In his prophet’s call to repentance in Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist warns those who have been drawn to his revival not to place their hope in their ancestral connection to Abraham, for “God is able from the stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Mt. 3:9)
I thought of that warning as I read an article by Mark Lilla in the New York Times Magazine (September 18, 2005) called “Getting Religion, My long-lost years as a teenage evangelical.” This University of Chicago professor tells of his awakening to the Scriptures through one of the small groups that proliferated in the “Jesus Freak” movement of the 1970s, and of his eventual fall out of faith. He grew up Roman Catholic in a monotonous blue collar Detroit suburb, and at age 13 he decided he was an atheist. A year later he attended a Christian rock concert and on the way out was given a colloquial translation of the New Testament, which he sat up all night reading. That New Testament opened his mind to a new world. Immersion in that New Testament also began the transformation of his intellect.
Lilla describes the intellectual thirst of the evangelical community, which is quenched through Bible study to be sure, but also with packaged courses available now on cassette, CD, or DVD. A half a century ago, he claims, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the works of Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Courtney Murray. But “half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books, or are politically motivated” have replaced such intellectual figures.
In this Higher Education issue of the Outlook, I reference Lilla’s article for two reasons. From a Reformed perspective, he demonstrates the importance of the mind in the service of God, and the role of Christianity in the awakening of the intellect. This makes indispensable the role of the Presbyterian Church (ministers, elders, and college boards of trustees) to assist students and congregations in an intellectual understanding of Christian faith.
There is simply no replacement for the pastor’s study in the practice of ministry. American culture has lost the popularized works of Tillich and Niebuhr because we have been reading books about 12 ways to an effective church, or what Bishop Spong thinks about the Scriptures. If it is faith formation, disciple making, and faith building we’re called to do, there is no substitute for theological and biblical engagement with a congregation or students. Young men and women today can graduate from a Presbyterian college who will never have heard of Tillich, Niebuhr, or even C. S. Lewis unless they take a religion elective.
They may read John Stott or C. S. Lewis in an Intervarsity group. But that is not a church. You are not baptized into Intervarsity; it is an affinity group. You cannot be enlightened in the tradition of the theology and practice of the holy, universal church in Young Life.
Second, there is nothing like the church. We are unique, and without the church no one will ever get to Jesus. Without the church, the Holy Scriptures would not exist. The New Testament that fell into Mark Lilla’s hands after the rock concert exists because of centuries of ministry, of preservation and danger, and of blood, toil and faithful tears by people who practiced the catholic faith, who studied and translated the holy word, and who risked their lives for the sake of Scripture, water, bread and wine.
The gospel is not about us, or the “success” of the church. It’s not even about social justice and being Presbyterian. It’s about the glory of God through the living, breathing, sometimes grand and sometimes pitiful — often broken, often courageous communion of saints.
Lilla seems at times to lament what he has lost. But then, he was never “churched.” He was never engaged through the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Communion in a living church, with an address and a name, and a priest or a minister of the Word. He knew the faith of small groups, where the Bible and religious experience were what mattered.
Thousands of Mark Lillas are asking for bread. Let us learn, in our heart of hearts, and in the life of the Presbyterian Church, not to give them stones.