Last weekend I went to visit a friend in Bristol, and one of his housemates had this Belle and Sebastian graphic novel called “Put the Book Back on the Shelf”. It was incredible – a bunch of artists had sat down with some of my favourite songs and reimagined them, bringing out themes and lyrics that were there beneath the surface. Belle and Sebastian were, I think, the first band I ever loved, and so seeing somebody else’s vision of the words I knew so well gave them a fresh clarity and brightness. It was like hearing them for the first time again.
I feel like I need that pretty often; new angles or new presentations of the same thing. I get easily bored, or numb to things, and the quest for the new and the fresh is a strong desire. But I’m not sure where that leaves me when it comes to faith. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing these days.
You look at the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 11 or Romans 12 and you see a whole load of different roles in the church, according to the gifts that God has given people. And if I’m honest, I always thought of myself as a teacher, thought that giving people new angles to see things from was a valuable skill, but ever since this furore with Rob Bell over the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on it again.
What I admired about Rob in the first place wasn’t so much the conclusions that he drew but the attitude – the willingness to ask questions and see things from slightly sidelong angles, as well as his ability to see the end results of our actions and heart-attitudes. Paul did something similar in Romans 3, reflecting on the broken nature of humanity, and it seems to me like Jesus did too – pointed out exactly where we’d end up if we were left to our own devices and weren’t reliant on God. That seemed valuable, and I thought that kind of discussion would get us somewhere, that the questions were headed towards something.
But over the past few weeks people have raised some good points and now I’m stuck. I think that the best teachers are the people who have wrestled with the material, thrashed it out and got to a place where they feel like they can teach it adequately, but getting there necessarily takes a lot of wrestling and probably a few mistakes in the process. At the same time, I think that teachers have to know what they’re teaching, too, or at least what they’re teaching for – what the point of it all is.
Because what use is perpetually questioning unless it leads you somewhere? And on the same note, what use is tweaking your theology unless it’s going to lead you to worship – real, active, whole-life, heart-changing worship?
See, like with my Belle & Sebastian graphic novel, there is value in a new presentation of a thing provided it sends you back to a fresh appreciation of the original. But when it doesn’t, it’s just commentary for commentary’s sake, and that’s going to get us nowhere.
Last week I wrote briefly about paralysis, and I did that because I don’t know that any of this is really achieving much. I know we have to wrestle, but we also have to pick a point when we’re going to go out and live it, too, and I don’t know how we get past this debate (or this kind of debate, at least).
“We are justified by faith apart from the works of the law”, as Paul writes in Romans 3:28, and the faith that he’s talking about there is a real, active faith, a Hebrews 11 faith. It’s a case of believing the truth of what Christ says about us and then being willing to let that reshape everything in us, from the inside out.
Sure, being justified by faith might start with a decision to trust, but it also implies a continual decision to trust, to keep trusting and to keep going out – going in Christ.
I wonder if I got stuck in commentary, and have been for a while. Too much talking and not enough living, especially sad because the living is, in its own way, pretty straightforward (if not easy).
And I wonder too who – or what – it is that I really love. Whether it is God, or whether it is the philosophical complexity or literary power of this age-old faith tradition. I want it to be God, and I want to want Him more, but I feel like He might be getting lost beneath the noise, and the commentary might be getting detached from the original.
Oh God, that You would direct me back to Yourself. As the old hymn puts it,
“Be Thou my vision, O lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light…
Be Thou and Thou only the first in my heart:
High king of heaven, my treasure Thou art.”
God, let that be my prayer – and all of ours.