Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Monday, November 20, 2006

"You get wise . . . you get to church"

I stopped commenting on The Purpose-Driven Life lately, because the earbud on my Treo stopped working and I haven't been able to sneak in chapters while driving. But I haven't lost interest.

What I find most remarkable, and what clearly defines the whole purpose-driven movement, is that Warren has identified the church -- the local, tangible community of believers -- as a primary, essential part of the Christian's spiritual mission. That might not seem like news, but in an individualistic American culture there has always been a tendency to see collective spiritual life as valuable but non-essential. How many people do we know, after all, who say they "don't go to church" but still assert that they are "good Christians"?

Warren makes a long and strong case for the primacy of the community. I think he's right, in terms of all the psychological dynamics involved in religious life: it's almost impossible to be really serious about anything without working collectively with others. Unfortunately, I find myself slightly less convinced by his scriptural references. Most of the New Testament is Paul's letters to various churches -- of course it's going to talk about church-building ad nauseum. Jesus himself certainly valued spiritual friendship -- "wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am in their midst" -- but in general he seemed to be knocking heads with organized religion more than touting its benefits.

There is also the inevitable creepy feeling of cultishness in all this talk of the primacy of spiritual community. Warren is calling on people to surrender a huge part of their energy, their autonomy, and their money (oh yes, Warren mentions that specifically, and rather often) to the church and the church leaders. Again, I agree with Warren's basic position; I think everyone does need a spiritual community of some kind, and that a genuine community will require sacrifice. At the same time, I think most people will feel uneasy about all this talk of surrendering to a collective that is specifically authorized by God. The line between dynamic community and mindless conformity is all too thin, and it's only the slightest of nudges before the demands of the church leader becomes the commands of God.

Part of that uneasiness is justified, and part of it is a natural part of the spiritual life. People are perfectly willing to surrender their lives to Jesus, because Jesus does not make a habit of showing up and asking them to change their lives. Surrender sounds absolutely great in the abstract. Preachers, however, do make it their business to ask people to change their lives, and puts very concrete demands on the believer. Suddenly surrender doesn't sound so hot. Suddenly surrender means real sacrifice, and faith is no longer faith in abstract good, but real trust that something good is going to come out of these sacrifices.

Surrender is a primary theme of the Christian faith. And yet, every time it comes up, I have to ask, "What, exactly, are you surrendering to?" If your surrender is an abstract sacrifice to an abstract God, I suspect you might not have given up anything at all. But if that commitment has some teeth, and asks you to do things you wouldn't have done on your own, then it has real meaning. Joining a spiritual community does not assure you that you are getting closer to God, but it definitely will put some teeth into you spiritual life.

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