Fundamentally Surprised

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

This past week, I read Frank Schaeffer’s newest book, “Why I Am An Atheist Who Believes in God.”   Those who read [D]mergent on a regular basis know that earlier this week J.C. Mitchell in his article, “Actions Speak Louder Than Doctrine” wrote of his appreciation for Schaeffer’s book.  I have the same positive sentiment.  With an honesty that is beautiful, Schaeffer speaks of that place where I think many people live. In-between times of belief and disbelief, times of faith and doubt.

A brief history for those who don’t know who Schaeffer is.  He is the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, well-known figures in the Christian fundamentalist movement.  Francis and Edith believed that the Bible was literally true in every aspect and thus “inerrant.”  Correct doctrinal belief was sought along with a strict moral code.  Frank Schaeffer, in his younger years, was likewise a darling of the American Christian Right.  Overtime, however, Frank could no longer hold to the fundamentalist theology that had been taught to him.  It did not balance with the world that he experienced.   He has not left the church.  For the past quarter century he has worshipped in an Eastern Orthodox congregation.  He prays every day and he finds in Jesus, if it is to be found anywhere, what God is really like.  His book is an honest acknowledgement that he lives in the paradox of belief and disbelief.

I have a deep appreciation for his book especially as it helped prepare me for a recent encounter.  Though Frank writes that his parents were “deluded by their fundamentalist certainties,” he also writes that they did not always live up to their fundamentalist doctrine which sometimes ended up being for the good.  He wrote about his mom.

She thought that to follow Jesus meant declaring every word of the Bible is literally true. My mother affirmed this belief, again and again and again. . . .Luckily for people she helped, my mother was glorious inconsistent.  She lived according to the more enlightened parts of the Bible and ignored the rest. For instance no matter what she claimed the Bible taught about homosexuality, Mom acted as if being born gay was just another way to be human.  She provided refuge, love and compassion to many gay men and lesbians at L’Arbi, long before the secular world began to acknowledge that gay people are normal and healthy.

Dad and Mom had a lesbian couple living in our chalet for several years in the early 70’s.  One was Dad’s secretary, the other Mom’s helper.  They shared a room. Fortunately, my parents were hypocritical and acted as if, no matter their official religious absolutes, the higher call was to ignore what the Bible said in favor of what they hoped it meant. . . The result was that Francis and Edith Schaeffer were nicer than their official theology.”

The statement that his parents could be nicer than their official theology was in my mind recently during a meeting I attended.  A local minister in our community has been spearheading a good faith effort to bring together congregational leaders and helping organizations with the hope of better addressing the issue of poverty in our community.  The goal is for us to begin working together not only to meet immediate needs, but also to address some of the systemic issues that perpetuate a culture of poverty.  It is an honorable effort and a conversation that I am glad to be part of. 

At our last meeting, we had about a dozen people representing different congregations with various theological perspectives, along with several helping agencies, including our local family shelter.  It is the only family shelter in a five county area.  The shelter has both emergency housing for short-term immediate needs and long-term transitional housing.  Fifteen years ago, the congregation I presently serve was instrumental in the development of this shelter.  Presently, the interim director is a member of my church.   When it came time for her to share about the work of the family shelter, she began my saying, “When we say family we mean families of all different shapes, sizes and configurations, including same-sex couples.”  I held my breath.  I knew that at least three of the congregations represented at that table would have a very conservative understanding concerning same-sex relationships. I was waiting for the meeting to explode and for folks to walk away from the table.  I didn’t hear another word the shelter director said.  I was watching with great intensity the faces of all those around the table.  I was sure this meeting was going nowhere.  To my great surprise, nothing happened.  I’m ready for somebody to be pounding the table and telling us that there is no way they can be part of this conversation and the promotion of “that lifestyle.”  But what I saw was everyone at the table, except me, paying close attention to what was being said.  There was no explosion.   And when the shelter director was done talking, I was surprised at the next person who spoke and what he said.   It was a person I would have pegged as the most conservative one there.  He is the pastor of a church that once had on its sign “This Sunday: What God’s Word Really Says About Same-Sex Marriage.”   The congregation he serves has a middle school and high school.  I know a family who sent one of their children there.  I know how conservative this family is.  The mom told me, “It’s kind of strange to be at a place where we are considered the liberals.”   

But when this conservative pastor of this conservative congregation spoke after listening to the director of the family shelter where same-sex couples are treated like everyone else, what he said touched me deeply.  He said, “We are grateful for what you do.  Because you do good work there.”  After he said that, I immediately thought of Frank Schaeffer’s words that I had read earlier in the week about his parents, they were “nicer than their official theology.

Like Frank, and so many others, I have made a journey away from the fundamentalism that was part of my early walk in faith.  Through my studies, experiences in my own life, and lessons I have learned as a pastor, I have found that theology and way of understanding the Bible to be a house of cards that can collapse very quickly.  I also have seen that way of understanding the Christian faith do a lot of damage to people as it heaps upon them unattainable ideas of perfection both in behavior and belief, ideas which ultimately collapse into overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.   

Though I have come to a point in my life when I have been able to dismiss that way of understanding the Christian faith, I need to be very careful and not dismiss all the folks who still think that way.  Whenever they are willing to sit down at a table with me and work on an important matter like addressing the root causes of poverty, I need to be willing to sit down with them.  I’ve learned recently both in print and by experience that people can be nicer than their theology.  There are folks who can still be motivated more by Jesus’ compassion than their understanding of God’s judgment.  I was “fundamentally surprised” by what I experienced at the community meeting on poverty and for God’s surprising ways I am grateful.