Brokenhearted Theology, Church, Meaning, Ministry, Ramblings

Exploring Mainline Christianity

It may have started with Anne Lamott.  I read her Traveling Mercies sometime in college.  Her honesty was jarring but refreshing.  She holds to faith in the midst of doubt, finding peace and hope in community and mystery.  Then, in seminary, I started reading Barbara Brown Taylor.  Her sermons wrestled the text of the Scriptures and the text of life, weaving them together in provocative yet comforting patterns.  And then there were Nora Gallagher’s reflections on the Eucharist.  And there were men, too – Chilton and Brueggemman and West and more.  All influential scholars and writers and thinkers coming from a mainline perspective.

I am currently reading through Diane Butler Bass’s Christianity for the Rest of Us, an unapologetic exploration of moderate to liberal mainline Protestant Christianity.  In the introduction, she writes of the “other Christians” (as opposed to the conservative evangelicalism that is often the only face of Protestantism given attention in the media) who, in her words, practice “a faith that is open and generous, intellectual and emotive, beautiful and just” (4).

In a longer portion, she explains a mainline understanding of the manner in which Jesus is “the Way”:

Some Christians think that faith is like a set of MapQuest directions – that there is only a single highway to God.  After all, Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except by me.’ He is the map.  And Christianity is a kind of vacation destination, a place you wind up in to escape hell.  Such Christians claim that God has a plan for your life, a route you must follow or you will be lost in the life – and damned in the next.  They even have things like “four spiritual laws” and “forty days of purpose” that tell you how to get there.  Like computer-generated directions, this road is predetermined, distant, and authoritative.  You cannot exit this freeway or deviate from the route without peril.  Taking a creative risk, as I did in [a] recent journey through Baltimore’s old neighborhoods, will not lead you home.  Instead, it leads directly to hell and destruction.  Who cares about a few spiritual traffic jams or construction zones?  Better stick to the map.  Follow the plan.

But what if Jesus is not a MapQuest sort of map, a superhighway to salvation? What if Jesus is more like old-fashioned street signs in a Baltimore neighborhood, navigated by imagination and intuition?  Rather than a set of directions to get saved, Jesus is, as his earliest followers claimed, ‘the Way.’  Jesus is not the way we get somewhere.  Jesus is the Christian journey itself, a pilgrimage that culminates in the wayfarer’s arrival in God.  When Jesus said, ‘Follow me,’ he did not say ‘Follow the map.’  Rather, he invited people to follow him, to walk with him on a pilgrimage toward God. (72)

Butler Bass does not explain the “Wayness” of Jesus in the way that I necessarily would or in a way that I necessarily find the most theologically precise, yet she speaks on behalf of a portion of the Christian church that is often excluded and/or ignored by the growing conservative/evangelical movement.

Reading more from the mainline traditions is particularly interesting given the growing confluence between emerging evangelicalism and the “reemergent” mainline traditions.  In many ways, the emerging church (whether you think it is dead, dying, life-giving, or completely apostate) seems to be acting as a translator or intermediary – a safe third space, perhaps –  between evangelicals and mainline.

What do you think?


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