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The Rev. Mark Sargent Mark Sargent

Mark Sargent is a retired United Methodist minister who works in the private sector and resides in Rome, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church


The Big Page Has Turned

First Sunday after Christmas

January 01, 2006

Well, the page on the ol' calendar has turned. It's January. Blank slate. New start. You know the routine. What didn't work in the year past? What do I need to do differently in the year to come? It's a fertile place to stand, right smack in between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. And it's not only a fertile place to stand; it's a bittersweet place as well. Because if we're even half awake, we realize that not everything we've thought or said or done in the year past will fuel our journey into the year to come.

Well, that's where we are. Not just because this is January, but also because a bigger page on a bigger calendar has turned. You and I and the rest of the world have been shifted into a new place. We stand at the cusp of a new time. We stand at the place in between what was and what will be. Now, I'll leave it to the historians and the philosophers and the social scientists to give us all of the whys and wherefores, and you can do your own homework on that. But in case you missed it, the era that was ushered in about 400 years ago, the period that we have come to call the Modern Age, is over. We are living at the beginning of a new era in human history. We live in a time of culture clashes, of rapid communication and rapid travel. We live in a new time in which what is local is giving way to what is global. We live in a new time when what we thought we knew now somehow seems less certain. This time is so new that we don't even know what to call it, so it's often been referred to as "postmodern," which doesn't really say very much except to imply that what went before has passed away.

The page on the calendar of human history has turned. We stand at the cusp of a new time. And such a place, the place between what was and what will be, is a moist and fertile and ripe and amazing place to stand. And, whether we want to be or not, we are always visited when we stand at such places by important questions that knock on the doors of our souls and demand that we respond. What worked in the age now past? What didn't? What needs to be left behind? What should be brought along? How will we discern between the chaff to be left behind and the nourishing wheat to be taken with us into the new era? And is it possible that we've confused the wheat and the chaff before? It is fertile to stand at the place between the end of something and the beginning of something else. Not only fertile, but bittersweet, because not everything we have thought or said or done in the age now past can fuel our journey into this new era.

This is where we stand. It's where the world is in 2006. And because the world is there, the Church is there too, standing at the awesome and wondrous and terrifying place in between, in the numinous valley in between, in between the world that has passed away and the world that is coming to pass. And as we stand here, I worry about us. I worry about the Church.

Let it first be said that I worry about the Church because I love the Church. The Church is, after all, my family business. My father and his father and his father were all Methodist preachers. When a family has a business that reaches into a fourth generation, it's safe to say that there's a significant investment in that business. I love the Church. But I worry about what I perceive to be an ever-widening chasm between the Church and the world. And any Christian knows that such a chasm needs to be bridged, because God loves the world and Jesus teaches us to care for those with whom we share this world. But I do worry about the gap.

Where did the gap come from? Time doesn't permit the seven and a half semesters it could take for us to explore that question, but I can distill it down to this. Before the Modern Era, before Galileo, before the invention of the microscope or the telescope, before we knew what we now know about how the Bible came to be, before we knew about germs and viruses and genes and chromosomes, before we knew about physics and Big Bangs, before we knew how to trace the fossil record, before all of that, it was easy to receive the Bible's claims and the Church's claims about the Bible at face value. But the insights of the Enlightenment and the progress of the Modern Age called the claims of the Bible into question. In light of modern scientific and historical understanding, it no longer became intellectually possible for us to receive the Bible as a literally factual text on the science of human origins or the history of human people.

So, when the likes of Galileo and Darwin come along, when the advent of Biblical criticism introduces us to the possibility that whatever the Bible is, it's not a science book or a history book, what's a good Christian to do?

There were two schools of thought on that, both of which were born in the latter years of the 19th century. One school said, "Forget about that book. I guess we've debunked that. Don't need it any longer. Science is our baby now. History is our thing. We don't need that book of myths. Away with the Bible." Some people went there. Maybe that's a place where some people still live today.

The other way to respond to the pressure the Modern Era placed upon the Bible and much of the Church's doctrinal history is to say, "Heck, no. I don't care what your science says or what your history tells us or what your archeological digs reveal or what your newfangled understandings of the Bible suggest. The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." Some people went there in the latter years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. They gave birth to a movement we have now come to know as Christian fundamentalism, a title that traces its origin to the publication of twelve paperback pamphlets called "The Fundamentals," issued between 1910 and 1915, which sought to defend the literal claims of the Bible against what was regarded to be the unholy assault of modernism. I don't suppose I have to tell you that many Christians remain in that place today. The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.

And so the Bible and the Church's long-held claims about the Bible collide with modern science and history, and what happens? Some folks throw the Bible away, and some folks batten down the hatches and rigidly literalize the Bible's faith claims. Neither position works for the Church. I am here to suggest an alternative to both of those extreme reactions. I am here to suggest that the future of Christianity is not found in throwing the Bible away. But neither is the future of Christianity found in pretending that the Modern period didn't really happen. The future of our faith is found in taking the always-new wine that is the Good News about Jesus Christ and finding the new wineskins that can deliver that Good News to 21st century people living in the new time in which we find ourselves.

This effort will be easier said than done, because the Church now finds itself in the precarious position of being dominated by those who literalize the faith claims of the Bible. This effort will be easier said than done, because the Biblical literalizers have become the face and the voice of Christianity in today's world. They are the ones the world hears articulating a faith that flies in the face of modern scientific and historical scholarship. They have become the face and the voice of Christianity in the world today. And, little wonder, since the literalizers are all over the radio and television airwaves and in the Christian bookstores and in the news headlines and in positions of authority in the Church and in the government. And here's their program. If the Bible can't be science and history, it can't be anything. This approach, rather than moving the Church bravely into the New World we now inhabit, takes the Church back to a time before modernity. That time is passed. It cannot be recaptured. Dorothy, we are not in Kansas anymore. Such a faith position, when it stubbornly refuses to incorporate new learnings into its system of beliefs, becomes intellectually indefensible and therefore unsustainable. And the gap between the Church and the world only widens.

And that's why I worry about the Church. I worry about the Church because the fundamentalist voice is the voice that has come to represent Christianity in the world. Now I have no hard data on this, other than the many conversations I've had with people outside the Church, but I think when most people in the world outside the Church hear the words "Christian" and "Church," what comes to their minds are narrow-minded, defensive, judgmental, strident, abrasive, Bible-thumping people who believe that it's our way or the highway. No wonder the chasm between the Church and the world is widening. If I thought that's what Church is, I wouldn't go either. And I take no joy in sharing in as tender a way as I can that they are not creating for the Church a reputation that invites genuine spiritual seekers to come our way.

Because here's what the world hears them saying. It is our way or the highway. Get with our program or get left behind. And you'll burn or suffer or be tormented or be dislocated or lost or tossed aside. Believe in things that modern science clearly refuted a long time ago. Check your brain at the door when you come to the Church. Gray matter not welcome here.

And in addition to what the world experiences them as saying, here's what some of them are actually saying. In recent months, I have come across statements from Christian pastors referring to "dimwit, Ivy League theologians," referring to the "malignancy of tolerance." One Christian thinker has actually said--I'm quoting here--"when the teaching of Scripture conflicts with any other idea, the teaching of Scripture will be accepted as truth and the other idea will not be accepted as truth, regardless of its support from empirical research" (Quoted in Religion and the Human Sciences: An Approach via Spirituality, Daniel A. Helminiak, 1998, State University of New York Press). And we have all witnessed recently the ridiculous pronouncements of one well-known Christian pastor, who warned the people of Dover, Pennsylvania, not to turn to God in the face of any crisis they may face, since they had rejected God by choosing not to teach Intelligent Design in their public school classrooms. When we in the church resort to calling names when someone threatens our premodern systems of belief, when tolerance has become a malignancy, when our response to empirical data is to resort to inappropriately literalizing the Bible, when we suggest that God is unhappy when we teach our children good science, then the Church has lost its way. It has strayed from the message and ministry of Jesus, because it has locked itself in a dark and airless room where religious dogma supersedes common sense. To continue down that path is to walk steadily and surely to the Church's demise.

That's why I worry about the Church. But I'm hopeful, too. I'm hopeful because the world, as it always has been, is spiritually hungry. There's a great openness of heart to spiritual truths, a surge of new interest in spiritual things. Jesus is all over magazine covers and in television documentaries. Why? Because the world knows that he has something to teach. His life turned the world upside down. And his life has been a source of nourishment and transformation for centuries. We just need to free him from the opaque room of judgmentalism and literalism in which he has become imprisoned.

And I'm hopeful. I know you love Jesus, or else you wouldn't be listening today. I love Jesus, or else I wouldn't be wasting my gray matter and my breath on this conversation. At DAY 1, we are in love with Jesus, too. There are many people in the world and in the Church who experience in Jesus the light and the healing and the wholeness and the love and the compassion and the tolerance that are the hallmarks of God's rule and reign. And we want the world, including the many who have left the Church, to know that to be a Christian does not mean to make easy in group/out group distinctions. To be a Christian does not mean to imperialistically conquer someone else's belief with ours. To be a Christian does not mean to close our eyes and our minds to what the Modern era taught us. To be a Christian means to love the Lord with our minds, as well as with our hearts and souls and with our strength. To be a Christian means to follow Jesus in the way of service and sharing and caring and justice and peace and understanding.

To be a Christian means to adopt the posture of loving kindness and the open, servant heart that is at the core of Christianity, and that is at the core of every religion and of every spiritual seeker. That's the Jesus I know, and that's the Jesus I'd like to see reintroduced to the world. This is the task that faces the Church now.

Over the next two weeks, I'll be inviting us to consider what it means for the Church to reimagine its role in the world. I hope you'll courageously take that journey with me. I don't presume to suggest it will be an easy journey. I do believe it's a worthwhile one, since nothing less than the future of the Church is at stake. For the sake of the mission of Jesus in the world, let's go. As the Church of Jesus, let us go bravely into the new world Jesus invites us to love.

Let's pray.

God, we thank you that are always making all things new. Give us grace to follow you, trusting that as you have led us in the past, you will lead us into all of our tomorrows. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.


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