By Trey Lyon
Recently a series of articles by Dr. David Gushee have focused on ex-SBCers. On many points I agree with Dr. Gushee — the post-takeover/resurgence diaspora has left ex-SBCers in various camps, and his classifications are at least as helpful in our current milieu as Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots were in New Testament class. Furthermore, I actually agree with his central thesis: “My core claim is that no particularly clear theological/ecclesial direction has emerged among these ex-Southern Baptists.”
Where I see contrast is on the hows and whys that precipitated this sense of ideological malaise — and one that is significant enough to necessitate what I see as a sort of preamble to the “way forward” Dr. Gushee proposes.
The thing is, in my own experience, I have been all three of the categories Dr. Gushee describes. On most days I vacillate between the social justice type of ex-SBCer and the mainline Protestant type. My sense of canon is big enough for Paul and Bono, though on most days I trust Bono a bit more.
Recently a friend recommended a TED talk to me, “The Power of the Single Story.” It is one of the more powerful sermons I have yet heard. Without giving too much away, one line says it quite succinctly: “The problem with stereotypes isn’t that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
Single stories are dangerous because they tell the truth but not all of it. Of course, there’s a strong relationship between power and stories, because it is the powerful who get to tell the stories and shape the narratives. When stories that run counter to this emerge there are power structures that react and question whether this is “on message” or not.
As humans we are more than one story. We are many stories. In seminary one professor explained the Southern Baptist Convention crisis with remarkable alacrity. “We [moderates] lost when the fundamentalists said ‘You believe the Bible don’t you?’ and we said ‘It’s complicated.’” Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt and “It’s complicated” ain’t just a relationship status on Facebook.
While leading a driving tour of Atlanta and talking about the spotty history the city has in treating homeless persons, a group leader asked how I theologically dealt with those panhandling for money. I said, “I’m wholly inconsistent. If I have cash or change, I’ll give it. If they ask for food, bus fare, money for medicine I’ll normally offer to go with them to get that.”
She thought for a second and said, “I like your answer, but what I really appreciate is that you said you were inconsistent — because so am I and I feel like I’m doing something wrong.” That was a rare moment of intersection and honesty that happened only because for some reason I dropped my “urban missionary with all the answers” facade and told the truth. And it opened up some holy ground. In effect I said, “It’s complicated,” and heard back, “Really? I think so too!”
And this is where and why this distinction is important in this conversation. Religious identity, Christian Identity, Baptist Identity is neither monolithic nor axiomatic. We can attempt to define these as a dictionary would, but whose picture goes next to it — Roger Williams or Charles Spurgeon? Mike Huckabee or Jimmy Carter? It’s complicated.
The problem is it is precisely this kind of autonomy that prevents us from making monolithic, axiomatic statements about who we are and what we believe. It always has done. Our points of division that say, “This Is Who We Are” have historically been reactive and not proactive. We are best at defining “Who We Are” by saying who we are not. It’s a kind of mail-merge theology endemic to the Baptist experience. It’s been maligned and mocked as Laodicean in its timidity or implicitly juvenile in its development (the only logical way I can interpret what “when they grow up” is supposed to mean.)
“It’s complicated” doesn’t move the meter, sell the books, pack the pews. It doesn’t get you on the Colbert Report, Fox News or MSNBC. It defies the sound bite and is relegated to obsolescence for its inability to make it plain in 140 characters. Still, I’d like to reclaim “it’s complicated” because my own faith is complicated. And I want to be part of a people who are having a conversation about how complicated and contradictory they are as well. It may not get a press release or a pamphlet length pocket-edition identity statement, but I believe it will engender honesty and perhaps a bit of genuine humility.
We don’t need a new confessional statement but a confessing church. We should start with “This I Believe” but from the lips of those in our Sunday school classes and community groups, not from the pulpit.
About two years ago I wrote my own “This I Believe” to share with a class at McAfee School of Theology that I had been working with. What I did not expect was the conversation that it launched — students who found resonance and dissonance initiated conversations with me and with one another. It took on a life of its own. When it was published on the McAfee blog, it took off again, with one seminarian telling me a high-schooler in his youth group in Birmingham posted part of it as his Facebook status. I had no idea it would ever get to that point. But I learned something from that.
What I believe is important, but it becomes much more important in community — when what I believe is shaped and formed and challenged by what you believe. And this is the real strength of the Baptist vision, I think.
I don’t think that pastors preaching sermons on what they believe is going to get us there. And as much as I love theology, I don’t think a public intellectual or charismatic figure is going to lead us out of SBC Egypt into a promised land of new identity. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that people telling us what to believe is how we wound up in this place to start with.
I don’t think it is fair to say there is a dearth of leadership or a lack of a prophetic voice. I have met those leaders and heard those voices — but they often come from congregations whose leaders are fanning into flame the gift of God within those congregations, who let the prophets arise from within and among, not from the electronic voices and articles without (yes, even mine).
I think we will be closer to this new identity when we share our “This I Believe” — with all of its complexity and contradiction, rigor and nuance — in our communities. At that point we will be far closer to “This We Believe” than any single preacher or theologian could get, and it won’t take a call for questions and votes from the floor to get there.