July 2009


  • Edit (Jan 20, 2010): Six months after the fact, this post still seems to get a lot of traffic, which is why I feel I should explain that the objections I raised in this post are no longer objections I hold. Just keep that in mind as you read it, and pray for continued grace and understanding on my part.

In Christian circles, there are two basic narrative takes on church history.

The first is that some time after the apostles died the church in general took a turn for the worse, and that the protestant reformation did a lot of corrective work for that.

The second is that following the death of the apostles, the church stayed steady and random groups with bad ideas broke off from the church, some small and some quite large, but because of its physical and spiritual ties to the apostles and their teachings via apostolic succession, the church remained steady and maintained the apostolic faith.  (Who is that group, be it Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox is still up for debate, of course.)

Until yesterday, I was fully prepared to accept that second proposition, thanks in part to the mess the whole of American Christianity has become and in part because, even after dropping the supposition of apostolic succession, I believe that dogma is necessary.

But there’s one big flaw in the Orthodox worldview that stops me: the idea that the Orthodox Church is the only church, and all other Christians are — to borrow a phrase from the Roman Catholics, who believe the same thing — ecclesial communities.

(There are several smaller issues, as well, such as, how do we know the saints can hear us?)

I know where the Orthodox and Catholics are coming from, both theologically and historically when they make their claims about being the Church, but to say, “The Bible says the Church is one, therefore the true Church can only be tied to one ecclesiastical structure” — I can’t do it.

I can’t look at a body of believers, wherever two or three are gathered, and say, “Nope, you guys are not part of the Church.” That’s a deal breaker, and it is absolutely gut-wrenching.

Sunday, when I was in my evangelical church contemplating becoming Orthodox, I began to grow more and more uneasy to the point of nausea about the thought, especially considering Orthodoxy’s claims about itself. After all, it’s not like becoming Orthodox is the same thing as becoming Methodist.

I still long for a connection to the ancient Church, and still can’t really endorse a cowboy-ish “me and my Bible” approach to things with no regard for the mind of the early church, who were, as the Orthodox and Catholics point out, the disciples of the disciples.

I think Orthodoxy has done a tremendous job of preserving the post-apostolic and patristic spirituality of the church, and I think Orthodox worship —patterned after the heavenly worship in the book of Revelation — is beautiful.

But I don’t think Orthodoxy is the church, and I can’t accept that them having a line of bishops  (some of whom were, ahem, heretics) all the way back to the apostles automatically regiments the majority of Christendom, including myself, to the status of Christians outside the Church.

Also, as someone who has read just enough Church history to be really dangerous, I have a problem with the idea that the Church is protected by a charism of infallibility.

So where does that put me now?

I am staying with my church (which is, warts and all, filled with people  I love), and holding a sort of third version of the two readings of history I presented earlier, one that can be termed “essentially Orthodox” — I believe in something akin to Holy Tradition (albeit broadly defined and somewhat muted without apostolic succession), shaped by the patristic mind of the early church but keeping in mind that, just like scripture, you can make the early Church fathers say whatever you want when taken out of context.

So, basically where I was.

About a week ago, I watched the film Henry Poole is Here, starring Luke Wilson, Radha Mitchell and George Lopez. It’s not the greatest thing ever produced, but it’s managed to stick with me for one simple reason — it affirms miracles in the material world, and it does so without irony or hidden agenda.

In the movie, Henry Poole is dying, and has decided to spend out his days in an unfurnished house drinking himself to oblivion. But someone did a crappy job putting new stucco on the house before he moved in, and an oddly shaped water stain forms on the back of the house.

It is not long before his devout, Hispanic Catholic neighbor notices that it looks an awfully lot like…you guessed it, Jesus.

Henry doesn’t think so. He chases off trespassing pilgrims and scrubs the wall with bleach. It doesn’t work.

Eventually, the stain begins to weep tears of what appears to be blood (later in the movie, the Catholic church tests the blood and finds it to be authentic). People who touch it are healed, and when Henry mentions that he hasn’t touched the stain himself, his neighbor — who doesn’t know he’s dying — replies, “But you will.”

A girl who was mute following a traumatic event speaks and a legally blind woman’s eyesight is cured, but Henry is unconvinced. At one moment in the film, Henry — weeping and wanting to live — stands with his fingers outstretched to the stain but can’t find the faith to actually touch it.

Eventually, it’s too much. The girl cured of muteness seemingly reverts, and Henry becomes so enraged at the crowds for their simple faith that he takes a sledgehammer and smashes the shrine they have built at the base of the stain before taking out the wall itself.

It’s at this point that his disease — unnamed during the film —seemingly catches up with him, and as he stumbles, he touches a piece of the rubble that was once a holy water stain in his stucco. Then, because his sledgehammer attack undermined its structure, the entire wall collapses on top of him.

When he awakes in the hospital, Henry is cured. One character seems to assume that a medical mistake was made in his diagnosis, but his Catholic neighbor is convinced otherwise.

The movie ends with Henry unsure of what has happened, not knowing if he was the victim of a medical mistake or the recipient of a bona fide healing.

The viewer, however, knows what has happened, and the film makes no pretense that the miracles were about perception — after all, what about the blind girl?

The film is set in the context of Catholic folk miracles, and so you have to take it with a grain of salt, but the movie never takes a moment to laugh at them — at the pilgrims who light vigil candles at the stain, yes, but not at the miracles associated with it.

A lot of Christians will affirm that the material world can be miraculous, but many would hesitate to affirm this beyond the neo-gnostic idea that what makes prayer cloths (or anything else) holy is that they have been blessed with prayer — in other words, that something spiritual has been done to them. Henry Poole is Here, however, affirms in its own way that God can and does interact with creation in ways we do not understand, that are, ahem, mysterious.

The other remarkable thing about this film is that, for its religious content, it was not marketed to the religious and has no pretentious religious overtones. I prefer the subtler message of Henry Poole is Here to anything produced by Sherwood Pictures any day of the week.

The film was rated PG for a few instances of profanity and because Henry spends the first half of the movie drinking vodka straight from the bottle.

I’m kind of at a juncture in my life right now, and it’s got me evaluating a few things.

  • During my formative years, I was a member of an evangelical church. Not everything was perfect, but on the whole it was good to me and for me, and I was baptized there. No matter where I go, I do not think I will be able to shake some of the conditioning that comes with being raised in a certain church or tradition.
  • At one time, I thought the Reformed worldview answered all of life’s questions, but now I feel like it reduces salvation down to a matter of math. I have a hard time not viewing it through some of the caricatures from which I used to adamantly defend it. I realize that Calvinism is logical, structured, systematic and proof-texted — I just don’t believe it anymore. 
  • But I still love the churches I attended when I was at that juncture in my life, and they, too, were not only good for me but in a couple of instances probably saved my life. I will also likely carry the zeal for hard truth I picked up while a Calvinist.
  • I can’t believe I ever took theonomy as seriously as I did.
  • I don’t believe embracing mystery and legitimate mysticism are excuses to stop pursuing knowledge, and neither is submitting to a hierarchical ecclesiology.
  • Every day for the last six months I have prayed God will preserve me from error, no matter where I go.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.