Question & Answer
Q: By Victor
Trying to figure out what Christianity is all about, I ask a lot of questions. All I want is a simple answer, but I keep getting different opinions from different people. Is that all there is? Opinions? Where are the facts?
A: By Rev. David Felten
As a pastor who’s also a musician, the best analogy I can think of is (what else?) musical. There are a lot of “facts” about music: we strive for the “A” above middle “C” to vibrate at 440 Hz, there are four musicians in a quartet, and the British Navy uses Britney Spears songs to scare off Somali pirates.[i] No kidding. But beyond that kind of thing, music is pretty subjective. I, for one, have eclectic tastes in music, ranging from the spare and simple to the avant-garde – not surprising in that my music education degree expected me to be proficient in everything from the obscure and esoteric discipline of the classical French saxophone repertoire to the jazz and pop styles that make up the bulk of what people listen to in the real world.
I was trained and expected to be able to play it all. Not surprisingly then, the music that moves me and serves as the soundtrack to my life is from almost every style and period. It’s intensely personal and subjective. I know that some of the more experimental and “free” music that inspires me the most would leave a lot of people just shaking their heads in bewilderment (it does with my mom, at least), but that’s where my musical journey has taken me.
So, here’s the thing: there’s one kind of music that I don’t listen to. In fact, I can’t stand it. And that’s contemporary country music. I understand it technically and appreciate how popular it is with regular folk. Be it the inane lyrics, superficial patriotism, or the monotony of the music harmonically, it’s just not anything I can listen to. Totally subjective, but there it is. That’s my opinion. I’m a musical elitist and snob.
Suffice it to say, in the realm of theology and religion, there’s an abundance of opinion, but there just aren’t that many facts. As with music, my theological tastes are pretty eclectic, ranging from the spare and simple to the avant-garde. My theological degrees expected me to know about everything from pretty obscure historical and esoteric writings to the simplest pop Christian theology that most people relate to in everyday life. I was exposed to a lot; and now, where I’ve come to be in my own personal spiritual life turns out to be very confusing to most people. It’s intensely personal, subjective and fluid. I know that a lot of what I believe must make some people just shake their head in wonder, but that’s OK. I hope they can get a glimpse of my spiritual priorities through my actions in the world. Along the way, colleagues have called me a heretic, apostate, liar and “one of the tools the enemy.” All for just being honest? Hooray! They called Thelonious Monk incompetent and subversive.
And yes, just like in music, in the world of faithing, there’s one kind of theology that I can’t stand – and that’s the kind of pop Christianity that has become the dominant civic/evangelical religion in the United States. And just like country music, it’s inane, monotonous and steeped in superficial patriotism. I understand it and appreciate how popular it is with regular folk, but it’s disconnectedness from the teachings and intentions of Jesus make me really sad. What’s worse is its programmatic embrace of hateful and ignorant ideologies that not only discriminate against a growing laundry list of people and ideas, but deny reality and those precious “facts” you’re looking for.
I used to think that they were totally out of touch with the reformation that is going on across the country and around the world, but that’s not true. They’re well aware of the threat posed by evolving mainliners, post-evangelicals and non-believers. The nature of God, blood atonement, Christology, the authority of the Bible – all of them (including “belief” itself) – are not just in the midst of major change, in the words of one of my mentors, “they’re not even in my rear-view mirror.” As a result, the Religious Right leverages fear-based campaigns to raise money and enhance their political influence to fend off what they perceive as dangerous religious and social trends.
For us in the middle of it professionally, it’s daunting, exciting and challenging, but it’s just downright perplexing to most people in the pews who think that Christianity just “is what it is” and want “just the facts.” Sorry. There’s lots of change in process and on the horizon. The belief and practices of the last 1,500 years are being retooled, revised or just plain retired. For many of us, it’s not about being faithful to rigid creeds and doctrines, but about subjectively composing a whole new genre of spirituality (of which Jesus’ teachings are just one part).
The challenge is that most people in most churches (and many clergy) have their theological beliefs pre-set to the “oldies station” and are either insulated from or intimidated by what’s going on outside their comfort zone. So, they simply plod along in the isolation of their bubble of orthodoxy without a clue that there are people who practice Christianity and follow Jesus in radically different ways.
So there it is. I’m not only a musical elitist and snob but a theological elitist and snob, too. If you ask me what Christianity is all about, I’m happy to give you my opinion. But it probably won’t match the last person you asked. And just like my musical tastes, I reserve the right to change my opinion based on the latest release from Snarky Puppy or Die Berliner Philharmoniker.
I urge you to abandon your quest for simple answers and embrace the journey that sifting through opinions offers. Any “facts” along the way may be helpful, but only insofar as they provide a means of evaluating the veracity of various opinions. In the meantime, I encourage you to take to heart the sage (and subjective) advice of Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.”
~ Rev. David M. Felten
This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.
About the Author
Rev. David M. Felten is a full-time pastor at The Fountains, a United Methodist Church in Fountain Hills, Arizona. David and fellow United Methodist Pastor, Jeff Procter-Murphy, are the creators of the DVD-based discussion series for Progressive Christians, “Living the Questions” and authors of Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. A co-founder of Catalyst Arizona and also a founding member of No Longer Silent: Clergy for Justice, David is an outspoken voice for LGBTQ rights both in the church and in the community at large. David is active in the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church and tries to stay connected to his roots as a musician. You’ll find him playing saxophones in a variety of settings, including appearances with the Fountain Hills Saxophone Quartet. David is the proud father of three reliably remarkable human beings.