Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Better Bunch of Grapes: Manufactured Fruit

We live in an insecure and nervous culture, eager to convince itself of its own goodness. Because of this, results count. From childhood to death, I have many ways by which I can demonstrate to a demanding world that my life "works": my report card, my grade point average, my IQ, my salary, my job title, the market value of my house, the number of my possessions, the fatness of my retirement savings plan, and even, when that's donee, the richness of the casket in which they lay me in the ground.

Christianity calls us to reject the nervous demands of our culture and turn to a life based on spiritual, not worldly, values. But be alert.

The Infection of Pragmatism
Even in the Church, in our relationships with other Christians and in our private devotional lives, the standards, the demands, of the North American culture in which we were raised press in on us. One of the imprints the world has made on the church in the last century or so is the clear stamp of utilitarianism: the way of the pragmatist:

"What is pragmatism? Basically it is the philosophy that results determine meaning, truth, and value-what will work becomes a more important question than what is true."
John MacArthur, "What's Inside the Trojan Horse?"

The kind of spiritual "success" we seek is often infected with a particularly North American kind of pragmatism. We want Good Christian Results: better health, bigger wealth, more fulfilling jobs, well-behaved and believing offspring, bigger and more well-regarded churches. We want
them as soon as possible, because our personal and corporate success are the things, we reason, which effectively attract unbelievers to Christ.

Many people do come to a kind of faith this way. They see Christians with outwardly happy, controlled, successful lives, well-behaved children, material comforts, fulfilling work. They want those things. If Christianity purports to deliver those things, they will become Christian. They are like the seed sown on rocky ground: they have no root (Matthew 13:5-6). They appear to grow like everybody else, but their faith, it turns out, was a sort of down payment made to the Bank of Blessings, to ensure that God brought about certain results. When these results do not occur, their faith withers and dies. Chances are, such people’s focus was not so much the Giver
(if it were, their roots would have grown into the ground, the source of their stability and nutrition), as it was the blessings he was expected to give them as payment for their loyalty and obedience.

To show us the nature of the believer's relationship to God, the Bible turns several times to images of that which grows: plant, tree, vine. It is this agricultural metaphor I've found it valuable to examine as an antidote to the results-driven faith that can so easily infect us here in North America. The passage containing the most detailed metaphor in this vein in John

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.
John 15:1-10 (ESV)

The agricultural model used in this passage stresses God's complete sovereignty. Fruit is designed by the Maker. The branch has no say in what the fruit tastes like, what size or colour it is, or when it ripens and is ready to be harvested. The branch must produce a grape or a banana, an apple or a pineapple, according to the nature, the will of the vine. To live, the branch must submit to the vine - stay attached to it, be nourished by it and let life flow through it to grow the fruit. The Vine is the organic source of the Fruit.

The results model, on the other hand, finds its genesis in mass-market industrial culture, and stresses human desire, human effort and the approval of the world. The product in the factory is designed and made to the customer’s specification. If defective, it can be sent back for replacement, or another manufacturer can be found who'll do a better job. The manufacturer of objects is bound, as well, by what the market demands: the customer is always right.

Jesus' vine metaphor is explored further by Paul in his letter to the Galatians: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such thing there is no law." (Galatians 5:22, ESV) These are the qualities God promises to produce in us if we "abide in the Vine".

Each Fruit of the Spirit can be seen to have a corresponding mere Result that apes it, a "manufactured fruit". When pragmatism rules the day, Fruit becomes Results:

Love becomes Attractiveness/Appeal.

Joy becomes Happiness/Good feelings.

Peace becomes Physical Security/Safety.

Patience and Self-control become Technique: "fix-its", shortcuts to virtuous behaviour that we hope will lessen or eliminate process, hence the need for patience or self-control.

Kindness and Goodness become institutional Good Works, programmed charity,
religious ritual and observance.

Faithfulness becomes Membership in, and consistent attendance at, the correct group activities or programs.

Gentleness becomes Denial and repression of anger, sadness and lust.

We can be delighted by the feeling of short-term success that the results of mere human efforts bring us. For a little while we will feel competent, adequate in ourselves. But notice: each Result is completely dependent on favourable circumstances. As soon as we behave in a less-than appealing way, fall into a season of depression, experience disease or injury, weaken in our rock-solid habit of daily Bible-study, are no longer enthusiastic about going to church, tithing or serving, or fall prey to our short temper one more time, our "success" vanishes. It is now our job to reproduce this success, because results-faith is not based on abiding in the Vine, but on
achieving success in the eyes of the world, our peers, ourselves, so that we can successfully market the faith to others.

The way of Results will leave us hag-ridden to perfect our churches, our ministry techniques and ourselves. When we cannot, it will gives us all it has to offer to offer to those who fail: a finger-wagging shame, accompanied no doubt by lists of things we must do to make us properly displayable members of the firm once again.

Results-driven faith will poison our Christian walk unless we intentionally reject it. Jesus' words in John 15 offer us the rich and lasting truth that can serves as the antidote to this particular worldly poison: Abiding.

The passage highlights four characteristics of abiding. These are descriptive, not prescriptive. They are not a recipe for success, but responses to Christ's promise of real love and growth:

Stay still (verse 4): Don't fill your life with a flurry of religious activity in order to make yourself feel/look good or distract you from your problematic self. Stop and come face to face with who you are - and who you are not.

Stay attentive (verse 7): Come face to face with God: study and listen to the Word; pray; meditate on God’s Word; worship.

Stay engaged (verse 10): Praise God for who he is, not just what he can do to bring about your success; carry the Word into action; respond to God in life as well as belief.

Stay in the Way (verse 5): Persevere; endure; be patient; trust in the Vine and the growth process created and sustained by the Vinedresser.

We will cycle alternately and concurrently through these four ways of abiding throughout our whole lives. In different areas of our lives, relationships or ministry or parenting, we will come face to face with a sin or inadequacy. We then come, in our incompetence and contingency, to God himself, lay it before him, while persevering in praise, study, prayer and worship. We then respond to what our heart receives in these times, all undergirded by the graceful love of Jesus Christ.

In all of this, we must become, as Thomas Merton puts it, "detached from the results of our own work".

None of our abiding guarantees what we might call "success" - not in work, family, ministry, parenting, anything - and we must neither demand nor expect them. We go to God to receive his grace. If any success comes, we can be truly thankful for it. It does not "accrue to our account", as it were, because we can take none of the credit. It is nothing of our own doing: it
is the fruit of the Spirit. It is the fruit of abiding in the Vine.

Here there is reality and rest. There is no evasion of or denial of sin, but neither is there the demand that it be outwardly or artificially "fixed". We are not called from worldly failure to worldly success, not from a life that doesn't "work" to a life that can be seen to "work". Instead we are called to turn from separation and sin to Jesus, who opened the way for close relationship with God the Father, as close as the tender relationship of the vinedresser to his beloved grapes.


At 8:52 am, April 21, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend Paula sent this reply to me and gave mermission to post it. It's great!


From Paula:

Oooh, another one already!!

This entry reminds me of a VERY bad poem I wrote at least 12 years ago. I
share it with you not for the form of the poem (which stinks!!), but for the
contents hidden within it.

Apples tied onto the vine
with a piece of binder twine--
soon the fruit is brown and rotted
and the Pharisees are spotted.

On dead branches nothing grows
but they want no one to know
so back to the market they all run--
busy buying fruit again.

Roots neglected, uninspected,
dried and cracked and unprotected;
this plant is dead, though thick with fruit--
the life blood blocked out at the root.

I can't wait to read what comes next. I sent the link to my pastor, and he
bookmarked it--way to go! Hee hee!


At 9:47 am, April 22, 2005, Blogger Puzzle said...

Here's Paula's response to the first article, Just Clark Kent


Paula said:

"Well done, Diane!

The preach at our church this last Sunday was about EXACTLY the same thing, though coming at it from a slightly different angle. We really do expect God to change us as we see fit, don't we? Living here in this small town, I see examples of "Good Christians" everywhere. That phrase makes Lance and me puke. It is an oxymoron, really. Well, if not an oxymoron, at least the word "good" is superfluous.

Keep it up; I can't wait to read more.



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