Letters to the present church (with an eye to the future)

Letters to a Future Church is a pithy, lively little book. It features more than two dozen contributors crammed into 164 breezy pages.

The book, edited by Chris Lewis, comes out of a 2010 conference in Toronto for which speakers were asked to compose short letters to the church, modeled after the seven letters to seven churches that open the book of Revelation. The conference got some Big Names on board — people like Walter Brueggemann, Ron Sider, Shane Claiborne, Peter Rollins and Eugene Peterson (and to those outside of the subculture, trust me, those guys are subculturally famous). But they also, intentionally, didn’t allow church celebrities or “gatekeepers” to dominate the conversation. The conference sought out other smart, but less-famous voices (including terrific bloggers like Rachel Held Evans and Kathy Escobar) and put out an open call for letters that resulted in some of the more interesting and inspiring essays collected here.

The format of these essays gives the collection a sense of urgency. Contributors were given wide latitude on their choice of subject, but were also forced to keep it short. That combination of sweeping ambition and brevity focuses these essays into something like “Here is what I have to say that is most important to me,” and that asks for, and often rewards, our attention.

Because of that brevity, one can readily re-read the essays here that invite further reflection — and many of these do. (And in the case of the handful of clunkers here, that brevity means you’re done with them almost soon enough.)

There are big dreams here, words of gratitude and of criticism, arguments, condemnations, manifestos, visions, agendas, parables, pedantry, poetry and prophecy. There are personal testimonies that challenge and inspire. There are some heartfelt pleas for what we need to change, and a few harrumphing sermons on what you people need to change.

Basically, you’re getting to meet a couple dozen people who are trying, in just a few pages, to tell you who they are and who they want to be as honestly as they can. If you find people interesting, there are plenty of them here.

Tony Jones wrote about Letters to a Future Church yesterday and he makes several points I’d second here. He commends Pete Rollins’ letter (from which I gleaned this joke/parable) and pans the lecturing essay by Tim Challies (which I wrote about earlier in “Healing and the justice of God“) and praises the concise wisdom of James Shelley’s one-point-and-done entry reminding Christians that the Bible doesn’t say anything without our interpreting it.

Tony also reacts to what was, for me, an initial source of great disappointment. He writes:

These aren’t letters to a future church, as the book’s title promises. They are letters to the church today. Actually, I’d be very intrigued by a book of letters to the church 100 or 1,000 years from now. But that’s not this book.

That’s what I was hoping this title promised — a book of letters to the church of 2112. Or, better yet, a book of letters from the church of 2112. What will Christians 100 years from now have to say to us?

I don’t imagine they’ll be terribly impressed with the way we’re still restricting and debating the role of women in the church. I would imagine, actually, that that very phrase — “the role of women in the church” — with all of its assumptions and condescensions, will be viewed a hundred years from now as an embarrassing artifact of our current failings.

Nor do I suspect that our future heirs in the church will be terribly impressed that it has taken us so long to make so little progress lurching and staggering toward the full and equal participation of LGBT believers, or toward overcoming the racial and ethnic and class barriers we have constructed throughout our churches.

The theme of a great many “Letters From a Future Church,” I think, would be “Just what part of Galatians 3:28 didn’t you people understand?”

I also can’t imagine the church of 2112 looking back on us with fond gratitude for what we’re doing and allowing to be done to the climate they will have to endure living in. For example, today in 2012 there is a Christian minority in the officially Muslim nation of the Maldives, but we know that by 2112 there won’t be any Christians living there at all. Or Muslims either. Because, thanks to our actions and inactions, by 2112 the Maldives will likely no longer exist.

What’s most interesting to me about the church of the future isn’t the ways in which it will be different, but rather the ways in which it will be the same. “Love God and love your neighbor” will still be the core of the faith, even when taught by the chaplain for the work crew of an orbiting Planetary Resources station overseeing the robotic mining vessels busily dismantling Mercury for the construction of the Dyson sphere.

But, as Tony said, “that’s not this book.”

This book is about the church today — mostly the North American church. It is a book of its time.

Yet think about the apologetic way that phrase is often employed — “Well, you have to understand, he was a man of his time.” Keeping an eye to the future — trying to imagine how our time will be viewed by generations yet to come — turns out to be a necessary aspect to understanding the present.

Letters to a Future Church is not really one addressed to those future generations. But if some member of the church of 2112 should somehow stumble across a copy, I think they would find a compelling, intriguing snapshot from the church of 2012, as well as a few timely expressions of timeless ideas.

 

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  • Krieger

    I assume that a letter from the church of 2112 would be more along the lines of “We are the priests of the Temple of Syrinx, all the gifts of life are held within our walls.”

    Just me?

  • Guest

    I love you. This is exactly where my brain went the first time he said 2112. Thank you for being great, you have made my afternoon.

  • http://guy-who-reads.blogspot.com/ Mike Timonin

    Not just you – my immediate thought.

  • http://gaychristiangeek.blogspot.com Rainicorn

     Mastered YYZ yet, Krieger? :P

  • Krieger

    It’s Y-Y-Zed!

    And no, Neil Peart stands alone.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Just what part of Galatians 3:28 didn’t you people understand?Greeks and Jews can have equality. So can slaves and free. What do you mean, women and men aren’t equal? And those nasty brown and gay people, keep ’em squashed.(…feel dirty, wash hands now)

  • Jessica_R

    The future church is *definitely* going to definitely be appalled at the attempted crack down on nuns, especially with utterly badass nuns like this running around today, http://womensenews.org/story/war/120416/syrian-nun-plays-key-role-in-medical-underground

  • Nathaniel

    I feel you’re too optimistic Fred. I have full confidence that there will still be plenty of churches in the 22nd century that explicitly have women be inferior in their ideology. 

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Considering how far backwards we’ve gone in many ways on women’s rights just in my lifetime, I’m hoping women will still be allowed to read in 2112.

  • anonyMouse

    After all, it’s biblical!

  • Twig

    It’s going to be a lot more difficult but a lot more impressive to make the pilgrimage to Mecca if you’re born on Mars.

  • Scott de Brestian

     Not necessarily, depending on whether holo-projecting an avatar to Mecca counts as making the Hajj…

  • JustoneK

    What about remotely controlled humanoid bots with high def cameras in their heads?

  • carovee

    A book ostensibly for future generations that actually speaks mainly to the current generation?  Hmm, I feel like I’ve read a book like that before but I juuuuust can’t put my finger on it :)

  • Robyrt

    I think the churches of 2112 will be judging us for things that aren’t even really on our radar. What would you say to the church as of 1912? It was fifty years before the Second Vatican Council. Most Protestants still had the Apocrypha in their Bibles. The ordination of women was almost exclusively a Methodist practice.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I suspect that many people in the church do not expect it to change, or rather, they fear that it will change.  Of course, those are also the same people who think that the chuch has never changed, or that their method of practicing it was the only “true” one thoughout whatever period of history they want to define. 

    Somehow I think that this is less of an “Oceana has always been at war with Eurasia” issue and more of a “well, that’s how my parents did it so that’s the way it always has been” kind of thinking. 

  • JustoneK

    Somehow I think that this is less of an “Oceana has always been at war with Eurasia” issue and more of a “well, that’s how my parents did it so that’s the way it always has been” kind of thinking.  

    What’s the difference, in the long run, between those?

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    What’s the difference, in the long run, between those?

    The difference has to do with their own creation.  The later is the apperance of tradition inferred out of ignorance, while the former is the insistance upon tradition done out of a deliberate choice to embrace self-delusion over reality.  That is, when you know that marriage in past eras was quite different than marriage is today, but you still insist today’s style of marriage is the “traditional” one, you are in Oceana/Eurasia territory.  On the other hand, if all you have been around in your life is the kind of marriage sterotyped in 1950s mass media, and you have no other conception of marriage to compare it to, than you might think it traditional due to having exposure to nothing else. 

    Ignorance can be corrected, people can be educated, misconceptions can be cleared.  However, willful self-delusion cannot.  Those are the people who accept that what The Party says is the absolute truth, even if that means their own experience and perception lies to them. 

  • The Lodger

    Somebody will have to deal with the spiritual nature of whatever nonhuman intelligence we’re confronted with in the next century. My three most likely candidates are:

    – Computer or network phenomena

    – Enhanced/”uplifted” animals

    – Extraterrestrial/extradimensional entities (which would become more likely if we ever have the sort of contact that is scientifically verifiable. I don’t want to get into whether religious visions qualify  :) .

  • Tricksterson

    Since I agree with Douglas Adams opinion on the relative intelligence of humans and dolphins and the reasons for it maybe they’ll uplift us

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    -Computer or network phenomena

    Do these units have a soul?

  • JonathanPelikan

    I want to take every possible opportunity to plug Mass Effect, so here. People who’ve played the series know that question only has one answer.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grBn3oWYvkM

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    Or to go directly to the pertinent part of the video.

  • Ian needs a nickname

    There is no longer Pan Sapiens or Uplifted, there is no longer  weak-hiveminded or autarkic, there is no longer meatspace nor uploaded; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

  • Matri

    “We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We
    will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.
    Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

  • GDwarf

    It’s going to be a lot more difficult but a lot more
    impressive to make the pilgrimage to Mecca if you’re born on
    Mars.

    I’ve just finished reading Mary Roach’s wonderful “Packing for Mars”
    which is all about the parts of space travel the public doesn’t think
    much about.

    She mentions at one point that there are official guidelines
    for observing various religious practices in orbit. For example: Since
    sunrise is every 90 minutes Muslims generally stick to the clock of the
    launch site for prayers, and are allowed to “mentally” face Mecca, since
    physically doing so would have to involve a high-speed turntable and
    lots of anti-nausea drugs. What’s more, kneeling and bowing are
    essentially impossible in zero-G, so those can also be done mentally.

  • The Lodger

    The “mentally” concept is actually a great comfort. I’ve been wondering how Muslims in the Arctic handle Ramadan, especially when it falls in June, July and August as it will in the 2010s. They can’t break their fasts until sundown, but what do you do when the sun just doesn’t go down?

  • Lalouve

    They use sunset and sunrise at Mecca – at least they do in Scandinavia and I suppose it would be the same in Alaska and other parts of the Arctic – or Antarctic, for that matter.

  • Barry_D

    They use the calendar and clock of the sub-arctic station they last left.

  • reynard61

    What makes you think that there will even *be* a “Church” in 2112? What makes you think that, sometime between now and then, the vast majority of the descendants of current churchgoers won’t realize that Christianity is a con-game (although a sometimes-well-meaning one) within a hierarchical, patriarchical power-play and refuse to be a part of it?

    Sooner or later, assuming that an honest-to-God Biblical apocalypse (pardon the pun) doesn’t befall us in the next 20 years or so (pretty much the absolute last year that it could happen and *still* have it conform to the Darbyite pre-millennialist timeline is the year 2033 — 2000 years *plus* Jesus’ presumed lifespan), people are going to start realizing that the so-called “prophesies” laid out in Revelations, Daniel and all of the other books that they rely on for predicting the End of The World As They Want It were out-and-out *WRONG*, and they’re going to *demand* an explanation. The Church is going to have to do one of three things — 1. Double down on the whole “Hellfire-and-damnation” thing as if nothing had happened. 2. Apologize, but reassure the flock that it’ll be “just a little longer” until Turbo-Jesus raptures the RTCs and gets started on destroying the Filthy Heathen-folk. Or 3. Retcon the Bible so that it conforms to the World ending at a later date. None of these, of course, makes The Church look particularly good — at best they come off as embarrassingly illiterate, gullible and/or stupid; and at worst they come off as lying, mendacious, misogynistic con-artists and/or cult-leaders. Not the best way to insure the long-term survival of a religious institution — or even a Religion — am I right?

    Then again (as Dennis Miller used to say back when he was still funny); that’s just my opinion, I could be wrong…

  • EllieMurasaki

    You’re wrong.

    There’s more to Christianity than premillennial dispensationalism. I’m particularly fond of postmillennialism, which, if I’m not confused, is, the Second Coming won’t happen until humanity has prepared the way for Christ by creating paradise on earth for all. Rate we’re going, that’ll never happen.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Any branch of Christianity that depends on some variant of six thousand years from the date of creation in order to justify that we are potentially close to “The End Times” is going to have to start its followers wondering what’s up when it’s closer to seven thousand years with as yet no sign of any Jesus Christ dude showing up.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, but you’re talking about branches of Christianity. reynard thinks he’s talking about Christianity as a whole.

  • reynard61

    No, my take on the book is that it seems to be written for a primarily Evangelical (though not necessarily Bible-thumpingly Fundamentalist), primarily pre-millennial audience. I’m willing to stipulate, however, that not *all* Evangelicals (Fred, for example) are PMDs — but they seem to be the rare exception rather than the rule.

    But IN did catch my main point: What’s going to happen if/when history goes into overtime and people start wondering when The Game is gonna end?

  • Barry_D

     No, both because there’s lots of slack when dealing in thousands of year, and also because it’s easy to tailor as things happen – or not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    You fail History of Christianity, Christian Eschatology, and Differences Between Christian Sects 101.  That is all I have the patience to say.

  • reynard61

    “You fail History of Christianity, Christian Eschatology, and Differences Between Christian Sects 101. That is all I have the patience to say.”

    From my point of view, all those things have failed me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    From my point of view, all those things have failed me.

    Yes, of course that makes perfect sense. “Differences Between Christian Sects 101” has failed you because you don’t seem to understand the differences between, say, Premillennial Dispensationists and Roman Catholics, or between those sects and sects like the Episcopalians or the Religious Society of Friends. /sarcasm

  • Barry_D

     For your first point, Christianity has been around for 2,000 years, surviving quite a bit.

    For your second point, not only is PMD a belief (heresy) of part of Christianity, but the timeline is highly flexible.  I remember from the 70’s where the end of the world was supposed to come ‘any day now’, and the Evil Empire was either the USSR of the EEC(!!!).

    That set of lies will be updated as needed, and the believers will update their beliefs as needed.

  • Tricksterson

    Christianity has been predicting the end of the world since the Gospels, something about the last of that generation not passing from the Earth before the end IIRC, and it hasn’t happened and Christianity has only grown.

  • Mary Kaye

    reynard61 writes: 

    What’s going to happen if/when history goes into overtime and people start wondering when The Game is gonna end?

    That’s already happened.  The 6000 year number is quite recent, but The End Is Nigh is an old phenomenon.  There were a ton of doomsday cults in the 14th century–and given the loss of a third of the population to the Black Death, they had better reason to think so than most.  Christianity survived the failure of all of those predictions.  For that matter, the era in which Revelations was written was chock-full of doomsday cults.  I suspect a lot of people expected the world to end quite soon after Jesus’ death.  Christianity survived the failure of all of those predictions too.  It survived having a line in its scriptures about “this generation will not pass away before the end” that is around 2000 years stale now.

    There are a lot of flavors of mainstream Christianity for which End Times prediction is not even on the radar.  Catholicism, for example, generally ignores it.

    It’s possible that Christianity will falter but I don’t see failure of End Times prophecy as a significant contribution.  That’s an old phenomenon and it hasn’t ever managed to kill the church or even wound it seriously.  Why would this time around be any different?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000541869042 Al Petterson

    I’m so terribly sorry not to comment on the substance of the post, but when I hear “the church of 2112” all I can think is “why do you care what the priests of the Temples of Syrinx have to say?” Besides, we already know…  “We’ve taken care of everything…”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000541869042 Al Petterson

    geez, that’s what i get for not reading the comments… repeating the very first one… sorry. :)

  • AnonymousSam

    Whenever people start predicting the end of the world, I like to link them to this: List of Dates Predicted for Apocalyptic Events

    May 27th, people! Seriously, for reals this time!

  • Tricksterson

    I personally was rooting for the Shadowrun version so when last Christnas came along and no dragon appeared over an erupting Mt. Fuji I got sad.

  • AnonymousSam

    Ha. Once upon a time, I watched WWF. Around that time, Chris Jericho had recently jumped ship from WCW to the WWF and brought a new monicker with him, one which entailed an intro video of a clock ticking down to 0:00, followed by pyrotechnic explosions. Because it was such a brilliant idea, the WWF decided to use this video to ring in the new year, having the clock ticking down from New Years Eve.

    There was only one problem: The year was 1999. Remember Y2K? Yeah…

    0:02! 0:01! 0:00!!

    The lights go out! The entire stadium is plunged into darkness!

    Kaboom! Explosions everywhere!

    We’re gonna die!!

    I got a major giggle out of so many distinctly relieved faces in the audience as Chris Jericho’s music began to play and the lights came back up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    I personally was rooting for the Shadowrun version so when last
    Christnas came along and no dragon appeared over an erupting Mt. Fuji I
    got sad.

    I’m pretty sure Ryumyo is supposed to show up in December 2012 because Shadowrun linked the Mayan calendar into the Sixth World beginning.

  • Tricksterson

    Yes but they started the year at the 2011 winter solstice.  Not sure if that when the Mayans began their years but it makes sense.  But thank you for trying to give me hope.

  • reynard61

    Trigger warning: rape, child molestation.

    @ Barry_D and Tricksterson: Yes, and why is that? If I were to find that I were being victimized by a con-artist who was selling me a service that’s supposed to repel, say (to use Fred’s most current example), Satanazis and I kept finding Satanazis in my neighborhood; I’d probably want, at very least, to get my money back and try to find a better way to repel those darned Satanazis. And, again at very least, I’d want nothing more to do with the guy who was trying to con me out of my hard-earned money. But for some reason, people have no problem with staying with institutions that lie to them, look the other way when the hierarchy molests/rapes their kids (and then rapes them again by hiding those molesters/rapists within the system so that they can molest/rape *more* kids!), treat women as if they were something less-than-human, etc.

    I guess that I just don’t understand why anyone would want to be a member of an institution that treats them like shit.

  • Mary Kaye

    In at least some cases it’s because they see the relationship between their own affiliations and the larger organization differently than you do.

    I was a member of a small pagan group that held public sabbats and full moon circles.  We were, both for convenience and because of some real similarities in outlook, affiliated with the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, an umbrella organization for Pagans within the UU church.

    After this arrangement had been going on for some years, it came to our attention that we had reasons to disapprove of both our local UU church and the national organization.

    By your lights we should have disaffiliated our group or perhaps disbanded it, but I can report that that’s not at all how we saw the situation.  We saw ourselves as being in the mainstream of what CUUPs groups do; we saw what the umbrella organizations were doing as wrong.  If we’d have quit, we would have been surrendering to something we disliked, letting it define us out of existence.  We would have been abandoning other well-functioning chapters to struggle alone in a bad situation.  It did not feel like the obviously right thing to do at all.

    I believe that many Catholics likewise feel that the evil hierarchy with which they are currently afflicted is not “the Church” but that the nuns that taught them, their parish priest who has treated them well, the fellowship of their parishoners, *those* are “the Church” and the hierarchy, powerful though it is, is an interloper.

    There are very hard moral questions about when you stay and fight creeping evil in an organization you belong to, and when you have to leave.  Both can be right; both can be wrong.  It’s not straightforward.  A church isn’t like a product you just buy in the store.  I put 14 years of volunteer work into that CUUPs chapter and I didn’t find it easy to just walk away from that.  On the other hand, I am an ex-Catholic because I hit a point where I really needed to walk away.  I personally can’t criticize either decision.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    After this arrangement had been going on for some years, it came to our
    attention that we had reasons to disapprove of both our local UU church
    and the national organization.

    Did these two have systemic, ongoing, persistent and deeply-rooted institutional mechanisms that shielded legions of child molesters rendered effectively immune to criticism from within those organizations?

    I suspect not.


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