Skilled Christianity

I've been blogging for over six years, and if you've been with me from the beginning you may have detected a change in the tone and tenor of this blog.

In the early years this blog seemed much more doubt-filled. But over time it has seemed to some of my friends that the blog has grown more faithful and apologetical. In the early years my tone toward Christianity was more aggressive and attacking, the voice of an outsider (though coming from an insider). In recent years my tone is more insider trying to show how Christianity might be "held together." I've been trading in criticism for something more constructive. And I have to admit that my faith over the last six years has been bolstered by a variety of things. Some highlights:
My rediscovery of prayer in The Book of Common Prayer.

Reading the bible with the damned (to borrow Bob Ekblad's phrase) in my experiences with Freedom Fellowship and the prison bible study I lead.

My discovery of theologians and saints over the last six years who have helped me reconfigure my theology (e.g., during the last sis years I discovered--or seriously engaged with--Rene Girard, William Stringfellow, Dorothy Day, Therese of Lisieux, James Alison, Orthodox theology, Arthur McGill, Christus Victor, Walter Wink, Christian anarchism, Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, Walter Brueggemann, Thomas Talbott, N.T. Wright, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Rowan Williams. I've also reconnected with influences like George MacDonald and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.)
Because of all this, I am increasingly able to "give an account" of Christianity.

But am I more faith filled?

I don't think so. I'm more faithful, perhaps, but not more faith-filled.

I'm still heterodox. I'm still wrestling with the problem of horrific suffering. I'm still struggling with doubts. I don't think any of that has changed in the background. And these things continue to shape the content of the blog. I don't think anyone would describe this blog as conservative or particularly orthodox. Day in and day out this blog is going to be unsettling to most Christians. Some things haven't much changed.

So what has changed?

I'd describe the change this way: I'm not necessarily a more faith-filled Christian, but I am a more skilled Christian.

And those two things look a whole lot alike. In fact, given how I see things, I think skill and faith should be taken as synonyms in many cases.

I don't know if I believe more, but I am more skilled in the faith. And blogging has been a big part of developing that skill.

What is this skill?

To borrow from Hauerwas, it's the skill of description. Here is how George Lindbeck describes it in his book The Nature of Doctrine:
To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.
The skill is the ability to describe my world as a Christian. The skill is the ability to use Christianity to make meaning of my experience, a uniquely Christian meaning and a meaning that gives me life and life to those with whom I come into contact. It is the skill in describing my world to allow me to experience resurrection in the midst of death's works. (And that last sentence is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.) It is the skill in using my faith to become more human and humane.

Let me give a recent example. If you are a regular reader you know I've been experimenting a great deal with the language of the demonic. In the last year or so I've talked a lot about things like demonic possession and exorcism. Which would have seemed crazy six years ago when my tone was more "scientific." But I've been experimenting with description along these lines. And some of these experiments have been pretty creative. For example, my post about the demonic in Scooby-Doo. What I've been doing in these sorts posts is experimenting with the language of the demonic in describing my experience, in making meaning of my life and as a way to find life. Similar and parallel experiments are happening with my recent interest in Christus Victor theology.

So that's what you've been noticing, for those who have noticed, over the last of six years.

My talents of description have been growing, by leaps and bounds. My faith journey is still riddled with doubt, and that still comes through. But over the years I have become increasingly more skilled in my faith.

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15 thoughts on “Skilled Christianity”

  1. Thanks, Dr. Beck.  I found ET when you were well on the way in this "birthing" process of faith.  :-)  At times, I've been slightly confused where an idea is coming from -- or going; but, I have had the sense that you put your whole heart into sharing what you know and deeply believe.  Usually I figure that, in time, I'll understand what you meant.

    As far as faith and doubts go, I think most (all -- if we will be honest with ourselves and others) of us are "works in progress."  There is struggle involved in working out what we know and then living it with all our strength.  Who of us "owns" the truth?  I admire your ongoing exploration of various theologians and Christian activists, and have benefited from the many posts here that have introduced me to people and ideas that were new to me.  I tend to be always thinking and/or asking questions.  (I don't know whether that's a blessing or a curse...  Depends on whom you ask, I guess!  I try not to "inflict" myself on others or be too offensive...  I hope I haven't been working on your last nerve.)

    To be skilled in a thing, one must study and practice.  Learn, try, maybe (probably?) fall or flat-out fail.  Pray, learn some more, try again and keep trying (pressing on).  I think of the letter to the Philippians.  Chapters 1-3.  Finally, this:

    "Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
    Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
    I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
    Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you
    think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.
    Only let us hold fast to what we have attained."  (Phil. 3:12-16, NRSV)

    The writings of the Apostle Paul may have muddied the waters of theological interpretation for us.  But, you know why I (still) love the Apostle Paul?  If you read the story (Acts, Romans, and the letters to the churches), you hear his anguish over the struggle to know and do what is true to Christ.  It's the stuff of thorns in the flesh and a burning--though seemingly thwarted--mission to get to Rome.  In the end, it works out as it should.  Just as the angel of the Lord said to Paul in prison.  Take courage, you'll be getting to Rome...eventually.  :-)

    So when I say, "Keep it real," it is an expression of gratitude from a humble reader for the courageous example of one who is willing to admit uncertainty and struggle, and a simultaneous conviction to get it right, for Christ's sake and for others, more than himself (I take it).  Certainly, if there's one thought I cling to, there is the hope of resurrection life in the long defeat -- little necessary deaths, leading up to the big finale.  It's no fun, but we endure it -- with hope.  Some days, to be honest, I need that a lot more than a kick in the butt to get me moving.  But that's not your problem.  That's my soul work to do, and the same for all the other readers...

    My three-part Walter Wink book study (Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way) started last night.  Seems like I'm in for more change and growth.  And that's all right with me.  Thank you.  ~Peace~  (or, Peace!!!)

  2. Hi, Richard. Just some feedback from what it's worth--from someone who has not been with you very long, or very consistently.

    I've been fascinated, as someone who is essentially orthodox and interested in preserving orthodoxy, that about 70% of the time what you are saying sounds like a voice from within. A voice of an orthodox Christian, describing Christianity and (of course) also fighting its abuses, as all orthodox Christians must spend at least some of their time doing.

    The other 30% of the time you sounded--heterodox. Not just that you disagreed with me. But that you really seemed to be trying to "make up" an alternative to Christianity, something new, something better. Something that would appeal to your Buddhist readers or your agnostic readers, but left me quite cold. Because however compelling your creation was, I keep deciding that I like Christianity better.

    It's odd, because in most circles I move in I'm the "progressive" or "liberal" guy. But when I look at minority voices within Christianity--pacifism, non-substitionary-atonement, universalism, or whatever--I do so as someone who basically likes the church and likes Christianity and wants to make it better. And I can't ever figure out whether you're speaking to me--or to a group who really don't like the church or Christianity at all, and are trying to invent a better alternative from it--perhaps, even, a moral high(er) ground from which you can look down at all who are evangelical, or conservative, or otherwise traditionally Christian.

    I really can't tell.

    Peace, brother.

  3. It has been such a thrill, pleasure and privilege to journey with you over the past few of those six years, and to delve back into the archives when I have a moment. I don't think any place on the web has made me think more, and also grow deeper in the Way of Jesus. I think your site has (strangely perhaps) given me a greater intolerance. I just can't stand the crap of much of christian culture nowadays, and feel stronger about calling it for what it is. This has drawn me deeper into both the fellowship of the local church and the service of the poor and the sick. The price of becoming a member of the community that meets below the line of your posts has been considerable, but has been infinitely enriching. Here's to the next six years of us all becoming collectively more skilled in the way together. Thank you Richard.

  4. So engagement (practice), not analysis (belief) is now more of your focus. I'm going to quote a bit of James on why humans pray, and then ask a question.

    "...the emotion that beckons me on is indubitably the pursuit of an ideal social self, of a self that is at least worthy of approving recognition by the highest possible judging companion, if such a companion there be.

    "This judge is God... We hear, in these days of scientific enlightenment, a great deal of discussion about...prayer; and many reasons are given us why we should not pray, whilst others are given us why we should. But in all this very little is said of the reasons why we do pray, which is simply that we cannot help praying. It seems probable that, in spite of all that science may do to the contrary, men will continue to pray to the end of time, unless their mental nature changes in a manner which nothing we know should lead us to expect. The impulse to pray is a necessary consequence of the fact that whilst the innermost of the empirical selves of a man is a Self of the social sort, it yet can find its only adequate Socius in an ideal world." (Principles, Vol. I, 315-6)

    It seems to me that you've become more confident having Jesus represent your ideal "judging companion, if such a companion there be." And it seems that you've become more confident as a result of the research you've been doing, which falls broadly within the "social sciences," and so can make you more confident about what an ideal "Socius" would be. 

    So I guess I don't see practice and belief as having been separated more of late in your writing. Rather, by focusing on empirical rather than metaphysical questions, you've changed the orientation of analysis in a more practice-friendly direction. But it is because a rich and deep understanding of faith--and this is a big part of what makes you so damned interesting--seems to merge so well with the psychological research you've introduced us to. 

    My question arises because I'm not a fan of Lindbeck and the Wittgensteinian approach to religion: Is it possible that what's really changed is not that you've begun to more fully "interpret and experience [yourself] and [your] world in [Christian] terms," but to see your ideal self and world in Christian terms, through the medium of the research you've been doing?   

    In essence, I see you changing the question from "Is it true?" to "Is it right?" It seems there is a much better chance of getting a handle on the second type of question, and I thank you for taking us along for the journey of discovering that. 

  5. I am blessed and happy to have stumbled upon your blog when googling George MacDonald, one of my major influences. Since that first day I've been addicted to Exp Theology, and I thank you. What I see is someone with obviously deep and profoundly wise observations and God-inspired revelations, which many others have as well. What is different, though, is that when I try to explain these things to more conservative Christians, I struggle to find the words. You, however, find the words and paint a clear and concise picture that is easily understood, and that is what sets Exp Theology apart to me. I know what I feel is true, but I can't always back it up or explain it, and your words help tremendously to do just that.

    So long story short....yeah.....Dr Beck rocks. Okay enough flattery for the day, get back to work.

  6. Like so many others, I'm truly thankful to have found your blog, and the community you've brought together here. There's depth and humor, grace and thoughtful critique, hope and the acknowledgment of struggle/doubt/unanswered questions. Your strongest opinions never come across as denigrating or self-righteous. These are qualities I always longed to find in church, among a group of Christian friends, and never did. Only rare individuals possess these qualities.

     I got my copy of Unclean back from my longtime friend, and her response really saddened me. I asked her what she thought, and I got an avoidance response: "It was over my head." I guess Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners still offends.

  7. I've only been a regular reader of this blog for about a year and a half now, but I've gone back to read some of your series from even the first year.  I would certainly echo how you describe this transformation, and, partly because of you and the resources you point towards, I see this same thing beginning to occur in me.

    It is interesting timing for me, too, as I'm about to embark on an intellectual journey in these same matters you consider frequently on this blog.  No doubt I will find my own ways of "skill" and emphasis in making sense of everything, but I have to thank you so much for this blog and the incredible resources I've found in and through it.  Not just the ideas you consider are great, but even your original work is fantastic as well.  I hope that one day I will reach a point where we could work on something together.

    Thanks for the synoptic post, Dr. Beck.  It gives me encouragement for my own journey.

  8. Hi JLH,
    I think I like what you are saying, and it leaves me asking a few other questions.
    Firstly one about orthodoxy, which is really a question about our view of history. Is orthodoxy something that we have now, and against which we can measure the orthodox, or is orthodoxy something we’ve lost, perhaps at the Constantinian shift, maybe before or after. (this of course precludes the idea that there never was a single orthodoxy and that the early church celebrated a kind of multidoxy).
    If orthodoxy has been with us for 2,000 years then I can imagine that anything that looks a bit new or different will be suspect, but if you subscribe to the idea that orthodoxy is something we lost, to a greater or lesser degree, then novelty or innovation are exciting as they raise the prospect –  “is this one of the missing pieces?”. I think that latter experience is what I experience on this site from time to time.
    The other question you imply, is the idea, to paraphrase what I think you are saying, of a Christianity 2.0. Inherent in this is the idea that Jesus and Paul etc, gave us all the basic frameworks, and left us with the joyful task of putting flesh to the bones. In other words its impossible to do things like breaking bread, worship or evangelism “to the New Testament” model, because the New Testament doesn’t give us enough data – the most we might hope for is to do things in the spirit of the NT. Thus, as a faithful community, inspired by the Spirit, we should not be surprised if we don’t continue the developmental thrust of the earliest apostles. I would regard slavery as the easiest example of this and non-patriarchal leadership and non-heteronormative sexualities as examples of more tricky (i.e. current) ones.     
    So is the goal to make / find / re-discover something “better” than orthodox Christianity – well it all depends what you mean, but I find myself – with caution – saying yes.
    Look forward to the pushback

  9. Professor Beck, I've only rather recently discovered your blog, but I think it's great; it's certainly been a blessing to me.  I've recently started a blog of my own, hopefully to help me in a process of discernment and to provide some clarity in places where I, like you, am"struggling with doubts."  I hope you don't mind if I link your blog to my own.  Thanks again. 

  10. Thanks, Dr. Beck, for faithfully writing this blog.  I just found it about a year ago, and you have helped me stay optimistic about being able to remain faithful, while doubting and questioning constantly.  You've offered so many helpful thoughts about ways to follow Christ, even if Christianity confuses and frustrates me often.

  11. "The skill is the ability to describe my world as a Christian. The skill is the ability to use Christianity to make meaning of my experience, a uniquely Christian meaning and a meaning that gives me life and life to those with whom I come into contact. It is the skill in describing my world to allow me to experience resurrection in the midst of death's works."
    This is definitely what I feel is communicated and passed on through your blog/life. Your writings speak to motivations, culture, worldview, character and more in ways that are unique and uncommon at least for me.
    Most of all you are on a genuine journey like the rest of us, willing to change and admit doubt publicly which is just so rare these days. That opens up space for the rest of us to think and explore along with you. I hope for a day when more of this kind of dialogue can happen amongst christians. shalom.

  12.  I stumbled across your blog not long after its inception six years ago at a time in my life that the death of a college friend threw open the door to questioning and doubt, a door I'd kept only slightly ajar before. Your blog was a solace of sorts. I took comfort (and still do) in knowing other Christians wrestled with questions similar to mine.

  13.  Hi, Simon. I guess it's a matter of degrees, isn't it? Everyone I think of as "orthodox"--people like C. S. Lewis and Chesterton, Augustine and Aquinas, N. T. Wright and Dietrich Bonhoeffer--is trying to do at least four things at once: preserve the truth that is there, recover the pieces that went missing, reform the abuses, and innovate by fleshing out the many, many areas where we can appropriately build on the original "bones" of the faith.

    And all of this may be what Richard (or others here) are doing. And sometimes we'll agree with each other, and sometimes we won't, and that's fine.

    But at some point--and it's more a matter of tone than a distinct line--people don't really want to fiddle, from within, with the truth that the real church has really preserved. Whether they are talking about the "Constantinian shift" or the "Papal heresy" or the "dissolution of doctrinal integrity in American evangelicalism," what they're really saying is that they don't have to preserve or respect what the real church has really taught. Instead, they use the Christian tradition rather the way I use Peanuts cartoons--a possible source of wisdom, when we happen to agree with it, but that's about it. And they feel completely dismiss their own grandmothers and cousins and fellow church goers in a way that I would not be willing to dismiss any Christian.

    And this may not be what Richard (or others here) are doing. And even if they are, there's nothing wrong with that. It just isn't what I mean by orthodoxy, and I don't find it as persuasive or even interesting as orthodoxy.

  14. Dear Jason, I feel that the placement of your comment under mine must have been a technical snafu.  But since your comment did happen to be shown in reply to mine, and because I too have experienced deep grief which shook my faith to the core, and finally, because I too have found great comfort in the content and community at this blog, I felt drawn to acknowledge your presence and extend a welcoming word to you.

    As I listened to my beloved Clapton album, Pilgrim, this weekend, the poignancy of the lyrics struck me.  The musician wrote these songs after the death of his young son, Connor.  Clearly, from the lyrics, he experienced profound grief and a search for God and for meaning in his loss.  Listen especially to the song, "Broken-hearted" --

    Who alone will comfort you?  Only the broken-hearted...

    It is more important to be kind than to be right, and that, I think, is the essence of this blog community which has comforted and encouraged me most of all.  Skilled Christianity...the art of kindness?  The willingness and courage to be broken with and for one who is hurting?  ~Peace, friend.

  15. Over the last year...reading current and past offerings, responses and replies, I have bounced along on a road of discovery, challenge and more often than not, a reaffirmation of the necessity of skillful faith.....forcing pause, challenging an old head and warming an old heart in the often painful wonder of septuagenarian growth at the hand of a son-in-law.

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