I recall with some embarrassment a conversation I had when I was a junior in college, as a young man full of anger at the church and brimming with idealism about the future. I was speaking with a friend who happened to think the institutional church was a pretty good idea, and that hymns in particular (the specific topic of conversation that day) were a rich source for theology and worship. I argued that they were too complex for the modern era, a perfect symbol of bygone and boring ways of doing church. Like the new music that broke out of what I thought was a stifling pattern of verses and rhyme, so the church of the future would free itself from the rigidity of bureaucracy and outmoded theology.
We say lots of silly things when we are immature, but the sentiments that drive the passions of youth often hang on stubbornly. Today, I favor hymns over contemporary music precisely because of their complexity and richness. But my favorite hymns still move in the direction of simplicity, like "What Wondrous Love Is," and "They Cast Their Nets in Galilee."
I have also come to appreciate, begrudgingly, the institutional church. But like most people, most weeks, the church remains a source of frustration and confusion for me. I do wish Jesus had thought of a better way to organize his followers.
Daily Beast uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan has written a cover story for Newsweek that expresses almost perfectly today's religious zeitgeist. As the title inside puts it, "Christianity in Crisis: Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists." Who of us upon reading that would not say, "Exactly!"? And then the subtitle adds this: "Ignore them." To which I want to respond, "I wish!" And the cover copy expresses what many of us want to do: "Forget the church. Follow Jesus."
Sullivan's piece is an angry screed, full of overstatement, misstatement, and just plain misunderstanding. But that's the nature of screeds and what makes them fun to read. Especially when they tap into our own frustrations. In particular, Sullivan pines for a Christianity that would shake off the shackles of partisan politics and abstract theology, and most of all, one that would shed all vestiges of the institutional church and instead give itself to living the "simple ethics of Jesus." In fact, the whole essay is a yearning for simplicity—the word simple or one of its forms appears 21 times in the essay. In this complex and mystifying age, who doesn't yearn for simplicity?
'Complex' Theology and 'Simple' Ethics
For the sake of space, I'm going to have to skip talking about Sullivan's, and our, frustrations when religion and politics mix. It's an interesting topic that deserves a good hashing out. But let's begin with Sullivan's frustration with theology, or as he put it, "theological doctrines of immense complexity." He's an admirer of Thomas Jefferson, and deeply angry about "doctrines" about Jesus' incarnation or divinity, which he says are "supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations."
Indeed. As a student of church history myself, my heart has sunk time and again when I've read how Christians have treated one another and those outside the faith in ways violent and cruel, and often in the name of some doctrine or "the truth." One can argue that political history since the Thirty Years War in the 17th century, the so-called "wars of religion," has been nothing but an international attempt to prevent people of faith from killing each other over doctrine.