By Fleming Rutledge
Eerdmans, $22, hardcover, 273 pp.
I am a homeless soul, rhetorically speaking. Caught between the orthodoxbut immature rantings of the evangelical community and the wise, coolheresies in mainline circles, I feel estranged from both. If I spend toomuch time imbibing in either camp, I grow nauseated at the community'stoxic tendencies--an avoidance of depth and nuance for evangelicals andthe inability to talk about the living and reigning Lord Jesus Christwithout embarrassment among mainliners.
Which is why I find the sermons of Fleming Rutledge to be a homecomingand a reassurance. Her preached words reassure me that I am indeed on theright path, that wisdom and traditional Christian faith belong together,that I can have a big view of God while simultaneously readingsophisticated pundits and opinion journalists (her first collection ofsermons was called "The Bible and the New York Times").
Rutledge, an Episcopal priest, says this collection is designed for the"faithful doubter" or even an "unbelieving believer," but that is overlydramatic. These sermons are what all true disciples should drink, afull-bodied draft of the deep logic of Scripture. Besides, I have met veryfew actual open-minded seekers in church--at least not enough to warrant abook of sermons aimed only at them. And any 21st-centuryChristian is a faithful doubter at times, especially when insurancepremiums are due.
Much of Rutledge's power comes from her readiness to credit God withbeing, well, God. In "Moses and Monotheism: A Response to Dr. Freud," shetackles the story of God's revelation in the burning bush: "Now Freudwould say that all of this is nothing more than a projection of humanwishes and human longings." But this is a misreading of the biblicalwriters' basic message: "The Bible forbids us to think about the text thisway. If we rewrote the story by saying Moses imagined that God spoke tohim, it changes into something else altogether. You may not believe a wordof the Bible, but it isn't fair to recast it in terms other than its own.With rather staggering audacity, it presents us with something that wecould not have imagined: a God who discloses himself over against humanfantasies." And what does God disclose? That He acts. He is not merely aphilosophical abstract or the sum of our longings but Someone who walks withus, who goes before us, who gets us to do things. He is the kind of God whopartners with "disreputable people" like Moses and Paul and "maybe even AlSharpton." God is an actor in the drama he created.
The best way to read "Help My Unbelief" is devotionally, in small bites, asermon at a time. Many of her sentences need to be savored and chewedslowly: "It is far better to look disbelief straight in the face than tomake up a god to suit ourselves." Or, in a reflection on Romans 5, "We allhope for good things to happen in the next millennium, which are genuinelypossible, like a cure for cancer, but human nature being what it is, it isalso possible that our grandchildren will contract smallpox in abioterrorist attack. Such is our world as Paul describes it for us." In anattempt to recapture 1 Corinthians 13 for the church, she writes, "Lovedoes not lead to God; God in Jesus Christ leads us to love.... Agape isnot an ideal for me to aim at; agape is already actively at work in mefrom beyond myself."
An avid reader, and reader of culture, Rutledge draws on recent events andwritings to help us confront afresh the Word of God. For instance, sheuses the news story of Serb-oppressed Kosovar refugees, victims of terribleinjustice who nonetheless turn around and try to tear a Gypsy boy limb fromlimb, to illustrate Paul's concept of sin. She takes on JayMcInerey's essay in The New Yorker about his frustration over his dyingmother's faith to explain the mystery of the work of the Holy Spirit. Fourdecades of wrestling with Scripture from the pulpit allows her to say thehard-to-hear truths and the hard-to-understand teachings of Scripture.
There is precious little that tickles the soul in these meditations.Rutledge's sermons are more like spiritual RET (Rational Emotive Therapy),hard-hitting confrontations with the truth. Where others see examples of humangoodness, Rutledge sees God's gracious goodness that he allows sinful humanagents to participate in his work. The reader does not come away feeling one'sself-esteem has been massaged."The good news is that God's ultimate purpose of mercy for humanity is notfor our sake--it is not because we earned his mercy or because we deserveit; rather, it is for the sake of his holy name." I can almost hear thehealing "ouch" from the therapist's couch.
Rutledge runs so much against the "feel-good, felt-need" preaching oftoday, she runs the risk of being unpopular and difficult to market. Ihope she finds her satisfaction in pleasing her Lord and not in herroyalty checks. We who desperately need this tonic of biblical wisdom, whomay feel spiritually homeless, let us spread the good news that there is apreacher among us who can show us the way.