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Spiritual Conversations: Understanding the Cultural Language
I rarely see afternoon TV, but recently hit a twenty-minute segment and wow - was it compelling. Through sobbing and tears, person after person began recounting how after watching a TV show one month earlier their lives had instantly and forever changed. “Instantly” and “forever” definitely caught my attention. They went on to talk about how they were now in charge of their lives, bringing to themselves any outcomes they chose. The teachers of the phenomenon made it clear it was all because “you create your own reality, and that as a spiritual being you bring your spirit to bear on the circumstances of life.” I paused long enough to take in the details because of the confessed monumental change it brought. This was my introduction to
the most recent craze to hit American culture and propelled to cult status by current spiritual and philanthropy diva, Oprah.
Finding spiritual conversations in American culture is not hard.
holds the number 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list in the “advice” section. PBS airs Wayne Dyer also a best selling author, talking about his brand of spirituality. Tom Cruise and John Travolta unashamedly speak of their belief in Scientology. Madonna and a host of other celebrities espouse Kabbalah. While conversations about spiritual things seems acceptable and maybe even sexy and in vogue, conversation about the Christian God is a different story. People don’t seem to be nearly as open to that. Why the distinction? Yes to spiritual conversation, no to Christian conversation. Why is spirituality a raging interest but the Christian version so marginalized?
I want to suggest that the Christian church, particularly the evangelical Christian version, is in a rut with the starting point for these spiritual conversations. It is this starting point and its ensuing perspective that cuts us out of a good deal of productive conversation. We essentially have a message that says you are screwed up and you need to be fixed. This is what we have classically referred to as the Fall-Redemption story. We are all sinners and God, who is holy, comes in and rescues us from the mess we have made. This conversation immediately leads us to talking about God in the 2nd person. In other words, the way we view God is as “Other” or “out there” as completely separate from this world.
While it is true that God is “Other”, this 2nd person conversation about God doesn’t seem to be connecting with our current culture. Why is that? Maybe because it’s not even connecting with us.
Let me ask you a question. I want you to answer based on how you reflexively feel, not on cognitive thought. When I say “God,” do you reflexively feel a God who will help you soar, buoy you up, love you and have your best interest in mind? Or do you instantly and reflexively feel, when you hear the word “God”, someone who is “keeping track”, watching how you will do, monitoring your basic performance?
If you are like most Christians who have participated in my ad hoc (meaning unscientific) surveys over the last year of so, you probably said your instant reaction was to the latter image of God as Judge not to the former image of God as Love. In settings where I have done this little exercise the vast majority of the people (75-95%) said God as Judge was their “no-thought-reflexive” response. What is interesting is these business people, artists, musicians, church staff and full time stay at home parents acknowledge that this is not the image of God they actually try to teach or model to others. Nor is it what they publicly affirm or give verbal assent to. But it is reflexively what they feel. So we have a collision of what is deeply and reflexively believed and what is verbally stated as the “right answer”, so to speak.
We have no time to analyze the roots of this situation but we do need to note a couple implications which I think may go a long way to helping us understand our culture a bit better. If God, the Other out there, is perceived as a Judge by those of us
inside the club,
then what would you guess those outside of the church assume about this Other? Is it surprising that we are perceived as representing a judgmental, negative, non-accepting, non-loving God? Is it any wonder people outside the church have negative views about the version of God propagated by those inside the church? No wonder the challenge seems so formidable.
So here is the summary of the problem, God out there, God as Other, is God perceived as judgmental and ready to crack you when you get out of line. But the God out there, God as second person is the only conversation the church knows how to have. Let’s reflect on this God as second person for a minute.
God as “Other” is clearly part of the Christian understanding of God and is not being challenged. But if it is
of the Christian understanding is it possible it is only a
? Is it possible there is more? Clearly this second person concept of God is not connecting in our culture. Is it possible that we have more available in our Christian repertoire, more theological material we can bring to the conversation? Is it possible we need to eventually get to the second person discussion but start in a different location? Could we start with the current understandings and gravitational pulls that people already seem to have?
THE REST OF THE STORY
The Fall-Redemption story
part of the story, but it is really an abbreviated lo-cal excerpt of the fuller version. And here is the problem; to start the conversation with the Fall is to start talking about God’s Story at Genesis 3. Starting the conversation here and omitting the opening salvos of the first two chapters has locked us into having only one conversation about God: the 2nd person conversation. I would like to suggest when we start the conversation with a fall-redemption paradigm we only can talk about God in 2nd person. In other words the only way we can view God is as “Other” as “out there” as another person. While that is totally true about God our inability to see God from a couple other perspectives may be debilitating us.
Part of the way through this impasse is to start at the beginning of the story instead of chapter three. When we start the story in the creation narratives, the truncated Fall-Redemption story expands to the Creation-Fall-Redemption story which really leads to a fourth concluding part, which clarifies the reason for redemption and that is for the express purpose of getting us back to Eden, the creation. This fourth part we might call re-creation or restoration. This leads to a four part story that is full slice thick narrative; Creation-Fall- Redemption-Restoration.
ALSO BY RON MARTOIA
ALSO IN GOSPEL
Wisdom and Sabbath Rest
by Tim Keller
A Connecticut Winter: Why our Hearts Break
by Rebekah Lyons
by Caryn Rivadeneira
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