Thursday, October 2, 2008

Believe the Good News, 2

I went to hear the great Shawn Colvin last night. It made me want to be a better guitar player. It made me want to play a better guitar as well (her Martin had such an amazing tone. Don't get me wrong, I love my Breedlove, but it has to be so great to play a high end guitar from one the great brands--Martin, Taylor, Breedlove, Gibson).

The evening also brought several opportunities to think about the gospel. Shawn Colvin's songs are up to their neck in the messines of the world. Her own life story is marked by drug use, mental illness, and homelessness. Her songs stick to the ribs of the world. They mean something. And none of them are about guilt.

For Colvin, the human condition revolves around the issue of emptiness. Her songs are about the difficulty of finding and maintaining identity. One of my favorite Colvin songs is "If I Were Brave." Two of the verses use the word "saved" in relation to emptiness.

"But I have this funny ache and it's burning in my chest
And it spreads just like a fire inside my body
Is it something God left out in my spirit or my flesh
Would I be saved if I were brave and had a baby

And what the hell is this? Who made this bloody mess?
And someone always answers like a martyr
Is it something you should know, did you never do your best
Would you be saved if you were brave and just tried harder"

Penal substitutionary atonement isn't exactly on point when it comes to the actual details of Colvin's life. And my experience is that most people don't have guilt as their presenting life issue. We might wish that were different, especially since that tends to be the only human problem our version of the gospel answers. Fortunately, however, the gospel addresses a far broader set of human concerns.

My last observation from last night has to do with the venue. We saw her in the The Dakota, an intimate jazz club in downtown Minneapolis. The audience sits at tables and can order food and drinks before, during, and after the concert. Nancy and I sat at a table for four and found ourselves with a couple about our age who had lived in Minnesota for a long time. We admitted that we were newcomers and even temporary residents of the area. They were curious about the temporary part and I let on how I had gone back to school. At that point, I left the table to find a restroom.

When I got back, my identity as a seminary student had been revealed and the woman at the table was confessing her agnostic/Buddhist perspectives. Great. Now we're in for an awkward evening.

It turned out, however, to be a great conversation. He was a lapsed Catholic, she a former Lutheran. They asked me about my program and were parituclarly curious about the research I would be doing with congregations. I would cautiously tell them what I was doing, and they would want more detail. Finally, I let it out of the bag, I wanted to address the relationship between views of salvation and congregational practice by way of imagination. Deal breaker, right.

No, the conversation went deeper. They wanted to know how I was going to address soteriological imagination. Seriously, they were interested. I explained to them my read on penal substitutionary atonement. They recognized the theory, though with a little fuzziness, and were puzzled by the notion that Christian salvation could be conceived of in different ways. This was simply the only way they had encountered it. They were shocked that this theory was of a recent vintage. This was clearly a part of Christianity that bothered them and they were definitely interested that the Christian story could be understood differently.

So, I kid you not, we had an energizing conversation about eschatology, the Kingdom of God, and the end of scapegoating. I kept thinking each new subject would lead to the end of the conversation, but it kept deepening and their enthusiasm kept growing. Who knew?

The night was rich with possibilities for the gospel, but poor with regards to the relevance of penal substitutionary atonement. It was a great night.


Redlefty said...

I'm actually not surprised -- in my limited experience people's spirits (outside the church) are quite comfortable with the things you're exploring and teaching.

JNW said...

Where I work penal substitutionary atonement (a.k.a. guilt) is a non-starter for the subject of faith. But salvation in terms of life, meaning, identity, and fullness, now there have been possibilities for conversation.

preacherman said...

Wonderful post Mark.
I want you to know that I loved reading your blog and have added you to my favorites list. You do a fantastic job. Keep up the great work you do with this blog. I hope you and your family have a wonderful weekend.

Mark Love said...

Thanks Red and Jerry

I am thinking of Jesus' statement in Luke 10--the harvest is plentiful, the workers are few. I think we've convinced ourselves the harvest is bleak.

And thanks preacherman for the love. Any Woodlawn, Abilene High raised guy is more than welcome. I'm Abilene High, class of '78.


Brad said...


Another great post, thanks. Question: on some future post could you recommend your 5-10 most influential atonement/non-penal books? I've read Mark Heim and Joel Green but little else directly addressing the issue, and I'd love any recommendations. Thanks!