When I run, I usually have a podcast flowing through the earphones. One of my favorites is the American Public Media radio show “On Being” hosted by Krista Tippett (and previously known as “Speaking of Faith.”) It is consistently good and often provocative, stimulating, and frustrating at the same time, and I walk away from each listen with something new to I want to learn, appreciate, or question.
This morning I caught the full episode “Occupying the Gospel” featuring Krista’s interview with Paul Brandeis Raushenbusch (hereafter, PBR). Here’s the description from On Being: “Paul Brandeis Raushenbush opens up a hidden but possibly re-emerging influence in the DNA of American Christianity, reaching back to the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the 20th century.”
True to form, it was an amazing show dealing with our conversation about religion in this present world. I can’t recommend this show highly enough – there are so many conversational gems that I regretted not being able to sit down and scrawl on a scrap of paper to save for later.
But aside from noting the parallels between the social inequity and unrest in our day and that of Walter Raushenbusch’s at the turn of the 20th century, the episode didn’t really reference the title that much. And that title – “Occupying the Gospel” – is what got me thinking.
At first I was uncomfortable with it, thinking it might just be a marketing grab at contemporary relevance. Like many, I followed the Occupy Wall Street protests with interest, and I’m aware that the “#occupy” tag has become something of a meme these few months. At a deeper level, my discomfort came from fear that this would be one more “occupation” of the “gospel” in favor of only a reductive, socio-politico-economic vision. I should have known better. One of my joys and surprises in the show was to hear PBR tell of WR’s own lament over the term “social gospel” in favor of just “gospel” with all its personal and social implications. (The “social gospel” vs. “traditional/fundamentalist gospel” was one of the giant wedge issues in the church’s proclamation and practice for the last 100 years, and I can only applaud attempts to bring them back together through renewed interest in Jesus, who he is, and what it means to trust and follow him.) To probe even deeper in hindsight, I suppose I was afraid the show would highlight my own failings to follow Jesus and show where my own life has “occupied” the gospel and settled for some paltry, worn, or reduced version of the real thing.
We all are routinely “occupying” the gospel with our own visions. We take over the good news with an alien agenda of “me.” We all import into our following of Jesus so much of our own vision and understanding of life and what matters most. We so want “Your will be done” to mean “my will be done” right now on earth (and forget heaven!) – whether we pray it or not. That’s sin, and the only thing to do is repent. I’m thankful today that PBR pushed us to dig deep into scripture and our own traditions with great curiosity, maybe not in a quest for certainty but in one for conviction. As someone who as a person and pastor took a vow to be “zealous and faithful in promoting the truths of the Gospel” I have to continually go back to Christ himself. I keep dwelling on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance…” (read the whole chapter and Scot McKnight’s excellent book The King Jesus Gospel in that quest to dig deep.)
Did the “social gospel” movement ultimately occupy the gospel? Yes. Did the fundamentalist altar-call crowd “occupy” the gospel in response? Yes. Do we, here and now, do the same? Sadly, yes. But what has to happen – and I what I truly believe has happened – is that Jesus Christ, who is the gospel, came to occupy us in a very real sense. The only solution is that He must take center stage and lead us in the drama of living out this life. Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote some lovely lines (in dialogue form) about the dilemma of knowing Jesus:
Q: Why do people continually want to revise the prevailing view of Jesus?
A: To relieve the pain of this dilemma by changing Jesus into something they can understand.
Q. What is Jesus’ alternative plan?
A: To change us into something that can understand him.
May it be so. Thank you, Krista and Paul, for provoking this today.
Grace and peace – Andy.