Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Looking into the void

I'm not sure that the entire Christian world has gone mad - but there are definitely corners of it that are significantly more strange and outre' than others.

The folks who are out to save the world from the demons of the emergent-church movement (or non-movement, or post-movement...) have their own axes to grind, and I'm not even going to get into most of the battles they're fighting.

But something I have seen lately is the vituperative attacks on any kind of spiritual practice that doesn't fit into the anti-emergent folks' theology. And what is the big, evil monster that the anti-emergents want to drive out and slay? The hideous threat to the salvation of people everywhere?

Contemplative prayer.

No, Virginia, you didn't misread anything. Contemplative prayer has been labeled by this crowd an evil based in Eastern mysticism - as one site describes it, "centering prayer, the silence, yoga, Reiki, the Desert Fathers and spiritual formation teachings."

In one paragraph, the author of this blog (and the author of the book she is parroting) manages to lump Michael Card, Richard Foster, Mike Yaconelli, Philip Yancey, Brennan Manning, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen in with Deepak Chopra, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey - because, supposedly, they all practice something that sounds like something that looks like contemplative or centering prayer. So of course, the automatic assumption is that the entire list of people all believe exactly the same thing - about prayer, about God, about the Bible, you name it.

Now, I have to admit, I haven't read Deepak Chopra; I don't listen to Dr. Phil or Oprah. So I have no idea what they believe - and I couldn't really care less. But that first list of people have been powerful, wonderful instruments of the grace of God to me - and to whitewash folks like Brennan Manning (a favorite of mine, as discerning folks might perceive) with the same brush as the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a pseudo-Buddhist who led a huge cult in Oregon in the 80's) is the worst kind of theological rubbish and kindergarden playground-level name-calling I've seen in a while.

It's interesting that one of the more strident voices on that particular blog refers to the Desert Fathers as something from the 1970's - when in fact they were a movement in the earliest stages of Christianity - much closer in time to St. Augustine (the bishop from north Africa, not the city) than to Crosby, Stills & Nash...

The tragedy comes down to this: there may be "one faith, one hope, one baptism, one God and father of all" (Ephesians 4:4-6), but the claims of the Emergent No crowd seems to be, "If you're not believin' or doin' stuff like we believe and do stuff, then you're obviously wrong." This is nothing but variations on what one pastor was trying to sell our congregation in 2000-2001 - that if we aren't attending to "the ancient traditions of the church," then we are falling away from the One True Faith.

It was rubbish then; it's rubbish now.

As for contemplative prayer, let me use a common boom-box CD player as an example of the fallacy of these folks. My boombox is equally capable of playing either "Sweet Hour of Prayer" or AC/DC's "Highway to Hell." That doesn't make the boom-box good or evil; it just presents what is being played - period.

In the same way, I can "center" my thoughts in prayer on Scripture, chakras and auras, or on a scene from a Madonna video (and you know which one I'm talkin' about). Now, I've never meditated on chakras, but there have definitely been times in my life when I definitely meditated on one of the other two. That doesn't mean that centering prayer is a tool of Madonna and her Kabbalah, but rather the reverse.

I'm beginning to wonder if everyone just needs to lay down and take a chill pill. Because some things (like this particular topic) is born out of a little information, and a whole lot of hysteria. And it's not helping anyone - least of all the confused newcomers to faith, who wonder who's a cult-member and who's teaching the Real Deal about Christ and the gospel of love.


APN said...

You're kidding right? Contemplative Prayer? Lectio Divina? Centering Prayer? I find this absolutely ridiculous! Seriously! How can these people even claim that contemplative prayer is an evil of Eastern mysticism? Wasn't this style of prayer practiced by Christian mystics before we even became aware of "Eastern mysticism"?

These kinds of attacks are absolutely groundless and silly. Yes, I said silly. Can't these detractors find anything else in the theology of the emergent church "movement" to assault without picking on PRAYER?? I mean, if they're going to criticize something, look at things like open theology, our willingness to NOT hate homosexuals, and other "liberal" things.

But Contemplative Prayer? Come on now. Why would you ever think that's wrong? HOW can you think it's wrong? Silly & ridiculous....

Michael said...

Insane as it is, there was an anti-mystical backlash in the Catholic church beginning in the seventeenth century. Contemplative prayer was considered suitable only to saints (and maybe monks and nuns, but only with caution) and the way to pray was to recite prayers. Multiply words, that is. Sort of the opposite of what Jesus advocated. But so much safer, you know.

The danger of contemplative prayer, of sitting quietly and listening to God, is that God might say something that the "leaders" don't want you to hear. God might say, "Hey, I love homosexuals. I made them." Or God might say, "Don't you think a little energy might go into helping the poor find a way out of poverty instead or finding ways to let the absurdly rich keep more of the money they don't need as it is?" Or God might say, "I don't think war is working very well for you people." Or God might say, "Clean up your own side of the street and let other people take care of theirs." Or any number of things that might make us take our browbeaten gaze off our own failures and notice the actual behavior of those who keep telling us how to live or not live.

A modern retelling of the legend of Peter asking to be crucified upside down is that he wanted to die seeing the world the way most people saw it -- wrongside up. Contemplative practice is a way of turning it back over, but not many people want to hear it. They are used to living upside down.

Levi said...

Hey Steve-
While I was at the EC in Nashville I met a couple of pastors who had come to argue/spy on the emergent movement.
They were of a particular brand of Christianity indigenous to America which has really shallow roots- 200 years- and they were acting like they were defending the "faith once delivered". If any one group could claim this, the groups based out of biblical lands would certainly be more entitled..
Anyways, it was an awesome thing to see Brian McLaren respond to these guys with love, respect, and humility. I think that pissed them off more than the content of his beliefs. They wanted a fight.
Keep blogging, bro.

Steve F. said...

At some risk of comment-spamming, I'm posting the link to the Emergent No posting on contemplative prayer. Really, folks, I couldn't have made this up...

APN said...

Hot Damn.

I thought you were joking, but you're not. These people really call themselves "Emergent NO" which is probably MORE ridiculous than their considering that contemplative prayer is wrong/evil/of the Devil.

But here's this -- I read through the 31 comments about that post and was astonished to see how many people who commented were either "emergent" or just commenting that they thought the whole claim about contemplative prayer was wrong. Most of them stood up and defended contemplative prayer as good, healthy, and consistent with church history. And others were quite bold in their assertations that the people castigating the "Emergent Church" (EC) were either wrong or had a chip on their collective shoulders.

I found it all quite funny in a quite sad way....

the reverend mommy said...

Yeah, you practice that contemplative prayer stuff and soon you are slipping down that slippery slope and doing things like wanting to take communion. And who knows where that might lead? You might start wanting some of that incense or candles or something and just you watch out, you might even start talking about spirituality!

It don't mention that spirituality thing *anywhere* in the King James.

(BTW, that was sarcasm, if you didn't notice....)

Rick said...


Great post. I once led a retreat for a more conservative evangelical crowd and I used lectio. Most really got into it and allowed the Holy Spirit to speak through the text. There was one woman who refused to participate, how sad. She just want a Kay Arthur appraoch to understanding scripture. She talked how "hungry" she was and needed "fed". The Holy Spirit is pretty good at those things if we can shut off our brains long enough to listen.


Adinah said...

I couldn't even make it through one third of the comments on that blog.... Ack! I wanted to run for my contemplative life.......thanks for the cage rattle of the day!