Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On Being a Reactionary Theologian: Part One

Imagine you're a dude interested in scoring a date with a fine looking dudette. 

So you spy her from across the room at a crowded party.  You take a deep breath, stroll through the mass of revelers, lean up against the wall a few feet away from said smokin' female.  You look deeply in her eyes.  You introduce yourself and tell her you'd like to take her out for dinner.

She, in return, asks why she agree to go out with you.  She wants to know what makes you so special.  And, in response, you spend the next half hour detailing all the faults of her ex-boyfriend and assuring her how much more you have to offer in those specific areas.

How likely do you think it is that you're going to score that date?

The answer, of course, is "not very likely at all."  And the reason for that is because you have established yourself as a reactionary suitor.  Instead of presenting yourself as a guy who can stand on his own two legs, you've presented yourself as someone who can only stand by propping himself up against the failings of someone else.  By trying to make yourself interesting, you've only succeeded in making yourself the second most important guy in the conversation because your identity is entirely dependent upon the guy you're trying to tear down.

This scenario is, I believe, what ultimately ends up happening when people establish themselves as reactionary theologians, regardless of what they're reacting against.  And whenever you try to convince people that they need to pick up the doctrine you're laying down by convincing them that you're a better option than the guy across the street, the only thing you might succeed at is convincing the girl that she shouldn't go to that guy's church either.

Take Baptist theology, for example.  Granted, I am not the world's leading expert on the modern leaders in Baptist theology.  But talk to your average Baptist pastor about why you should join his church and you'll hear very little about his church.  But you will hear a whole bunch about other churches.  

Me: So, Pastor Smith, why should I become a member at First Baptist Church?

Pastor Smith: Well, for starters, we're not like the Roman Catholics, those people who worship Mary and don't read their Bibles.  And we're not like those Lutherans with their written prayers and their old fashioned services.  You can really tell that the Spirit is with us because we don't do things the same way each week.  Plus, we're all committed to the Lord.  Unlike all those other people, we're all about serving Him.

Me: And how exactly do you serve him?

PS:Well, for starters, by not being Catholics or Lutherans.

Now, if you think I'm being to hard on the Baptists, do a little exercise for me.  Just glance through the Yellow Pages and see how long it takes you before you find a Baptist Church with a name like Real Gospel or True Bible Baptist Church.  If the name of your church indicates your belief that everyone else follows a fake gospel or a false bible, you might be a reactionary theologian.

The same is, of course, true on the other side of the theopolitical spectrum, which we all saw clearly in the UCC's controversial ejector seat ad from a few years ago.

Me: So, Pastor Jones of First United Church of Christ, why should I become a member of your congregation?

Pastor Jones: Oh, well, you see, we're not like those mean, close-minded, hateful, racist, homophobic churches.  We're welcoming.

Me: Ok, well, that just tells me that I shouldn't attend one of the numerous (non-existent ) congregations where people will pee on my leg, punch me in the eyeballs and tell me to stick a hose in my tailpipe.  But why should I go to your church?  What will you welcome me into?

PJ: Um, we have life-partner scrabble night on Wednesdays.  You can come to that, if you like.

I say all of this because my fellow Lutherans and I often have a tendency to approach our theology in this kind of reactionary manner.  Instead of telling the pretty girl how awesome we are in, oh, say six chief ways, we frequently begin the conversation by telling her that we do salvation better than Benedict and the means of grace better than Osteen.  

These statements are, of course, true.  But those statements are only true because we're right, not because everyone else is wrong.  We baptize babies, for example, because Christ wants them baptized and not because the Baptists don't.  Truth isn't truth because it deviates from error.  Error is error because it deviates from truth.  And I think that we Lutherans do ourselves a great disservice whenever we can't justify our existence without the foils of popes and Promise Keepers®, whenever we don't have the guts to look the girl in the eyes and convince her that nobody else in the room matters.

So, sure, it's true that the Lutheran confession of faith is better than that of Rome or Geneva.  And it's also true that I am cuter and funnier than most of Katie's exboyfriends.  But I can assure you that, had I made my sales pitch to my beautiful wife in such a fashion a few years ago, she'd still be beautiful.  But she sure as sunflowers wouldn't be my wife today.

(Granted, I recognize that some of our greatest theological treasures came about in response to false doctrine.  But there is, I would certainly argue, the right way to be a reactionary theologian and the wrong way.  More on that later...)

My name is Pastor Hans Fiene.  Thanks for reading.


Maanum's Meandering Musings said...

Good post Hans. Do you mind if I put your blog as a link that I read on mine? Hope the ministry's going well and we'll see you in a few weeks for PALS.

Pastor Fiene said...

Thanks, Ed. Go right ahead. Hey, that rhymed...

Liz Rider said...

"Truth isn't truth because it deviates from error. Error is error because it deviates from truth."

Brilliant and well-said.