On the future of Christianity (and values, Rob Bell, and God)

I recently spoke at a rally for Michigan workers here in Battle Creek.  I said some political stuff (in a values and hypocrisy kind of way, not so much party-line kind of way.  You can see the video here).   One of those who attended the rally found me later on Facebook and thanked me for being a Christian leader who was willing to “address the issues that most skirt around.”  It got me thinking, and I responded that it saddens me that progressive people of faith have not been effective at articulating a faith-based vision of social justice and love; and that in this vacuum, much more extreme voices have dominated the public discourse. Consequently, “Christian” has practically become synonymous with “asshole” in recent years, and I am very eager to chip away at the walls my co-believers have erected, wherever and however I can.

But it is also true that for what it’s worth, things are actually changing rapidly among Christians. On the one hand, progressives are getting bolder and better at naming their values,  but there is also an emerging debate raging among evangelicals themselves these days as seen in the recent storm of controversy over Rob Bell‘s new book, Love Wins. On the surface, all the uproar is about whether and how to interpret the doctrine of hell, but in the wise words of my CPE director, “the issue is not the issue.” In this case, the underlying issue is ultimately about whether or not the Christian church can finally embrace a God who is capable of acting in ways that are beyond our imagination:  can we keep God in a box or not?  Because it is our precisely our declaration that we’ve got God figured out and you don’t, that allows Christians to adopt a posture of violence and exclusion toward the rest of the world.  But on the other hand, if we are finally ready, after 2,000 years and counting, to concede that people are in relationship with God in ways that are not ours, and that we need not necessarily embrace, understand, condone, nor condemn, just imagine how different  the world could be?  What if the majority of children grew up in a society (and faith tradition) that is both profoundly faithful yet acknowledges the reality of different beliefs and understandings?  What if the response to difference was not to try and establish that which is ‘true’ or ‘correct,’ but rather to get curious about it, and to get curious about the beliefs we ourselves hold true?

Anyway, I’m glad to be part of a changing world, in relationship with a God who is ever breathing new life into our dusty lungs.

7 Responses to “On the future of Christianity (and values, Rob Bell, and God)”

  1. John Wright Says:

    Hello Tom- Yes I was in the crowd witnessing your political ranting. Were you there on your own volition or were you there as a representative of the “First Congregational Church?”-just down the road. I do think it is important to speak your mind with your own personal beliefs, but also I think it is also important to remember that you
    are employed by a church that has both conservative and liberal members. Although FCCBC does have an open and liberal environment- there are some who might feel this rant was a bit out there. Taking sides at a political rally is a bit different than standing up for a social cause.

  2. Tom Ryberg Says:

    Hey John,

    First, I don’t think I would have said anything differently, but I’m sorry if you were uncomfortable by what I had to say.

    Your post raises several questions for me about whether and how it is appropriate for a pastor of a church to speak publicly – is the pastor a “representative” of the church? Of God? Or just her or himself?

    I happen to think that as a pastor, it is not my job to “represent” my church externally, but rather to participate in and empower the ministry at FCC, and to participate in and empower the work of God in the broader community. So when I speak outside of my church as a pastor, it is not as a ‘representative’ of First Congregational Church, which would suggest that I have been sent and commissioned by all of you to say or do something in particular. But I do acknowledge an implied authority in being a pastor that seems to come from a combination of sources: myself, as a theologian and ordained minister of the United Church of Christ; my faith tradition, including the Bible and all the prophets who have gone before me; and yes, also from FCC having extended a call to me.

    Having said all that, I am aware that no matter what my own view is in response to these questions, there are people both within my church and beyond who will likely disagree. Some may believe that pastors should not get involved in politics in such a way so as to “take sides” as you put it; others may believe that since there is an implied representation of the church with which one is associated, then it is not kosher to speak out on political issues that don’t have the agreement or blessing of the whole church. I am sensitive to the strong feelings within both of these positions, even as I disagree with them.

    For me, it is incredibly difficult to read the Bible without being outraged by the direct parallels between the sort of economic and social injustice that God addressed through the prophets, and that Jesus addressed practically every time he opened his mouth. To follow in the life and example of Jesus has enormous political implications in our world today.

    When I say “political,” I don’t mean Democrats and Republicans, but something larger than our two party system: fundamental fairness, opportunity, liberty. Political disagreement that is rooted in honest, philosophical, difference is one thing. What we’re seeing in the Michigan State Legislature these days is something else entirely, the stuff of cynicism, hypocrisy, and authoritarianism. On this issue, as I’m sure you can tell in the video, I am genuinely outraged at the power-grabbing deception of many of our leaders.

    Emily Joye and I were together invited by one of the event’s organizers to speak at this event (she couldn’t make it). Being that I am a pastor, there is a certain amount of overlap between my religious convictions about what justice in our world should look like, and my conclusions about related political events. Yet, it seemed inappropriate to get up in a non-religious forum and talk about justice from a biblical standpoint, so I instead focused on the issue at hand, and decried the hypocrisy as I saw it. And I don’t think that was inappropriate, even as I recognize that many of the parishioners at FCC might disagree.

    That is more than enough for now. Hope we can continue this conversation.

    In peace,

  3. Shane Bertou Says:

    If you’re interested, a group of us are discussing Rob’s book chapter-by-chapter on my blog. I’m sure we could use a FCCBC perspective. 😉


    I hope you’re as challenged by it as I have been thus far.

  4. John Wright Says:

    Tom- It was quite entertaining to listen to you rant on.
    I don’t recall stating I was uncomfortable. The issues facing our State are very complex, not to be taken lightly. It is so easy to jump on the bandwagon of political mud throwing when it looks like the right thing to do. However, as you stand in front of a rally crowd and announce you are from the First Congregational Church it is simply understandable for people to wonder who set you up for this act. And why would you rant on and take a side without having a full understanding of the issues. I really have no concerns about this event or the fact you took the time to speak out and shout. I was just wondering, that’s all. And I would recommend a little more research on the political side of things before jumping up and stating what appears to be popular. Peace to you Tom- and thanks for your energy.

    • Tom Ryberg Says:

      John – I’m not sure where you think I got off track on the issues in question, so if you can point me to any particular ‘research’ that contradicts what I was saying, I’d definitely appreciate it.

  5. Diane Dickey Says:

    For me it’s not so much what side you take, Tom, but that you take the time to rant at all. We FCCBC folks are not known for taking sides or speaking out, although we acknowledge that there are differing opinions in our community. I look forward to a time when you will rant and get a lot of grief along with your support just because you made us care enough to participate. And the grief shouldn’t be about your employment — but part of a “dynamic” conversation happening from the inside out of our church. What do you think? Can the entire spectrum speak out and stay in community?

    • Tom Ryberg Says:

      Can the entire spectrum speak out and stay in community?

      That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? I think we can, Diane. But we have to be willing to do the work of staying in community, even in the midst of conflict, which is a lot easier said than done. I think continuing to show up for one another is part of what’s necessary there.

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