The Strangeness of the Gospel
A couple of months ago, I had a Sunday off and it coincided with a visit to Austin by Dr. Schubert Ogden, renowned process theologian and emeritus Professor of Theology at Perkins School of Theology on the SMU campus.
While I still try to read theology and did attend a process theology conference back in January, I’d pretty much lost track of Ogden. His writing, even when I was a grad student working with him, was always pretty heady, heavy stuff. Ogden loves to pile on the qualifiers so that you understand exactly what he’s saying and what he’s not saying. Or you quickly get lost and have absolutely no idea what he’s saying at all.
Robert Hall, senior pastor at Tarrytown UMC, invited Ogden to answer questions as a kind of Sunday sermon. At the service I attended, some of the questions were written by kids. He not only gave wonderful answers, he wrote out answers to everyone who sent in questions.
My experience of Ogden in grad school was just a tad different, and so it was a pleasure to see this pastoral side. Back in the day, Ogden was so passionate about theology and so rigorous in methodology that sloppy thinking was carved up like sushi.
One person asked him about other religions. What about someone who hears the gospel and still continues in their religious tradition? What’s their fate? Ogden was clear that Christians don’t have a monopoly on the truth.
But then he talked about what it might look like for someone outside Christianity to hear the claim that Jesus makes, the gift and the demand of God’s grace. Given all of the things that they might have heard about Christians and about Jesus, it might be very difficult, perhaps almost impossible for them to hear that claim in the same way that we hear it in our context.
All of which led me to wonder about folks who have only heard the message of our consumer-oriented, American culture-affirming, flag-waving, prosperity-gospel Christianity buzzing in the background. What do they hear when they come by my church? Can they ever get beyond a Christianity suffocated by a set of impossible beliefs that must be believed to hear about the Jesus I know, the one who offers a way of life of truly radical freedom?
How do we get that word across in a culture that understands Christianity as homophobic, judgmental and hypocritical?