Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Code

Below are a couple of paragraphs from the paper by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, Preachers Who Are Not Believers.

They write about the unspoken conspiracy that clergy enter even before they are ordained.
I remember in seminary "the dawning realization" that there were things you couldn't say to your parishioners even though I don't remember hearing it in those words. Nor do I recall what specifically we couldn't say. But I got the message.

I rejected this message. I am sure many of my classmates did as well. We bravely told ourselves that we would never be dishonest.
I like to think that for the most part I have been honest. But you can fool yourself for a long time. I learned the tricks and I know my colleagues have too. I hear them being employed every day. Dennett and LaScola point out a few in their paper.

Even seminary professors played the game. I didn't realize it nor did I have much sympathy for their position which was likely even more precarious than that of clergy and certainly students. I especially feel for professors in evangelical seminaries. I am feeling bad today for
the guy who was ousted from his seminary position because he endorsed evolution. I mean, really.

It isn't just about liberals. I may spout off about stuff on the left end of things but I guarantee that clergy in my very conservative town play this game with their own congregations over all kinds of issues, theological and social.

The secret code was wrong.

No one designed this code or invented it. This code arose as part of the survival of an institution that harbors secrets and is threatened by truth and by honest searchers.

The title of this book by Southern Baptist minister, Oliver "Buzz" Thomas says it all:

Ten Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You: (But Can't Because He Needs the Job)

Why is this both darkly funny and true? What does that say about our institutional church? Is it that the minister is bad for either telling (or not telling)?

The focus is misplaced. Rather than name the sickness within the institution itself we take it out on each other. Often we even eat our own.

I feel like I am outing my colleagues or telling temple secrets. I have deep empathy for my fellow clergy. I also realize that am incredibly fortunate and privileged to be where I am. We are all in different places and have varying resources. I also know what it is like to get your butt kicked. There is no better cure for being afraid of a butt kickin' then to have experienced a butt kickin'. You survive. But we need to stick up for each other and encourage each other.

More than anything, we need to change church culture from one that thinks it needs to defend its creed to one that sees its task as seeking and working for what is good and true.

Church folks, do read this paper by Dennett and LaScola. They show us a glimpse of the humanity behind the icon in the pulpit. The five clergy they interview seem fairly typical to me. These three paragraphs come from near the end of the paper:

What gives them this impression that they are far from alone, and how did this strange and sorrowful state of affairs arise? The answer seems to lie in the seminary experience shared by all our pastors, liberals and literals alike. Even some conservative seminaries staff their courses on the Bible with professors who are trained in textual criticism, the historical methods of biblical scholarship, and what is taught in those courses is not what the young seminarians learned in Sunday school, even in the more liberal churches. In seminary they were introduced to many of the details that have been gleaned by centuries of painstaking research about how various ancient texts came to be written, copied, translated, and, after considerable jockeying and logrolling, eventually assembled into the Bible we read today. It is hard if not impossible to square these new facts with the idea that the Bible is in all its particulars a true account of actual events, let alone the inerrant word of God. It is interesting that all our pastors report the same pattern of response among their fellow students: some were fascinated, but others angrily rejected what their professors tried to teach them. Whatever their initial response to these unsettling revelations, the cat was out of the bag and both liberals and literals discerned the need to conceal their knowledge about the history of Christianity from their congregations.

A gulf opened up between what one says from the pulpit and what one has been taught in seminary. This gulf is well-known in religious circles. The eminent biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman’s widely read book,
Misquoting Jesus (2005), recounts his own odyssey from the seminary into secular scholarship, beginning in the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a famously conservative seminary which required its professors to sign a statement declaring the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, a declaration that was increasingly hard for Ehrman to underwrite by his own research. The Dishonest Church (2003), by retired United Church of Christ minister, Jack Good, explores this “tragic divide” that poisons the relationship between the laity and the clergy. Every Christian minister, not just those in our little study, has to confront this awkwardness, and no doubt there are many more ways of responding to it than our small sample illustrates. How widespread is this phenomenon? When we asked one of the other pastors we talked with initially if he thought clergy with his views were rare in the church, he responded "Oh, you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God!” Surely an overstatement, but a telling one. As Wes put it:
“. . . there are a lot of clergy out there who --- if you were to ask them --- if you were to list the five things that you think may be the most central beliefs of Christianity, they would reject every one of them.”
One can be initiated into a conspiracy without a single word exchanged or secret handshake; all it takes is the dawning realization, beginning in seminary, that you and the others are privy to a secret, and that they know that you know, and you know that they know that you know. This is what is known to philosophers and linguists as mutual knowledge, and it plays a potent role in many social circumstances. Without any explicit agreement, mutual knowledge seals the deal: you then have no right to betray this bond by unilaterally divulging it, or even discussing it.

The secret code was wrong.

We need to change.

Good advice that I have heard and in turn have given to couples about to be married:

It is OK to change and grow. Just don't forget to tell your partner.

I wonder if that same advice couldn't be offered to the church as well.