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Monday, February 11, 2013

On Being Spiritually Inbred

While speaking with friends and co-workers this morning about the Pope's pending resignation from the Holy See, I was amazed at two things: first, this news item was largely a non-issue for them and, second, they didn't care about the story since they aren't Roman Catholic. Since I live in central Mississippi, I wasn't entirely surprised by the apathetic response I received. In this part of the South, Baptists, Methodists, and other Protestants hold a strong majority in society. I was impressed, though, by the spiritual antipathy with which it was received - upwards of 1 billion people have just lost their spiritual guide, but my peers don't seem to see what the big deal is.
     Baptists in Mississippi are spiritually inbred (go ahead and make an inbred-Mississippian joke). Never mind the latent hostility many Protestants in the South feel toward Catholics (see Philip Jenkins' The New Anti-Catholicism), many Baptists are so confined to their own churches, ministries, and theological constructs that happenings in the Catholic Church, no matter how globe-shaking, do not affect them at all.
     How does this Baptist hegemony work? I am a living example of the wealth of Biblical, theological, and spiritual resources available to a Baptist through their local congregation. I was raised through Mission Friends, RAs, Vacation Bible School, and a strong youth ministry. I was a regular attendee in worship and I participated in missions opportunities and giving through the Cooperative Program. There was no need for me to seek out relationships within the broader Christian communion; everything I needed to know and understand and believe was provided for me by Lifeway Christian Resources.
     Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not one of the "recovering Southern Baptists" who has rejected every act of their local church - I'm glad to have gone through those formative years in an SBC congregation and to have a stable perspective from which to judge new ideas later in life. Further, it was a certain blessing to have sat under a Pastor who didn't necessarily walk the Fundamentalist line and was devoted to preaching the Word apart from denominational politics.
     Once I was beyond the bounds of SBC life in the deep south, though, it became obvious to me that I had missed something big. I had done everything I was supposed to do in SBC life, but I was totally ignorant of the outside (read: non-SBC) world and other interpretations of Scripture or theology. Consequently I had no understanding of the struggles, theological anxieties, or social commitments of the non-Baptists who came to my church.
     We must not be spiritually inbred. Baptists must fight against the tendency to isolate ourselves in the name of doctrinal purity and social control. Yes, there is a sense in which we segregate ourselves socially based upon the theological stances of our congregations. Once Baptists cut themselves off from other theological constructions and ways of doing church we lose the valuable and necessary ability to examine what we believe and why we believe it as Baptists.
     One of the most spiritually liberating things that I have encountered in my days outside of the "bubble" of SBC life has been living the Christian Calendar. The annual revolution of Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, and Ordinary Time has brought a much-needed sense of stability, gravitas, and rhythm to my worship and devotion. The season of Lent, into which we enter this Wednesday, has become a crucial season for me and my family each year. It is a time when our personal choices are limited by our desire to live in penitence as we prepare for Easter. I realize that many Baptists do not think Lent is necessary or advisable, but I have found true spiritual growth through the putting-off and taking-on of burdens in this season.
     There is an entire world of Christian thought, discipline, and life beyond the pre-packaged walls of our usual Baptist experience. Perhaps for those of my brothers and sisters no ready to take on a true Lenten fast it will be enough this year to learn about a tradition of Christianity different from their own. Maybe then we will all become better equipped to weep and celebrate with our neighbors when the time is right.

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