With less to say about my own writing than I’d like, I’m going to be doing more blogging about books I’ve read or am reading. I’m starting today with a post about a quote from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. (I’m reading Gilead because Jonathan Rogers recommended it highly to me while we were on the Motiv8 Tour.)
I won’t try to explain what is going on in the story, save to say that the main character has just read an article about religion in America. (It might help to say the story is set in the 50’s and the article is supposed to be from ’48.) I’ll begin quoting below:
The article is called “God and the American People,” and it says 95 percent of us say we believe in God. But our religion doesn’t meet the writer’s standards, not at all. To his mind, all those people in all those churches are the scribes and the Pharisees. He seems to me to be a bit of a scribe himself, scorning and rebuking the way he does. How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to do.
I don’t know, out of the context of the story and the book, how this quote will strike you. It struck me as profound, as several things in the story have. Gilead is one of those books; it rolls along, veering here and there, and every so often it brings the world around you to a standstill with its poignant observations that make you stop reading and consider. This was one of those moments for me.
There are, of course, many differences between scribes and prophets. I say this to appease the literal-minded who might be looking to make of the quote something it does not intend to say. It is good hermeneutical practice for all of us to take a writer’s words in the spirit they are intended, as best as we are able, and Robinson clearly isn’t trying to give an exhaustive theological or historical summary of the difference between scribes and prophets. She’s saying, it seems to me, that many of those who would critique the church do not love the church they critique.
Again, to forestall objection, she isn’t talking about people outside the church critiquing the church. That’s to be expected, isn’t it? Those who don’t believe don’t see the sense of believing and tend to be critical of those who do. Those who believe, who are part of the church, are those she speaks about here, and her point is very important. Critically important.
There is much to criticize the church about. I don’t think that is at issue. Like each of us individually, broken and marred by the sins we commit and that are committed against us, the church as a whole is broken and marred. Again, what should we expect? Take a large group of selfish and sinful people and put them together, we could hardly think the result would be anything less than painfully disappointing at times. And yet the scriptures are clear that the Church is the bride of Christ, beloved of God and in the process of being redeemed, as are we. In short, while it is good and right to point out the failings of the Church in the hope that it may change its ways where it needs to, there is room for charity (in the older sense of the word) in the way we critique it.
If you find yourself with reason to chastise the Church as a whole, or your church in particular, consider carefully how you do it. There are undoubtedly enough self-righteous proclamations about what’s wrong with it already, so there’s no need to add more. Ask yourself, do you love the Church that you chastise, for Christ certainly does. If you find that you do not, or not as much as you feel you should – I find myself in this category, too often – then perhaps your time and energy would be better spent pursuing the correction of your own heart and leaving the correction of the church to those whose love for her shines in even the hardest things they have to say about her. (These people do exist – some of my former teachers, Lyle Dorsett and Jerram Barrs for example, come to mind.)
Undoubtedly it is true that the church has more than enough scribes and Pharisees still within its ranks – let’s not add our voices to theirs, compounding that particular problem. Let’s learn to take a different road toward the same end, the correction and growth of the church in holiness, for own sake as well as the Church’s.