A Christianity Worth Believing -- Review

A CHRISTIANITY WORTH BELIEVING: Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-Well Faith for the Left out, Left Behind, and Let Down in us All. By Doug Pagitt. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. xiii + 242 pages.

What is Emergent Christianity? That is a question that continues to roll around the Christian neighborhood. It is evangelical – or at least it has clear evangelical roots. Proponents like Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones speak of it as more a conversation among friends than even a movement. Although it is evangelical in many senses, it isn’t your parent’s variety of evangelicalism. It is more open in its theology and broader in its social concerns. At many levels it appears to be a bridge to more liberal main liners. As one who emerged from a similar milieu (I’m a Fuller graduate after all), I continually wonder if I would have become part of this group had I been just a decade younger (I will admit that Brian McLaren is older than me, but . . . ).

In Christianity Worth Believing – as you can tell from the subtitle – Doug Pagitt, pastor of Minneapolis’ Solomon’s Porch, offers an alternative vision of the Christian faith. He calls this a “Christianity worth believing,” but he makes it clear from the outset that while he’s a Christian, he confesses: “I don’t believe in Christianity” (p. 2). He goes on to clarify what he means by this statement. He doesn’t believe in the versions of the Christian faith that have dominated for the past 15 centuries. They may have been appropriate for their time, but they no longer speak to those longing to walk with God today. These old theologies seek to answer questions no one is asking.

There are many ways to tell the Christian story, but personal confessions and autobiographies often do the trick well. It worked for St. Augustine, among others. Pagitt notes that he didn’t grow up Christian, but came to faith in high school after watching a passion play. For some reason that production caught his ear and his heart, but even then he wasn’t sure what it meant to be Christian. That would take time, and in the end he would come to a very different understanding of faith, one very different from the one described in the tracts he once handed out. Early on he confesses to be a contrarian, and there is definitely a contrarian tone here. He wants to offer the reader a sense of the Christian faith, but he has to do a lot of deconstruction before he’s able to offer a suitable alternative.

His conversion was life changing, but like many of us he got caught up in the absolutes and the “cut and dry” sensibility. Over time he began to have questions and found that the answers to his questions often were overly complicated and joyless. What he wanted was a living faith, one that took account of the circumstances of his life. In an early presentation of the faith he was told that Facts came first, then faith, and only then feelings, a pronouncement that suggested that who we are as a person was slighted. He writes:

“Now think about that. What is the point of a Christianity that doesn’t involve our circumstances? The Bible is full of stories that are about faith lived out in particular circumstances. I got into Christianity because I wanted it to interfere with my circumstances. They have everything to do with faith” (p. 25).

Pagitt tried to do it the traditional way, but it didn’t work. He needed a faith that was contextual, one that took the biblical text seriously – especially the gospels. He sought out a faith that made sense of the changes that took place as the church moved from its Jewish roots to the Greco-Roman world. Indeed, at one point he shares his amazement at discovering that Jesus was Jewish. He resisted this idea because it seemed to undermine his own sense of whom Jesus was – the savior who died for his sins. But by understanding this transition, he began to understand that Christianity has made cultural adaptations – and continues to make them. These adaptations, however, aren’t the final word. Unfortunately with hellenization came the loss of the Jewish roots. Throughout the book, he seeks to reconnect with the original Hebrew context. At times there’s almost a “restorationist” impulse here.

In time he began to question the views of God, sin, Jesus, and the Kingdom of God that had been handed down to him. He found them too Greek and not sufficiently Hebrew. God in this telling was distant and abstract, but the God he discovered in Scripture was engaged, loving, and committed. Thus, out went the “omnis” and in came an integrated God, a God who is free to act and to interact.

Biblically he’s, at times, almost a literalist. He speaks at times as if, for instance, Adam and Eve are historical personages. But ultimately that’s not his issue. What he’s concerned about when it comes to the Bible is that it not be used as a weapon against other Christians or non-Christians to beat them into submission and that it not be used as a reference book (in other words, don’t proof-text). Instead, he looks at the Bible as a “dynamic story of life and faith” (p. 63). And as for its use, he confesses that he’s not always sure that the Bible is the best starting point for faith, reminding us that Abraham didn’t have the Bible when God pronounced him righteous. Neither did Moses. Beyond that the Disciples didn’t have the letters of Paul to use to interpret what Jesus had to say. Thus, the Bible is the result and not the cause of the story. That allows him to embrace the Bible as a living document, whose authority is found in the breath of God and not a doctrine of inerrancy.

This is part autobiography and his experience with holistic medicine led to a new way of looking at God and humanity, one that is holistic – so that things are connected. With this in mind, he rejects what he refers to as dualism or a gnostic understanding that separates body and spirit and denies the value of the body. This will prove important because in the end he will want to emphasize the humanity of Jesus and the here and now presence of the kingdom. By rejecting a dualistic understanding, he finds himself embracing an understanding of salvation that brings healing to both body and soul. As for Jesus, he is all in all!

When it comes to God, the question is: should we embrace one that is “up and out” or “down and in?” His answer is to embrace “down and in. The “up and out” God is distant, needing his anger assuaged and honor satisfied. In this Pagitt might have been helped had he recognized that much of the foundation for satisfaction atonement is rooted in medieval not early Christian views – more Anselm than Athanasius. Whatever the case of his way of getting there, he finds that satisfaction theology is not satisfactory. The God he originally learned of, wasn’t one he was especially fond of:

“This God was perfect and removed. While this God loved humanity, God’s love was conditional – it was only actualized for the right kind of follower. This God was opposed to most of humanity. This God was primarily concerned with the obedience of his subjects. Basically, this was the Greco-Roman hybrid God” (p. 99).

In its place he embraced an understanding of God that was active and involved, loving and gracious. This Gospel offered a message of hope and joy.

As he began to wrestle with God, he began to look at humanity. He didn’t want to reject the idea of sin, but the idea that humans are fundamentally and ontologically evil and incapable of good didn’t make sense. He saw in Genesis a description of humanity created in the image of God. Surely the fall didn’t totally deface this image. This idea of total depravity that stands at the center of much of Western Theology didn’t work. In part this was because it didn’t fit with the way he looked at others. Is everyone around us a collection of “dirty, rotten, little sinners . . . ?” If so, how should we look at each other and interact with each other. And then on top of that we’re told that because we’re dirty sinners capable only of evil, Jesus has to die on the cross to bridge the gap. As he lets go of this “depravity theology” he begins to hear a better story.

“The story that lets us know that we are created in the image of God as partners and collaborators with God” (p. 129).
What all of this does is allow us to understand that God isn’t concerned only about the vertical relationship, but is also concerned about the horizontal one. Jesus is the one who brings healing and reconciliation, not just a way to heaven. He takes seriously the context that gets Jesus put on the cross – the political one. But as he points out, rightly, the message of Jesus concerning the kingdom was very different from the one of Caesar – it was one of love and compassion, not power. The Cross and Resurrection aren’t meant to appease divine anger, but serve as signs of God’s act of healing creation. And so, in affirming this new understanding we are invited to walk in the new way of Jesus, a way of living that is in marked contrast from what we’ve been living.

A Christianity worth believing is one that is life changing, but it’s also earthy. It’s concerned about what God is doing in the here and now to bring justice and peace to this world. It affirms an afterlife, but such and idea is left largely undefined, as it should be. Our focus here is not on getting out but transforming the world here.

Doug Pagitt offers us a very useful book. First of all, because it further defines Emergent Christianity. But perhaps more important, he offers us a view of Christian faith that has a human face on it. He recognizes the problems inherent in the traditional telling of the story and is willing to offer a new way of looking at things. At times the focus is on the deconstructing and not everything is reconstructed, but he seems on the right path. Of course, not everyone will be of the same opinion, for this new trend in evangelical theology has produced significant opposition. But for one like me, it seems most appropriate.

Finally let me give thanks to Kelly Hughes of Dechant-Hughes for this and other books I've reviewed.


JP said…
Nice review. I am half way through this book right now. You hear from many in the fundamentalist camp how far off the rocker Doug is but I do not see that at all.

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