Rod Dreher’s recent defection to the Eastern Orthodox reminds all of us of the need to see the Church upside down in order to see it the way it really is.
We converts from Protestantism find it difficult to shake the idea that the church should be what we expect it to be: a congregation of good people just like us. We have religious utopianism running in our Puritan veins. We expect the church to be made up of saints who are already perfect…just like us.
Oh yes, in theory we say that we are all ‘redeemed sinners’. We love to repeat those words and in doing so, we feel even more righteous. We say we are sinners, but deep down though, we still feel that the church is going to be all that we expect it to be, with beautiful worship, harmonious fellowship and saintly leadership. When our expectations are not met we are so bitterly disappointed.
The disappointment soon turns to discontent and blaming others, and that soon leads to back to the old Protestant past time: church shopping.
If only we could stand on our head, and see that all the other people in the church are not just redeemed sinners, they are sinners who are still struggling now…still failing…and yep…still covering up their sins. In other words, they’re just like we are, and if we don’t think we’re like that, then we’re even worse because we’re self righteous and blind to our own spiritual situation.
Every Sunday (beneath the pious faces and holy postures) the church is full of messed up people twisted up into a complex and intricate puzzle of sin, fear and self deception, and guess what, it’s messy. It’s murderous, it’s dark and fetid and hot and smelly.
For those who are simple minded this is a cause to reject the church–“How can you go there with all those people who are pretending to be so holy when we all know how rotten they all are?”
But for my money, this is what is most interesting and maddening and wonderful about the church. What nerve we all have in carrying on with this farce! What an exciting and bizarre contradiction it all is! What a curious form of behavior that we all gather together to sing like angels, then go out to behave like demons. The strangeness and absurdity and curiosity of it all must cause anyone to examine it further.
And when you examine it further it is the absurdity which makes it ring most true. When you look at it all upside down you realize that the sects and cults with their grinning devotees and artificial perfection are the ones who are mad, and anyone who falls for a church that seems wonderful and beautiful (no matter how reasonable it seems) is falling for an illusion. Furthermore, anyone who falls for any kind of ideology, political system, philosophy that promises a perfect world or a perfect community is entertaining madness unawares.
The Church with all its human perfections and seeming contradictions, is actually the only community in the midst of the madness that shows us both the harsh reality and what to do about it. Week in and week out the Church says right up front: “We’re sinners. Don’t be misled by the incense, the hymns, the stained glass windows, the fine words, the warm fellowship, the middle class manners, the pancake suppers or anything else. Repent. Forward progress can only be made on your knees.”
As usual, G.K.Chesterton summed it up. He said he knew the Catholic Church was for him because when he left his umbrella at the back of the Methodist Church it was still there, but when he left it at the back of the Catholic Church it was stolen.”
Great post. I was away from the church for years and by the grace of God have returned. I am still part of that group of “messed up people twisted up into a complex and intricate puzzle of sin, fear and self deception, and guess what, it’s messy.” But I am also a person who has tasted God and in His love and mercy find hope. It is those who seem so mad and want to leave that I pray for the most. I deny Him way more than three times and long to smell the charcoal fire and hear his voice ask me if I love Him. By the grace of God alone I can answer “yes Lord, you know that I love you.”
Thanks joeh. My sentiments exactly. Instead of judging others and judging the church we have to continually return. “Where else shall we go Lord? You have the words of eternal life..”
Dwight, your post is right on the money. I share a spiritual heritage, similar to yours and I even attended Bob Jones for several years long ago. My husband and I are now in RCIA and it is the hardest thing to see past all the “sinners” in the Catholic church since our Protestant church seemed so perfect. I have had a terrifically hard time reconciling the church’s history with my own version of perfection. I guess I had a picture in my mind of the church that really never was a true picture. You are so right. I have to start with me and pray the prayer at the beginning of mass and think of myself – “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault . . .” I guess I need to look more inward at my own sins and less at the outward sins of those around me. This is a hard thing for me to do, given my judgmental past.
Thanks for your post Pam. Now I am back here in Greenville I am tempted to start an exclusive club called ‘Bob Jones Catholics’ It would ony be open individuals who are now Catholic who once attended BJU. Do you want to be a founding member? I’m just kidding, but it is an interesting idea isn’t it?Pray for me as I begin my ministry here. I am not looking for trouble with non Catholic Christians, but do pray that I might be given a modest ministry to those who are seeking the fullness of the faith.
Dwight, you can count on me as a founding member. That makes two of us, right? Since I live in a town (Tampa, FL) with a reputed “Bob Jones” church I suppose I could go polling their members for Bob Jones Catholics but I doubt I’d have any takers! I hope to visit Greenville again one of these days because there is a flute seminar held there every summer by a man I’d like to study with – it is supposedly run by a BJU flutist who helps coordinate housing, etc. I’d also like to visit the art museum on campus and go to St. Mary’s in Greenville. Maybe I’ll be able to look you up and talk to you and your family when and if I ever get there!
The art museum at BJU is wonderful! I always found it interesting that they have such an incredible display of Catholic art. Listening to the conversations around the artwork is rather entertaining as well: “why does that woman have eyes on her plate?…. I have no idea…. and who is this guy with arrows in him?…. hmmm. No idea.”You have a great blog! I’ve got several friends at St. Mary’s and they will be blessed by your presence there! (now, can you guys just send a few to Clemson?)
I really like that Chesterton reference. Where does he say this precisely?Thanks.
What a fantastic post!!I have a very dear neighbor who church-hops so often it’s making my head spin. As a cradle Catholic, I cannot relate to this mentality, but I guess it’s endemic in Protestantism and hard to shake.
Thanks for your comments. I don’t know where to find the Chesterton quote. The person to ask is Dale Ahlquist at the American Chesterton Society. He’s a walking Chesterton encyclopedia.
I asked Mr. Ahlquist and he told me that, though the story sounds very Chestertonian, he had never heard of it and indeed felt it was probably apocryphal, if only because Chesterton never carried an umbrella!
About your “anyone who falls for a church that seems wonderful and beautiful (no matter how reasonable it seems) is falling for an illusion” … Are you saying that this is what Mr. Dreher has done? Or did I misunderstand the reason for leading off your post with a mention about his “defection”? Can you provide a link to Rod’s blog or other source about his conversion? There is an increasing number of Crunchy Cons here in the DC area who might be interested. Also, the Chesterton story about losing his umbrella in the Catholic church … That it so good, it has to be true! I hope you won’t disillusion us next time by saying you found out it was apocryphal, and may have connection to a simlar story told about Teddy Roosevelt and his first visit to the Elks Lodge! 😉
Outstanding post, Dwight. I’m a convert from evangelical Protestantism (in fact, some of our pastoral staff were BJU graduates) and I struggled mightily with the utter incompetence of some of our leadership, particularly one auxiliary bishop here in Detroit whose infamous for his promotion of clearly sinful behavior. I wondered, how could the Church that styles itself as the guardian of all Christian truth tolerate a teacher who is so cavalier with that truth?
You can read Rod Dreher’s account of his move to EOrthodoxy here:http://www.beliefnet.com/blogs/crunchycon/2006/10/orthodoxy-and-me.htmlGeesh, maybe it was Teddy Roosevelt who had his umbrella stolen. Go ask Mr Ahlquist…By the way, Dale’s assertion that GKC couldn’t have made that comment because he didn’t carry an umbrella sounds fishy to me. When did a literal fact stop GKC from using a good image?
jdp, good question. I think Dreher (from his own account) did fall out of love with the Catholic Church, and for some pretty (seemingly) good reasons. At the same time he speaks glowingly of his new EO congregation.Now, I’m not saying that a person who falls for a church that is wonderful and beautiful is doing anything wrong. It would be fine for a boy to fall in love with a gorgeous girl and a wonderful family. But if the boy is only falling for a girl for her good looks and her well connected, seemingly happy family he is falling for an illusion. He should be looking for his heart’s true mate, not what seems most beautiful and wonderful.Same thing with the church. I became a Catholic not because I liked incense and robes and candles and stained glass windows and tradition. I could have had all that (and much nicer) in the Anglican Church. I didn’t become a Catholic because I thought it was the nicest Church, but because I thought it was the True Church.And guess what? The Truth hurts.
Yes, even after the Resurrection, the Apostle’s still thought Jesus was going to make everything perfect. So this isn’t a new phenomenon
I had a friend leave the Catholic church for an EO church because she didn’t want to go through the marriage tribunal; I’ve been to church with her a few times, and noticed a rather groveling attitude towards God that probably most folks don’t notice because they’re looking at the icons. Her pagan hubby is totally unevangelized by them because he is scandalized by their lukewarmness and predominant pattern of Christmas n Easter attendance. So EO doesn’t equal perfection and fervor. My friend granted my points btw, and thought it might be the result of centuries of Muslim domination in EO lands. She thinks EO is too bound to nation and culture and ethnicity, and as a white northern Euro American, she feels like a second class citizen in her church. It’s kinda sad. Ah, but sin and shame can make a person do desperate things.