Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fat Albert

When Bill Cosby first introduced Fat Albert in his standup routines, he told a story about scaring him with a big statue and how Fat Albert crushed his friend when he panicked. He got a big laugh. Then he said, “I told you that story so I could tell you this one”, and told another Fat Albert story. I did last week’s blog so I could do this one.

Before I started this blog, not just this post, the whole thing, I discovered something called the “Emergent Church” or some say the “Emerging Church”. Phyllis Tickle gives a great explanation of it here.

I eventually came across the guy who everybody points to as getting the idea started. His name is Brian McLaren. He became an Evangelical pastor a little later in life and figured if he was going to be serious about it, he should go meet some of these poor people he was preaching about. He has since visited a variety of cultures and gained a deep understanding of what it is to be poor. He has sat through meetings where people who are on the ground, with their elbows deep in helping oppressed people have challenged religious leaders to do more than just pray for those people. He has seen people shift their thinking from other worldly thoughts to a hands-on focus of what needs to be done to make this earth heavenly. So, I was kinda excited about reading one of the books central to his message, Everything Must Change.

I was disappointed.

He starts with his personal story then asks, what do we do now? He looks at the global priorities of a few global organizations. Okay. Then he makes up an oversimplified model of the gears of society as they currently turn. Next he talks about how we should frame our discussion and our work and attempts to use Biblical stories to do it. I agree strongly with the problems he points out with the framing stories that were used to subjugate the peasants of Europe and build the not-so-holy Roman Catholic Empire, but I cringe when he tries to create a new framing story.

He seems to be familiar with the type of analysis I found in Parables as Subversive Speech, but I read every footnote and it ain’t in there. It’s as if he wants to use some of that history, but not all of it, only the parts that fit his preconceived ideas. Basically the same sort of cherry picking that every theologian throughout history has done. But I don’t know if he has read Parables as Subversive Speech or not, so it may be that his view of history is incomplete, or just different from mine.

When he talks about parables with stewards in them, he comes very close to describing the world described by the historian Lenski. But when he analyzes the Parable of the Unjust Steward, he selects a theology that involves gathering up points for heaven instead of viewing the steward as someone who is a cog in a corrupt system, who does what he can with the tools he has. He praises the steward for “switching sides”. Since the steward would be switching to the side of the peasants, McLaren doesn’t have an explanation for his boss praising his actions. He leaves you dangling with an incomplete interpretation, making you figure it out. Maybe that confusing line was Jesus adding a tag line to the parable. What does Brian think? Who knows?

McLaren has a huge heart, a sharp mind and I hope his hands continue to do good work. He has no reason to care about what I have said here. He is having success turning eyes away from invisible things in the clouds down to the not so pretty problems with creation. We need that. The question is, if we maintain a view that still includes focusing on invisible things, will we be able to fix those problems or just be faced with different ones later?

Is his framing story different enough to make a difference? I’m wondering if it is different at all. After discussing some parables and providing some translations from the Greek and pointing out some Bible passages that could be said to contradict the idea of a Jesus that came to support a right-wing political agenda of rules about what people do in the bedroom or how they should treat their slaves, he starts listing what he thinks are the right things to do. Personally, I find these things non-controversial, like caring for people who have less than me, looking for peaceful resolutions to conflicts, paying people what they are worth, stuff like that.

The rest of the book is lists of ideas like this, interspersed with data about how those things are not happening now; like how many people live on less than a dollar day, or don’t have access to clean water. If you don’t know about those things and you think God is doing a good job, buy this book, otherwise don’t bother.

When he says “Everything Must Change”, by “Everything” he means the ancient framing story that got us into this mess. If you believe in that story, he is only asking you to change a little bit. At the end of one of those lists of what he thinks you should be doing, he says, we can accomplish them by “following a weaponless prophet in Galilee”. He doesn't explain that, he just makes up what Jesus might do if he were incarnate today.

So, really, you get to leave quite a bit unchanged. For that reason, I believe this framing story will fail in basically the same way the current one is failing. By loosely connecting the list of good ideas to an interpretation of some scripture, the door is wide open to altering the interpretation and picking different scripture to justify a different list. I really don’t know if McLaren’s reading of Greek is accurate or not. Since he knows I could check up on him, I hope he is honest, but very few people will do that work or even care to. And we don’t know if the future will continue to bring us the amazingly easy access to information that we have been given in the last few decades. Very small changes could put us back in the Dark Ages when a few people told everybody else what the Bible meant.

There are other framing stories. Just because I don’t offer an alternative in this week’s blog doesn’t mean they aren’t there or they are not valid. McLaren is on a parallel track with some of those stories, but his track is going to run out. I’m not worried about him causing a train wreck and hope to meet up with him further on down the line.

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