When God’s Story Becomes Boring

When God’s Story Becomes Boring January 6, 2017

Among the many pills my doctor advises me to take each day one is a “multi-vitiman.” There are lots of brands. What they have in common is that in one small pill are all the vitamins and minerals my body needs each day. In theory I could take my multi-vitiman and eat nothing but boiled potatoes and nutritionally I’d be fine. The potato would provide the fuel and the vitamin would do the rest.

To get a feel for what potato plus Christianity looks like let’s look at my friend Ng Kam Weng’s recent article in a series on reformed theology. http://www.krisispraxis.com/archives/2016/12/on-being-a-reformed-pauline-and-narrative-theologian/. Dr. Ng says that “the defining mark of Reformed theology is its ‘big picture’ synthesis of the Trinitarian soteriology that flows through Creation, Covenant and Redemption.” Thus he maintains that Reformed theology is conscious of the “story of the Bible.”

At first glance it is hard to disagree with a “Trinitarian soteriology that flows through Creation, Covenant and Redemption.” But on closer examination we see that this reformed theology reads the story in the Bible as a story of interacting concepts, not living characters.

The same process is evident in a more progressive reading of the Bible in which the same Trinitarian soteriology is interpreted as a revelation of “God’s preferential option for the poor.” While Dr Ng reads out of the story substitutionary atonement, the liberation theologians read out a political philosophy.

And this is the weakness running through the history of the Christian church, perhaps most prominently in its Protestant form. Too often we read the Bible in a way that reduces the story to a plot, and then the plot to principles. In this reading of the Bible characters are reduced to characteristics and ultimately to metaphysics or theological anthropology.

Once this happens the story is over – frozen into a set of inevitable interactions from which we learn nothing new about ourselves or God. Its like reading an algebra textbook.

As a result we really do live in the end times: the time between the end of the story and the rolling of the credits, the time in which God faces no revelatory crisis and the people whom God created can be safely reduced to the dichotomies of sinner/saint, lost/found, damned/saved, and privileged/marginalized. The possibilities for learning something new about either God or ourselves was bracketed between the departure from Eden, the Resurrection, and the death of the last apostle. After that nothing really happens except the extraction of doctrine.

So of course there is no room for diversity, theological or otherwise, except in the sense that our human fallibility should allow for some margin of error in the process of distilling doctrine from story. And even this is ended, in the common Evangelical Protestant reading, in the first five centuries of the Christian church. The recently deceased Thomas Oden, hailed as a hero of Evangelicalism was quoted as hoping his epitaph read, “He made no new contribution to theology.” http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/december/died-thomas-oden-methodist-theologian-who-found-classical.html

Of course this doesn’t mean that Oden or others don’t write theology. They endlessly explore the Bible and the early church theologians and councils for misunderstood wisdom or more commonly to justify existing doctrine. But no part of the human experience since the council of Constantinople has or can be the locus of a new revelation about what it means to be human or how Christians should understand God.

Some liberation theologians and and their successors seem just as limited by the deep past of Christianity. They make the struggle against “empire,” represented by Rome in the time of Christ, as the eternal setting of all liberating struggle. So just as a particular instance among constantly changing human worldviews becomes normative for Reformed theologians, one particular instance among the constantly changing configurations of political power becomes normative for liberation theologians.

In both cases the Church’s task of justifying doctrine in new environments never ends, but its tutelage in the ways of God and humanity has long since ceased. It can learn about human history and culture, but it has nothing to learn from human history and culture because God’s role in both is just the same old, same old story of God’s Reign in Christ versus Sin or God’s Reign in Christ versus Empire.

I was even taught in seminary that there were ultimately only four possible heresies, and that all of them had been fully articulated by the fourth century. Imagine, humans have been incapable for the last 1600 years of even figuring out new ways to misunderstand God. We reached our full potential for theological error by the council at Constantinople!

This kind of theology has some attractive features in an age when novelty seems to supersede the wisdom found in tradition. And it reminds us that there is an essential unity of the human experience that makes it possible for us to relate to our ancestors, imagine our descendants, and reach out across the deepest of cultural divides. That which is human at all should be relevant to us all. And of course it keeps us from the modern hubris of believing that somehow just because we are chronologically later we are theologically superior.

And it is true that by extracting from the story a set of doctrines we have a convenient way of checking when people have “lost the plot” and have begun to write their own story.

The problem is that in this theological presentation of Christianity the Christian story can become boring, and therefore no longer engages a growing portion of humankind. Theologians create a world in which you don’t need to read the book because they’ve already given you the review and the ending without so much as a spoiler alert.

Small wonder that Christmas in Christian lands has become a season for nostalgia. The ubiquitous nativity play is strictly for children who aren’t old enough to learn doctrine. For most of the rest of us there is really nothing left to expect. God has done God’s thing, the Church figured it out nearly 2000 years ago, and all that’s left is to turn doctrine into action, whatever our doctrine and thus whatever our action. Of course under the right circumstances that can be challenging and even exciting, (and we can fight over it endlessly) but it will never be revealing. We’ll never learn something we don’t already know.

And this puts Christianity in the sharpest contrast with the greatest contemporary generator of stories: the human endeavor called science. While Christian theologians repeat the old old story scientists remain open to the possibility that at any turn their scripts may need to be rewritten and endings be reconfigured as twists in an ever more complicated plot. While Christian theologians squeeze 2000 year old grapes one more time in the search for new wine scientists are exploring new worlds to see what fruit they might yield for human understanding of the cosmos. It is very small wonder that more people watch Cosmos than attend church. http://variety.com/2014/tv/news/cosmos-draws-biggest-global-audience-ever-for-national-geographic-channel-1201257111/

Maybe its because Hal Lindsey was a hit when I was younger, but I like to read the Book of Revelation at Christmas. (Although Dr Lindsey was just like every other theologian who wants to nail down the future – he just took a different approach.) What is great about John’s Revelation is its strangeness. In its incessant movement between the transcendent Reign of God and the reigning of God among us we learn that the story isn’t over. We do not know all that there is to know about God. The Son of God has not fully revealed himself to us.

Even if we could easily make sense of John’s strange visions there are the voices of the seven thunders that he is not allowed to hear. Or, to take the gospel written by a different John, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

In Revelation there is simply no way to reduce the story to a plot and a plot to a doctrine. There is no way to reduce character to characteristics, and gentle Jesus meek and mild turns out to be neither of these things. Of course the same can be said of the gospels if we scrape off the incrustations of commentary and post-facto justifications for doctrine with which theologians have dressed them. There are better ways to keep us in touch with the teaching of the Church than to insure Jesus never speaks for himself. We might also scrap the sound-bite approach to scripture that has become the norm for Christian worship.

As importantly the book of Revelation is cosmic, not merely transcendent, and therefore defies the theologian as it ironically forces us down from metaphysics into physics. The stars in the night sky don’t just look down from above, they fall in terrifying and utterly destructive abundance. Talk about your NEOs. Reading Revelation reminds me that all that astronomy and cosmology is theologically relevant, even if it is almost entirely ignored by theologians (my colleague Theo Walker being a notable exception.)

And in the end? Well there is no end. It is a story that of its own admission goes on and on. Like the universe that we live in; a universe far too big to exist solely so that our struggling species can wrestle with sin and evil.

If we are not fully aware of what Jesus did, and is doing, and will do then surely we do not know everything there is to know about either God or ourselves. And that means that we do not yet know that depths and heights of what it means to be God’s people. The possibility of becoming engaged in that story of discovery is something I think contemporary people might find compelling.

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