Pastor John Miller of Northwest Bible Church in Tucson, which my family attends, has been trying to inspire his congregation to “step out of their comfort zones” and trust God to care for them, through the use of the language of adventure and poetry – knights, mountain climbing, The Quest, William Wallace, the Acts of the Apostles, and so on. He’s been working at this for at least four years, when I was regularly attending church there. I’m not sure when it started, but I do remember the adventure rhetoric becoming a good deal heavier after Wild at Heart by John Eldridge became popular. Pastor John was given a sword, and the board of elders started organizing men’s retreats based off of Wild at Heart. They went salmon fishing in Alaska, climbed mountains, ate steaks, and, presumably, beat on drums in the woods. When the church board decided to build on a new property he played “The Impossible Dream,” and labeled the church building project “The Quest.”
He’s really a very sensible and good man. But, on this particular subject he tends toward hyperbole without taking much notice. The week before last he gave a sermon on St Peter walking on water, which gradually devolved into a sermon about skydiving, running with the bulls, and stepping out in faith. All that is alright, except that they’re completely different things. It would make more sense to tell a story of someone giving up a good job to serve the poor or the needy or the lost. If he wanted to be dramatic he could tell stories of people across the world getting arrested for professing faith in Christ, and even killed. But walking across the water to Christ because you love Him and wish to be with Him is not particularly like jumping out of a plane because you want an adrenaline rush. Not that the latter is necessarily wrong. It’s probably neutral. It’s just not what faith is about.
What’s happening is a three stage conflation of different kinds of things pretending to be the same thing. First, there’s the category of doing great things for God, by His power. That’s the category with things like walking on water, and St Paul’s mission to the gentiles, and David defeating Goliath, and Esther in the court of the king, and so on through all the heroic Bible stories. They center mostly around upholding the Faith, or saving others from being killed or invaded. Since most of these stories have exciting things about them – prisons, wicked royal advisors, wild animals, giants, miracles – the next step becomes emphasizing the heroic in them. Faith can be exciting, so anything that’s exciting must take faith. That’s where skydiving, running with the bulls, swords, dragons, cowboys, mountain men, and a mishmash of other heroic imagery comes in. By this point the message has wound it’s way from “we need to be willing to preach Christ, even in the faith of death (and not wine too much about “persecution” that consists of people thinking us a trifle slow and foolish),” through “that kind of faith is exciting,” on to “exciting things must show that kind of faith.”
Of course, being civilized modern sorts of people, we are not in much danger of being arrested for believing in Christ. We’re not even in much danger of being arrested for praying aloud in schools – though we might get sued. But facing down a lawsuit doesn’t fit very well into the heroic narrative. And we’re certainly not *actually* going to fight those who mock God and our country, as David did. We’re going to write articles complaining about them, and vote against them. We’re not *actually* going to carry swords, or guns, or start a revolution against modern secularism. I mean, not the kind where you shoot people and try to supplant the current leader. Of course we won’t – it goes very strongly against out current culture, and our sense of what is and isn’t acceptable.
But if we want to make heroic rhetoric our own, that leaves us in a bit of a bind. Really think about one of these heroic traditions for a moment. I mean, really. I think we’ve heard the stories enough that we rarely stop to consider that if someone actually lived like that nowadays we would not find it romantic at all. We would find it abhorrent. They would be a vigilante if they were good at it, and a fool if not. That’s what Don Quixote is about – he may be romantic, but he’s also a fool. There may be a legitimate vocation of public fool (like the fools for Christ of the middle ages), but it’s not something we much want to be encouraging. I imagine that snarky condescending atheists would be publicly flogged; theologians who speak of the Faith as “myth, metaphor, and legend” would be anathematized; we would start another Crusade against Islam. It would, in essence, be a bit of a mess, but a heroic, zealous, inspiring mess.
For better or worse, most of us have tacitly accepted a trade of certain kinds of zeal for less violence. We have traded, for instance, taking honor very seriously for not having men kill each other in duels over insults. Some parts of out society haven’t done that, but they’re not people we want to emulate; they’re gangs and rednecks, mostly, and we don’t want to take after them. Likewise, we love the drama of the apostles, but we don’t actually want to be burned alive or fed to lions if we can possibly help it, and we live in a society that does no such things.
Therefrom comes the third part of the three part conflation mentioned above. Faith become romance then becomes one of two things. Either it becomes empty adventurism: skydiving, climbing mountains, watching wild bears, jumping from cliffs into deep pools, breaking wild horses, and so on; or else we try to apply the heroic narrative to our very modest, prosaic lives, and talk about “how to drink orange juice to the glory of God,” and invest deep and important meaning in camping trips and week long missions to Europe, and beating on drums in the woods; smoking a cigar in a pub with a friend is heroically adventurous and manly. In churches like NWBC there’s more of the latter tendency.
Both are wrong, because they tend to lose the distinctions between what is really heroic and what is fun or exciting or simply interesting that are important for maintaining some some sense of proportion and humility in our lives. I believe that the solution lies in living poetry on what scale we can, and putting a little of it into everything. I’ll write about that later, though.