an open letter to "annie"

This morning I discovered the following comment attached to my ill-posed and half-crazed diatribe on the DaVinci Code movie (which is getting absolutely panned in reviews, btw). The big issue for this blogger is (as was said on earlier posts) authority misplaced in the Catholic Church. Please note that I did not say the Christian church--the blogger wants to make a distinction between the two.
"The Christian Church, by definition, are those who believe in God's plan of salvation through his son, Jesus and his teachings. The Catholic Church - although there are Christians in the Catholic Church - is a world wide group of ornate buildings managed and directed by an elite hierarchy, and financed by assuming adherents. The pope is not the head of the Christian church - Jesus is the head. Priests and bishops are not intermidiaries between God and man - Jesus is the intermidiary. Martial sex is not forbidden to the holy by God; only by the Catholic church. And the biggest lie - you do not receive forgiveness by penance - you received forgiveness by repentance. I am angry that Christians are lumped together with Catholicism - they are not always the same thing."
The poster is named Annie. She seems like a very kind, sincere Christian. I want to write her something back, even if she doesn't read this, because (a) she deserves a thoughtful response and (b) I think her comment is quite representative. Dear Annie, As a brother in Christ and fellow traveller on what Peter and Paul called "the Way," I wanted to talk openly with you about some of the views you've expressed on this blog and on your own. I want to do this with both truth and love in mind. But why respond at all; why not just ignore your comment or write some angry response? First of all, I once whole-heartedly believed the views you've expressed. I grew up in a family with a mother who was brought up Catholic but was so turned off by the pre-Vatican 2 church that she turned away from any form of Christianity other than the most watered-down variety. But her sisters, my aunts, were devout Catholics of Irish descent, who prayed the rosary constantly and went to confession pretty much every week. They feared that I was growing up outside of the true faith, but never spoke judgmentally to me about it. Probably because of my mother's experience at her Catholic elementary schools, I was sent to two Protestant schools--first Baptist, then Grace Brethren. Here my teachers taught me to suspect and fear the Catholic church (the RCC, I was taught to call it). Not only was it, as you've expressed in your comment, "worshiping Mary and the Pope," it was likely the birthing ground of AntiChrist. I carried this fear and suspicion around all the time. When, on holiday from school, the phone would ring during the day and I would answer it (mom and dad were at work), people often asked if I went to Catholic school. "Absolutely not," I would say, "I go to Christian school." I have no idea how many faithful Catholics I deeply offended with my arrogant answer. At family reunions, I would openly scorn the Catholics in my family, teasing them for their prayer beads: "Are you praying to Mary...or the Pope?" I would chide. When they invariably answered, "I'm praying to God and Jesus" (often they appended a "...for you"), I quickly retorted, "Well...not my God." When I told my seventh grade history and Bible teachers these stories, they laughed and patted me on the back. Think of them what you will, but I took this as explicit approval of my pre-teen fundamentalist judgmentalism, though I had no idea that's what it was. Secondly, up until very few years ago, I whole heartedly supported the view of the Christian faith (note I didn't say "Catholic") that you posted here:
"When we venerate the church instead of God, we are venerating ourselves because we are the church. We have placed Jesus' Bride as our object of worship, and just like Lucifer, we have proclaimed ourselves wiser and more worthy than God. Did we forget? 'And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split;...' Matthew 27:51 RSV God destroyed the temple - or church - when Jesus had finished his plan of salvation. No longer would our sins be forgiven through the church by sacrifice or penance, but rather through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The clear dichotomy between God and His Church, the conjoining of the Bible to its one correct interpretation, and the ability of the individual believer to discern exactly what this one correct interpretation of the Bible is and how to apply it correctly--all of these things were crystal clear to me once upon a time. And they all pointed to the same thing: as long as I am reading my Bible each day and praying to Jesus to fill me with His Holy Spirit, I'm doing just what I need to do to enter His Kingdom and prepare myself to minister to His People. The Church is superfluous at best, evil and manipulative at worst. This is probably a more extreme version of what you believe as well. Why do I no longer think this is the right way for most Christians to live out their faith? You no doubt believe that I've been led astray even by posing this issue as a problem; perhaps I am even following heretical views and should no longer be considered to be a "true" Christian--along with all those Catholics you mention. If I have been led astray, then it has been through conversations with deeply devout Protestant/Evangelical pastors and leaders and study of the Bible and of theology and the history of the ancient church. If all of these things have compounded to lead me astray, then all I can do is ask for forgiveness from Christ and pray for these sincere and sincerely misguided people. But I don't think I need to. I don' think they are misguided. Along with C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, N. T. Wright, and others in this "great cloud of witnesses," I believe that we cannot make it on our own. That Christianity outside of the Church doesn't exist. That the image of the sailboat facing the waves alone--the one you use on your blog--is exactly the wrong image when we're talking about the Christian life. What in the world do I mean by this? First I mean that our conception of the Church is often too narrow. Second I mean that the real battle is between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Self, of which our Adversary is not the ruler but the chief evangelist. How big is the Church? It is tired commonplace to say that the Church is not the same thing as a church and that body of Christ cannot be contained by walls. People seem to have interpreted this old saw in two different and somewhat contradictory ways. The truer of the two interpretations might be something like: anywhere I go, I am part of the body of Christ and have brothers and sisters in the faith of every tongue and tribe and nation surrounding me, hopefully challenging me about my shallow living. The other interpretation is something like: anywhere I go, I can be in communion with God and, therefore, am freed from any obligations to my brothers and sisters in the faith, for where I am, God is. These are extreme statements, but their ultimate point is clear. By one interpretation I am merely a part of a larger body, intimately connected with and in need of spiritual nourishment and challenge through that body. By the other interpretation, I am a church unto myself, free to pick and choose my connections and responsibilities, free to reject all if I think that God is not "calling" me to any person or group. Both by their words and through their deeds, Jesus, the Apostles, and the great men and women of the faith (like those mentioned in Hebrews) have taught us that it is not good for us to be isolated, free to do what we want when we want it. Consumer Christianity--meaning a type of Christianity that chooses exactly what parts work for me and what parts don't and forging a good worship experience out of those things--is foreign to the faith of the first "Christ-ones" and to generations upon generations of disciples and saints that followed after them. In fact the idea that we should pick and choose what is right by us, what community to be a part of and how it can best meet our needs, sounds much more like the temptations thrown at Jesus in the wilderness. "Make these shortcuts, do what pleases you, and you'll be happy." But Jesus rejected the easy, palatable road because he knew it elevated the Self. And it is the Self that is always at war with the Other. A version of Church that gives to each Self exactly what it desires and then reassures that Self that as long as it remains seperate from the Body, it will find the right path through the guidance of God (who we sometimes interpret wrongly, yes?), is not really very unified, very integral to its parts, and must not be much of a body. Solomon's Temple Curtain tore in two on Good Friday. Jesus remained in the grave for a few days after that. When he arose, he went to the eleven and his female followers. Then he hung out with them for forty more days. In Acts, we find Peter and Paul hanging out with companions, conducting services in prison, breaking bread together. I find nothing in Scripture to support the idea that we as individuals are supposed to find our way to God alone. We are always part of a Travelling Party. If this is the case--if we really are supposed to be connected to the Church all our lives--then it seems that Protestant denominations who emphasize the importance of the individual, as a non-connected entity, over the importance of the community are really doing injustice to the teachings of Scripture and the words of Our Lord. The Catholic Church has been a repository for all kinds of wickedness for hundreds of generations; it has been a source of unmitigated Good for hundreds of thousands of people. If "by their fruits you will know them" then the most that we can say about the Catholic Church is that it is as fallen and broken an institution as any Protestant church. But it certainly does more structurally to mitigate the evil done through people than any individual Protestant denomination, perhaps more than any other type of church. Why is it that we hear more about the sins of priests and nuns than about Protestant pastors? Perhaps because they stand for a huge institution that has stood in the line of Christ for twenty centuries. Perhaps because it as an institution claims to have authority that we as individuals have claimed for our Selves. In either case, it seems wisest and closest to Paul's injunctions in the NT not to criticize what (a) we have trouble understanding, (b) seems to bear some pretty dang good fruit (they have 2000 years worth of saints to back up that claim), (c) has been imperfectly but faithfully serving Our Lord for hundreds of years (what other denomination or cult has that same track record?). And most of all, what is the ultimate alternative to the kind of authority structure the Catholic Church has set up and all of us Protestants and all of the anti-Catholics like Dan Brown want to tear down? When we break it down far enough, the alternative to dogmatic institutions full of imperfect sinners is probably dogmatic individuals with no greater authority other than the Self. I'm not sure which God hates more. Thanks for reading, e


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