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Healthy Christianity #2: Beauty and the Beast ©

The great, classic story of Beauty and the Beast tells of a blossoming love between a beautiful young woman and hideous beast. In Disney’s 1991 film version. the title song “Beauty and the Beast,” was written by lyricist Howard Ashman and composed by Alan Menken. The song received numerous awards, including a Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1991. The lyrics along with a caressing melody are fetching and even enticing. The opening lines capture the sweet essence of learning to accept differences and being open to loving another.

“Tale as old as time

True as it can be

Barely even friends

Then somebody bends

Unexpectedly

 

Just a little change

Small to say the least

Both a little scared

Neither one prepared

Beauty and the beast.” (Verses 1 and 2 of “Beauty and the Beast,”) It all sounds so good. It carries the gentle hint of an improvement. The tune invites us to a more expansive love and evokes the promise of a wider grace. And yet, when applied to Christian belief, the pleasing seductiveness of new or novel ways of conceiving the Christian faith present a “beauty and the beast” comparison with dangerous implications for healthy Christianity.  In its own way, without intending to, the opening lines the classic song capture some of the allure of unhealthy Christianity. There is a temptation that every age faces to somehow think that it can improve upon the Christian faith in some manner or form of conception. This is especially true in an age and time which approaches the new and “modern” with instinctive assumptions that anything new, modern or improved must be better. Contemporaneous with the assumptions that new is “better” and that improved is really “improved,” are strong cultural convictions that institutional answers passed down over centuries must be oppressive. The popularity of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, despite its massive historical inaccuracies, provides graphic testimony to ingrained cultural suspicions against historic Christian affirmations. Perceptively, Alister McGrath comments, “The belief that heresy is intellectually and morally liberating tells us far more about today’s cultural climate in the West than about the realities of the first centuries of Christian existence.” (Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, p. 8) Our restless American obsession with radical individualism and almost instinctive rebellion against authority lead us astray. Rather than some monolithic structure, the early Christian church was struggling to define and preserve the very heart of the gospel. However, well intended our current challenge to authority and the historic Christian faith may be, I wish to challenge our casual cultural assumptions with regard to the concept of doctrinal orthodoxy. Orthodoxy represents the core content, the heart of the gospel. It is far more than the result of a majority vote at some council, but the collective wisdom of the early Christian fathers and mothers of the faith tested in the fires of persecution, shaped in open debate and sanctified by believers everywhere. Holy Scripture urges us to “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” (1 Timothy 1:13-14, NRSV) The cry of our age and time is to be relevant. Such a clamor has invaded the life of Christian theology and burrowed into the heart of the Church itself. Here lies much of our present danger.  United Methodism (along with much of so-called mainline or old-line Protestantism) suffers from a theological and spiritual version of coronary heart disease. Dean Inge’s warning is painfully appropriate. “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” (Dean William R. Inge, quotationsbook.com/quote/36726/)  Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics chronicles American Christianity’s failed marriage with the spirit of our age. “That’s because America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad [emphasis in the original] religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianity in its place. Since the 1960s, the institutions that sustained orthodox Christian belief – Catholic and Protestant alike – have entered a state of near-terminal decline. The churches with the strongest connection to the Christian past have lost members, money, and authority; the elite that was once at least sympathetic to Christian ideas has become hostile or indifferent; and the culture as a whole has turned its back on many of the faith’s precepts and demands.… A growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses.”  (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, pp. 3-4) We stand in need of a blood transfusion and mind transformation. The Apostle Paul’s words written to the capital city church of Roman apply to us. “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is – what is good and pleasing and mature.” (Romans 12:2) The false choice between right belief (“orthodoxy”) and right practice (“orthopraxis”) serves as a form of plaque buildup in the bloodstream of faith. It is worth careful reflection and critical application to remember that we both believe ourselves into new ways of acting and act ourselves into new ways of believing. I chose here in this series of blogs to focus on issues related to recovering the heart of the gospel as it relates to doctrine, what we believe. Such a focus in no way diminishes the importance of the connection with practice. The struggle between what is right belief (orthodoxy) and what is classically called heterodoxy (or in linguistic shorthand by the label “heresy”) predates the Christian gospel. Linguistic scholars note that the word hairesis comes from the Greek and originally conveyed the notion of choice.  It was originally seen as a neutral term involving “an act of choosing.” McGrath notes that in time it came to mean “a preferred course of action” or a “school of thought.” (see Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, pp. 36-37) Heterodoxy is defined as “deviation from accepted or orthodox standards or beliefs.” Roger Olson, a highly respected theologian teaching at Truett Theological Seminary, helps clear the underbrush between exploring different opinions and thought about faith and the more severe sounding term “heresy.” He writes, “Heresy depends on orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is theological or doctrinal correctness – right belief. Heresy is teaching (not just mistaken belief) that denies orthodoxy. In other words, heresy is serious, not minor, doctrinal error. . .. error that strikes at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Roger Olson, Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, p. 3) Professor Justo Gonzalez, in his introduction to the Christian Believer curriculum, uses the image of a baseball diamond to covey an understanding of the role of orthodoxy in the life of the church’s theology. Orthodoxy functions like the foul lines. Just as in baseball there is a great deal of room between the left field foul line and the right field line, so too is there a great deal of room within the concept of orthodoxy. Take for instance the doctrine of the Trinity. The nature of the foul line is clear. Christians are monotheistic. We do not worship three gods. Likewise, Christians hold to unity in the three – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity are distinct yet of one substance, essence or nature. Within the foul lines of unity, the three in one, and distinctiveness – each person of the Trinity – there is a great deal of room for different understanding and interpretation. Simultaneously, a position advocating polytheism (say a belief in three distinct gods) or the Son and Holy Spirit as subordinate, or “vice-gods,” is outside the foul lines. The great gatherings of the early Christian church, which are called Ecumenical (meaning universal) Councils (beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325 A. D.), were efforts around defining the foul lines of the Christian faith. In a general sense, they define the “foul lines” for most branches of the Christian family. There is an old saying, “heresy is the mother of orthodoxy.” Professor Olson reminds us that “what we call orthodoxy was the result of working out the implicit beliefs of the early Christians, led by the apostles’ heirs, in response to heresies and heretics.” (Roger Olson, Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, p. 21) The struggle between orthodoxy and heterodoxy or heresy is not, in principle, about oppressive institutions stifling creative thinking. Yet, we approach the task of reclaiming the heart of the Christian gospel in a humble confessional stance. It behooves us to acknowledge that the charge of heresy has been deeply abused in the past. Rather, our task today in this time is follow the counsel of the Apostle Paul and be renewed by the transformation of our minds in what is “good and pleasing and mature.” We are challenged with the task of reclaiming the heart of the gospel without embracing past methods of abuse.