

At work I help the rich get richer. I suspect that some of my work is used to further injustices. We don't talk about this on Sunday mornings. We are more likely to complain about those who have been part of helping the poor this week, and how we shouldn't have those people in our buildings. Our real concerns are for the choir, and the organ, and the ladies fellowship.

This is not really fair. Some of those people in the choir spend a lot of time in the church putting together food parcels, and providing emergency financial aid during the week. The chief organist is a model of heroic christian discipleship and compassion. I stand in awe of him. He's an excellent organist, too.

So what's going on? By its failure to connect with the modern world, and by its flirting with Northsidean retreats into unchristian certainty, the church does not care for me in my weakness. We have always failed in this way. There have always been groups on the periphery. Am I just complaining because I am the one missing out this time? It's more than this. We are failing comprehensively. We are barking up the wrong tree. Our gospel is not making sense. The cloth of the church is coming apart as it refuses to be real to today.

Posted August 1 2006

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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