If I Only Had a Brain

Third in a series of sermons on the Wizard of Oz. This week we are looking at the Scarecrow, and the need to be thinking Christians.

 

be5f4393fd0c551afed274e38d9b92e2

I was a young Christian, trying to figure things out, and I was looking for a Bible. A friend told me I had to get a King James Bible, because, he said, it was the only true Word of God. Even at my young age I was familiar with other translations of the Bible, and I asked him why the King Jimmy?

“When they were translating the Bible,” he said, “King James put 40 people in 40 separate rooms, and told them to translate the Bible. All 40 came up with the exact, same, word-for-word translation even though they never spoke to one another. That proves it is the only translation of the Bible we should use.”

Great story. If only it were true. First of all, there were 51 translators of the King James, not 40. Second, they were very Presbyterian about it. They worked in committees. There were six different committee, each working on a specific part of the Bible. The history is clear, and not up for debate. But even so, there are people who still believe the King James is the only real translation approved of by God.  It is, in fact, a translation like any other translation. It is beautiful prose, but it is a translation, no more divinely inspired than the NRSV we use in church.

It was clearly a tragedy. People were at a party in a hotel in Kansas City. While they were dancing, people on a ledge above were watching them. They started to sway and dance to the rhythm of the music, and the beat of their footsteps destabilized the ledge and it fell on the dancers below, killing 144 people. Soon after the event I had people telling me that it was God’s justice because the people were dancing to a song about Satan. But in reality, the accident had nothing to do with Satan. the song they were dancing to was Satin Doll by Duke Ellington, clearly not a paean to Satan.

After every hurricane or earthquake, before the rain stops falling or the earth stops shaking, some preacher goes on TV and says this is God’s judgment on wherever it happens.

A friend in Alaska told me of a great investment opportunity being peddled at a local church. It sounded like a Ponzi scheme to me, and I said so. “No,” my friend said, “The person offering it is a Christian woman, and says this is blessed by God. I am going to double my money!”

He lost half his life savings in that investment, which was a Ponzi scheme.

What is it about our faith that causes some people to turn off their brains as soon as they turn on their faith?

 

#

There is a common misconception that if you are going to be a spiritual person, you cannot also be a smart person. Spiritual people base their understanding of the world on faith. Scientists and other right-thinking people base their understanding of the world on knowledge. “Weighing in at 128 kilos of pure brain power, in this corner we have Science! And in the chartreuse trunks, in the far corner, weighing at .03 in the brain department, but 134 kilos of pure faith, is Spirituality! Let the fight begin!”

The motto of Duke University is Eruditio et Religio, knowledge and religion. When Nannerl Keohane became the thirteenth president of Duke University, she gave an address where she addressed her uneasy feelings about the school’s motto. “The emphasis on religion seemed hard to square with the restless yearning for discovery, the staunch and fearless commitment to seek for truth wherever truth may be found that is the hallmark of a great university.” Was she saying that “the restless yearning for discovery cannot be found in religion? Was she saying that there was absolutely no commitment to truth in religion? It seems so.

She solved her dilemma over the motto by talking about science as the pursuit of knowledge and “religio” or religion, or spirituality, as a moral impulse. Spirituality is what tells us to care for the disadvantaged. Science is what tells us how.

To Pilate’s question, “What is Truth?” Keohane would say, “Whatever it is, you won’t find it in spirituality.”

That is a grave mistake. One of the biggest problems facing spiritual communities is the lack of an intelligent approach to faith. The idea that you check your brains at the door when you enter the House of Faith is a wrong-headed notion. When we love God, according the Great Commandment, we are love the Almighty with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind. Faith is not supposed to make us fuzzy minded. Jesus told his disciples that they should be “as wise as serpents, but as innocent as doves.” The problem we have is that too often we are wise as doves and as innocent as serpents.

You don’t have to take an IQ test to start your spiritual journey, but at the same time, you don’t have to throw your brain out the door. Too often I have encountered refugees from churches who were told by their pastors, “You are thinking too much. You should just have faith.” Jesus talked a lot about faith, but he never told anyone to commit intellectual suicide.

If you are going to journey on the Yellow Brick Road, you are going to need your wits. This is not an easy journey, and it is not always a safe journey. I hate to say it, but there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there, who are more than willing to take advantage of you.

About three weeks after I was installed in my very first church as pastor, I got a call from a salesman.  “Hey, Murray, I have been trying to get a hold of you. You are one busy guy. I hear your ministry is going gangbusters in your church. I have a welcome gift for you, and I’ll just send it to you along with your standing order of light bulbs. Do you just want one box, or two this time?”

I thought that one would be enough. What did I know? I had only been at the church for a couple of weeks. The light bulbs came, and after that did it occurred to me that we met in a rented building, and the landlord should take care of the light bulbs. They showed up, along with a really cruddy gift. I asked the treasurer about the bulbs, and she didn’t know anything about a standing order of light bulbs.

Fool me once, shame on me. The next time he called, I called the Better Business Bureau. Fool me twice, shame on me.

So let’s rejoin Dorothy on her trip down the Yellow Brick Road, and see what we can learn about Spirit and brains.

#

The first companion Dorothy meets on her journey is the Scarecrow. He is not a very good Scarecrow, but he does make a wonderful traveling comrade. He is kind, brave, and funny. On the whole you could do a lot worse in your choice of traveling companions. He just lacks one thing–a brain. He sings:

I’d unravel every riddle for any individ’le,

In trouble or in pain.

With the thoughts I’d be thinkin’

I could be another Lincoln

If I only had a brain.

 

He wants to experience the intellectual rewards of life. He wants to think deep thoughts, bask in that, and then think some more. He wants to enjoy chasing down the premises of a logical argument and finding the flaws in the reasoning, construct a better one. He wants to consume new information, new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world, like a gourmand eating a fine meal. When his brain is working overtime, all of his self sits in delight.

The Scarecrow is a handy guy to have around. When they encounter the Angry Apple Trees, who do not give up their apples, the Scare taunts them, so they start throwing apples at them. He is the one who develops the plan on how to get into the witch’s castle to save Dorothy.

And this is how many people approach their faith. They love Bible study, theology, church history. They love it when ideas connect. They love learning new paradigms to help them further understand their faith. They are voracious readers, and heaven help you if you get into a theological or philosophical discussion with them. You might be there all day.

(Full disclosure: This describes me to a tee. I used to do my daily devotional by reading Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics–sometimes in the original German.)

Being a Spiritual Scarecrow does not mean you are any smarter than the other people in room. It just means you really appreciate an intelligent approach to faith. Some Spiritual Scarecrows may be smarter, but they may just appreciate smart people more than most others. Some Scarecrows I have known were brilliant. Others just thought they were, and still others were not and knew it, but really appreciated smart people.

Some of the greatest Christians in history were like the Scarecrow, from Augustine of Hippo to Thomas Aquinas, to John Calvin. Where ever you find the advancement of Christianity, you find someone who has spent time thinking about their faith, thinking about God and thinking about how God connects with us humans. You find people who love God with their minds.

Not everyone appreciates a Spiritual Scarecrow. “All head and no heart,” is a common dismissal. I cannot tell you how many times I stumbled on what I thought was a very important thought, only to have someone say, “Yeah what does that have to do with the price of tea of in China?” The assumption is that everything that goes on in our brains has to ave practical value, meaning immediate payoff. The idea that a theological insight may have significance all by itself just does not lodge well in some people’s brains. I learned a long time ago never to tell people I had been reading Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologia, or the works of some obscure French philosopher. “Why?” people would ask? “What is the value in that?”

“Because I enjoy it,” did not seem to work as an answer. “It has to have practical value,” I heard time and time again. One pastor told me he gauged all his seminary knowledge by how well his mechanic, a devout Christian man, accepted it. If he shrugged and said, “Yeah, that is deep, but who cares,” he figured it was useless, and consigned it to the dustbin.

And what happens when we do that? What happens when we assign our attempts to understand our faith in deeper, more intellectual ways to the dustbin? We become empty-headed people, “hollow men/leaning together/headpiece filled with straw” in the words of T.S. Eliot.

In fact much of what Christians do may be considered impractical, and people do it because they enjoy it. Take worship. What practical value is a Bach cantata or 25 choruses of a praise song? It makes the hearer or the singer feel good, but not much more. Except that when I say it makes them feel good, what I really mean is that it makes them feel closer to God. In the same way, reading deep insights into the nature of God make me feel closer to my creator.

There is a downside to this. Feeling good about God is only a small part of what it means to love God. I have known people who really never got out of their intellectual ivory tower, but those were rare individuals, most of whom also suffered great social anxiety as well. Their books were a refuge.

In the Old Testament lesson, David outwits Goliath. In a world that valued brawn, David beat the biggest guy on the block using his brains. In the New Testament Lesson, which is a real corker, Jesus is commending a man for using his brains to get out of trouble. In both of these stories, the people who used their brains were good examples of how we should be acting as Christians.

The theologian Anselm, who lived in the 11th century, had two sayings that showed how he connected his faith with his brain. The first is “Fides quaerens intellectum,” Latin for “Faith seeking understanding.” That means that we can augment our faith with the search for knowledge. The more we know about the world, the better we can understand our faith. The second is “Credo ut intelligam,” Latin for,”I believe so that I might understand.” That is the other side of the coin. Our faith helps us understand the world. In other words, far from getting in the way of knowledge, faith augments our knowledge, and knowledge augments our faith.

We need Scarecrows more than ever these days. The ability to think critically about theological issues is more crucial today than any other time I can remember in my life. People are not thinking; they are buying into bad and even false theologies hook, line, and sinker. With the proliferation of false information on the internet (and it often gets passed around in Bible studies and even from the pulpit) we need critical thinkers, who can take the best of the theological traditions we have inherited from our forebears and make it applicable for our world and our spiritual journeys today.

Like the Scarecrow, I wish for a brain–not just for me, but for every preacher who dares to stand before congregation. I wish it for everyone who ever posts anything about God or their faith on the Internet. I wish it for everyone who wants to bring their faith to bear on the current topics of our day. We have too many people who are cocksure that the Truth is plain and simple, and anything that is not plain and simple is not worth knowing. I wonder how many would go under the knife of a surgeon who held that view? “My doctor does not need any book learnin’. I just wants someone who believes in health.” How many would take their cars to a mechanic who insisted that motor vehicles were simple, and he was not going to waste his time on complicated “book learnin'” stuff.

The Spiritual Scarecrows are right to want a brain. I just wish there were more of them.

 

1 Samuel 17:38-40,

38Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. 40Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

 

48When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. 51Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.

When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.

#

Luke 16:1-9

 

16Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth[b] so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
This entry was posted in Church, Church Growth, Intelligence, ministry, Musings, Preaching, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Wizard of Oz, Worship and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s