I was recently shooting a video up in Kwa-Zulu Natal and my good friend Stu offered to take me to the airport after all the footage was ‘in the can’. During the hour it took to make it to the airport we got chatting about church (no surprise there), but at one point Stu asked me the very question I’m going to try and answer in this post: how do you journey forward with God, without remaining stuck in your tradition? How do you move beyond your narrow framework, and make sure you aren’t getting stuck it?
My answer to him was, “You need to constantly be seeing through a wider angle.”
Forgive me a photography metaphor, but this is how it makes sense to me.
My friend Doug is a great photographer. He has an amazing natural eye, but he hasn’t just relied on raw talent to get where he is. He’s also put in the hours of research to hone technique and skill which now make him one of the best in the country. It’s been interesting watching him journey with these skills too, partly because I can parasitically knick the knowledge once he’s done the work to attain it.
Some of the best lessons I’ve vicariously learnt through him as I’ve tried to hone my own photographic skills, have been the simplest.
Case in point: “If you just take a step back, you often take better photos.”
Sounds really silly and simple, but I can vouch for the fact that it works.
Take a couple of steps back.
Widen the angle.
Include more context.
Sometimes being too close to something ruins it. Without the subjects surrounds we can lose the sense of what we’re actually looking at.
And it’s no different with our spirituality.
Many of us relate to what God is doing through a Macro lens.
A Macro lens is a lens which helps you get as close to something as possible, focusing in on the minute details of a thing, and this is how many people live their spiritual lives in Western Christianity. We’re often so close to our subject (and I don’t necessarily mean God, but rather ‘the way my church does stuff’) that we are closed off to the big, wide world we live in.
Especially in the modern world of ‘church franchises’ which are popping up all over the place. It’s no secret that most mainline denominations are in real trouble, and this has opened up a gap for the ‘trendy churches’ to draw the wandering Christian consumer crowds. When these churches inevitably reach capacity they split into satellite centers which run as franchise versions of the Mothership. Here in Cape Town it’s the ‘Common Grounds’, the ‘His Peoples’, the ‘Hillsongs’, and the ‘Joshua Generations’, but I’m sure you have the same pattern occurring in your own city.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with that; at least some corner of Christendom is making the effort to relate well to people. But the danger is that these groups develop their theology in a vacuum. The celebrity leaders read one particular brand of theology, which is disseminated to their congregants through carefully controlled pulpits, and other world views are undermined, or openly vilified.
One of my pet peeves in conversation with people is when they will constantly repeat, “My Pastor says…” I’m sure your Pastor is a great and wise man, but he doesn’t know everything, even if he isn’t brave enough to admit it. If you are serious about learning to understand God, life and the universe, you have to read, question and seek wider than your local church’s understanding of things, because it will be limited. That’s not an insult, any context is limited, which is why if you want to own your journey you have to take little mental steps backwards; you have to constantly take in more context.
So how do you do it?
How do you widen your angle of view?
There is no easy answer to that. It’s going to come down to you cultivating a hunger for knowledge and Truth outside the confines of your limited tradition. This doesn’t mean you’re into syncretism; where you are just trying to amalgamate all knowledge with an ‘anything goes’ attitude. But it does mean that you are looking for Truth wherever it can be found, and then asking the tough questions of your own tradition when it’s knowledge gaps appear, as they inevitably will.
Remember, the goal here is Truth, not defending the illusion that your church is the best and knows everything.
And at some point you will have to pick.
To give an example: one of the things which has helped me widen my angle of view has been watching Documentaries.
I think I have developed a hunger to know more, and documentaries are the easy popcorn version of getting that knowledge. They teach you about the world we live in, about other people in other places, about history, and about the broader cosmos.
I’ll share some of the good ones I’ve found:
For a series which puts on display the awesome forces which make this planet tick, have a look at Iain Stewart’s Series, “The Power of the Planet.” You will quickly get a sense of how fragile this world is, how fortunate we are to be alive at this time, in these rarely conditions, and how reliant we are on forces we will never be able to control.
In the same vein, if you want a brilliant picture of the forces in our solar system, and beyond, into the universe at large, I would recommend Dr Brian Cox’s series called ‘The Wonders of the Solar Systems’, and ‘The Wonders of the Universe’. He explains the huge scales, timeframes and forces which have gone into making our universe, and which continue to change it. Watching this stuff on the screen does strange things to your theology.
For a jaw on the floor view of the natural world, check out the ‘Life’ series by David Attenborough. I don’t know where he finds the creatures he does. I mean, if I didn’t trust the man’s integrity I swear he was making some up. You suddenly realise how diverse life on this planet is, and how complex it’s development. It’s quite hard after this to hold ignorant views about the facts surrounding evolution, or our very human-centric view of the planet: that it was all made for us, and we are entitled to use and abuse it as we choose. Watching this helped me see humanity as co-inhabitants with some great responsibilities.
For a view of the diversity of humanity which live on this spinning rock, track down a BBC documentary series called ‘Human Planet’. For me it reminded me that I, as a white westerner, am not the majority, even though I am part of the race who make the most noise. Watching this series I came to appreciate the beautiful diversity of people alive and well in places I would struggle to survive at all. My culture is not the answer, so what can I learn from people who live differently to me, who respect the natural world more than I do, and who do community better than I ever have?
For a comprehensive picture of the Church’s story to date, you have to watch Diarmaid McCulloch’s 6 part series called ‘The History of Christianity’. He walks you through the spread, and rise, and fall of the church as it made it’s way across the globe. Watching this series I quickly realised that western church is only one part of the story, and that protestantism hasn’t been on the scene very long at all, and that your and my church (which may feel like the final word) is but a blip in the story God is writing.
I think you get the point.
Read world news.
And listen to stories told by people who are nothing like you.
Open the angle up to include as much of the cosmos as you can manage, and if your theology doesn’t hold up to the Truth to be found there, then I would suggest it has to change, because ‘all Truth is God’s Truth’… and heaven forbid we are found to be defending our church’s Macro theology against Wide Angle Truth. We have to be brave enough to yield our narrow ideas about God to the reality of life as it exists outside our tradition.