Are You Doing Someone Else’s Quiet Time?

This is the second post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.”

We started doing something at my church recently that I think is incredibly important.

No, not that.

No, not that.

We enhanced our process for new members, not by adding more prerequisites to being one, but by inviting them to a carefully designed gathering in which we encourage them to recognize how their individuality should influence where and how they get involved in the church.

Some people know how to say no. But many others do not, and when ministers and lay leaders start getting desperate to fill spots in their volunteer base, we’re rarely concerned with whether or not someone is particularly gifted for those jobs.

"It's okay if you can't sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong."

“It’s okay if you can’t sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong.”

Unfortunately, that’s no way to find fulfillment as a church member. To be a disciple of Jesus means to surrender our lives in worship and service of our Savior. But it does not mean we are supposed to conform to one particular way of living out our devotion. God designed you in a unique way, with a compilation of emotions, inclinations, abilities, and interests that are all your own. Why would he want you to neglect this design plan in your relationship with him? If you want to be unhappy in your church, serve on a committee or in a ministry that does not utilize your gifts or jive with your personality.

The same is true for your method of quiet time with God.

When people come to me for advice because they feel dissatisfied or frustrated with their walk with Christ, the first question I ask is, “Are you attempting anything that isn’t you?”

"Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you've never even traveled outside of Indiana."

“Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you’ve never even traveled outside of Indiana.”

It took a long time for me to accept this as truth, but after years of discontent with the traditional quiet time formula handed down to me by my Sunday School teachers and youth camp counselors, I finally realized that what bothered me most was that the method didn’t stimulate my heart and mind according to the unique way God made me.

We’re all wired in a one-of-a-kind way. Sure, there are common practices and activities that the majority of us enjoy, and there are also common disciplines every Christian is expected to engage, but God is well aware that no two people are exactly alike. He designed us that way. We have differing personalities, our minds develop differently and at a variety of paces and speeds, and some things that interest you will never fascinate me. Moreover, we also grasp concepts in diverse ways, according to different stimuli, and a particular truth might not resonate with me at the same time or in the same way that it does with you, based on the variety of emotions, passions, and experiences we bring to the table.

Now, let’s take the truth about individuality to its logical conclusion. If it is true that God uniquely creates each person, then it is also true that every relationship between two people is also unique.

Checkmate.

Checkmate.

Anybody who has read a book on relationships can tell you that while some advice might have been helpful to his or her own relationship, not everything in the book was applicable. That’s because there is no perfect formula to a successful relationship. A relationship is not a binding contract; it’s a decision of intimacy between two individuals who, whether they are aware of it or not, bring their own ideas, ambitions, ideals and temptations into play. A healthy, successful relationship is an intentional and careful commitment to interact with each other’s idiosyncrasies, rather than denying their influence.

For example, my wife and I have a relationship that is unique to us. One of the things we’re still learning but know is important is not to force one another to speak or act in a way that is contrary to our designs. This doesn’t mean we don’t strive to connect with one another, nor does it mean I don’t adopt certain behaviors that support my wife and give her pleasure. However, pretending to be someone I am not is no good for Leigh, and vice versa.

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn't my spiritual gift?

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn’t my spiritual gift?

Now, if a quiet time is what a Christian does in order to experience a vibrant, intimate, and healthy relationship with God, then it stands to reason that conforming to a certain way of thinking, reading, and praying might not be the most beneficial way to deepen or strengthen that relationship. Just because God is a constant in the equation doesn’t mean each Christian must commune with him the exact same way. One of the most well-known statements of the late Brennan Manning’s is, “God loves you as you are, not as you should be, for no one is as they should be.” If I believe this, then the last thing I would want to do is pretend to be someone I am not in my relationship with God.

I love the looks on people’s faces when I suggest that, given their individual passions and interests, they might consider a solitary hike in the woods to be their quiet time, or gardening, writing poetry, even preparing a meal. Sure, the reading of Scripture is important and should not be neglected, but God is able to move in a million more ways than the standard methods so many of us so often conform to. Rather than slog through a formula that squelches your individuality, why not seek out the methods that stimulate your own peculiar composition?

As we continue in this series, I will cover the biggest dangers of conforming to a formula rather than creating one that works with a person’s God-given uniqueness. Above all, we should always remember that a quiet time should awake one’s soul, not burden it.

Is There Something Wrong with Your Quiet Time?

In a post dated August 5th, I promised to expound on the misconceptions of “quiet times.” This follow-up grew so lengthy that I feared it would put off even the most dogged of blog readers. I decided to break it down into five smaller posts, each detailing a major problem with keeping a traditional, daily quiet time. Here is the first installment of this series. 

young man reading small bible

A daily “quiet time” isn’t biblical.

Please don’t get me wrong – spending time with God is totally biblical. The Bible is filled to the brim with examples of people who intentionally spent time in prayer and individual worship, not to mention reflection influenced by the scriptures. However, at no point in the Old or New Testaments is there a clearly described plan for what we in the Church today refer to as a “daily devotion” or “quiet time.”

Though this is totally on the level! (he said with heavy sarcasm).

Though this is totally on the level! (he said with heavy sarcasm).

Now, when I refer to keeping a personal Bible study and prayer time, I am referring to a genuine desire to spend time with the Creator and invite his Spirit to transform your life, bit by bit, inch by inch. If, however, you are the kind of person who keeps a quiet time out of obligation and cold compliance, it is safe to say you’ve already got the whole endeavor backwards. (More on that in a later post…)

So, how dare I insinuate that a daily quiet time isn’t biblical?

It’s not to argue against the value of a quiet time, but rather to dispel the myth that keeping one is an explicit command found in Scripture.

"Commandment 11: Thou shalt give Oswald Chambers's MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST to every graduating high school senior..."

“Commandment 11: Thou shalt give Oswald Chambers’s MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST to every graduating high school senior…”

First of all, let’s look at the individual parts of a standard quiet time. (I am going off of the allegedly tried-and-true formula passed down to me by many a Sunday School teacher and youth camp leader when I was growing up).

  • Bible study – Let’s ignore the fact that the closest thing ancient and first-century Jews had to devotional books was Rabbinic midrash; it would have been nearly impossible for common folk living in either testament’s time to engage in personal Bible study as we know it today. While we have evidence that portions of the Oral Tradition was written down as early as the second millennia B.C., it wasn’t like these writings were available to common folk. Thus, the Jewish people are reminded many times in the Pentateuch that Scripture (specifically the words and acts of God to his people) was not something to be studied over time, but intrinsically remembered. Which brings us to the second component…
  • Scripture memorization – This discipline was actually quite prolific. As Judaism developed its educational system, the core curriculum was the memorization of the Torah, and for those who progressed into higher levels of training, it expanded to rote learning of the entire Hebrew Bible. This is one of many aspects of Jesus that is so fascinating. While he showed a phenomenal, interpretative grasp of the scriptures and taught with a level of authority that suggested deep advancement within rabbinical training, he is also derided as a country bumpkin and the son of a blue-collar worker. Given the importance of scripture memorization to the general public back then, my own struggle to commit to memory two measly verses from Ephesians seems pathetic by comparison.
Is that the best you can do, Jimmy Gourd?

Is that the best you can do, Jimmy Gourd?

  • Prayer – The question isn’t whether the people of the Bible prayed, but how many of them compartmentalized their prayer lives into one specific time of day. Not many. For one thing, it was Jewish custom to pray at multiple times during the day, publicly or privately as circumstances dictated. Secondly, we are reminded several times by NT writers that one’s prayer life should be unceasing – that we pray continually throughout the day, rather than in one pre-determined time. This wasn’t a radical new teaching, but simply a return to the kind of faithfulness implied in the Law, the goal of which was deep communion with God.
  • Journaling – Most of us are aware that very, very few biblical heroes had access to writing materials with which they might accomplish this part. A chisel and stone, maybe, but papyrus was pretty hard to come by. Sure, the Jews had been writing things down for centuries, and Peter, Paul and the apostles were able to write letters. But always having a Mead notebook at the ready has been a luxury reserved only for the last century’s worth of Christians. Perhaps this is why Jesus wrote in the dirt – it was readily available.
Rich boy.

Rich boy.

To sum things up, what we find in the Bible is that the children of Israel – and, later, early Christians – are commanded to remember the laws and stories, and to pass them on to future generations. Scripture, therefore, was not just a self-improvement tool, but a living, definitive history that enveloped the nation. Even before it was written down for a select few to access, there was a deeply communal aspect to the receiving of Scripture. This is something I never considered when I used to sit alone in my room trying to come up with modern-day applications from 2nd Chronicles.

So, how does this reality shed light on why and how we engage in a quiet time? Simply that what Scripture encourages is a regularity and an intentionality to a person’s Bible study and prayers. It does not insist on a set pattern. Sure, the ancient Israelites had a very strict set of regulations for temple sacrifice and worship, but those constraints didn’t carry over to the disciplines of prayer and reflection. These balls were left in the court of the worshipper, to not neglect but go about in a humble, authentic manner. This is why we can read the Psalms today and recognize a great variety of expressions to and about God. Because no one was requiring one particular method of devotional articulation.

"You call that a psalm, son?! I only count three metaphors! What would your Uncle Asaph think?"

“You call that a psalm, son?! I only count three metaphors! What would your Uncle Asaph think?”

If you feel your quiet time has lost genuineness – if it has become more about doing something for God rather than being with God – I encourage you to take a lesson from the very scriptures through which you’ve been slogging. When it comes to righteousness, what counts “is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal 5:6). A quiet time is meant to undergird one’s relationship with the Lord. We don’t do it so God is obligated to transform us. We do it so that his Spirit might find our hearts and minds opened to his guidance and provision. It is an expression of loyalty and love, not a set of daily chores.

Having opened this series with what quiet times shouldn’t look like, in my next post I will do my best to consider how they should look. There’s certainly more that needs saying. However, may these words from Frederick Buechner be a point of reflection in the meantime:

Be importunate, Jesus says – not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door… because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself.

The Answer in the Question

I’m two months into a new position at a new church. That position is Minister of Spiritual Formation. Apparently, the title isn’t self-explanatory, because upon introducing myself to church members, I am often asked to explain what exactly I do at the church.

Now, the puffed-up, self-centered part of me wants to balk at such questions, and the cynic in me wants to scoff and say, “What do you mean? Do you ask the music minister or the youth minister to explain what it is they do?” But, at the same time, the realist in me just gets anxious.

"Whatever happened to a simple "'preciate ya'" and a handshake?"

“Whatever happened to a simple “‘preciate ya'” and a handshake?”

Here’s why. Several years ago, I remember sitting in an interview with a church’s search team and being asked essentially the same question. The woman who asked it had done her homework on me; from where I sat across the conference table, I could see her detailed notes written into the margins of my resume, a legal pad replete with questions she considered asking me, and underneath that a black, three-ring binder containing photocopies of several posts from my blog. Perusing these for a few seconds, she looked back up at me and said, “You write a lot in your blog about ‘spiritual formation.’ It seems like that term comes up a lot. I was just wondering, what is spiritual formation?”

I remember feeling simultaneously excited and apprehensive by her question.

Excited, because this was one of the first interview questions that had to do with my personal convictions and interests in ministry (as opposed to programs I had started and events I had planned), and it would be refreshing to speak to a deeper level of what it means to be a minister.

Apprehensive, because I was hardly prepared to give a succinct and comprehensive answer to her question.

"Uhhhh... no comment?"

“Uhhhh… no comment?”

You see, at the time “spiritual formation” was still somewhat of a nebulous concept to me, despite however many times the term found its way onto my blog or into my lessons. It was something I was profoundly interested in, of course, but also something that intimidated me as much as it inspired me. I was convinced I wanted to focus on it in my ministry, both in philosophy and practical direction, but despite collecting several books on the subject, I was still unsure how to work with, in, and toward spiritual formation.

Still, it is not like me to forego offering my opinion on anything. So when this woman asked her question, I let very little silence fall before I opened my mouth to speak. However, another person on the search committee beat me to answering. He said quickly and dismissively, “It’s just another word for ‘discipleship.'”

His answer threw me off, and I slowly closed my mouth. It’s tricky enough to respond to the open-ended question, “What is spiritual formation?” Explaining the error in confusing it with discipleship, especially in the context of a job interview, is a whole other level of difficulty.

"Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness."

“Which brings me back to why you are all completely wrong and have no choice but to hire me to save you from your wrongness.”

The Hunt for a Good Definition

I learned two things in that interview. The first was that it is not uncommon to encounter long-time, active church members who have little idea what spiritual formation is. The second was that I was one of them.

Defining spiritual formation is not necessarily a hard thing to do. People have been offering their elucidations on the term for quite some time. (Jim Smith just wrote a great series of posts covering it from every angle.) However, because every person whom the Spirit forms is a unique individual woven together by an elaborate and distinctive collection of characteristics, attributes and idiosyncrasies, sometimes the only definition that seems to truly fit is the one you craft yourself.

How pompous can you be, Merriam-Webster?

You don’t know everything, Merriam-Webster.

After the interview, I at least knew where not to start. I knew spiritual formation was not simply another term for discipleship. The two are intimately related, for sure, but even my limited understanding cried out against belittling either term by calling it a mere synonym of the other.

I decided to start with defining discipleship, something that did not intimidate me as much. Oddly enough, it was this endeavor that led me to an answer for the other.

Defining discipleship seemed easy enough; I just looked more closely at its root word: disciple. Once I cleared away the cobwebs of antiquated Christianese words that were part of my small town Baptist church upbringing – words like “discipleship training” and “church discipline” and “Disciple Now Weekend” – I was able to return to the original meaning of the word. From the Greek mathetes, meaning learner, pupil or apprentice, it was often used to describe the students of a rabbi, and in the case of the Gospels, this means Jesus. Rabbinic disciples were meant to learn from their teacher, to emulate them in every way possible, and, eventually, to carry on that rabbi’s teachings – also known as their rabbi’s “yoke” – as a formative part of their own.

If this is not the very example provided us by the likes of Peter, James and John, I don’t know what is.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

The Mount of Transfiguration. Also known as the original Disciple Now Weekend.

So, if discipleship is the commitment to being a disciple, and being a disciple means emulating one’s teacher, then Christian discipleship simply means, as one of his disciples wrote, “walking as Jesus did,” and another added, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is both the example and the focal point for our thoughts, words and actions.

And wouldn’t you know it, this was all right there in the word itself. It wasn’t complicated.

The Title Is Self-Explanatory

Naturally, this led me to reconsider the term “spiritual formation,” taking again the root word – or, in this case, the root words. “Spirit” and “forms.” I was struck by the fact that these two words alone was almost a workable sentence in itself. Spirit forms. What is more, it sounded as much like a declaration as it did a reminder. In John 16, Jesus declares that it is the Spirit who leads us into all truth. And every time I try to arrange and organize and methodize my life so that I might feel like a more effective person, my inevitable shortcomings bring God’s reminder: “No, Bo. The Spirit forms. Not you.”

This, then, must be the first step toward any measure of spiritual formation. There must be the element of surrender. I’ve heard some people describe the concept as a “pursuit of God,” but spiritual formation is not about us chasing after God. Rather, we are the ones who lay down our arms – the dependencies and life structures that rival his promised provision – and wave the white flag. It is not us creeping closer to God’s territory, but rather God invading our once guarded spaces. If it is a pursuit, it is a pursuit of man by the Holy Spirit.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

I could do a whole predator-becomes-prey illustration thing, but not everyone sees the deep theological implications of this movie.

This is similar to discipleship. Jesus said that if anyone wanted to be his disciple, that person had to deny himself. This doesn’t mean that discipleship and spiritual formation are the same, but it doesn’t reveal that an essential element of the Christian life is the relinquishing of control over our abilities and circumstances.

The difference between the two is that discipleship is the commitment we make to follow Jesus according to his call. Spiritual formation is what takes place once that following begins, when the Spirit begins its transformative work in our hearts and minds.

So, what exactly does a Minister of Spiritual Formation do?

If I’m shepherding a person effectively, then I am helping him understand the principle common to both experiences – that it isn’t all about him. A minister attends to the needs of others, so I’m reminding him that he doesn’t need the worship service to conform to his preferences. That his Bible study doesn’t need to utilize his favorite curriculum. That fellow church members don’t need to think and act the way he feels they should.

"Again with the rattlesnakes?! I really think he should use more copperheads! They much more aesthetically pleasing."

“Again with the rattlesnakes?! Copperheads are much more aesthetically pleasing, Pastor.”

I tell him that what is truly needed is something only God can give. And, if I do this well, he learns to accept that the community of God is something larger and grander than his own imagination’s limits. He comes to see it is infused by a very big and very beautiful God who has a purpose and an agenda so much greater than any one mind can grasp.

A Minister of Spiritual Formation provides opportunities upon opportunities that challenge people to experience the grandeur of God. I’m pointing them to ministries and programs and events and studies not simply because that’s what going to church is all about, but because these things hold the potential to reveal how, as Hopkins wrote, “Christ plays in ten thousand places / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

It’s not always the easiest thing to explain, but not everything has to be easy to explain. When people hear my job title and ask me what I do, I’ve stopped sweating the question. Instead, I smile and tell them, “I make sure people aren’t so focused on their own lives that they forget they’re a part of something much, much greater.”

It may not be the answer they are expecting, or the one that clarifies things the way they were hoping when they asked the question. I’ve only been here two months, so I’ve still got a lot of work to do when it comes to helping people live into their own definitions.

But when it comes to explaining spiritual formation to someone, I’ve decided that is as much the Spirit’s job as it is mine.

Aaron Sorkin, Pope Francis, and the Last Bastion of Idealism (Part 2)

Working in the area of spiritual formation, I often find that once a person discovers (or returns to) the foundation upon which being a Christian is based, he or she quickly begins to operate more and more like an idealist.

After all, when you get right down to it, Christians are meant to be idealists. The sum and substance of our faith is rooted in dynamic, unswerving idealism. For instance, truly committed Christians believe collective duty trumps individual aspiration. They believe personal comfort must never be prioritized above the greater good of a community. Simply put, as often as it is pertinent to do so, committed Christians put others first.

Others-first behavior is not necessarily what makes Christians unique, though. Any Christian who claims it is insults a multitude of people – non-Christians and non-believers – who also believe strongly in the virtues of selflessness and compassion for fellow human beings.

For example, that "love your neighbor as yourself" line originated with these guys.

For example, that “love your neighbor as yourself” line originated with these guys.

However, the difference between Christians who put others first and a non-believers who do the same is that the Christians who act selflessly and compassionately do so out of theological conviction. They believe that these are the characteristics of the God who has saved them. Now, I’ve actually heard some skeptics criticize Christian charity as somehow less pure because it is not proactive but reactive – meaning it is performed out of duty to a directive. The misconception is that such virtue is less genuine/effective because it is done in response to a divine command, whereas the charity of non-believers comes solely from uncoerced human decency, making it nobler. But this kind of criticism is absurd! It’s akin to claiming an enlisted soldier’s patriotism is less genuine than a politician’s because the soldier is commanded to serve his country whereas the politician freely decides to do so.

The only real difference between these two forms of charity is the ideal that drives the act. For the Christian, the ideal that compels acts of charity for our fellow human beings is a God whom we believe modeled this very behavior, and then commanded us to do the same (John 13:34-35, 14:12). For the skeptic, the ideal that compels acts of charity is found in an undefined ought-ness. While it is no less effective, it is based on a fluctuating perception on what is the right thing to do, or what makes a person feel most satisfied.

"These coats would probably keep us warmer if they hadn't been donated by Christians."

“These coats would probably keep us warmer if they hadn’t been donated by Christians.”

A Sense of Something

I believe this is why the Church is still alive and well in our society today, despite droves of so-called “members” who have lost sight of (or never originally discovered) the foundation of this faith. The Church is still hanging in there because idealism is not instinct, because everyone wants to be inspired by something. We are naturally wired to fix our eyes on some kind of ideal – something on which to base our lives.

Sometime a person might have trouble naming exactly what that ideal is, but they nonetheless believe in the power of it.

There’s a scene from The West Wing in which a plucky young Republican lawyer is offered a job in a Democratic administration. After initially rejecting the offer, she changes her mind when she witnesses the employees’ idealistic dedication to their jobs. However, her particular brand of politics leaves many of those same people bewildered as to why she would even want to work with them. Her new supervisor, disgruntled at her presence in the office, presses her to explain her reason for accepting the job. Frustrated, she blurts out, “I feel a sense of duty.”

Her supervisor growls that her statement sounds like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan musical. However, the beauty of the episode is that many of the people who initially view this Republican as an enemy not to be trusted gradually recognize a deeper sense of … something (duty? honor? conviction?) that binds them all together. What unites them is revealed to be greater than what divides them.

It’s actually a really great scene. I recommend taking 2 1/2 minutes and watching it here:

I believe that people want to be inspired – that we all long for a “sense of duty” to drive us and give our lives purpose and transcendent meaning. I believe we want an ideal we can believe in and that we can commit our lives to. And I believe the kind of ideal we’re really looking for is one that will not fade away – one which cannot fail (even if we fail to live up to it).

This is why I do what I do. Because I believe that kind of ideal is not simply taught by a guy named Jesus – it is embodied by him. If it is true that every person longs to know purpose and to experience a sense of significance in this world, then the message of Jesus Christ is truly for every person.

The Greater Good of a Great God

Interestingly, this is the message our world is currently witnessing in the figure of Pope Francis. He is not only living out his idealistic belief. He is showing people that they matter – that there is hope and purpose in this life, and that God – the ultimate ideal, full of love and truth – has ordered things in such a way that we can catch sight of this hope in and through the lives of his followers.

Why is Francis preaching messages of pacifism and peacemaking and compassion for those who suffer? Why is he continually calling for prayer for Ukraine and Syria and Israel/Palestine? Is it simply because that’s what religious people do (or are supposed to do, because our dogma demands it)? Or is it because there is an ideal that compels all people – from lonely individuals to whole continents – to strive for greater and greater levels of selflessness and compassion?

For the lazier among us, his Eminence is thoughtful enough to condense his messages to 140 characters.

For the lazier among us, his Eminence is thoughtful enough to condense his messages to 140 characters.

I’ll end this examination of Christian idealism with a story that happened very recently. In it we see what it looks like when people – particularly Christians – lose sight of the ideal established by God and perfectly modeled by Jesus Christ, as well as what it looks like when truly committed Christians keep that ideal firmly in mind.

You may remember a particularly distressing debacle regarding the Christian-based advocacy organization, World Vision. In the fall of 2013, the company changed its hiring policy, choosing to no longer bar homosexual individuals from employment. However, when the decision was leaked and Christianity Today reported on it the following March, droves of conservative evangelicals collectively threw a ginormous hissy fit. There were immediate calls for a boycott, and thousands of Christians terminated their sponsorship. After only two days, approximately 5000 child sponsors had ceased their relationship with World Vision; later estimates reported that somewhere around 10,000 children had been hung out to dry because of the drop in financial support. Forty-eight hours after the story broke, Richard Stearns, the organization’s president, announced that they had decided to nix the policy change. Sadly, since then, only a small fraction of sponsorships have been renewed.

However, one group of believers not only maintained their sponsorships, but chose to act further out of faithfulness to the ideal set before them by Jesus. This church, where a friend of mine serves as pastor, decided to literally put their money where their mouths were. They decided that they would not – could not – stand by and watch child after child be rejected like an unwanted newspaper subscription. Through social media, e-mails, letters and phone calls, they made it clear that they were willing to take on the financial responsibilities of every child that had lost his or her sponsorship. They claimed that while it was one thing to disagree with World Vision’s decision (a decision that had even been reversed), it was a whole other thing to withhold education and medical care – not to mention the Gospel – from an innocent child because of that disagreement. In other words, there was something much greater at stake.

Pictured: "the least of these brothers of mine" (Matthew 25:40)

Pictured: “the least of these brothers of mine” (Matthew 25:40)

We have been given an ideal that surpasses all others. We have been called to live unto a sense of duty instilled in us by a God who is living and active and on the move in this world. Let us never forget the deeper sense of something that binds us all together. Let us never lose sight of the greater good to which we have been called. As the writer of Hebrews encourages, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.”

Aaron Sorkin, Pope Francis, and the Last Bastion of Idealism (Part 1)

I feel guilty. Last weekend, I bought four great books at a library sale (also known as the Holy Grail of cheap used book sales). But I haven’t even cracked one of them yet because I can’t stop watching The West Wing on Netflix.

I’ve already seen every episode, some more than once, and yet it continues to play on my iPad. On the treadmill. Before going to bed. Passing time on a lazy Saturday. I’ve even been taking in portions of episodes while eating lunch at my desk. I keep telling myself that good writing is good writing, and The West Wing still represents some of the best television writing of the past few decades. Even when its creator, Aaron Sorkin, departed the show after season four and the show suffered an inevitable slippage in quality, it still remained a cut above most of the other TV dramas at the time.

They lost a Sorkin, but they gained an Alda and a Smits.

They lost a Sorkin, but they gained an Alda and a Smits.

However, my real problem isn’t neglecting a stack of great books. Nor is it that I’m watching these episodes again despite remembering 95% of what happens.

My real problem is that watching The West Wing is dangerous behavior.

Why? you might ask.

Because with every episode of this show, I am once again exposed to the kind of unabashed idealism that is usually reserved for Disney movies and Lord of the Rings characters.

It doesn’t matter what your preferred political stance is. The story lines of The West Wing were less interested in advocating a particular partisan viewpoint than they were focused on the what-if’s and what-could-be’s of a group of sincere idealists working in the highest levels of government. This is Sorkin’s M.O. The “Well-Educated Idealist” is his favorite character archetype, and he has often been criticized for his repeated imaginings of such a character at work in our society’s systems – systems which the majority of people are quick to label corrupt, or unprincipled, or wayward, or incompetent. His most successful imagining – The West Wing – placed such idealists within the political sphere, but he’s done it similarly with sports broadcasting (Sports Night), network television (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), and cable news (The Newsroom). Even the film Moneyball, whose script Sorkin was hired to polish, portrayed a sense of resolute idealism – of bright people struggling to trust in the value of a system that so many around them said could never work.

The West Wing is dangerous because that kind of idealism is dangerous. It might have won Sorkin a few Emmys, but in real life it rarely wins you many friends.

And since the other three programs mentioned above were cancelled in three seasons or less, it apparently isn't something even television viewers enjoy all that much.

And since the other three programs mentioned above were cancelled in three seasons or less, it apparently isn’t something even TV viewers enjoy all that much.

“O Beautiful for Tragedy”

So, why is it that uncompromising idealism – people showing loyalty to collective duty over individual aspiration – is a dangerous thing?

The answer, of course, is that it just doesn’t seem like the world works that way anymore.

During my years teaching American literature at an international school for missionary kids, I was beset with complaints from the kids when we delved into the units on realism and naturalism. They protested that every story, play, and novel we read was depressing. Copies of The Crucible and The Great Gatsby came back to me with dented spines and tattered covers inflicted by kids who had thrown them across the room in frustration. During one class, an intelligent young woman with an infectiously sweet disposition asked me, “Why do all these stories have such sad endings?”

“Well,” I said, intending a joke, “you may not realize this because you haven’t spent much time there, but Americans are really depressed people. Nothing ever goes the way we want it to, so of course our stories are going to be sad.”

Instead of laughing, everyone in class looked at me like I’d just dropkicked a puppy.

"If there are no more questions, let's take a look at the next novel we'll be discussing: Cormac McCarthy's The Road."

“If there are no more questions, let’s take a look at the next novel we’ll be discussing: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.”

Idealism in the Church

Of course, there is plenty of art and pop culture that portray joy and optimism. But unabashed idealism is hard to come by.

As a minister, when I watch The West Wing, I can’t help but transfer some of its pie-in-the-sky views to the Church. Idealistic action rarely claims victories in our modern world, and a rapidly growing number of Americans see Christians not at people of irresistable joy and impressive integrity, but as corrupt and unprincipled. Today, churches are accused of being wayward and incompetent.

Consider the exception that proves the rule. One of the few figures that has fascinated many non-believers in recent months is Pope Francis. I think the reason so many non-Catholics admire Pope Francis is that he has not adhered to the assumptions of what a Pope is supposed to do. His Eminence is speaking and acting less like a pietistic empty shirt and more like a living, breathing example of pragmatic idealism. People appreciate that… at least in small doses.

Wishful statements are made that today’s churches need more people like Pope Francis in them. I agree, of course, but I can’t help but wonder if it is still possible to cultivate that kind of fleshed-out idealism in the modern Church.

Genuine emulation will probably cost a bit more.

Genuine emulation will probably cost a bit more.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to be a pessimist. I want to be an idealist. But do we have the courage and determination to cultivate such a committed belief in our church’s members – that the greater good must trump personal comforts?  Can such idealism become a viable, sustainable reality in our churches? Could it really last, or, like most of Sorkin’s television dramas, would it only be tolerated for a few brief seasons before its luster wears off?

Critics of The West Wing often pointed to the fact that the decisions and actions of characters on the show would never happen in real-life Washington D.C., either because of legal issues or simply because no one with such a viewpoint would last long in a job like that. I sometimes fear that the same drab reality may be true in the majority of our churches.

What do you think? Is it possible that an authentic, visionary faith can be reawakened in the Church? Can the current few genuine idealists we have in our churches become a potent multitude of uncompromising ambassadors of hope? Can more of the people of God act like the people of God?

Or will we continue to be sidetracked by a plethora of distractions, from popular political squabbles that unnecessarily divide us to the weekly hassles of why the preacher moved the pulpit? Will we insist that all of our members learn how to share the gospel, or look the other way while some of them only share gossip? Will we spend our money on global initiatives dedicated to alleviate the suffering of all people, or on activist groups who want to take a Hollywood production company to task for the creative liberties they took filming the story of Noah?

Noah-Watcher V2 -luca nemolato

“Rock monsters! I’m, like, 99% sure that’s not in the Bible!”

What do you think? Am I off-base here? Is idealism dangerous? Is it deluded? Dead? Or, does it have a place in today’s churches?

 

In part two of this article, I’ll further explore what idealism looks like when it’s lived out in a church. Stay tuned…