In the Covenant: Curiosity Wed to Certainty

Image may contain: 8 people, including Robert Rife, Erica Cox, Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and Dave Bonselaar, people smiling, people standing and indoor
Covenant Theology classmates – partners in curiosity and certainty

I’ve spent a lot of time seeking. Looking. Perusing. Questioning. And then smiling when I found what I was looking for (or thought I was looking for), whining when I didn’t. Either way, I loved the pursuit.

I am at root a ridiculously curious guy. A poster-boy seeker. The entire world is fascinating to me in some way. As a kid I collected everything from rocket and dinosaur models to rocks, books, musical instruments, record albums (remember those?), jade things, Scotland trinkets and memorabilia, maps, miniature totem poles, strange friends, and much more. I was fascinated by astronomy, theoretical physics, geology, ornithology, folklore and mythology, quantum mechanics, languages and cultures, world religions, time travel, metaphysics, and the funky ideas of weird people.

I never doubted the universe was a grand, spacious, and basically good place. It was a veritable playground of cool stuff to discover; full of mystery and mayhem and magic and material to gaze upon and wonder. I saw God everywhere. And I believed God saw me. We had a thing. Buddies. It was a sort of comfort between two schoolyard pals with utter trust for one another.

I knew no theology, at least in any book learnin’ way. I had no language with which to describe this experience, this thirst. My discoveries of the world gave me all the words I needed to understand what hidden hands might have molded it all into being. I was perfectly happy just being curious and finding out stuff on an as needed basis. With anything close to an answer, I was gifted with a hundred new and better questions that got me started all over again.

That curiosity grew into something rather epic by the time I made it to high school. A gangly, broody, class-clowny, artsy guy, I was clever enough to hang out with most kids. But, I was more interested in the periphery. It was one great social experiment. Like a chameleon, I changed to suit my environment and, like a sponge, soaked up all I could. 

I hung out everywhere. Belonged nowhere. It was fun. It was lonely. It was confusing. But, it all led somewhere. I was about to make a huge discovery, perhaps the biggest yet. Christianity. Not God necessarily. I knew God already. Well, someone I believed to be God. I suppose I met God, specified in Jesus; Jesus, housed in the church.

At first it was deliriously wonderful. I made the assumption, perhaps erroneously, that I was finally among kindred spirits with whom I might share the wonders I’d seen in the visible world. More so, perhaps this was where all my fellow curiousers were to be found. My peeps. This was to prove only partly true.

Those early days were full of acquiescing to the authority of church teaching and the closely protected parameters into which it was meant to be understood. I gobbled it up like I had everything else. My gigantic study bible became a holy junk-drawer for copious margin notes, underlining, highlighting, circling, questions to pursue, books and articles for further study. The Internet would have been handy back then!

Life became about not just consistent, but constant, church attendance. It was bible studies, prayer meetings, small group discussions, college and career cookouts and church campouts, discipleship training, evangelism training, and learning all those Christian songs I had no idea even existed. Friendships that once mattered now were to be discarded in the interest of holier pursuits. My extensive collection of apparently demonic record albums, totem poles, t-shirts, and socio-cultural ideas were summarily hurled into the salvation garbage bin. My life was changed. I knew it. Everyone around me knew it.

A problem began to present itself, however. Once one had a good enough handle on the manual for this Christian thing there seemed little left over for my curiosity, which only continued to grow. It grew well beyond the subject matter of my recent conversion.

I was still fascinated by other religions. Jesus was the only way. Alrighty, toss that.

Spirituality and metaphysics. Hellish new age nonsense. Okay, ditch that.

The far-flung reaches of space and the cosmos. Five days in the making. One for us. One left over to catch his breath. A few thousand years old. Headed for destruction. Fair enough, moving on.

My numerous artsy, gay friends with whom I’d always shared life and laughter. Distracted and damned, respectively. Hmm. Now what?

As I’ve grown older in years and wisdom (c’mon, work with me here), I’ve come to see that much of what passed for faith in my experience was saddled up to a rather small donkey called Evangelicalism. To be fair, that little steed was more accurately called Fundamentalism. But, as I’ve walked this faith road now for some thirty-five years, the former is, sadly, well suited to bed itself with the latter.

Why? One word: certainty. Well, one more word: information. For the post-Reformation, contemporary Evangelical, theology is the equivalent to the right information in pursuit of certainty of salvation. My problem? I’m not really interested in certainty. And, for me, information alone doth not wonder bring. I’m less interested in being a dictionary than I am a children’s pop-up book, full of surprises and gurgles of joy.

This is my longstanding love-hate relationship with Evangelicalism, at least as I’ve come to experience it. To overstate my case, it is like the cosmos being shoved through an eye-dropper. The vastness of God stuffed into a propositional, mechanistic framework designed for pragmatic outcomes. Like writing a paper about sex without ever getting laid.

The intervening years have seen my spiritual journey take me on a wild ride through numerous faith iterations and denominational platforms. I discovered, to my chagrin, that, again, I hung out everywhere, belonged nowhere. It was no less baffling than any other pursuit. At least, in some of those settings, hearty questions – many without good “answers” – were encouraged.

Theology that doesn’t breed curiosity is merely ideology with God words affixed to it. It is platitudinous porridge that shows all its ingredients at once in a quaint, glass bowl. If my only aim is to say some creed from memory and attach that to my existential experience of the cosmos, then religion isn’t for me. I’d rather just be a euphoria-seeking hippy who prefers singing to studying, casual running to constant repenting. At least “God” is big enough to handle my doubts, questions, fears, heresies, and all the rest that comes with being human.

Then, I met the Covenant. Well, the Evangelical Covenant Church to be specific. A spunky little group of exceedingly friendly folks (they were originally called Mission Friends) who love the bible, Jesus, personal conversion narratives, culture and justice, a broadly-lived gospel, and the freedom to disagree. Then, as a bonus, I discovered their love for good beer, wine, laughter, connection, and passion for peace in the family. And, better still, the overweening requirement of picture-perfect theology generally expected in denominational religioso, gives way to the well-lived in shoes of narrative theology. Questions that belie quick quips are tossed about like hacky-sacks. But, they never wander far from the few simple items which unite them.

So, in my journey of questioning everything, accepting little as definitive except the asking itself, I can still be more curious than certain. Or, stated differently, I’m certain enough of the main things to be footloose and fancy-free in the cosmos-at-large. The whole bibliocentric Evangelicalism thing is old for me. I think it will always feel like an ill-fitting hat, holding TV personality hair at bay.



But, if that is where I’m to live and move and have my being, then I can think of no better place to do so than the Covenant.

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North Park University, Chicago – ECC book learnin’ headquarters

When rightness trumps goodness: theology and Rob Bell

As part of my master’s degree, we were recently asked to reflect on the ways in which we seek to live an integrated life: our theology and spirituality. Oh goody, a favorite question! My thoughts…

I’ve watched with both fascination and consternation the utter nonsense surrounding the newly released Rob Bell book, “Love Wins” as the doctrine cops race out of the starting gate, Bibles in hand, barking like rabid dogs at any hint of theology that in any way falls outside their miniscule parameters.

I know a ton of atheists, agnostics, and ass-holes whose theology gleams like the sun on the windshield. Jesus did, too. They were called Pharisees. They were those who held the keys to heaven and hell, blessing and curse, whether you were in or out, good or bad. In fact I seem to remember reading somewhere, “the demons also believe and shudder” – oh yeah, the Bible. Merely saying the right stuff out of a head full of all the right stuff doesn’t make us the right stuff.

The early theologians were more concerned that bad theology would corrupt good character. Theology as it is often lived out in contemporary terms is an exercise in “right” ideas, character be damned. In fact, in our rush to prove one another wrong, we display the very bad character that good theology seeks to redirect. We become the very demons we strive so assiduously to exorcise.

Moreover, I fear that the American cult of nationalist conservatism/moralistic ideology has hijacked Christianity in our culture. What passes for the gospel is too often a fundamentalist Puritanism that relishes in telling all of us how wrong (liberal, apparently, by default) we all are. Believe this stuff, and then give up pretty much anything that would ruffle our plumes ‘n feathers in the Victorian tea ‘n sympathy society.

Jesus risked living life with the ever present possibly of being misunderstood. Guess what? He was. He told his friends cool stories while taking walks and loved to be the life of the party. He quoted Old Testament poetry. He would never make it past the front door of our well-heeled, respectable, doctrinally correct churches. The ushers would escort out the street guy who stunk like wine and fish and refused to keep his mouth shut about disputable things.

I’m a musician. Musicians learn scales like Christians should learn theology – to forget them. The point is the music. Theology lies hidden, like the trout swimming just below the surface of the water, which is the peaceful beauty we see. They not only live in concert together but are utterly dependent upon one another. The water needs the fish to add a practical context to the beauty it possesses. It will yield something wonderful to those who seek. The fish requires the water for life and survival. Without it, it lives for but a moment and then perishes.

This, my friends, is what happens when the church becomes an edifice, protected rather than a garden, planted. This is what happens when being right trumps being good. This is what happens when we disavow grace in favor of controlling who’s in and who’s out. When our theology is divorced from life changing practice, i.e. orthodoxy without orthopraxy, we become headhunters rather than lovers of our brothers and sisters. The beauty of Christian theology rightly understood is that it is ultimately only a scaffolding for the cathedral of our souls under construction. It is the skeleton upon which the meat of our existence adheres and grows.

All of that to say this: I’d rather be judged for having compassion without holiness than holiness without compassion; for being more righteous than right; more glad than sad; more inclusive than exclusive; more truth-“filled” than “truth”-full; more understanding than understood; more gracious than corrective and, to quote Anne Lamott, more “Jesusy” than “Christian.” I want weirdos in the Church. Too many ties. Too few beanies. Too many BMWs. Too few skateboards. Too many businessmen. Too few radicals. Too much tidy. Too little messy. Too much church. Too little Jesus.

Despite obvious frustration over these matters, I love the Church in all her hypocrisy. I share in this hypocrisy. It has meant a willingness on my part not to enter into blogospheric theological debate, preferring instead to seek out relationships. It has also meant handing over my ministry, my music, my values, my long-term direction and everything else over to God in a posture of trust. I fear a day of reckoning is coming to the Church in North America when many of us will be revealed as those more committed to party line ecclesiastical politics than to an ethic of love. We’ll probably be blamed for being a weak-kneed kumbaya liberals who don’t “stand for anything.”

That’s alright – what that meant to Jesus wasn’t winning arguments. It meant dying at the hands of his own people. In the end love wins. And that’s the truth.

Just another online blowhard…R