Saturday 14 April 2007

Velvet Elvis & the Rehabilitation of Doubting Thomas

I have just finished reading ‘Velvet Elvis’ by Rob Bell, founder of Mars Hill Church in Grandville Michigan. It is a wonderful read and as good a tool as you will find to rehabilitate the contemporary Church or indeed the contemporary and often disillusioned Christian. The subtitle of the book, “Repainting the Christian Faith” gives only a hint at the radical journey of discovery and re-discovery that Rob Bell has embarked on himself and which he invites the reader to experience first hand. This is not a cosy academic read but a compelling call to action!

While reading the book I was also wrestling with my sermon for tomorrow (Easter 2) and the Gospel of the day, John 20: 19-31 which tells the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples in the house where they met with the doors locked. Thomas was of course missing when Jesus first appeared to them and while Jesus is of course the centre of this event we tend to focus on the figure of Thomas or ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he is almost universally characterised.

I have often preached on this Gospel and tried to express the importance of doubt in our Christian journey; of the need for a questioning and searching faith and the greater depths that this doubt and questioning bring to our experience of God. But somehow I have never felt that I have done Thomas justice – I am not sure I have fully convinced either myself or others that Thomas is a good role model for faith.

And then I read “Velvet Elvis” and in it I found the articulation of what it was I felt in my heart about Thomas but never managed to express effectively. Bell tells how in Mars Hill they host a ‘Doubt Night’ where people are encouraged to write down their questions or doubts about God and Jesus and the Bible and Faith and Church. He gives some examples of the kinds of questions that arise:

  • Why does God let people die ….so young?
  • Why do mean people get the most money?
  • Why does the killer go free and the honest man die of cancer
  • Is God really present in starving Africa?
  • If we can ask God for forgiveness at our last breath why bother living a Godly life in the present?
  • Either God is in control of everything and so all the crap we see is part of his plan (which I don’t want to accept) or its all out of control (which sucks too). What’s up?
Nothing terribly new or radical in those doubts and questions but it is how Bell deals with them in his own pastoral ministry that is particularly refreshing . Firstly he says that there are no easy answers – most of the time he ends up simply helping people see their need for each other – to help one another carry their burdens. He discerns that people are not necessarily looking for a textbook answer but rather loving community with other people on the journey. Most powerful of all is the freedom to express these deep things that are so often hidden in our hearts…..It’s not so much about information as being free to tell our story in a supporting and loving environment.

So Bell goes on to argue that questioning and doubt are central to our faith: It’s a vital part of our faith
heritage which we have lost in this world of religious and scientific fundamentalism and the illusion in both traditions of apprehending the fullness of Truth! And what we have lost is something that was basic to the world in which Jesus lived and particularly in the Rabinnic tradition where so much time was spent debating the meaning of the Scriptures and where a question would invariably be answered by another one. Doubt and questioning were not the dirty words they are today in certain circles. Bell cites how Jesus responded to questions – He would answer with another question! Jesus didn’t give pat answers – He drew people into the mystery of life and encouraged them to wrestle with these questions for themselves.

That is not easy for the modern mind to comprehend because as Bell observes, our education model is one of transmitting information or data. That was not what Jesus was about? He was hugely radical in his own interpretation to the Scriptures – he was no literalist fundamentalist: Again and again with reference to the Scriptures we hear this phrase: “You have heard it said…….but I say to you….” He wasn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions or to doubt the wisdom of some of the tradition in which he was reared.

This really got me thinking about how we present our faith – how we foolishly attempt to pass it on as a package of static truths. But this faith of ours is not a passive thing – it is about acknowledging that we are a part of the greatest story ever told and that story has not ended and that we have a part to play in it. And if we have a part to play then we need to discover our lines, what it is we are called to contribute. Try and do that without asking a few questions?!

Back to Rob Bell and the importance of this questioning faith. Let me share a few passages in which he brings key insights to this whole theme of doubt and questioning:

“Questions, no matter how shocking or blasphemous or arrogant or ignorant or raw, are rooted in humility. A humility that understands that I am not God. And there is more to know.

Questions bring freedom. Freedom that I don’t have to be God and I don’t have to pretend that I have it all figured out. I can let God be God…

What are some of Jesus’ final words? “My God,my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus on the Cross, questioning God…

[Questioning] allows us to have moments when we come to the end of our ability to comprehend. Moments when silence is enough…

The Christian faith is mysterious to the core. It is about things and beings that ultimately can’t be put into words. Language fails. And if we do definitively put God into words, we have at that very moment made God something God is not…

True mystery, the kind of mystery rooted in the infinite nature of God, gives us answers that actually plunge us into even more questions…

One of the great “theologians” of our time, Sean Penn, put it this way: “When everything gets answered, its fake. The mystery is the truth”…

Being a Christian then is more about celebrating mystery than conquering it”

And finally, one of the most helpful concepts I found in reading the book was how Bell portrays two very different approaches to the Christian life. One he calls ‘brickworld’, where our faith is built like a wall of various teachings or truths which we have to individually assent to. If one brick or element of our faith is questioned or comprimised then the wall crumbles and our faith is shattered. He concludes that if that’s all it takes to shatter our faith then it wasn’t very real in the first place.

The other model is faith as jumping up and down on a trampoline – It only works if you take your feet off the firm stable ground and jump into the air and let the trampoline propel you upwards. Of course key to the operation of the trampoline is the springs but you don’t need to know anything about the springs to pursue living “the way” We can quite literally take the leap of faith and jump for Joy!

All of this shed new light on tomorrow’s Gospel. It’s about living in the mystery of faith and not merely assenting to its truth. It’s there in the final verses:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

It couldn’t be more clear could it! Believing is not an end in itself – It is the road to life - to become a part of God’s story – or perhaps to recognise that we are already a part of the story! - To become a part of his plan for his people - to get onto the trampoline and jump! Thomas gives us a helping hand to enter into the story by telling us that this story is open to all of us – including those of us and perhaps especially those who doubt and ask the awkward questions. I think I may finally be able to do Thomas justice and even more importantly, to perhaps do justice to what Bell describes as ‘honest’, ‘vulnerable’ and ‘raw’ questioning which arises “out of the awe that comes from engaging the living God”

1 comment:

Allen said...

I use to look at Church from behind a wall they built. They are good at building walls in Northern Ireland.

If I didn't believe in every single brick of their wall then I wasnt aloud in. I could clearly see that a number of bricks in the wall were not sound. The wall was going to collapse. I didnt believe in the wall.

Then I read Velvet Elvis and in the process I found a trampoline. I was little scared at first because I thought it was going to be like the wall but lately I have taken my shoes off, climbed on the trampoline and began jumping. I am still nervous and I keep looking at groung but the odd time I catche myself with a huge grin on my face looking to the heavens!