I discovered the late Michael Spencer’s blog, Internet Monk, maybe 6 or 7 years ago–ancient history in internet terms. I was initially brought in by a rant against cheesy Christian music that I completely sympathized with. In the following years I became a regular reader of Internet Monk and his Christian group blog, the Boar’s Head Tavern (BHT).
Michael’s writings were pastoral and deeply personal. His most popular (and controversial) essays were personal ruminations on what was going on in evangelical Christianity and reflections on his own struggles with things such as depression, inadequacy, weight, doubt, fear of death, and other personal issues. His personal issues tied closely to his takes on grace and faith (see, for example, the classic “When I Am Weak“). His theology it seems started as pretty standard John Piper-loving New Reformed, but evolved into a thoroughly ecumenical (post-)evangelical Christianity with a deep appreciation for Martin Luther (Michael was easily the most Lutheran Baptist ever), Episcopalian Robert Capon, and Catholic monk Thomas Merton (towards the end, his handle on BHT was TommyMertonHead). This especially after some run-ins with the internet Flying Monkeys of Reformed Orthodoxy for suggesting things like someone with Piper’s influence needs to be held accountable and for essays like “I Am Not Like You.” Michael would accuse his critics of misreading his confessional essays working through personal doubts as theological treatises, while his critics would say he took their comments too personally and defensively (which he did on occasion). The tag line from his podcast–“The internet’s longest-running theological soap opera”–was close to the truth.
But there’s little self-defensiveness in Michael’s first and only book, Mere Churchianity:Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality, which came out earlier this summer. The book takes as its starting point Michael’s 2009 article, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse,” and speaks mostly to people who have left–or are ready to leave–the church, yet still find Jesus compelling. He tries to untangle the person of Jesus Christ from the American and church cultures (churchianity) we wrap him in, obscuring the far more radical implications of His message. Those familiar with Michael’s takes on “christ-less preaching” might be familiar with the argument–that instead of Christ churches preach culture war, politics, The American Way of Life–but it’s far more unpacked here (see pages 70–73 for a fun list of the uses and abuses of Jesus’ name). Churchianity promises Christ, but delivers something far different, and eventually when people pick up on this as it fails them, they start to leave.
Sometimes the healthiest thing a person can do for their faith is leave a church, he says, especially if it preaches churchianity. Get your hands on a Bible, read a gospel, and find out for yourself who this Jesus person is. Instead of taking an authority’s word for it, read what Jesus says and try to figure out what He means. Ask questions of the text and of spiritual leaders (good churches equip disciples and form welcoming communities, he says, while bad churches preach churchianity and are closed to those who are different). Updating WWJD for the 21st century, Michael re-uses a phrase that appeared on his blog from time-to-time that can help guide the thought process: If I’d just followed Jesus in the desert for three years, what would I think about this issue? At the core of Mere Churchianity is an attempt at a deeper look at the incarnate life of Jesus, trying to get below the layers of ideology and theology.
Mere Churchianity is a pastoral and ecumenical book. Sectarians will not appreciate portions of it (I think Lutherans and Baptists will agree in disagreeing with Michael that mode of baptism is a minor issue). But it is thoroughly Christ-focused and you can feel the ministerial heart he had for those upset or disappointed with the church. Also, I do think Michael was smart enough to realize that being perfectly “Jesus-shaped” is impossible on this side of paradise, though for those of us with little inclination to leave the church the book might serve as a warning to look out for creeping nationalism, consumer culture, and so on in our own faith communities.
You don’t need to have been a reader of Michael’s blog to appreciate Mere Churchianity; he re-introduces the concepts enough that you won’t get lost. But for those of us who did read iMonk–myself especially, facing the same disease that took Michael’s life in April 2010 after just four months–it’s a sweet nostalgia trip that occasionally brings tears to the eyes. The closing paragraphs especially got me:
As I have come to discover that Jesus’ Kingdom is a far more diverse and interesting movement than I realized when I was growing up in a narrow fundamentalism, I’ve come to understand that what Jesus is doing in the world is exactly what his parables described: the smallest of seeds growing into a great tree.
Many of us will meet one another on this journey. We may share the same story or the same pain, or we may be so different that we keep looking, again and again, to recognize the family resemblance. It is my hope that the time we have spent together will encourage you to keep pursuing Jesus, no matter where you are in your journey. Don’t neglect the search for authentic, Jesus-shaped spirituality.
And finally, when we come home, we will find that Jesus has made us like himself, and yet, amazingly, we will have remained in every way ourselves.
I hope that means he still has the Kentucky accent in Heaven.