Friday, March 02, 2007

Rules and Regulations

Here is the excerpt from Spencer Burke's book I mentioned earlier. From pages 181-184 in the book a Heretic's Guide to Eternity...

Back in college, I was often invited to speak at various Christian youth camps where personal holiness wasn't just encouraged but was mandated. One of the biggest issues was-surprise, surprise-swimwear. At most camps, the rule was modest one-piece bathing suits for girls. "It's what God would have you do," the camps' administrators effectively explained. Then when one-piece styles started to get a little skimpy on the bottom, the rules changed to allow bikinis-but only if they weren't cut too high on the thigh. Did God's mind change?

At other camps, the rule was bikinis with T-shirts over them. But not white T-shirts or even cream-colored T-shirts. They had to be a dark color. Who knew God was so picky about color?

Still other camps prohibited coed swimming altogether. You know what the Bible says about avoiding temptation. It's like that old joke: "Why do Baptists forbid sex standing up? Because it might lead to dancing."

The rules didn't make sense then, and they seem just as flawed now. Ephesians says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast." But staying in God's good graces seems to be a different matter.

Performance-driven faith is all about making sure one's life is up to standard, right down to wearing a T-shirt of the right color. It undoes the idea of grace, because it makes grace contingent on other forces.

A performance-based theology sends a terrible message to our insides. It tells us that if we screw up, we might endanger our souls, so life becomes about making sure we are meeting all the requirements. It's the very kind of outward focus Jesus railed against in Matthew's gospel:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces....
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are....
"Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath....'
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices....But you have neglected the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness....
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence....
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones....
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous...."

If meeting rules and requirements were really all it took for our theology to mean something, Jesus might have been a little less intense with the religious leaders of his day. After all, they seem to have covered just about every single issue of faith they could create as a condition for right relationship with God. But for Jesus, it wasn't enough. Or perhaps I should say it was too much-of the wrong thing!

When a view of God becomes about paying attention to all kinds of requirements, there is little time left to focus on what all religions teach are the important things-justice, mercy, compassion, goodness, grace, love. It can also feel like you are always on trial. With all those rules, you inevitably feel like you've done something wrong.

When God is viewed as judge and lawgiver, sin becomes the focus. Salvation is salvation from sin. Freedom is freedom from sin. Everything related to life and faith gets forced through one particular lens: sin.

Your thoughts on this portion of the book are welcome.


Blogger Hannah said...

That is an interesting excerpt. I have been wanting to do a post about the fluky rules at the college I went to... It's insane that some people consider these things valid.

10:26 AM  

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