Story, Vision, Institution

I’m always going back to the most basic question: “what is this whole Christianity thing about?” What should be our focus?  And why should anyone care?

I’m intrigued by little books that present a version of basics, like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. New Testament professor C. Kavin Rowe, in his book Christianity’s Surprise, brings up three ways Christianity seemed surprising and new to the world when it first appeared: first, in the kind of overarching story it told about everything; second, in its vision of what humans are; third, in its institutions.  We discussed his ideas in some recent adult forum classes.

First, says Rowe, Christians have a story: not just a collection of bible fables and sayings to believe in or reject, but a shared “this is who we are” story that gives us a place in this world -a  ‘why we’re here’ and a ‘where we’re headed.’’ Think of how your grandparents told you how they got through the Great Depression, adding “you too can get through what you face.” Our story is hopeful: as Rowe emphasizes, it’s centered on Jesus’ defeat giving way not to disaster but surprising new life, resurrection.

Many would say the most basic thing about Christianity is its ‘message’ – but that word makes me think of a sentimental one-liner on a greeting card or tweet. ‘Story’ sounds more grounded, personal, open-ended, adventurous. The ELCA recently said the goal is to tell lots of people the story of Jesus, but maybe what needs to be told are stories, plural: my story, your story, and his- all connected, going somewhere together.  The theologian John Webster said Christian hope involves looking backward and forward, at promises made in the past that we can trust and act on as we enter the future.  It seems like that kind of hope is what Christians are after.

People do DNA tests; they try to find their ‘tribe,’ they need roots and a story.  As Rowe, Stanley Hauerwas (5 and 1/2 minutes in or so in this sermon) and others say, we too often learn that ‘freedom’ means being autonomous and detached.  “My story can only be the story I choose for myself.’  I cut myself off from belonging and from obligations to others (as one class participant observed, people say ‘I’m not racist’ while ignoring the history and systems of racism we’re implicated in).  Christianity is about being gifted with a story and roots we didn’t know we had.  The baptized get to spend their days learning what it means to be children of God and to belong to one another.

Which gives us to Rowe’s second theme: Christianity’s vision of the human.  What makes us human?  Why are we of value? Again, it’s not the life we’ve created for or the story we’ve told about ourselves or anything particular about us, such as our ability to use reason or to be moral agents or some status we have. We’re human in that God has identified with us; we’re part of Jesus’ family, ones for whom Christ died and was raised.  Indeed, we can say Christ is the human.  To be in Christ’s presence is always to be drawn deeper into the human family: with the incarcerated, the poor, the sick and those whose value as humans seems questionable to this world (see Matthew 25, which Rowe discusses).  I felt this chapter was a little underdeveloped, but it reminded me of a passage from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.  God establishes a most intimate unity with this … While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human … In the human Jesus Christ the whole of humanity has been judged; again this is not the uninvolved judgement of a judge, but the merciful judgement of one who who has borne and suffered the fate of all humanity.  Jesus is not a human being but the human being.  What happens to him happens to human beings.  It happens to all and therefore to us.  The name of Jesus embraces in itself the whole of humanity and the whole of God.  (from pg84-85 of new hardback Fortress edition).

Class participants seemed to be of the opinion that the most basic element of Christianity is love.  I think Rowe here is getting at what’s lovable about people and how love transforms the way we see each other.

Finally: the third aspect of Christianity that was new and surprising, says Rowe, were its institutions.  Isn’t that what’s wrong with religion?  When it gets institutional, and isn’t just a free-flowing social movement? Obviously, we need some level of institution, like meeting places, times, who’s in charge of what. Says Rowe, we need institutions to maintain the story and vision and practices of the church.  Hospitals where any human would be cared for were first created by Christian bishops and monastics, Rowe claims.  I recently heard Henry Louis Gates Jr. talk about the vitality of the Black Church as an institution during slavery: if you were a child and your parents were suddenly sold, you at least have a somewhat consistent church family that will support you; songs and stories that keep you going. The question is, what institutions does Christianity need today?  How can we keep alive the story, the hope, a sense of being connected to all of humanity?

Rowe’s framework is very intriguing. One big remaining question is whether these aspects of Christianity really set it apart from Judaism, let alone other religions.