Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

07 September 2007

Rethinking the Gospel

Chapel at my university the other day featured a guy named Dieter Zander, the speaker for our semesterly Spiritual Awareness Week. He’s a former pastor at Willow Creek Church, about which I know nothing except that it’s massive. Currently he leads a church of just 300, the second biggest church in San Francisco, a city of 750,000—only 4% of whom, according to Zander, profess any religious belief at all, Christian or otherwise. Zander is, in other words, something of a missionary there.

He began with a story about one of his San Francisco neighbors—a man who had never really met a Christian before—who asked him to explain what Christians believed. Zander enthusiastically launched into an account of the gospel—or “good news,” he etymologized—that was essentially the message that had saved him as a boy: that Jesus died for so that he wouldn’t have to go to hell for his sins but could be united with God in heaven. At the end of of this explanation, the neighbor commented that this didn’t sound like very good news to him. In fact, it could only be good news to those who felt bad about themselves and were worried about going to hell, but he felt pretty good about himself. Zander was upset by this answer, comically reporting that he found himself trying to find some way to make the guy feel bad about himself, before he finally gave it up and decided to go back to the Bible and see what Jesus himself had to say about the gospel that he hadn’t managed to communicate to the guy.

What he found was that virtually every time Jesus mentions the “good news,” it’s that the Kingdom of God is at hand. I had never noticed that before, although I had recently noticed, in writing an essay about Jesus’ parables, that just about every one of them is an extended metaphor that starts out, “The kingdom of God is like…” Zander took us to a representative passage to back up his claim, Jesus’ first words in Mark’s gospel:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Zander went on to talk about this kingdom of God, which was a call to action more than anything else, in his view. And he could be right. (I have been taking to heart Kimberly’s warning, in response to my last post, against holy navel-gazing.) Zander also talked about the need to “repent” his previous understanding of the gospel and remarked that we are all called to such repentance. The word repent, he hurried to explain, literally means “rethink,” by which I think he must have meant that the word repent is derived from Latinate morphemes meaning again and think (an etymological detail that I had never noticed before but did find interesting). And he also explained that, in this rethinking process, his old gospel became a part of his new one.

But it was too late. I was already thinking the thought he wanted to squelch: that my current concept of the gospel was probably wrong or at least incomplete—or, worse, outright sinful and in need of repentance. I’m always so susceptible to others’ faith claims.

In any case, I decided, I needed to figure out what my concept of the gospel was to begin with. Early on in Zander’s sermon, he had talked about the Christian message as being like a jigsaw puzzle. He put a picture of one on the overhead screen and asked us to picture a puzzle box that depicted the gospel as we knew it. It was part of an elaborate metaphor he was constructing that he probably carried through his subsequent Spiritual Awareness Week sermons (I missed them). I won’t try to reconstruct the metaphor here. Suffice it to say that my mind wandered at this point, as it often does when preachers use cutesy analogies and audiovisuals.

Was my gospel even depictable as an image? I wondered as I stared at the blank jigsaw puzzle on the screen. I thought of it more as a story than a picture. One or the other episode of it might be depictable, but it would be hard to get the whole thing into a single frame. God walking with us in the cool of the day. Us hiding from him in shame. Him half pursuing, half chasing us—to Canaan, to Mount Sinai, to Ninevah, to the cross—like spooked cattle he was trying to pen in a storm so that they wouldn’t get under a tree and be killed by lightening, as cattle sometimes are around here. (We once lost a couple of cows that way, and a neighbor lost a dozen.)

The cow-chasing God was maybe depictable, I decided, but it was more than that. He didn’t just want to protect us. He wanted more from us. It is my conviction, which I find supported in just about every chapter of scripture, Old Testament and New, that God loves us as parents love their children—not quite how we feel toward our domestic animals—and, like a parent, he wants something from us in return: namely, to be loved back.

I didn’t get this far during the sermon. I kept trying to, but then I’d overhear, in the midst of my musing, another shocking remark and lose track of where I was. Or else I’d be led to look at a passage in scripture that took me off in an entirely new direction. The last such passage that I remember was this comment, in John 5:17, in which Jesus is defending himself against accusations that he was working on the Sabbath: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.”

It was all over, then. I was off thinking about my favorite subjects of spiritual inquiry: work and rest. What is rest? And what constitutes God’s work? Is it, as Jesus says soon after in John’s gospel, merely “to believe in the one he has sent?” Or is it, as Zander seemed to be suggesting, something more strenuous?

At one point in his sermon, Zander took us to Ephesians 2:8-9, a key passage for those preoccupied with the filthy rags gospel that Zander’s neighbor had found so unattractive: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith…not by works, so that no one can boast.” If you read on to the very next sentence, Zander pointed out, you would find something quite different than the anti-works gospel he had been preaching for most of his adult life: “For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” So, we’re not saved through our good works but in order to do the good works God had planned for us. Inexplicably, when Zander went told his neighbor this new understanding of the gospel—that we called to work, right now, in God’s kingdom—the man proclaimed this to be truly good news.

What, exactly, is God calling me to do, now that I’m a Christian? I was left wondering. Me precisely. There are so many possibilities, each one as compelling as the next, and so many people surrounding me claiming to know what I should be doing rather than write books or teach or cook dinner and raise daughters. Am I already doing whatever it is God has planned for me? Or am I shirking? Should I be worried about this at all?

Clearly I had a lot of “repenting” to do about these matters.