September 23, 2009
Newsweek (September 21, 2009 p.17) reports that Billy Graham’s daughter is promoting a new book called The Magnificent Obsession. She is quoted as saying “Religion is an impediment to knowing God…Procedures, rituals, creeds: how in the world can they help you connect with God?...If you’re sprinkled when you’re baptized or dunked when you’re baptized, it doesn’t matter as far as your salvation goes.” She does also leave some room for finding fellow travelers when she says “You can really love the Lord, but after a while, if you’re all by yourself, the fire goes cold.”
I met Ms. Lotz in 1983 (although there is no reason why she would remember me.) I was a newly ordained deacon and went with some parishioners to the immensely popular Bible Study Fellowship in Raleigh where she was a primary teacher. Even then it was clear that individual salvation was her concern and that there was not sense of church, except perhaps as an optional extra. There was certainly no explicit theology of church, or the place of the church in the life of faith, or ecclesiology. I thought of this then as I do now as the Christian equivalent of being ‘spiritual, not religious’. It is a reasonable resistance to the idea that any ‘experience’ (of salvation or anything else spiritual) is necessarily mediated in some way. The problem is that there is no such thing as the unmediated experience, --at least at the point at which we think about describing it in words.
There is a sense, then, in which the Church mediates our experience of
Christ through the ways in which we tell and respond to the story of Jesus, generation to generation. I’m with Ms. Lotz in resisting prideful claims to have the only and authoritative way of telling and interpreting the story. I’m not with her in considering Christian Community to be either optional or dispensable.