“Everyone’s got an opinion these days about why people are leaving the church. Some wish to solve the problem by making Christianity a little more palatable – you know, cut our all the weird, mystical stuff about sin, demons, and death and resurrection, and replace it with self-help books or politics or fancy theological systems or hip coffee shops. But sometimes what the church needs most is to recover some of its weird. There’s no sense in sending her through the makeover montage of the chick flick when she’ll always be the strange, awkward girl who only gets invited to prom on a dare.” – Rachel Held Evans
In April, the Vatican announced that St. Gregory of Narek had been named as the most recent “Doctor of the Church,” a title that conveys their importance, beyond even their sainthood, to the life and thinking of the Church. That proclamation sent me back to start reading St. Gregory of Narek’s work, and it has been wonderful. It made me incredibly sad that Protestants don’t really have a way to do such a thing (even though the Anglicans have “teachers of the faith”) and that we probably haven’t spent enough time actually thinking and discerning who we might call doctors of the church, like Luther or King or Tutu.
This last week has been an odd one in the Christian world, witnessing the most recent release of the Pew Forum results on religious self-identification, which have inevitably begun the navel gazing in the mainline Protestant world. This constant lamenting or rejoicing in our current identity is a source of mild annoyance for me, but at the same time, it’s a reminder that it’s very hard to make meaningful innovation in an environment of low self-esteem and self-loathing. And man, mainliners are good at self-loathing.
Something else of note happened this last week as well: the release of Rachel Held Evans’ new book, Searching for Sunday. Which in some ways, might be the perfect book to read in light of the most recent Pew results (all say more about this in a bit). And as I have been reading it, I got to thinking: Into the many spheres of history, there always seems to appear in the history of our messy banquet of faith, doctors of the church.
And one of the things that people we have identified as doctors of the church do is to call the church back to what is beautiful in its own midst, the important things, that maybe have been lost to the allure of power or culture or relevance. They are reformers in the truest sense of the word, showing us how beautiful the Church was all along.
And one of the great things about doctors (I happen to be married to a medical one), is that it has nothing to do with always being right, but about often discovering something and having ideas that can make us healthier. And I think, just maybe, we have some of those right now, in our midst, and maybe fittingly, they’re all women.
Meet the new doctor(s) of the church: Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarah Bessey, and Rachel Held Evans.
One of the fascinating things that all these women have in common that they were reared in the evangelical world, and we’re both hurt by that world and also given a deep and abiding faith in some way by it. All three have fascinating stories, and instead of over simplifying them, you should read them yourself:
Nadia Bolz-Weber – Pastrix
Sarah Bessey – Jesus Feminist
Rachel Held Evans – Faith Unraveled
Now I’m going to have to paint in some broad strokes here, but it’s been fun to watch as many women (and some men too), even in the mainline world have begun to discover and resonate with these doctors, even in their own, self-admitted, messiness, even when their experiences in this corner of the church might be deeply different.
For me, as someone who has spent some time as a white male in the evangelical world, I find myself really compelled in my own experience by the things that they dislike in evangelicalism (anti-intellectualism, legalism, and the occasional bigotry), but also the things that they bring from that world as a critique of our own practice. This is, what for me, makes them Doctors of the Church:
1. their filled with grace, head over heels, not wish-washy love for Jesus as the unique bearer of God and the center of faith.
2. Their knowledge of Scripture as life giving and important.
3. The centrality of the Sacraments as real bearers of grace,
4. The importance of all people, regardless of biological identity (women, black, LGBT), or American political identity, or whatever identity, as beloved and central to the health of our communities.
These things, along with their distaste for worship wars and liturgical persnickety-ness, are important critiques that Millennials are repeating to us over, and over, and over, and over again. In many ways, having spent time in the evangelical world, they are and have been better able to tell us the things that we are doing well and should focus on, and the things that, you know, we should quit wasting so much energy on.
All that being said, Rachel’s book, is the first for me, and with Nadia and Sarah both having books coming out later this year, that moves out of primarily memoir, into an integration of experience, theory, and practice (and all of their first books were great).
And it’s a damn beautiful thing.
I’m still working my way through Searching for Sunday, and coming back to some things to reread, but I want to highlight the things that have pushed and taught me, because this book is teaching me. Call this an early review, if you want, but the early returns are promising.
First, it is Rachel’s experience as someone that the church didn’t deem worthy in some way, that makes her conversation about baptism and grace so damn compelling. She talks eloquently about being a woman in the church of her childhood, and the physical and theological barriers that were placed in her way, and how that connects to the Ethiopian eunuch and to a gay man that she met through her blog.
I couldn’t help but think, as a male in a church that was baptized as a male, that until I knew women and GLBT folks, about just how easy it had been for me to take the experience of grace as a given. It has never been denied me for anything I cannot change. It also makes me more weary that I was, even a couple days ago, of those that try to interpret and/or critique her experience.
Instead of either celebrating their identity as “one of us,” or critiquing them before we have fully digested what they are writing, maybe we should just sit and the feet and listen to these women for a while, because I think that God is stirring something up in them that I have been yearning for in our church for many years.
Second, Rachel’s discussion of moving to Dayton and the failure of their church plant, The Mission, was utterly honest and refreshing. Her pain over the death of that church, despite what they poured into it was palpable. What was surprising, and maybe Rachel didn’t even intend, was that I experienced a deep sense of how much she needed that Church, even though it was fleeting. In some way, the experiment of a church that looked and felt different, and really pushed everyone in new ways, was important. It led to death, and a couple of years of not being able to push the boundaries of the church, but I’m not sure that without it, that Rachel would be the writer, teacher, and sinner/saint that she is.
It seems to me that the Mission failed, but it also birthed something in its failure. And yet that grief was real.
AND THEN SHE CONFIRMS EXACTLY WHAT I WAS THINKING. In the very next chapter, she writes about how the failure did something to all of them, how it taught them, and how it was made holy by Jesus’ presence amongst them.
She writes, in reflection: “I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to gree others to do the same. Such an approach may repel the masses looking for easy answers from flawless leaders, but I think it might make more disciples of Jesus, and I think it might make happier, healthier pastors. There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. Our path is the muddier one.”
Yep. Doctor of the Church.
Rachel, and Sarah, and Nadia, know all about the endless anxiety of a church trying to maintain its relevance and cultural power in the dying times of Christendom in America. And after the Pew Forum numbers this week, that revealed just how millennial critiques might be valid, and how nominal many churches have become and how many Christians we have produced who are more interested in being right, in being sinless, and having power, I am left with one conclusion:
We need these women.
Their books are the books we need.
They are teaching us how to be human again, how to sit at the feet of the Messiah’s grace again, and they are showing us what is important and beautiful and full of grace in our own midst.
And that, is what it means to be a doctor of the church, anyways.
Now, go be a patient, and buy all of ‘em.