Public radio raconteur Garrison Keillor grew up fundamentalist. So it was not surprising to hear him say in a recent News from Lake Wobegon segment (the quote is about 13 minutes in):
I used to think that faith was sort of like a building block, and you’d put all these blocks together, and you’d build a house sort of like the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down.
When I heard these words in Keillor’s comfortably weary voice, I thought of several friends who had grown up fundamentalist—including Bob Webber. Keillor’s metaphor (the brick house of the three little pigs) is defensive. It was a fortification, a bulwark against big bad wolves.
Webber also used defensive language when he described the theological system he picked up in his education and carried with him into his early years of teaching. Here are sentences and fragments from the opening chapter of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1985).
… I was being swept away into evangelical rationalism…. Christianity was no longer a power to be experienced but a system to be defended. … My study of the Bible now turned into a defense of its inspired authorship.
… I was asked to teach a class called Christian Doctrine. Here’s my chance, I thought, to give them the goods, to show them how rationally defensible the Christian faith is and how reasonable it is to believe in the Christian system of things. …
I also thought I could rationally defend the Scripture as God’s mind written ….
I derived a great deal of security from my system. …
Keillor and Webber shared a defensive notion of faith as their starting point. The next step for Keillor was surrender.
I used to think that faith was sort of like a building block, and you’d put all these blocks together, and you’d build a house sort of like the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older, and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender. (Italics supplied)
Webber recalled his frustration in trying to prepare a chapel sermon for Wheaton College students, one that would deliver the answers Christianity had to offer to the questions of a world in despair. But Webber found the answers he knew so well to be “so cold, so calculated, to rational, so dead.” He crumpled up those pages of his sermon manuscript and threw them into the wastebasket.
I dropped back into my chair and sobbed for several hours. I had thrown away my answers. I had rid myself of a system in which God was comfortably contained. I had lost my security …
Both Keillor and Webber believed in a defensive faith that gave them a sense of security. Both Keillor and Webber abandoned a defensive posture and left the security of a system. But then their stories diverge.
And now I get older, and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender. It’s a matter of just giving up and just leaving that house, of just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude, maybe that’s all you need.
Keillor replaces brick-wall security with stepping out into a cold, rainy, doubt-filled, confusing world, while (presumably by sheer will) “trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude.”
That, of course, raises questions like these: Hope for what? Hope in what? Hope in whom? Gratitude for what? Gratitude to whom?
Webber also left the secure system. But his leaving was about seeking God. And that did not mean aimless wandering while willing yourself into hope and gratitude. Instead, Webber began a purposeful search and immersed himself in the study and experience of worship.
While the world may be cold and rainy and confusing, Webber discovered that abandoning the security of his defensive theology brought him into a greater community. His house, he discovered, wasn’t the only one. There are many mansions. There were people he hadn’t seen while living defensively. By leaving his secure box, not only did he experience God, he met others who experienced God: especially the venerable fathers and mothers of the early church and many contemporary believers whose traditions differed from his but which complemented his.
That is my experience as well. Leaving my little brick house did not mean being attacked by the big bad wolf. It meant discovering other houses, other people, other communities that (to shift the metaphor) presented a rich tapestry of faith.
But that tapestry, both Webber and I discovered, is not entirely woven of rationalist threads. Some of its fibers are images. Some are songs or poems. Some are inexplicable experiences. Some are miracles. Some are mysteries. Woven together they present us with a picture, an icon, of God. They do not contain God, but reveal him in glimpses. And that is something that brick walls can never do.
Be sure to register for the third annual Ancient Evangelical Future conference, October 9-11, featuring Dan Williams, Howard Snyder, Janell Paris, Rick Richardson, and David Fitch.