Friday, May 29, 2015

What Canst Thou Say?

It was from theologian Michael Hardin that I first heard the term "Anecdotal Christianity."  It aptly described something which has been bugging me for quite some time.  It is something particularly common in the Charismatic Christian world, where I spent a couple of decades: Fantastic tales of modern-day healings and angelic encounters and demonic battles and other miraculous events are told and re-told with little provided (or expected) in the way of corroborating evidence (the inevitable lack of which seems increasingly odd in these days of ubiquitous cell-phone videos). 

Recently, a Charismatic pastor claimed to have raised a man from the dead while at a church in the UK, and the story spread like wildfire--being told and re-told and posted and shared as Gospel-truth.  Now it appears that the man didn't actually die but was having an epileptic seizure--and the abatement of the seizure was hailed as a resurrection.  And, thanks to some vigorous self-promotion on the part of the pastor, the embellished story took on a life of its own.

So often, in my experience, this is the pattern: people begin telling/preaching/broadcasting miracle stories that happened somewhere else to someone else.  Responding to these tales with a modicum of healthy skepticism is eyed as lack of faith or even as hostility towards the faith.

I have an anecdote to share, of another event that occurred at a church in the UK, which was documented by a woman named Margaret Fell.  She was attending church in the town of Ulverston in the mid-1600's when a man named George Fox (generally regarded as the founder of the Quakers) stood in the midst of the congregation, after the pastor's sermon, and began berating those gathered.  Fell described it thusly: 

"And so he went on, and said, 'That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God.' I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, 'The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord' and said, 'Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, "Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;" but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?'"

Fell continues, "This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, 'We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.'"

Fox's point, and Fell's realization, was that the Christians of Ulverston were living off of other people's experiences of God.  The core of the Quaker ethos is that the same God who acted in the scriptures is available to each person directly--here and now.  I absolutely believe this to be true because of my own experiences with God.  Yet Fell and her fellow church-goers, like many Christians today, had been content to vicariously feed off of the experiences of the people they read about in the Bible.

Is it not an even more abject form of thievery to broker in dubious miracle stories told by preachers and evangelists when one was not there, did not see it, and no substantiation can be provided?

I once posed a question on Facebook: How many of you have experienced--with your own eyes--a truly supernatural miracle (in the magnitude of dead being raised, missing limbs growing back, complete blindness healed, etc.)?  Most of the responses were anecdotes; stories people had heard about miracles that had happened to others (often missionaries in Africa).  The remaining responses were things like "Every day is a miracle" (which I agree with but don't consider germane to the question).  My point is not to argue against the possibility of miraculous events (though, after 20+ years in Charismatic churches I left far more dubious than when I began; perhaps because what I witnessed never came close to the anecdotes I so often heard).   My point is that what the bulk of the respondents to my Facebook question were demonstrating was "Anecdotal Christianity."  In legal terms it would be called hearsay, which is not to be confused with heresy.

But what canst thou say?


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