Thursday, November 03, 2005

Traveling Light

I have been a backpacker since I could walk. One of the most important principles of backpacking is weight. It is not just how fit the hiker is (though that helps), but how light the hiker is. Certainly this applies to the weight of one’s body. But the more relevant variable is the weight of one’s pack. If your pack is heavy, so are you, and every pound – every ounce – slows you down. So when I prep for backpacking, I cut my toothbrush in half, count calories per ounce in my food, and (most importantly) leave behind supposed “necessities.”

Of course, I am not the only one who does this. Traveling light has become a bit of a fad. Not only in backpacking, but life in general – including matters of faith. Christians around the globe are searching for a “churchless Christianity” or “Jesus without the church.” [Note: The fact that this fad is not actually new does not concern me here; I am less interested with the genetics of this pattern and more with its current form].

I think traveling light in matters of faith is a good idea. I have no vested interest in preserving the institutional church as-is. Cutting away excess is the heart of reform in every age, and I willingly and joyfully participate in such a move.

But, traveling light is not an end in itself. What would you say if I packed a 9-pound dry pack, then sat at home and watched a James Bond marathon? You would rightfully jeer, because reaching a light pack is no achievement in and of itself. It is a means to an end. The goal is to hike more miles. I pack light only in order to travel light.

The same applies in matters of faith. Freeing oneself from the shackles of ungenerous orthodoxy or institutional preservation are no accomplishments themselves. It’s actually quite easy and rather unimpressive. I will save my applause for those who develop doctrine and transform institutions in service of the church’s mission. The church is sent to proclaim Christ and do his work to the ends of the earth. As Matthew 10, Acts 15, and the whole Epistle to the Galatians attest, there are doctrines and practices that unnecessarily hinder the mission. A truly missional church will joyfully put itself under this kind of Gospel-centered criticism.

So what does this look like? Well, it starts with not giving up on the church. Then the next step is to follow criticism with construction. Tell us what’s wrong, but tell us more about how to do it right. The path to construction comes by mulling over one’s criticism with these questions in mind: What about this doctrine or practice bothers me? Is the motivation for my criticism truly missional? If so, what does the missional alternative look like? And if you are not willing to enter into these constructive reflections, then maybe you should consider putting your criticisms on the shelf. For goodness sake, if you are not going to hike, stop cutting your toothbrush in half!

What do you think?
Is traveling light a good idea?
Does a missional understanding help?
How can we avoid the twin dangers of institutionalism and spiritualism?
Am I right that criticism without construction is incomplete?
How else might one move from criticism to construction?

12 comments:

Amanda said...

"Am I right that criticism without construction is useless?"

YES! YES! YES! I often hear criticism without construction under the guise of, "I'm called to be a prophet, and prophets tend to say things that people don't want to hear."

I call a prophet who is all criticism and no construction a plain ol' complainer.

And this line was just great: "For goodness sake, if you are not going to hike, stop cutting your toothbrush in half!"

Classic!

Mandy

Mark said...

Music to my soul...
on every level

Thanks

Jake said...

John,

Great post... and moreover, great metaphor. I agree completely with the spirit of your post, but I wouldn't use the term "useless." I would prefer to think of such criticism as "incomplete" or better, "insufficient." I too am a backpacker and there is a marked difference between my complaining that my pack is too heavy on the one hand and knowing how to fix the problem on the other. This is where one would need to rely on the wisdom and expertise of a weathered hiker to guide her. One might leave behind an essential article of clothing or safety device in the quest of "traveling light." Realising that one's pack is too heavy is a necessary first step in the process. Now, if that is as far as one gets, he will always carry around a heavier-than-necessary-pack and a perhaps a scoul. His complaining is insufficient in and of itself.

The second step would then be to learn which items of gear our hypothetical backpaker can stand to lose. The answers to that question are not uniform either. My own pack looks altogether different depending on where I am hiking, whether or not I need to carry a bivy or tent, the terrain, the altitude, if I will have access to fresh water, ad infinitum .

Your criticism of "criticism without construction" is well put. However, few Christians who make such criticisms of the Church have your scholarly aptitude, your knowledge of church history, or your theological astuteness. Rather than dismissing or condeming criticism that does not offer contsruction, maybe we should take the time to ascertain what the problem is and, if possible, help our fellow hikers lighten their packs. But, then again... some of us should know better. Great stuff man... you got me thinkin'.

Keith.Drury said...

Your said: I pack light only in order to travel light --good point. As you know I am an ultralight backpacker on real trails. But I do have a lot of equipment stored in my barn that I sometimes use when needed—crampons, a variety of tempature-rated sleeping bags, snowshoes, 1-3- & 4 season shelters etc. My point is that while I travel light I hold on to a lot of theology (whoops, I mean backpacking equipment) that I have in reserve for use when needed.

Thanks for your constant drip-drip-dripping here on this blog reminding us all that theology is not an armchair activity but the stuff or real-world Christian living.

Anonymous said...

As a longtime "postmodern" type (or as along as they've been talking about it) this teaching on your blog hits home with me as a corrective to my past excess and an encouragement to keep on constructing.

I'm encouraged to know that a lot of us who used to be so loud in our complaining actually went out and started new churches eventually -- and then we stopped complaining... and started constructing... if that makes any sense.

Those of us that did that aren't as "vocal" as the complainers anymore... but we're still out there.

pk said...

Those who solely criticize, find themselves on the outside looking in. They are choosing to exclude themselves from the very thing they speak of. That could be dangerous! Especially when you're excluding yourself from the Body of Christ.

Those who construct as a result of criticism exhibit their ownership and humility as a valuable part of the Body.

I'm striving to be a critic-constructioner. Just as I strive to be a lightweight backpacker (even cutting off those little tags that say "Size M" and "Machine Wash Cold").

JohnLDrury said...

Jake,

Good point on difference b/w useless and imcomplete. So good that I changed it.

As for helping out fellow hikers, that is precisely how I view my vocation, and especialy my role among fellow emergents. And for those who know better, well, it is for them that the blunt edge of this post is aimed :-)

JohnLDrury said...

Everyone so far,

Thanks for extending the metaphor! I am really seeing the possibilities (like backup gear, stashed gear/food, difference essentials on different hikes, etc.). Let's hope it can bend under the wieght ;-)

Any more thoughts out there?

Ken Schenck said...

I am woefully ignorant of hiking, but I have "set aside every weight" for marathons and such. Let me say that some of the best food I've ever had I wouldn't have thought much of normally. But for a person who doesn't normally like Snickers, the one I had at the fifty mile mark of a cycling race was scrumptious. And that greasy burger I had after my first half-marathon was out of this world.

They say absence either makes "the heart grow fonder" or "the eyes wander." I wonder if how you are when you "get back" from hiking says an awefully lot about what your relationship with Christ is really like?

millinerd said...

Theologians should always find time to break for art history.

Consider this painting (with accompanying explanation), that (if you switch backbacking-light to rowing-light) employs drulogion's exact analogy.

The Catholics are so full of extras that they can't catch extra souls, while the Protestants are seaworthy enough to save more lives.

The rainbow however, symbolizing God's blessing, is wide enough to encompass both attempts.

Just . Jay said...

Millinerd ... thank you for that! I love how art can be an expression as useful as any!

the topic of theology being meant for "real-world application" is one close to my heart. stuffy do-nothings who know everything there is to know about the history of the church and proper practice feel more like pharisees than fishermen to me.

now that i have made some people mad, a clarification... the people who KNOW much and DO much are the people who have changed my life. going to seminary or getting your phd means nothing if you don't do anything with it but wield it like a self-righteous "i'm really smart" sword. when that same theology is used to change your life and then prompts you to change other people's lives... well, that is just beatiful, and sort of the point. like this blog.

practical theology prompts real change.

Just . Jay said...

also, Schenck said ----> They say absence either makes "the heart grow fonder" or "the eyes wander."

how true. look at the history of the nation of Israel.