Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Issues with Christian Century

Okay. Right off the bat, let me say that I enjoy reading Christian Century. It has a lot of helpful news items, articles, reflections on the lectionary, and so on. But lately, I've been having some issues (ha!) with this magazine. Part of me has become weary of the same writers and voices. I love most of these authors, don't get me wrong. Some of them have been highly influential in my own sense of vocation and faith.

But lately, there have been some articles that have led me to believe that this magazine is fairly resistant to new trends and ideas, and it's been increasingly frustrating for me.

For instance, a while back Lillian Daniel wrote a half review, half commentary on the book Why Men Hate Going to Church. I had read this book before this article had come out and thus was interested in her take. I found her to be incredibly dismissive of what I thought to be very good insights. She opted instead to blame the guys who hate church themselves, implied or stated the usual things about real or perceived sexism, and presented an extreme example of a "man-focused" church as if it would be the norm if this book is taken seriously. It was a very cynical take that left the reader no better in terms of addressing the real problem that a lot of men hate going to church in its current incarnation and with its typical foci. (Incidentally, the whole "Oh, everything is just fine the way it is" attitude is one of the chief problems that Murrow cites in his book.)

A few months later, the magazine had a cover story on Rob Bell. Bell just can't catch a break among anybody: he's too liberal for many evangelicals, and in the liberal circles I know who've noticed him some consider him too evangelical. CC's take was part amazement at the dressed-down style and hipster vibe of Mars Hill and Bell, part worry that this style is what speaks to a new generation. It was actually a favorable portrait of Bell and his church overall, but there was this undercurrent of anxiety about the whole enterprise as well, as if our traditional, tall-steeple, pipe organ liberal churches may need to take what Bell is doing seriously, and not just in order to counter it either.

So then the most recent cover story is by Will Willimon, entitled "Too Much Practice." Essentially, Willimon cites a growing movement of books that emphasize spiritual practices and the need to practice faith through acts of service and other countercultural behaviors...and then says that we may be doing too much of that:
One of the things that first appealed to me about the discovery of Christianity as a practice was that the practices of any faith are so wonderfully specific and odd. They tend to be incomprehensible without reference to the specific experience of God that has occurred in that faith. This approach seemed to offer a wonderful corrective to the classic liberal theological construal of religion as a set of ideas (beliefs) about the divine.

But classic liberal theology of the 19th-century German variety is hard to break. A warning sign of the possible error of construing Christianity primarily as a practice is the propensity of books on Christian practice to describe the Christian faith in general. Christianity, generally conceived, shares much with other faiths, generally conceived. Generic conceptions of Christianity, or any other religion, as a practice are as intellectually misleading as conceiving of Christianity as a system of general beliefs. When Christianity is conceived as a practice, a set of paths toward God which some people have found helpful but which lead in much the same direction as every other path, then Christianity has been misconstrued.

For instance, a number of Christianity-as-practice books extol the virtues of recovering the practice of keeping the Sabbath. Yet I search in vain in these descriptions for the theological grounding of such a peculiar activity. Nor do they recognize the ways in which Jesus Christ, a well-documented Sabbath-breaker, is presented in the Gospels as inimical to the Third Commandment.
Throughout the whole article, Willimon argues against these books, but never cites any other than his own. So I have no clue who he's arguing with. I actually just read a decent book on the practice of sabbath that is very intentional about grounding the practice in theological and Biblical justification, so he obviously doesn't mean that one. Must be all those other books he doesn't mention.

Willimon's main point about not ignoring the theological grounding for Christian practice is well-taken. It is important to spend time discerning the Divine Will for what we do (which at the same time is what spiritual practices are meant to do). But that he frames it in terms of bemoaning too much practice and not enough theology irks me. Is there really such a thing as "too much practice?" There didn't seem to be for Jesus, who spent much more time telling stories than in presenting anything systematic. That, and the fact that particularly younger generations want to do things and not just sit around and believe things. Seems to me that movements emphasizing practice are heading in the right direction. Willimon really comes off as a curmudgeon in this one.

And that's been my growing issue with Christian Century: it's been coming off more and more curmudgeon-y lately. Emerging issues for the church are seemingly ignored, downplayed, groused about, caricatured, or dismissed. Meanwhile, the usual writers write about the usual things, and no one seems to be moving forward. CC addresses many important topics, but there are just as many that it doesn't seem to want to give a fair shake.