Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reflecting on 'The Love That Matters' by Charles Featherstone (4) Searching for God in Dispensational Christianity

The 4th in a series of posts reflecting on The Love That Matters by Charles Featherstone.  1st post here.

One day, when I was fourteen, I suddenly found myself interested in God.  Wanting to go look for God.
I suddenly found myself interested in God.  Who knows how such things happen, but what better place to find oneself suddenly interested in God than the deeply Christian and predominantly dispensationalist southern California of the 1980's, right?!
Living in suburban California in the early 1980s, the only religion you were likely to bump into by accident was a conservative, happy face dispensationalist Christianity. (p 53)
Now, even though this was a few years removed from his brutal elementary and middle school years, the experience of loneliness, rejection, and cynicism remained present.  As I said in an earlier post, you don't just magically "get over" those things.  They provided the context in which Featherstone first encounters the Christian faith.  So what does a 14 year old in pain look for in the quest for God?
But there was also belonging.  I ached to belong, and to an extent, I was welcomed into this group. (p 53)
And one more thing I could belong to, another place where I was taken seriously as a human being with something to contribute. (p 53)
I'm certain that belonging was a primary concern to me when I was 14.  While that needs becomes muted over the years for any number of reasons, it's always there.  We are less conscious of it perhaps, able to bury it through career, activity, entertainment, alcohol, but we never outgrow are 14 year old need for belonging.
Honestly, I find the whole thing pretty embarrassing.  I was never a particularly good Christian in high school, and by my junior year I would give it up all together.  But I did believe for a time, even in much of the nonsense of dispensationalism.  (A group of us decided to write "rapture letters," explaining to people what had happened to us when we disappeared.  My mother found mine in the typewriter, mistook it for a suicide note, and had a meltdown.) (p 53)
I wonder if Charles, at the encouragement of his dispensationalist friends, felt "persecuted" when his mother found that letter and "had a meltdown"?  Such tribulations were foretold to be a sign of the end times....

Anyway, I recall reading most of the Left Behind "novels" early in my college years, I think.  It was after my own "religious awakening" during the summer between my 1st and 2nd years of college.  The only place that I had to work out any of my God questions was within the soft-core dispensationalist faith of my parents.  I didn't have any Christian friends at school, and I didn't even really want any at the time.  I was in a fraternity, and perhaps a bit like Charles, I found the whole thing just a bit silly and embarrassing (see that belonging thing??).  Our family had gone to church much of my life, but I had never really made any friends at church.  I mean, I had lots of friends growing up, but never any from church.

Actually I take that back.  I think I had one friend from one of the churches that we went to for a few years during my middle school years.  It was short-lived.  His name was Vanya.  I didn't know it at the time, but his parents were Fundamentalists with a capital "F".  I really only have two distinct memories.  The first is of a sleepover at his house.  They didn't have a TV and his parents made us go to bed at like 8pm.  The second is of inviting him to play football with me and my friends from school (we lived in the same town but he was homeschooled and didn't know anybody).  It was tackle football, and some of my friends were being rough on him because his name was Vanya.  After a dirty play, he said "What the hell?!"  Nobody thought much of it because we all swore like crazy.  It was barely a swear word anyways.  Later that day (or maybe a day or two later), I got a phone call from Vanya apologizing for "impure speech."  He also wanted the names and phone numbers of all of my other friends who had been playing that day so that he could apologize to them too.  I was pretty much horrified.  I gave him a few phone numbers, the numbers of the guys who I thought would go easy on him (and easy on me).  I think that was the end of the friendship.  I'm sure he told his parents of his "impure speech" and that they'd made him call me which my parents thought was terrible.  I look back now and think it's well beyond "terrible".

In any case, I wasn't "rejected" at church or anything.  I just didn't find it to be a place to belong, nor did I need it to be.  I went because my parents made me.  Truthfully, I don't think I really learned anything helpful about God in those years.  I only recall learning things that I even now struggle to unlearn.  But that's for another post.

Back to dispensationalism.  Far from being a necessity for belonging, my own devouring of Left Behind novels was done from a more twisted motive.  It was pretty much the desire to be piously entertained.  Entertainment.  It was like solving a riddle and I liked that.  These were like the movies, only this (or something like it since nobody could read all the symbolism with 100% accuracy) was really going to happen!  I read maybe 5 of the books.  I don't know how many there are and I don't care to know.  I lost interest.

And so did Charles.  But Charles observes that dispensational theology might have been a great fit for him:
In fact, if you're a teenager who is obsessed with history and current events and who has something of a cynical view of the world, dispensationalism is a perfect theology.  It takes you seriously, takes what you know seriously, and your knowledge is no longer simply a strange collection of facts and stories that fascinate you (and perplex everyone else) but suddenly has cosmic import.  You know the signs of the coming of the end and can read those sings with a subtlety that most others cannot.  You're valued, even if your faith is rough and needs forming. (p 54)
It's a vision that makes a lot of sense if you're angry and cynical, if there's a part of you that, in your pain, wants to see the world crumble and burn.

The "insider knowledge" that characterizes dispensational theology can and does create a sense of solidarity.  There is belonging in being part of an "us" over against "them", especially when embedded in the DNA of the "us" is a knowledge of the future which is characterized by the eternal blessedness of "us" and the demise of "them".  It unites in "hope" (though not much of a "hope" IMO), and it unites in purpose and vocation - keeping the faith and saving the "others" from the tribulation.

Now there are any number of reasons for a person to exit this dispensational lunacy.  For Charles:
But this faith, as intellectually interesting as it was for a bit, couldn't do much for me otherwise.  It could not give meaning to my suffering.  It could not deal well with the suffering of the world.  It was, near as I could tell, the faith of comfortable people, people who had never struggled.  It looked for one thing and one thing only - the coming of the end of the world.  Everything was about signs and portents, wars and rumors of wars, nations fighting nations, Jesus returning on the clouds, and making preparations for all that. (p 54)
I could write for days about "eschatology" and it's inviolable connection to life in the moment, how it can transfuse hope and meaning into the moment.  I won't do that here though.  Suffice it to say, Charles was searching for an incarnate spirituality, one that is present within the world as it is rather than one that primarily seeks escape.  Dispensational theology is simply incapable of providing this incarnate faith.  It's eschatological vision cannot do it.  How could it?

While I wrestle with the questions of suffering and theodicy differently than Charles, I really relate to his pursuit of a faith that is willing and able to at least see suffering, that doesn't turn away from it.  For him, I think, there was no real hope in dispensational theology.  It's vision of "salvation" was insufficient, and it made staying in that community ultimately impossible for Charles.

A traumatic childhood of fear, rejection, and loneliness led him away from this interpretation of the Christian faith.  That's worth pondering.  Very poignant.  Would he have been more at home had he not suffered, had he led a more "comfortable" life?  Had he cared less about the suffering in himself and in the world?  Does that seem like a twisted vision of Christianity?  In any case, we can't say what would have happened if Charles had encountered this dispensational theology having lived through a different set of experiences.  He didn't.  So he moved on.


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