This is a summer of abrupt transition for EPIC. Several core members have graduated and moved away, Father Josh is moving up in the priestly world and becoming a rector in Federal Way, and we will be meeting our new curate (and college chaplain), Lindsay Ross-Hunt, this August. In the midst of these changes, the students who are around this summer are still meeting weekly to watch episodes of shows and reflect on how they connect to the religion, ethics, and our lives.
The 4th annual EPIC Summer Read Along isn’t a top priority, but we’re trying to squeeze it in. In the past 3 years, EPIC read A New Kind of Christian, Faithful Questions, and The Great Divorce. This year we’ve decided to buck tradition and read a secular book, one that looks critically at Christian culture and the direction it could go. We also aren’t necessarily going to be blogging the whole thing. There are only a few of us reading, so we’re planning on discussing it in person each week, then I may or may not summarize our thoughts on a post. Regardless, we’d love for you to read along! This week we’re going to read Sections I and II.
This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. The fourth post in our series comes from Kaylee McElroy.
As a first-time reader of The Great Divorce, I first have to admit that my speculations may be immediately refuted in the upcoming chapters. Perhaps none of my analysis will hold. My second confession is that I ended up thinking a lot about Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and its potential connections to this chapter (and potentially future chapters). I might be totally fabricating these parallels, but let’s have some fun with it.
In this chapter, the narrator steps aside while people from this real land approach the Ghosts. He doesn’t want to intrude upon emotional reunions, so he pretends that he wishes to explore. His underlying assumption is that, while the people look as if they are walking toward the Ghosts with a purpose, none would be looking for him. I’m not sure why he assumes this. Maybe we’ll find out in later chapters.
He walks among trees and feels the grass—more real than he is— stab his ghostly feet. He compares the feeling to that of the mermaid of Hans Christian Andersen. That little mermaid longed to “be where the people are” (yet our narrator only visited the new land because of boredom) and thus agreed to give away her voice and comfort in exchange for legs. The little mermaid feels as if she is “treading upon sharp knives,” though she walks with exceptional grace. The little mermaid and the narrator are both in new worlds. Perhaps they are both worlds that will ultimately bring them more pain than the feeling of knives in feet.
The little mermaid, after giving up her voice, her comfort, and her old world, did not survive. In fact, her grandmother described how humans have immortal souls, but mermaids only become sea foam. She did not even survive into an afterlife. She could only gain an immortal soul if the following conditions were met:
Unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.
The narrator is already in an afterlife, and perhaps he will survive (at least long enough to narrate the book, I’d hope) but will experience pain in the same way that Big Ghost did. May he also have to revisit his past, with all its guilt and discomfort? Though it may be premature, I predict that this all-encompassing love of a man denied to the little mermaid may be God’s gift to the narrator. The little mermaid is told that such love cannot be granted to her, because humans think that the mermaids’ tails are ugly. Perhaps God feels the same way about our sin, yet has love for us that surpasses the disgust for our transgressions.
The man who visited the Big Ghost said that the journey to the mountains was full of joy, but also full of work. I wonder what work the narrator will have to experience, and whether he will experience that joy that the man alluded to. Will he be able to confront his past in a way the Big Ghost was unable to? The little mermaid’s sisters all forgot about the allure of the land soon after first seeing it. Will the narrator, just as the little mermaid, be alone in his desire to continue despite the obstacles? If he is, I still wonder who will come to greet him, if anyone, and if he is somehow unique.
In this chapter, again written in the form of emails sent between Dan and Neo, they discuss Heaven, Hell, and salvation. Neo recalls a previous discussion on Hell, and Dan’s fixation on the subject. “Seriously though, I understand why: it’s a subject about which modern Christianity entrenched itself in some very ugly positions, and I think a new kind of Christian will handle the subject very differently.”
Neo draws out the current Christian doctrines on Hell:
Universalism: Jesus is the only way and the Savior of the world and everyone is saved regardless of their beliefs
Exclusivism: Jesus is the only way and saves those who choose (or are chosen) to believe in Him
Inclusivism: Jesus is the only way and Savior of the world. All can accept God’s grace in some way (known only to God), and all can reject it
Neo also describes pluralism and relativism, “a popular approach to questions of heaven and hell that says, ‘There may or may not be a God, a heaven, a hell, and so on, but there are many beliefs about each, and all are valid for those who hold them. No one belief has superiority over the others.’” Neo rejects this as a logical position and says it is more of a mood or attitude toward beliefs. Though on the surface it is tolerant, the heart of it says that all claims to legitimacy are bogus, and since no one can prove that any view on hell is correct, you should just pick one and go with it and allow others to do the same. Neo says, “It’s certainly very popular, although I consider it a seduction into apathy.”
So how does Neo, or any new kind of Christian, think about Hell? Neo introduces Predicamentalism, which refuses to speculate on anyone’s eternal fate, but instead encourages you to focus on your own. Speculation drives the in grouping and out-grouping that Jesus adamantly renounced when “opening the windows of grace and the doors of heaven to the tax collectors and prostitutes, the half-breeds and ultimately even the gentiles.”
How should we think of Hell, then? Neo basically says that it’s our job to love God and love others, and let Hell serve as imagery to warn us that there are consequences to how we live. We should run from that imagery. “It’s none of your business who does and does not go to hell… Now stop speculating about hell and start living for heaven!”
The conversation transitioned into one about salvation. The way modern evangelicals talk about salvation is highly individualistic. To be saved is to escape Hell, be welcomed to Heaven, have Jesus in your heart, and accept Jesus as your personal savior. However, God’s plan isn’t limited to the redemption of individual souls floating in Heaven. Redemption portrayed in Revelation and elsewhere in scripture describes a redeemed world, complete with galaxies and rivers and animals and even human culture, all redeemed. Neo says, “The scope of salvation in the Bible is so much bigger than my little soul.” When Jesus came to earth he told His people that they had salvation wrong. Salvation isn’t just for Israel; it’s for everyone! Now we are less nationalistic in our salvation doctrine, but we have taken Jesus’s global outlook and made it an individual thing.
Talk about personal salvation says, “You’re unsaved, but it’s okay, I’m saved, I’ll tell you how you can be saved too.” This is invitation by exclusion. Invitation by inclusion looks more like, “God loves you. God accepts you. Are you ready to accept your acceptance and live in reconciliation with God?” The current understanding on salvation is also very passive. To be saved you go from the bad side of the line to the good side of the line. And then you try to get more people onto your side of the line. Jesus didn’t ask us to cross a line though. He told us to follow him, to go on a journey with him. “It’s as if we have taken what is for Jesus a starting line and turned it into a finish line.” Neo says this is another case of modern reductionism. It makes salvation easy and quantitatively measurable. It might not be what Jesus was talking about though.
What is salvation then? What does it look like? Dan defines salvation as becoming part of the solution rather than the problem. Heaven isn’t the main point; the glory and pleasure of God is the main point. “The essence of our identity as people of God isn’t that we’re an elite, saved for privilege, but ordinary people saved for service … So maybe salvation isn’t something we ‘get’ … Salvation is what we experience and spread in the process of joining God in his grand mission.” Our works and our decisions aren’t the focal points here, God’s grace is central, and his plans for the world.
Dan reflects on how this kind of inclusive invitation to God’s grace could form churches into “communities of communities … where people really connect, really care, really make their faith visible through love. A place where we help people believe and become by helping them belong.”
This summer, EpiC students are blogging, chapter by chapter, about the book A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren.
First I just want to say that I’m very conflicted about having two sets of colons in the title, but I’m trying to follow the format and the chapter title has a colon. Moving on.
When Neo is called away to Seattle to care for his mother after his father’s death, Dan and Neo begin to communicate via email. For a few months, their correspondences stick to the topics of personal life, how Neo’s mother is, and the business of forwarding Neo’s mail. They briefly discuss Neo’s financial generosity. Neo, a high school teacher, gives away a full 25% of his salary to his church as well as other charities. Dan asks Neo how he can afford it. Instead of listing tips for frugal living, Neo explains that as a boy he’d vowed to tithe, and “through the years he would find himself pulled toward supporting additional charitable endeavors… He said that giving was one of his greatest joys in life.”
Neo can afford to give so much because he makes it a priority. I find that often when people say they don’t have enough time or money for something, they really mean they don’t want to make it a priority. If people make tithing or volunteering priorities, they’ll work around them. Neo says that “if the new kind of Christianity we had been dreaming about wasn’t radically generous, it was a waste of time.”
After a few months, Neo wants to resume the conversation, and he asks Dan what theological mountains he is “climbing up (or skiing down) these days.” Dan asks about what being a Christian will look like in the future, “What changes, what remains same?” Neo summarizes their previous talks on change in our understanding of the Bible, “our understanding of Jesus not IN the way, keeping other people away from God, but AS the way, bringing people to God,” and un-meshing Christianity from modernity’s constrictions and individualization of the gospel. The only change left to discuss, according to Neo, is spirituality.
The word “spirituality” makes me uneasy. I grew up in a conservative independent Baptist church, and I can’t recall ever hearing the word used positively. “Spiritual” holds the somewhat conflicting connotations of A. unreligious people who pray to angels who are actually demons for some reason and B. Christians who take Instagram pictures of coffee and their Bible and make me feel bad for not being as awesome as they probably are. Neither of these makes for a good definition and both are way more judgmental than I often claim to be.
Neo reflects on his conservative evangelical upbringing and sorts between what “worked” spiritually and what didn’t. He finds that the things that made him more markedly religious did nothing, while the things that made him connect with God helped him. “Journaling and all other spiritual practices done ‘in secret’ seem to me to be essential.” I’m tempted here to condemn those Instagram sharers I commented on before, but I think we all suffer from sounding a metaphorical trumpet before ourselves when we give alms, as Jesus warned against in Matthew 6. Neo also predicts that the new kind of Christian spirituality and spiritual formation “will be more like the ancient and medieval church and less like the modern church.”
One area of spirituality many modern Christians have lost is creation spirituality. Neo describes how religion is all about reconnection between humankind and God, humankind with itself, etc. A reconnection between humankind and the rest of creation is now necessary. The natural world is a gift, but is often treated as an inconvenience to be avoided. “Learning to live as caretakers of creation and friends to our fellow creatures must be at the core of a new kind of Christianity.”
Dan then reflects on his own background. The first area he addresses is how spirituality is so often oriented around guilt in our culture. “Staple of evangelical spirituality in my experience was ‘the quiet time’: get up each morning to read the Bible and pray.” He explains how, while these are good things, it seems to be all about quantity. He’d finish every quiet time feeling guilty about how he should do it more. The flip side of modern spirituality is public worship: singing songs together. Often the lyrics of these modern songs are “all about ‘me.’ How Jesus makes me feel, what he does for me, how he loves and forgives me.” I experienced the same revelation regarding music last year when singing a song begging Jesus to dance with me and romance me. While these songs aren’t necessarily harmful on their own, Dan asks, “Does this represent a kind of narcissistic and over-individualized spirituality?”
Finally, they discuss what spiritual practices are working and how they’ve been working for centuries. Youth retreats work, as they’re really just “short-term monastic experiences.” Short-term mission trips reflect the missions of Paul as well as pilgrimages. Small groups and one-on-one relationships are “echoes of ancient training methods.” Getting involved in leading and serving is found in Bible stories of God throwing Moses and the disciples into ministry before they thought they were ready.
Overall, spirituality in a new kind of Christianity involves practices done in private, reconnecting with creation, tossing aside over-individualization, and embracing ancient practices, many of which are still done in different ways.