A few months ago, I wondered in a blog post, Shall the Fundamentalists win? We Presbyterians tend to have allergic reactions to the word “fundamentalist,” and I assumed a clear definition of “fundamentalist” without defining it. I wanted to make the argument that the fundamentalists in the church are not just biblical literalists from a bygone age, nor are they only those on the conservative side of many issues in our life together, but that fundamentalists are on both sides. Perhaps we ought to define just what kind of fundamentalism I am talking about: dogmatic certainty, a belief that truth is self-evident and obvious for anyone with a “right” worldview, that faith is more rooted in allegiance to tribe and certainty of cause than it is by a love that includes and is even changed by the existence of the other, the non-likeminded among us. Indeed, we all have fundamentalist tendencies that need God’s sanctification, don’t we?
So much of our operational mode as Presbyterian churches seems to be all too comfortable playing a role in the narrative of Caesar and finding a way to be “relevant” or to make a prophetic statement or pull out in the context of and on the terms of American culture or our own tribal echo chambers. Does our fundamentalist obsession with Caesar and our contentment to live so comfortably within Caesar’s definition of reality not obscure our witness on both sides, more so than all the internal issues that divide us as a church? Whether we fancy ourselves as cutting-edge progressives or committed culture warriors or evangelically-oriented traditionalists, don’t we all seem to fight our battles and encamp in our tribes more on the terms of Western society or American culture or the dominant ideologies of Caesar? We are all too content to let Caesar define the terms and define us and believe that the will of God is obvious to all in the ways Caesar defines power or justice or certainty or truth.
Weirdly, one place to go where the narrative of Caesar seems a lot more relativized and a lot less central than it does in all the various camps within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and beyond is… Scripture. God’s life with Israel unfolds, not in the cultural, social and geo-political epicenter of the world, but in the backwater places with a people barely on Caesar’s radar – except when there was a bit of revolutionary trouble or unrest.
A manger and cattle shed, a peasant rabbi from a backwater village in the backwater land. Not an obvious choice or an obvious way to speak truth to power, to be relevant to the movers and shakers in Rome or even in Jerusalem, to change the course and end of all history. The entry of Jesus Christ into the world is not an obvious change in narrative or a transformational event in the life of Caesar or the culture or any of the world powers. Jesus was not a household name to all the first century chasers of relevance who were hell-bent on making and writing history, influencing and shaping everything that matters. The baby born in Bethlehem was not even a blip on their screen, nothing to worry about or anything to garner too much of their attention. All the religious seers who claim to have their finger on the pulse, on the cutting edge, at ground zero of what matters and who’s who in first century Mediterranean life and culture (or even those in the 21st century version) find themselves displaced. All that think they are at the frontlines of history and shaping those in power find themselves displaced in Christ’s story. They are not making history or writing history or shaping history, but playing a background role in Christ’s story and narrative in the world.
To whose narrative do we belong? Is it in the divide-and-conquer world of Caesar, where we believe our primary purpose is to shape Caesar, obsess about Caesar and define our tribes and positions by Caesar? Or, is there another narrative available to us – another narrative, not obviously powerful or relevant or cutting-edge, but one that is often hidden from the powerful and is at work displacing us and separating us from all our the tribal and ideological allegiances and cultural flashpoints to which we so desperately cling? Might it be that the hidden, all too ordinary work of the risen Christ displaces all of us from the center of our story, our tribe, our fundamentalism and Caesar’s definition of reality?
There is an alternate narrative that slowly and inconspicuously uproots and displaces our tribalisms, fundamentalisms and our comfort with our place within Caesar’s narrative. It is a narrative that often looks ordinary, hidden and irrelevant to the powers and principalities of the world, even paltry to sophisticated Presbyterians. Yet miraculously, this narrative becomes our central story and the way we see and live and define ourselves, relativizing what we thought was so crucial, relevant and fundamental. This narrative attunes us to look instead for the work of the Spirit and the hand of God, within us, among us and outside of us, in the least likely of places.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.