Juxtaposing two of the most significant religion stories of this past summer might seem as odd as combining peanut butter and tuna fish. What common element links the election of a gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and a controversial movie about the crucifixion of Jesus produced by Hollywood star Mel Gibson? Despite the odd pairing, I think these two stories reveal a third story—the presence of a deep fissure running through the landscape of American Christianity, one that is testing and reshaping the nature of Christian faith, and therefore creating a leadership challenge to ministers in congregational settings. Precisely because of this challenge, churches are desperate not only for leadership, but particularly for theological leadership from clergy.
Cultural Lightning Rod
In the case of Bishop V. Eugene Robinson, who was consecrated November 2, 2003 in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, his story has become a cultural lightning rod for the complex issue of homosexuality and the church. What one thinks about the particulars of this issue is not within the purview of this article. My concern is that the issue itself is an example of why the church needs theological leadership at the congregational level.
Armed with a literal reading of the Bible, some Christians declare, often with acrimonious enthusiasm, that homosexuality is a sin and that homosexuals are condemned by God. Behind this interpretation lies the belief that the Bible is the literal word of God and that it has come to the world without error. Others believe that the Bible is condemning exploitive behavior—not a particular sexual orientation, but behavior that is abusive and aggressive. In the centuries and cultures in which the Bible was written, people couldn’t have comprehended a person’s “being” homosexual in any psychological or physiological sense. In addition, if the gospel of Christ is about God’s gracious welcome, then the church should be welcoming to all people—including people of different sexual orientations.
Not surprisingly, Christians on opposite sides of the issue often find themselves sitting side by side in the congregation and listening to the same sermon on Sunday morning. The first group understands God’s will as an ancient standard that must be followed strictly, while others argue that God is “in process” with the church, inspiring compassion and understanding for an evolving human situation. This issue, like many others, swirls about in local churches, as well as outside organized religion. Sadly, complex theological issues often receive only superficial treatment on the six o’clock news. The focus is often on titillating controversy rather than on theological complexity. This kind of media superficiality, however, opens an opportunity for ministers as they work with congregations. The challenge is to help churches become learning communities where theological ideas can be explored in serious and respectful ways.
An Outcry over a Film
The same dynamics are at play in relation to Mel Gibson’s much disputed (but not-yet-released) film on the crucifixion of Jesus. Gibson, a fundamentalist Catholic, has made a film that slavishly (and graphically) follows the biblical accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. Although, as I write, it has been seen by only a limited number of religious leaders, the film clearly has created an enormous theological stir within both print and electronic media because it opens an ancient theological wound in portraying the Jews as killers of the Son of God.
Gibson seems oblivious to the fact that biblical “accounts” of the crucifixion are quite unlike the reasonably accurate, contemporary blow-by-blow journalistic reports or “accounts” of a trial and execution. Often the Gospel writers differ in their recounting of details about the death of Jesus. They also emphasize differing theological motifs within their Passion narratives. For the most part, the Gospel writers were more concerned with what was happening at the end of the first century of the Christian era in their own churches than with what happened on the day Jesus was crucified. This is not to suggest that the biblical accounts of crucifixion are without historical reliability. In my estimation, that would overstate the case. At the same time, it’s fair to say that the gospels are more theological documents than strict histories.
Throughout the summer, Gibson insisted that he was trying to make a movie true to the biblical accounts of the crucifixion, but what he apparently wound up doing was proliferating one of the most haunting falsehoods in Christian history—namely, the notion that the Jews killed Jesus. The church is still trying to come to terms with the damage this dimension of Christian theology has done to the world. Making villains of the Jews, primarily in the Gospel of John, reflects a strained relationship between the church and the synagogue at the end of the first century, and not a strict reflection of historical fact surrounding the death of Jesus.
Developing Communities of Growth
Mel Gibson’s movie, which has received wide discussion in the national media, offers another theological opportunity for clergy to exhibit leadership within their congregations. How one feels about the issue or what position one finally takes is not nearly as important as congregations’ addressing such matters in honest and engaging ways. How can the church become a place where issues such as anti-Judaism are understood from a theological perspective? How can communities of faith grow into communities of dialogue, moving past old labels of “liberal” and “conservative” to become settings where people learn together?
Important theological dialogue can take place within local churches, but rarely does it happen without well-thought-out leadership from clergy. These two major news stories from summer 2003 suggest that two kinds of churches are slowly developing in American culture—“answer” churches and “journey” churches.1Answer churches find their beliefs neatly packaged in the Bible; therefore their approach becomes adherence to well-defined beliefs. Journey churches, on the other hand, understand faith as an ongoing discovery. They understand that listening to the Bible is a process (yes, the Bible is taken seriously in journey churches); but in addition to heeding the Bible, journey churches listen for God’s voice in the continuing development of culture.
A Polarized Church
I’m not sure the Christian landscape has ever been more polarized than it is now, and I don’t anticipate its becoming less divided in the future. Yet because the landscape is, at base, a theological one, clergy have an opportunity to initiate responsible religious dialogue within their churches. Sometimes theological issues emerge from the church itself; at other times, issues are thrust upon the church by a media blitz. Either way, the opportunity for lively, meaningful, and respectful theological conversation will present itself.
Theological leadership can be exhibited in a variety of ways. First and foremost, theological leadership is manifested not so much by anything the minister does, but by virtue of who he or she is. When a minister thinks theologically and follows the larger arcs of meaning that have always been a part of religious life, the congregation soon picks up on this approach and realizes that the pastor has a certain spiritual and intellectual fire burning inside his or her being. It has a luminous quality. Whether the minister is standing in the pulpit, officiating at a wedding, or engaged in casual conversation in the parking lot, the glow of theological energy is present.
To use an analogy, some chefs work in the kitchen because it is their job. Other chefs, however, are always thinking creatively about food. They talk to their customers about it and seek out conve
rsations with other chefs and even travel to learn more. When you are around this kind of chef, it takes about five minutes to discover that food is much more than a job; it’s a passion.
Theological Reflection as Passion
In much the same way, congregations notice if theological reflection is part of their pastor’s passion, if it’s an ongoing experience for the minister and not something that was finished back in seminary. When the minister continues to explore theologically—always curious, always pushing, probing, and reading—the congregation begins to see a fresh faith that matters to our world today. The minister is then viewed by the congregation not merely as a pastor or administrator, but as an interpreter of the Christian faith amid the people of God.
When theological reflection comes from the essential center of a minister, it radiates through the act of preaching. There is, to be sure, a place for the courageous, prophetic sermon, but the best preaching creates an invitation for the listener to think and feel, to consider how God and world are intersecting in any given issue. The invitation is not “Listen to me because I have all the answers.” Rather, it is more like “Join me on the journey as I try to understand my faith in light of what is happening in my church and world.” Even when the issue is as complex as homosexuality, the minister can speak about it in a way that gives people room to struggle and grow. Edges of such theological issues have to be pushed. At the same time, the theological conclusion finally reached is not nearly so important as the theological process that has been engaged.
The issues of homosexuality or a movie about Jesus’ crucifixion gives rise to all kinds of religious questions: What is the nature of the Bible? In what way is the Bible authoritative in the life of the church? How do we understand modern psychology in light of ancient concepts about humanity? What claim does the spirit of Jesus have on the church community, particularly in relation to the acceptance of others? Not only can preaching become a model of theological exploration; it can inspire dialogue by addressing the real issues simmering in our culture. But beyond preaching, ministers can foster theological dialogue and transformation in other ways. Perhaps a few examples from my experience at University Christian Church in Fort Worth will illustrate:
- We have created a dialogue for Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths. This project is not only good for our own church; it also sends out signals to the larger Fort Worth community that our congregation is a place where faith is taken seriously and inclusively.
- A few years ago, recognizing that our church’s elders basically spent their meetings talking about business items nonstop, we created elder dialogue sessions devoted to nothing but a particular theological topic. In recent years, we have explored such topics as prayer, Christology, and the nature of religious authority. Interestingly enough, the elders of the church had been bored with their business sessions for years and were glad to have a chance to learn about their faith. This year we are using an excellent book titled How to Think Theologically.2 The goal of these sessions is not to reach total agreement on a theological topic; it is to help these lay leaders become more theologically aware.
- We have created continuing programs of theological reflection around film, literature, and art, allowing us to explore intersections of faith and culture. We have read books by Elie Wiesel, Chaim Potok, Anne Lamott and James Carroll, to name a few. We have explored such movies as Life is Beautiful and As Good As It Gets to understand faith and redemption. We also have regular outings to museums to discover religious themes in art.
- We have sponsored travel experiences ranging from a women’s visit to the border areas of Mexico and Texas to study the plight of immigrant families, to intergenerational study trips to Italy, where families explored some of the great Christian art traditions in Florence and Rome. Even our service-type trips lend themselves to theological reflection.
- We have also created successful theological dialogue by using our small-group ministry of ChristCare. These small groups always study the sermon text that I will use on Sunday morning. This practice creates a dialogue—not only with the biblical text but also with the larger worship life of the church. Moreover, it creates a theological dialogue between laypeople and senior minister. Our church is greatly enhanced by the fact that people show up on Sunday already in conversation with the theme of the morning.
Teaching People to Outgrow Anti-Judaism
There are always theological needs within the church, and therefore, always opportunities for reflection in the life of Christians. Perhaps this is my own bias, but given that so much of today’s religious landscape is shaped by a more literal, fundamentalist approach to religion, mainline Protestants have a special challenge to create an alternative religious discourse, not only for their churches but also for the culture at large.
A pastor can do something as simple as leading the congregation in a study of anti-Judaism. One immensely interesting possibility would be a Lenten Bible study experience focusing on the Passion narratives, leading people through an exploration of how the Bible emerged in the life of the church. This study would offer a way of talking about the church’s witness to the gospel and how that witness can be made without any implicit or explicit anti-Jewish thought. It would also serve as a reflection on the liturgy of the church during Lent and Holy Week. People can be helped to understand how a certain strand of Christian witness has been intrinsically anti-Jewish (including some of the witness found in the Bible), and how damaging such a witness has been to the Jewish people. They can also learn to appreciate the need for the church to think theologically while taking into account the implications of the Holocaust. And finally, the church has a way to think critically about a contemporary movie on the death of Jesus—a film that at one level might seem completely harmless, but at a deeper level may well betray the fundamental beauty of the Christian witness.
Answer Churches, Journey Churches
Our culture will always have “answer” churches—those communities of faith that tend to see a well-defined Christianity. But for other churches, “journey” churches, theological exploration is essential because these churches thrive not by suggesting, “It doesn’t matter what you believe,” but by inviting people into the adventure of theological reflection and discovery, which in the end is a process of discovering what it means to be a human being in this world.
In my experience, people in churches are hungry for theological leadership, for the opportunity to grapple with everything from a news story about a controversial new Episcopal bishop to an eyebrow-raising contemporary movie about Jesus. Clergy leadership should be measured not merely by how well the church is administered or how many new members are received or how many pastoral calls are completed. All of that is important, but if there is such a thing as a “calling” (a profoundly religious concept), then clergy leaders should be about the business of creating religious community—one of theological exploration and discourse. Such communities rarely form by accident. They emerge when pastors are willing to lead theologically—leading because they passionately believe that it matters.
1. See Scott Colglazier, A Larger Hope: Opening the Heart to God (St. Louis: Chalice
2. Howard Stone and James Duke, How to Think Theologically (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).