07 March, 2010

The Sacred Perspective

Last night Dana and I watched the 2007 clip of Tom Cruise browbeating Matt Lauer on the evils of antidepressants. Dana was blown away by the odd way Cruise sounded. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she really didn't think he sounded right.

Mr. Cruise was conned.

He bought into a very simple con job. He's a good guy (barring a normal dose of sin and a superstar level of narcissism) who really wants to make the world a better place. He cares deeply about things, and L Ron Hubbard's folk told him a shortcut to helping the whole world. On the subject of antidepressants, for example, they told him something like, "You could dedicate a lifetime of study to pharmaceuticals, or you can study what we've already learned about them. You can sift through hundreds of experts' opinions, and spend years trying to figure out which of these experts has sold out to big pharma, and eventually you'll work your way down to the results we've already compiled. Or you can study our results and start helping the world TODAY."

It's a shortcut, and it's an appealling one.

I've been there and done that.

Gene Edwards once told me I was the foremost expert in the world on church history. I'd very much imagine he's since rescinded that opinion (forcefully) but he appeared to say it in complete sincerity. And when he said it, I believed it might be true.

They say you can't sucker an honest man. They're right. Gene offered me a too-good-to-be-true deal, and I bought into it because of my inner dishonesty. He'd written a handful of books and gave us personal talks touting his incredible insights into a grabbag of subjects: family, church, Trinity, missions, child-rearing, psychology, emotional development. One of his core subjects was church history. I could either study hundreds of books written by hundreds of authors on the subject of church history and do the hard work of weeding out all their conflicting errors, or (for the amazing low price of a few of Gene's books!) I could have the world's most complete view of church history.

I placed my confidence in Gene the same way any mark hands his savings over to a huckster. I went all-in, as they say in poker, with a pair of deuces. (For non-poker readers, I gambled everything I owned on the weakest possible pair.)

One day, I took all my cheap brilliance to an Internet News Group dedicated to church history, and floated a couple leading questions their way. I remember asking what they thought the literacy rate was in first century Europe. Those historians answered me in ways I'd never imagined. I learned more about literacy from that one question than I'd learned in all my studies of Gene's work. Those men and women knew their history deeply and widely and verifiably. Gene's pitch was rich in promises and conclusions, but devoid of peer-reviewed data. I walked away from that news group knowing I'd been rolled, and the diploma Gene had spoken to me wasn't worth the air it had briefly disturbed. It was a sick, unsettling feeling, but I owned my loss and started the process of reevaluating my "investment."

What happened to me, and what I'm sure happened to Mr. Cruise, is that instead of learning a single subject from many perspectives, I learned every subject from Gene's sacred perspective. Instead of the humility that comes with learning to respect experts in their fields, I thought I could quickly rise above all the experts in every field because I had the magic feather of Gene's divine insight.

Beware the expert with divine insight into everything, and run in terror from the man who needs your trust. When a man needs your confidence, look closely to what he's offering. All too often that free lunch costs your life savings.


salguod said...

Great stuff and very true. My church group once lived as though it could gain all the wisdom needed to cure Christianity of all that ailed it by simply studying the bible ourselves. Not only did we largely ignore the centuries of church history or the voices of today from outside our tribe, we were taught that to study or listen to them was not only fruitless, but dangerous.

Once the curtain was pulled back, it was rather ironic and embarrassing how many mistakes of the past (and not just the distant past either) we repeated. It's also sad how much insight we missed from wide men, passionate for God, but who were not from our tribe.

Kansas Bob said...

Great and revealing writing Kevin. I particularly resonated with:

"I owned my loss and started the process of reevaluating my "investment.""

I think that kind of humility is the cost of spiritual maturity.

Anonymous said...

Could you elaborate more on the differences between Gene Edwards' version of church history and what you learned in your discussions with church historians on-line?

Brian said...

Gene did talk a lot about church history. There was the Moravians, Albigensians and others that he was inspired by. Some of the brothers would do some research on them and share in the meetings how they fared against the religious establishment in their time. I guess we thought we were in the same tradition, bucking the normal way of worship and disrupting the status quo. We certainly got heat from the formal church, as much as our spiritual forefathers did, although no burning at the stake (as far as I know!).

I remember Gene mentioned he was in the Vatican (you can read more about this on his wikipedia page, with info on this and much more) and literally shook and trembled with anger while looking at the various popes through history on the walls inside. To him, they were evil men masquerading as saints.

In Santa Barbara we really felt a bond with the early church and that's what it was all about, experiencing first century church life. It was exciting and scary and crazy and wonderful all at the same time.

Kevin Knox said...

I cannot argue the amazing feeling Gene gave us, nor that he based it on a deeper understanding of church history than I'd ever known. Gene was the first man I'd ever heard base theology on history, and it was great.

The feeling was powerful, but in the end it was thin. At some point he stopped learning and assumed he had the whole story. He'd formed a powerful narrative, and he began to teach that narrative, rather than the actual story. It was still the best part of his ministry, but the truth is more complex and compelling than his narrative.

Kevin Knox said...

I reread the question about what I think is missing from Gene's history, and I think it deserves an answer.

Gene had two big picture views of history. First, he believed in the persecution of the little church by the organized church. Second, he believed in the value of centering prayer and mysticism in general. He found major fodder for both those goals in the history of the church in Europe. I won't complain here about his take on that history.

Working backward toward what's missing, Gene exaggerates the illiteracy of the first century. He wants to portray a church in which the Bible is not central, to make room for a mystical understanding of Christian experience.

The idea of centering prayer and mysticism comes from the desert fathers, not from the Bible. And their ideas came from Philo of Alexandria who, you must understand, thought Moses and Plato were the two most divinely inspired men in history. 20 years after Christ's death, he did not believe any such thing about Jesus, but the church loved his teachings all the same. Amusingly, Gene hated Plato and loved Philo's teachings.

Gene never spent time on the history of Babylon, and that's a big deal. The rabbinical thought against which Jesus fought was from Babylon, and not from those Jews who returned after the captivity. The gnostic thought against which the early church fought was from Babylon. And the most important role of Babylon is the deep and good change Judaism went through while Israel was there. Israel came to understand their God in a much more intimate way during the captivity. Gene never spoke of "second temple Judaism", and it's key to understanding Jesus task on earth.

If we're going to talk history, we need to talk about the way history changed the shape of the message of Jesus before we talk about the effect of organization on the church. Even more than that, though, we need to understand the way an exaggerated view of illiteracy can lead us down a false path to mysticism.

You can look at the later psalms and prophets and see the growth of spiritual thought toward the fullness of Christ. You can see the growth of the hope of the resurrection. You can see the growth of the hope for all nations. You can see the end of idolatry, the birth of mercy, and the promises growing more specific. It's all there, and worth our time.

Kathy Beamis said...

I have Gene's book "Revolutionary Bible Study". Do you agree with him that it helps to read the books that Paul wrote in the order Gene recommends because these books in our bibles are in the order of their size and by reading them in the order of when they were written helps us to see the story?

Kevin Knox said...

I've not read that book, Kathy, so I can't speak to its quality or to how Gene may have transformed his message since I knew him.

My experience is that it's critical to understand those books were written in the context of real people living real lives. It's helpful to know their pain and joy as you read the words written to them, and it's helpful to know the other influences in their lives. That said, I don't tend to read them in any order. In fact, I'm reading NT Wright's new translation of the New Testament right now, and I'm reading it in page-number order. (I can hardly recommend The Kingdom New Testament highly enough. It's amazingly helpful.)

You'll never stop unrolling the complexities of how these books connect to each other, so I'd say you should enjoy what Gene has to tell you. As you begin to think you have a grip on that story, though, open up the Old Testament again. Think of it in terms of the growth of God's people. They went into Egypt knowing nothing but God's promises to their fathers. They left Egypt and received the law. They walked haltingly with God for a couple hundred years, then got kings. They next learned temple worship. After that, they lost that temple and learned to worship God without a temple in Babylon. This really changed them, and it was at this time the scripture came together. Finally, they returned to Israel and learned to worship in yet another way. All the story merging Gene uses to make the New Testament come alive is there in the old, too.

After you have the New under your belt, come back and get the Old. When you return to the New, you'll find it's all deeper and richer than you'd guessed. Just keep digging!