Monday, January 12, 2009

Underhill vs. Mars Hill

I ran across a piece about the British writer and retreat leader Evelyn Underhill on the Episcopal Cafe website. The post was written by one of our professors at Big Old Seminary, the poet Kathleen Henderson Staudt. Whether it was serendipity or the working of the Holy Spirit, or both, it was a gift. Staudt cited Underhill on the topic "What is the Church For?" and included a marvelous quote:

"The Church is in the world to save the world. It is a tool of God for that purpose; not a comfortable religious club established in fine historical premises. Every one of its members is required, in one way or another, to cooperate with the Spirit in working for that great end: and much of this work will be done in secret and invisible ways. We are transmitters as well as receivers. Our contemplation and our action, our humble self-opening to God, keeping ourselves sensitive to his music and light, and our generous self-opening to our fellow creatures, keeping ourselves sensitive to their needs, ought to form one life, mediating between God and His world, and bringing the saving power of the Eternal into time."

I needed that reminding, that affirmation, because I've spent the last few hours grinding my teeth over an article in Sunday's New York Times magazine about the Mars Hill Church in Seattle and its pastor, Mark Driscoll. Driscoll is a self-identified neo-Calvinist who leads a Gen-Y/ Millenial church that makes Jesus into a tough-guy, macho smackdown specialist, decrying mainstream churches as putting forth a vision of Christ as "a neutered, limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture." His language is strong and often homophobic, he doesn't believe women should preach (for that matter, he thinks all women should be subservient to their men), and he doesn't brook disagreement from his flock.

As I thought about what has been bothering me about this article, and about this pastor, I found myself thinking about Matt 25:33-45. The sheep and the goats. What we're supposed to be doing, as individuals and as Christian community. You know, the whole "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison" thing.

And that was what was missing in this Mars Hill Church, at least as the Times piece described it. Everything was about this community justifying itself and its pastor, as he defined justification. No one turned outward. No one seemed to be doing "good works." And it all reminded me so much of the writing of Robert Bellah in his classic "Habits of the Heart," written in the eighties about religion and individualism in America. Bellah talked about people who defined their own church based upon their own religious beliefs in a way that seemed self-serving, as I read the book. Although Driscoll claims his church is about Calvin, it really seems to be more like what Bellah described as "The Church of Sheila," the unique religion that one of his subjects developed to honor her own spirituality.

Mars Hill feels like the Church of Mark to me.

And that takes me back to Evelyn Underhill, because it's useful to remember what focusing on Christ's words does when one tries to define the purpose of the church.

As Underhill says, the church is not a social club, it's a tool for God's work in the world. Whether it is through prayer and practices of piety, or through the works of our hands, church is not about us. It is about God's saving work. It is about Christ's words in the Gospel, and about living out those words.

I doubt it's about Mark Driscoll, as much as he would like people to believe that it is.

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