Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Chronological Snobbery: Review of The Right Church

Chronological snobbery. Do you have it? While it might sound like a disease you might catch towards the beginning of a New Year, it is simply favoring the ideas of the present as vastly superior to those of the past. Ours is an age and culture fascinated with the new, improved, and updated. It seems my phone, my Apps and my software are always in need of updating. As soon as we get a new tablet or phone, the newer and improved version hits the shelf and the older version becomes obsolete.

While so much has seemingly become disposable, this isn't true for Christianity. The saints who have gone before have much to teach us. Chuck Gutenson's The Right Church: Live Like the First Christians serves as a helpful way to explore the diverse wisdom from early church theologians. I was amazed in my church history classes to learn how much those theologians disagreed but even more by how much they challenged conventional wisdom. Gutenson's book hits a number of relevant topics and explores them through the lens of a wide variety of early church fathers. His aim is to put us in conversation with their ways of thinking in order to challenge some of our current presumptions that too often go unexamined.

For example, while there were lots of agreement about the importance of Scripture in the early church, there was also a variety of interpretations and even schools of interpretations. Gutenson challenged me to see that it wasn't the more historical perspective of the Antioch school, but the more allegorical school from Alexandria that had the lesser tendency to fall into heresy. From a quote fromOrigen, Gutenson reminds us what has been too often forgotten, "the goal of Scripture is to form us into the people of God, into a people who live out with integrity the life of faith." (12) Additionally the early church fathers point out why individualism and schism is a danger to ourselves.

Another concept that too often goes unexamined is our use of the word freedom.  This was evident to me watching the news recently in an interview with a person smoking pot who could do so legal for the first time in the state of Washington. He declared, "I am free to be free." Gutenson's discussion reveals why many staunch conservatives would be surprised to learn how "liberal" their ideas about freedom really are philosophically speaking. Instead, Professor Gutenson shows why slavery to Christ is highest and the only real freedom.

It was illuminating having just finished Gutenson's exploration of the early church fathers on wealth and poverty prior to reading about the factory fires in Bangladesh where workers were killed and burned making low cost clothes in inhumane conditions. This made St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom's words that much more convicting. Perhaps most thought-provoking and convicting was St. Chrysostom's observation about 2 Thessalonians 3:10 ("Anyone who would not work should not eat") wasn't simply for the poor, but the wise ancient preacher points out was instead for the rich who "are often guilty of worse idleness." Having someone quote that passage to me to justify their own inaction recently, I was glad I had read that chapter. Similar is true for the chapters on Stewardship of Creation, Society and Government, and especially fascinating is his observations about the early church's stance on war and military service pre-Constantine.

For those looking for a few short stories or even sermon examples that sum up the early church's critique's to our way of life, the last chapter on the Desert Fathers is for you. Gutenson invitation "to reflect upon these 'strange' early fellow Christians" is certainly true. Their lives present a stark contrast to our society that builds debt amounts hard to comprehend, clamors for more gadgets, eats our way into a heath-care crisis, and requires storage units for all our excess possessions. The long quotations throughout further his intention about engagement with, not necessarily agreement with the early church. For ours is a different time. Yet in reflecting upon their lives and wisdom with openness instead of chronological snobbery, hopefully Gutenson's attempts will spark renewal to a people called to distinct way of love.