A New American Christianity Is Breaking Out and I Am Excited About It
February 17th, 2013
By Thomas L. Truby
Last month I read a book entitled, Rob Bell and a New American Christianity by James K. Wellman, Jr. It gave a name for this new yet very old thing that is popping up everywhere now and it couldn’t come at a better moment in history. I don’t know if the name “the New American Christianity” will stick and I don’t think this new/old thinking is confined simply to the U.S. but for now it is a handy handle.
The first inklings of something new began trickling into my consciousness shortly after the turn of the century. Andrew Marr, an Episcopal Benedictine Abbot with whom I had been in a small group studying Family System Theory began talking about it. I deeply respect Andrew; his faith, intellect and his integrity. He was the speaker at Laura’s Episcopal ordination and he spoke about this new Girardian or Mimetic Theory and most of us didn’t get it. I made a note to look into it further.
In the early 2000s I was learning how to access the internet and beginning to find those sites that were exploring this new way of thinking. There were two primary sites; PreachingPeace.org written primarily by Michael Hardin and Paul Neuchterlein’s Girardianlectionary.net. Using the internet I began studying this new perspective that Andrew was finding so stimulating.
In 2005 I discovered that Michael Hardin and Tony Bartlett where hosting a conference entitled “Making Peace; Tools for Living the Vision of Jesus” in upstate New York. I felt compelled to go. I didn’t have a very clear understanding of the content (I feared it was some new instruction on peace marching or something) but somehow thought it might change my life. It did. The brochure advertizing the conference had these words:
As leaders in Christian Churches, our hearts burn for the Kingdom of Peace that Jesus offered. We find ourselves in a world bent on spiraling violence. We know ourselves called to be peacemakers, but find it more and more difficult to stand against the Principalities and Powers of this world without succumbing to the temptation to become violent in our rhetoric and lives.
What making Peace offers is a set of tools, tools to understand the growth of rage in our day, tools to resist it in ourselves and in those around us, tools to lead us out of the mob that threatens to engulf us.
It was an incredible conference and I knew I would be thinking about these things for the rest of my life. The ideas were so big I could not get my mind around them and began the disciplined study of this new approach to reading the Bible. I thought of my study as like learning to play the violin. Each week I spent as many hours as I could reading, thinking and rethinking how I saw the world, myself, and Jesus. My head hurt from the challenge of it and sometimes I would get so excited I could hardly contain myself and would burst into tears. Some of the issues I had always struggled with were finding resolution when viewed from this different angle.
In 2006 we moved to Oregon. I struggled with being overwhelmed by all the newness and the good people of Clarkes and a year later, Willamette, were very kind and gentle. I was in between worlds at multiple levels. And while the old theological world no longer worked, I hadn’t integrated this new world sufficiently to write sermons from it. I primarily used other people’s sermons knowing that was better than my as yet half-backed theology.
I heard that Michael Hardin, the brilliant writer of the PreachingPeace.org website and the man I had met in New York was coming to Salem for a series of presentations at the Mennonite Church there. We worked it out that he would come to my two churches and present some of his material to us. He and his wife Laurie stayed in our home and we got to know them.
The material was mind blowing. He understood Jesus in the context of his Jewish world. He understood when, how and why Christianity got off the track when in became the official religion of the Roman Empire and became merged with Greek thought, he had a view of the crucifixion and resurrection that made that event the interpretive center of the Christian faith and he had a way of understanding humanness that connected religion, violence and the cross and resurrection.
Not only did it make sense of the world; it made sense of my own life. I was being healed as I absorbed this new understanding of Christianity. It integrated some of the best features of my Evangelical days as a child and adolescent with some of the newest insights of psychology and Biblical studies. I, along with many others, urged Michael to write a book detailing these things. We saw Christianity at a crossroads and believed Michael’s work showed us the way forward.
The book that came out of that was published in 2010 and entitled, The Jesus Driven Life (Just now available on Kindle for $9.99. Laurie did the work of adapting it to Kindle.) Reading it was like being hit with a fire hydrant flow of new ideas. I formed a small group in each church and forced my two churches to read it with me. It took us a year and was really tough going for some but tremendously stimulating for others. It dealt with theology, history, Biblical interpretation, psychology, anthropology and all the social sciences and generally worked at what does it mean to be human. You see, the Gospel really gives us a theory of everything. It is not about religion. It’s much, much bigger. It is a way of interpreting reality and a reality that includes God, history and the creation of the cosmos.
I still couldn’t write sermons in my new voice very well and when I did they were often quite academic as I didn’t trust myself and so quoted the experts. The good people of Clarkes and Willamette were patient with me. They knew I was sincere, genuine and excited; they could see it in my face, even though sometimes I went way over their heads. My whole theology and anthropology were beginning to settle into place and it was a new place. From this new place we could explore the meaning of forgiveness, the origins of strife and how following Jesus leads us away from retribution, rivalry and violence. We could also see that violence was everywhere in our culture and spiraling up.
Sometime in 2010 I became able to write in my own voice and from this new way of understanding Jesus. My sermons got better.
I continued to preach from the lectionary using an expository preaching style but not off the top of my head. Stuff off the top of heads might sound impressive at first but soon gets stale, boring and repetitive. Rev. Anderson, the pastor when I was in my teens, when he found out I was going off to college with the intention of becoming a pastor told me to always preach from the Bible. I think he hoped it would keep me from loosing my faith. I took that seriously and studied the text deeply, focusing on how to interpret the Bible from a position of God being totally non-violent. In fact, mimetic theory holds that violence is our thing and has nothing to do with God at all. We projected it on to God and wrote it into the Bible and that explained the violence in the Old Testament. But God is coming from a different place and this is the message Jesus was trying to get through to us while he was with us on earth.
What if Jesus, rather than the Bible as a whole, really showed us who God is? And what if we read the Bible through Jesus’ eyes and those eyes, we discover, are all about radical forgiveness even to the point of forgiving us as we are in the act of murdering him? How non-violent is that?
Every week I found myself re-interpreting scripture and it came right out of the Bible and was extremely relevant. Instead of sin I talked about envy, jealousy, rivalry and the resulting violence. Sin now felt tangible—something we do and not moralistic. As Allen Moore, a member of the Clarkes Church once said, it was like taking a magnifying glass to sin so that you could look more closely and see what it actually is. I could hardly believe what I was seeing and saying. I was discovering a Christianity that made rational sense and was really good news. I continued to preach this in both churches. A few didn’t like it but most did. I want now to speed to 2013.
In the last two months I have noticed this new kind of thinking popping up everywhere. Let me give you some examples:
Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multifaith World, By Brian McLaren.
Rob Bell and the New American Christianity,by James Wellman, Jr.
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, by Diana Butler Bass.
Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It is Going, and Why It Matters,by Phyllis Tickle.
The Raven Foundation Adam Ericksen and Suzanne Ross—applying this new way of thinking to culture and religion through blogs with a constant supply of fresh material. They even have an occasional on-line radio show where they interview various people with unique perspectives on topics of interest to those of us wanting to live in new and peaceful ways.
The Forgiving Victim: An Induction into Christian Vulnerability, by James Alison. He is the Catholic Theologian that spoke at Willamette UMC. This is a video series and book I have on my computer and I am trying to determine the best time to use. We are Beta testers and therefore get 12 copies free. He was the leader of the retreat at Mt. Angel Laura and I attended last fall. He is another theologian presenting these new ways of understanding Jesus in nuanced and brilliant clarity.
Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross, by Derek Flood. Haven’t read this but hope to this week.
“Out of the Box Radio”: Two Southern Baptists with open “out of the box” minds are allowing themselves to be exposed to these “out of the box” ideas and doing it on their computer podcast. It is both frightening them and filling them with hope and meaning.
On the most recent Radio podcast, Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin talked about Christianity as a train at the end of its line. People are getting off and they won’t get on again. (We know this is true.) But over the hill there is a new train ready to go and though we don’t know what it will look like, we know it tracks into the future. Our job is to hack through the brush to get to this new train. That’s what we have been doing; hacking through the brush to get to the next train.
Both churches are doing this hacking in their own way. In the Willamette Church we will soon be sending out a mailer to all of the Village of Willamette containing this paragraph:
Heading: “You are invited to join us as we rethink what it means to be Christian.”
Content: “The people of Willamette United Methodist Church are engaged in a new way of thinking about the message of the New Testament. This is not Christianity as you may have known it in the past. It has the power to change individuals and the world in which we live. We encourage you to join us as we explore the power of absolute forgiveness, infinite compassion, subversive love, abundant mercy and compelling nonviolence in a world of violence.
Abundant Mercy/Infinite Compassion/Absolute Forgiveness/Subversive Love/Compelling Nonviolence. This, I believe, is the message God is calling us to proclaim in Clarkes/Willamette and it is responsive to the issues of our time. If we do any less, we will be failing our Lord. Thank you.