The Purposeful Habit 1

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“How to be a Christian without going to church”  Kelly Bean       A Book Review

I am not in the habit of writing book reviews. I am such a slow reader and others do that so much better, but after creating a little stir with a rather flippant post using a play on the title of a book I had just read, I felt I had to explain myself. It was a light hearted jibe but one with a serious point.

It is “How to be a Christian without going to church”  by Kelly Bean, published by Baker Books.  The title catches the eye as it is clearly intended to do and the book addresses the issue of what the writer calls “No-Goers”, of which she is one. These are people who no longer go to church. They are not people who have been believers, have become disillusioned with the church , “lost their faith” and say that they no longer believe,  they are people who leave, yet maintain and continue to practice their orthodox Christian faith.  From the research, which the writer quotes, this has become, in recent years, an unstoppable flood.

There are a series of stories and testimonies from people who have left, to give put some flesh on the background and explain the reasons for leaving: “for their own sanity”, “the structure was killing my faith”,I felt undervalued”,  “I faced rejection and judgement”,  “The system was broken”, “It didn’t match my style” and many other painful stories. It seemed an endless list of damaged and frustrated people who appear to be stifled but flourish when they finally take the step to leave “After 17 years of not going to church my faith is stronger than ever”.  It is a sad and depressing catalogue of failure, but one than anyone who is involved in the church in the west today will easily recognise.

Kelly Bean makes it clear at the outset that she is not against the church. She wants it to be there, to continue and to grow. She would never discourage anyone from joining or sticking with it, she just feels, with a growing number of likeminded people, that it is not for her or for them. She is not, however, advocating being a solitary Christian in fact quite the opposite and here is where her argument seems a little confused and contradictory. She talks about the big shift from “Going to Church to “Being Church”. The first suggesting simply the activity of regularly going to a place, a building , to do whatever. It is understandable why this should be derided because we are called “to be” a holy nation, a people of God, a light to the world.  But if we are to share with any believing community, it involves some movement –we have to go there unless we are always living together. So “Going to Church” is just as relevant and expression. Towards the end of the book she describes intentional communities “ Something is taking shape and spreading as Christians far and wide come together (my emphasis) in a variety of small communities committed to a life lived in simplicity, humility and for others”  so clearly she sees the new movement of non-goers actually going somewhere and it looks like to another church.

I think she is also a little muddled. On the one hand she makes it clear that the church is, as we have always been taught, not a building, a structure, a denomination, an organisation, but the people of God, wherever they come together in twos or threes or in hundreds.  As a “Non-goer” she doesn’t want to be part of this church but, I believe, despite her protestations to the contrary, she is actually trying to set up another church. In her guide to “alternative forms of Christian community” there is alternative worship, alternative bible study, alternative money, alternative baptism and dedication of children, alternative missionary work and even alternative Sunday school and youth groups. In her turning away from all the structures of the church she has defined another church which looks remarkably like the one she has rejected. And what she fails to see is that this simply repeats so much of what has happened throughout the Church’s history.

All the problems she described in “Why are people leaving” are failings in the structures, the organisations, the leadership, and the people but not with its essential reason for being, or with its King and head. The church, I believe, needs reformation not rejection.

I was also struck by two things, which I have to say coloured my whole feeling about the book:

The first is that there is little or no mention of whose church it is. The church is seen as of the people, by the people, for the people, for the community and for the world, when all the time it is God’s. It belongs to him.  It is the church of Jesus Christ.  It is not ours. So we can’t decide what it should be, what it should be like or who should be in it. That is entirely God’s business not ours. Maybe this was taken as read but the fact that it was never stated makes me wonder if the thought was ever in the writers mind.

The second is that, while the Bible is mentioned in a few occasion and quoted very occasionally, there is no hint that these new alternative ways of being community are based or grounded at all on Scripture. Maybe that is also taken as read, but, again, I don’t think so. This omission is serious. At a stroke it knocks away the foundation, disconnects from the basis of the true faith and opens the way for any kind of whimsical and transient philosophy or personality cult to take over and lead to anywhere. The “Non Goers” movement doesn’t seem to be rooted in the Bible but centred on “shared values” and focused on “core beliefs” like those outlined in one quote:

  • God is good. I will practise trusting God with my life
  • God is love. I will practice taking care of myself and loving others
  • God is with me. I will practice peace and not being afraid
  • God wants to talk with me. I will practice listening to Him and talking with Him
  • God always forgives. I will practice forgiving myself and others
  • I feel blessed with this Good News. I will practice being thankful and celebrating moments
  • God has a story of love. He tells it through us. I will practice partnering with Him to bring it to others

At first sight it is maybe hard to find fault with this. But where does it come from? What is it based on? Where is the underlying authority for such statements? How are they defined? When you actually look at the list, there is nothing specifically Christian about it. There is nothing of Christ in it.  I am curious why his name is not mentioned. Is it because, in this creed, Jesus is unnecessary and redundant?  The “Good news” seems to be that “God always forgives”. He will forgive anyway. “It’s his job” as someone has said. If this is an example of where the “Non-goers” movement leads then it is not just alarming it is potentially very dangerous.

If you have read this far you, may not agree, but you will understand why I am concerned.

This is only my take. Go and read it yourself and see what you think and if you disagree let me know.

Crawford Mackenzie

Meeting Hans

amsterdam 2The only award I ever won in Architecture was as a student in my final year at college in 1972. It was an annual prize awarded by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland for a design completed within a day. Without any hint of false modesty, I am convinced I only won it because the competition was itself so poor and most of the others were diligently concentrating on the push towards their finals. I was cavalier enough to think that I could afford the time-off to do it.  With the prize money and as newlyweds we were able to make our first trip to the continent of Europe on a student charter flight to Amsterdam.  It was a city of red lights and hippies, bicycles and cafes, canal houses and neckgables, with families eating, reading and socializing on the steps down to the street in the late afternoon sun, and everywhere that delicious smell of cigar smoke. It was at once an enchanting place full of light and learning. It seemed to be the epicentre of European liberal civilisation and culture.  The pretext of the visit was to investigate and write something about the planning of the old city and by a chance encounter, I was introduced to someone who gave me access to a university library and so I found enough material to write a short dissertation and thus fulfil my obligation to the awarding body. On the Sunday we went looking for a church and found the English speaking church in the centre of the Begijnhof green. It turned out to be affiliated to the Church of Scotland. After listening to a dreary sermon on butterflies and being kind to sheep we mingled over coffee in the hall.  There we met a young American student called Chip Carter clutching a copy of “Europe on 5 dollars a day” who in turn introduced to us a couple from the States, on their honeymoon, doing Europe, on a good bit more than 5 dollars a day. Our new found friends exuded the super confidence that we lacked and so we tagged along with them for the rest of the day, visiting the Van Gogh museum and skulking at the back in in embarrassment, when they insisted on asking every resident for directions in very loud English. It paid off, however, and in the evening we found a tiny evangelical church in a nondescript district of the city where we were told Hans Rookmaker worshipped.

Hans Rookmaker was a professor of history of art at the Free University of Amsterdam and wrote “Modern art and the death of a culture” It was a seminal work and played a significant part in my understanding of faith, philosophy, reality, art, the modern world and their mutual relationship. It sorted out my ideas on these subjects and helped me sharpen my thoughts on how architecture fitted into the grand scheme of things.  In the college studios during the sixties there was no clear way forward and a confusion of philosophies (1). Some still held to the principles of design “commodity, firmness and delight” credited to Vitruvius and the historical critical method of Reyner Banham. The modern movement had run out of steam and we were crippled by the restrictions of the “form follows function” philosophy. In this discipline, there was no room for decoration or delight. Inevitable everything had to be justified in terms of utility and cost so no curves, no awkward shapes, no expensive materials, no elaborate constructions, just follow the basic requirements of the building and beauty would automatically arise. If it didn’t, it wasn’t your fault.  Among my fellow students, Brutalism still had a strong following but some of my close friends were beginning to flirt with post-modernism.  While Hans Rookmaker seldom mentioned architecture, it was his analysis of the state of art in the 20c which opened a door in my mind and threw an enormous light into an otherwise murky interior. It is hard to describe how inspirational that was.  Suddenly the parts belonged to the whole, God was as much interested in the means as the end and beauty meant more than utility.

The service in the drab school hall was in Dutch and mainly lost on us but we felt welcomed all the same, at home and able to share in the worship.  After the service we were ushered over to meet the great man, our American friends enthusiastically holding aloft their copy of the volume for signature. “And this is Crawford – he’s from Scotland he’s read your book” The old professor, already lighting up his pipe, was bemused, didn’t want to be photographed and swiftly made a sharp exit, all the while pretending that he couldn’t  speak English.  The pastor, however, was more willing to interact socially and invited us to his home in an apartment far out on the edge of the city.  This was a massive scheme of modern apartment blocks and setting for the notoriously famous “Blue movie”. We enjoyed a lovely evening chatting over delicious potato salad and watermelon with a crate of Amstel Pils bought from a neighbour and the air soon thick with cigar smoke. The children were playing with a brightly coloured rubber toy.  In a crazy sequence of connections, it turned out to be a prop from the set of David Lean’s “Ryans daughter”, where the children tease the village idiot over the lobster he had caught and it is thrown around in the crowd. In the film it is perfectly realistic.  Handling and playing with the toy you could see why. But all of the connections were beginning to take too many bizarre turns and we had had quite enough excitement for one day, so we found our way back into the city, to our little room high up in a canal house in the Jordaan district. Hans Rookmaker was to speak at a conference in Scotland some years later but he died quite suddenly and so I was never able to hear him in the flesh.

But it didn’t matter, I had his book and other writings and now more than forty years later, reading again the well-thumbed volume, I find that it has lost none of its relevance and I can feel again the thrill and excitement of a new discovery and the possibility of more.

Crawford Mackenzie

Note

1 To be fair it was not all confusion. James Macaulay’s lectures on architectural history were inspirational. Looking back was the best way of making sense of where we were, so that we could begin to chart a way forward.

 

Book Review

I was asked to review a book recently.  It was not for publication or distribution but a friend, who I care about,  had simply asked me to read and comment on a book she had read which had made a big impact on her.  She didn’t say if the impact was negative or positive, so I was given a clean slate and approached it with an open mind.

I have to confess that I don’t read a lot and am amazed by friends who can devour several books in a day, who carry a pile with them on holidays and have their kindles loaded up with, what seems like, whole libraries. The little I read tends to be more in the non-fiction than in the fiction section and I often re-read books a number of times. I am also a slow reader. My English teacher, at school, tried to teach me to skim read but I never learned and now I don’t want to. I prefer to savour the language and the thought and to remember the phrasing and give time for the ideas to sink in. So this was a special and a tough task.

The book was not new. It was first published in 1995 and is reputed to be an international best seller, but it was one of the worst books I have ever read. The writer claims to have had a revelation or series of revelations over some years, directly from God, in which god speaks in everyday language with words of wisdom, stories and humour, contemporary references and many quoted words and verses, mainly from the Bible.  But unlike other recognisable forms of literature, with parables, myths and allegory etc, this writer clearly wants the reader to believe that it was in fact God who was speaking directly to him. This is made clear in the introduction.  “It happened to me” he says “I mean that literally” and “it was for everyone and had to be published”. He describes it as “gods latest word on things”.  Now I have known and heard of many people who claim to have heard God speaking directly to them and I have no reason to doubt that these have been true and real experiences but, in each case, God was speaking to the individual and usually over something specific like a decision or a direction or a calling. In this book, the writer maintains that God is not only speaking directly to him but charges him with telling the message, spreading the word to others and specifically to do this by writing the books, of which there are three. “You will make of this dialogue a book, and you will render my words accessible to many people. It is part of your work”  If he is to be believed and if he is accurately reporting what God was saying, then the Bible is deeply flawed from beginning to end and Jesus was either deluded, mad or simply a fraud.

It would not be difficult to catalogue the ridiculous, bizarre and contradictory claims that are made throughout the book, but here are just some of them:

1)      There is no right or wrong only love and fear

2)      God is not the creator he is merely the observer

3)      There was no such thing as the ten commandments

4)      There is no sin

5)      There was no need for sacrifice

6)      There is no heaven

7)      There is no hell

8)      There is no devil

9)      Self is all there is

10)   We are gods or in the process of becoming gods

11)   Jesus is a master on a level with Krishna and Buddha.

12)   All the gospel writers lived and wrote their accounts long after Jesus had died

13)   We only suffer because we chose to. At any moment we could stop suffering. We could be healed, we could be perfectly at peace and happy if we chose to be.

I can well understand why people would be drawn to this book especially if they have been hurt, disillusioned or damaged in some way with organised religion. It would make them feel better about themselves but so would morphine or heroin or alcohol, for a time. The book is poison.

On the cover, were a number of review quotes. From the Mail on Sunday; “An extraordinary book“ I couldn’t put it down”.

It was extraordinary; I couldn’t get it into the bin fast enough.

Crawford Mackenzie