Fitch and Holsclaw seek to describe reality today in North America. One term they talk about a lot is Postmodernity. For 500 years, the West has been fascinated with science and ideas. Logic, proof, and argument have ruled the day. But somewhere along the way people began to tire of this. As I read the early part of the book my memory was jogged. I realized there had been a day I discovered postmodernism. Nobody had ever used that term in my presence. I had never read a book by anyone who knew the term. It was the Spring of 1986 and I was finishing up my freshman philosophy class at the University of Iowa. I was a religion major with vague ministry goals. My own faith was growing quickly after a detour in my middle teen years. Jesus was tremendously real to me. We had to write a final position paper for this philosophy class. Of course, I wrote mine on the “proofs” for the existence of God. I eagerly headed to the Graduate Assistant’s office to pick up my paper and receive my final grade. I was sure I had nailed the paper. Terry smiled and handed me my paper with a B- on it. I frowned. “B-? Why did you give me a B-?”
He said, “I gave you a B- because you didn’t take the other position seriously enough.”
I said, “I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t believe it. I believe God truly exists.”
He said, “Yes, but for the assignment it’s about whether that could be proved.”
“I think I did prove it,” I said. So he took the paper back and looked it over again. He told me that I did as good of a job as anyone has at defending the viewpoint but that the consensus has been that you can’t prove God’s existence. I couldn’t resist, so I asked him if he believed in God. He said, “Not really. I’m sort of an agnostic.” Snappy young fellow as I was, I asked him if his bias might be causing him to downplay my position. Maybe he wasn’t taking ME seriously enough!
Terry smiled again. He said, “I have to admit, I’ve never had a student with such a strong conviction about this before.” And then I knew that our conversation was not an accident. I looked at the clock on the wall. In exactly five minutes the parking meter was going to read: EXPIRED. I also was going to be cutting it close to make it to work on time. But something told me not to go.
Terry, said, “Tim, you have my attention. You seem to have a very deep and personal conviction about God. In the philosophy department they tell us to check our theological hats at the door. (I’ll never forget that phrase.) It’s actually refreshing. Since I haven’t met many people like you, I’d like to hear your story. How are you so certain? How is God so real to you?”
I went down the logical arguments I had covered in the paper. But for each one he was able to come up with some sort of logic that could challenge it. I realized that these answers weren’t all that satisfying to me either. Logic just wasn’t cutting it, but it was mostly what I had heard from others. My mind raced backwards. Although Terry was probably 10 years older than me, just a couple years before I also had been doubting like him. I began to tell him about how things were then.
“Nothing could get through to me for over a year. But along the way I met a girl who had a lot of spiritual questions. Frankly, I found those questions quite irritating at first. She was seeking what I was running away from. But she was so beautiful I wasn’t going anywhere… (Um, shallow, I know but I was 16) Eventually, her seeking awakened my own spiritual center. Something so pure was at work in her. And through her, something began to soften my heart. (By the way she is now my wife!) One night in February 1985, I became aware of a holy presence, something completely “other”. Whatever the past had been, this was the present. I was aware of this holy presence and my own sinful, selfish ways. This holy presence was offering me a fresh start.” I looked Terry right in the eye and said, “I had a personal confrontation with the holiness of God that required a choice.” I could see a path leading toward light if I said yes, but out into darkness if I said, no. I said, yes and my life began to change.
At this point in talking with Terry, I felt like I was on fire. I hadn’t felt so alive since the moment that I was telling him about had first happened. I was now officially late for work but I didn’t care. Terry leaned back and said, “I guess that’s what you’d have to say…”
“Terry, it’s real. Can you feel it? I feel God here just like I did that day.”
He said, “Tim, I actually believe you. Now that I understand how firmly you believe this I understand what you were saying in the paper. I’m changing your grade to a B+. But more than that you’ve affected me. I shared with you that I’m an agnostic. But I do actually wonder about God. If God is real I’d like to be able to know it like you feel you do. Whenever I get the chance to watch a sunset with my girlfriend, I take a bottle of wine and we think and talk together about ultimate things. I open my heart to the possibility of faith. I promise you that the next time I do that, I’ll be thinking of your story and considering all that you said to me.”
I told him not to wait until then, but to reflect on it anytime it came to mind. He thanked me for taking the time to share my story.
I floated back to my car… I now had two parking tickets and was already 45minutes late for work. I called and explained the odd situation. Miraculously they understood. I couldn’t believe I didn’t lose my job. I was still on fire. At age 18, I knew the purpose of the rest of my life. I also understood that the world had shifted. I wouldn’t know the word postmodern for several years. But I knew people were much more interested in my story than in logical arguments. And I loved hearing more about Terry’s story. Those were precious moments spent with him. I was transformed a bit by the process and Terry was, too. God was at work in a way I hadn’t realized before. And it was more compelling than any religious idea or argument could fully capture. Make no mistake I believe there is truth that will set you free. But from that moment on I knew the truth had to be lived and shared before I could fully know it or be completely free.
This is the cultural landscape I believe Fitch and Holsclaw are talking about in their book- Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. This post-Christendom Far Country is logically frustrating for Christians. But we can navigate through this territory without losing our way. In fact, as Fitch says, God has already gone before us as we travel. He is already there, already at work in others’ lives. It was good to be reminded of these events as I read these compelling early chapters…
Yesterday was an interesting day. My first destination was interesting: the Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana. A Jewish man who is a follower of Jesus and a member of our church invited me to a luncheon with an introduction to the Passover Seder meal. I felt extremely welcome as perhaps the only Gentile in the place. They were all interested in my ministry and family. It was a very meaningful presentation on the events of Passover and a sacred meal which remembers God’s mighty acts in delivering His people from slavery. Then we shared a lunch together loosely based on the elements of a full Seder meal. Nice. God’s theme of redemption did not begin in the New Testament and I gained a richer appreciation of God’s early redemptive work as recorded in the Old Testament. Everything in the New Testament builds on this foundation.
I got up from my chair and drove 4 hours to watch Iowa defeat Indiana State in the first round of the NIT. All the while, I was sitting next to one of my best friends. Lon is a Christian Counselor with ministry training who has a keen interest in theology and happens to be married to a girl my wife and I grew up with. It’s endless what we have to talk about. Our discussion turned to Rob Bell and the controversy surrounding his new book. If you know theology, my opinion is that Rob Bell is trying to be like Paul Tillich, a theologian from the 1950′s. He wore big plastic glasses and started writing a series of popular theology books. The most famous was The Courage to Be, which, in my opinion was very similar in topic and impact to the new What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Bell. Tillich’s book was not really aimed at academics. It wasn’t full of long footnotes because it was trying to have a conversation with the thinking public. He went on tours, gave lectures and became a pop culture icon. When he visited the campus of the University of Chicago it was pretty big news. TCtB focused on the sense of God that all of us have in common. It became part of a larger conversation. Frustrated many, encouraged others. So I think Tillich is Bell’s template. He’s talking past the academics, trying to speak to a different audience. Now that would be fine, but here’s the problem.
Since Bell left the pastorate he never mentions being part of a community of faith. A lot of Bell’s recent public comments seem to be based on how the church needs to keep up with the world “just because.” In talking about gay marriage he said “that ship has sailed” and the church needs to affirm people where they are. No biblical justification offered. So, while I’m not one of these alarmist people who freaks out every time Bell does something new, I am a bit more concerned about the foundation of his ideas lately. I would like to hear some public comments about how he’s attending a church and serving others and in conversation about the stuff in his books somewhere besides book signings. I’m not actually going to purchase and read this book until I know more about Bell’s context. But the man does know how to come up with fresh language for talking about what he believes. Preachers should take note of that.
This brought me to reaffirm a couple things I’ve always believed. First, what Christians believe has to be grounded in what we understand the Bible to be saying. We need to give the Bible authority to speak into our lives no matter what year it is, or we’re just making up our own religion. Second, what we believe has to be continually lived out with others in the church. We are called by Jesus to be a community. I’m naturally held a accountable knowing I’ll have to see my friends there who may ask me how it’s going. If I fail to attend, someone will notice and check on me. We all need that encouragement to be faithful. By being present and caring, I do the same for others. And when we have disagreements we can talk about it based on the Bible until we get it right.
You can’t really get Jesus in a package that doesn’t include the church. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about God with my faith community.
Iowa dominated the first round of the Big Ten wrestling tournament. Tonight’s second round will be a bigger test. But the Hawkeyes have a history of rising to the challenge. It’s connected to our family as well. My wife, Ellen’s, aunt is married to Bob Siddens, Dan Gable’s High School wrestling coach. Dan is among the most driven people you’ll ever meet. He’s a legend in Iowa. Both Dan and Bob are in several coaching and athletic Halls of Fame. It’s tournament time again. A different sort of March Madness with a family connection! Go Hawks!