by Terry Maples, CBFVA Coordinator
I grew up in North Alabama in the 1960’s. My Dad was a bi-vocational preacher in small Southern Baptist churches for much of his career. The context of my early years shaped me in powerful ways, and I am grateful to the members of the churches Dad served who invested in me and encouraged my faith development. The distinctively Southern Baptist way of understanding faithfulness to Christ kept me on a straight and narrow path. If I strayed at all, the annual revival confronted me with my need to re-commit, maybe even get re-baptized!
I proudly claimed to be Southern Baptist through college and later received an excellent theological education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. My years at SBTS were both exhilarating and scary. Southern professors challenged what I was taught at home and through SBC curriculum resources. What now feels like the “indoctrination process” of my early years ingrained certitude – I’m right; you’re wrong– in me, so I arrived at Southern with my theology completely figured out—ha! Immediately, what I thought I knew bumped into different interpretations and understandings. Initially, the experiences made me very uncomfortable and created dissonance in my mind. The contradictions between what I was taught and how God was shaping and forming me in fresh ways were unsettling. Certainly my encounters at Southern Seminary were invitations to transformation.
Dissonance (if we engage it) sends us on a journey of searching for new options. When old frameworks for understanding God no longer make sense, we are invited to seek fresh awareness. Only when we encounter dissonance are we pressed to turn loose of the certitude that controls us. Dissonance can be an important component in our faith formation. Wrestling with what we thought we already figured out can make “more than we ever imagined” possible.
Here’s a personal example of dissonance from my young adulthood. I grew up believing what I was taught in SBC circles—God can’t call a woman to be a pastor. (NOTE: This issue is front and center these days as folks respond to John MacArthur’s “go home” pronouncement directed at Beth Moore.) This conviction birthed out of literal interpretations of select few passages of scripture bumped into my experience at Southern Seminary. Women who sensed God’s call sought to educate themselves for vocational ministry, specifically pastoral leadership in the church, just like I did. Not only were these women called, many possessed gifts far superior to the men’s! During my years in seminary, women frequently won the preaching awards. My reflection around this cultural dissonance stimulated my growth beyond inherited faith. I confess God is no respecter of persons, including one’s gender, and calls males and females to vocational ministry.
A biblical example deepens our understanding. My favorite parable The Prodigal Son (more aptly called The Unconditional Love of the Father) shows Jesus creating dissonance to teach an important lesson. In the story, Jesus confronts the religious leaders of the day who have strong convictions about who is inand who is out.The leaders are frustrated with Jesus for “eating with sinners” and “hanging out with society’s outcasts.” “Why would this sought-after preacher waste his time on unclean and unacceptable people?” they wondered.
In response to these judgmental remarks by the religious leaders, Jesus tells the story of a young man who prematurely requested a share of his father’s estate. Legally the son had no right to the property until the father’s death but the younger son asked for possession in addition tothe right to immediately dispose of the resources. He wanted to live an independent life NOW. In essence, the younger son’s improper demands communicated, “You my father are dead to me already.” Despite the young son’s obvious disrespect for his father, the family patriarch allowed his son to claim his inheritance. The son leaves. All went well until the younger man’s riotous living depleted his financial resources and a famine led him to the brink of starvation. The prodigal hit rock bottom and finally realized how disconnected he was from everything that defined who he was. He came to his senses and remembered his home. “Perhaps I can return as a servant,” he hoped. To the son’s surprise, his father welcomed him back home not as a servant but as his fully re-instated son. The overjoyed father threw a big party to celebrate his child’s return. Watching from the fringes and bitter because the father never threw him a party, the older son’s anger kept him outside the circle of love. The father expressed his love for both sons because he truly loved them equally.
Jesus told this parable to religious leaders. The self-righteous leaders were not only privately concerned by Jesus’ dinner guests, they expressed public disapproval and called Jesus irreligious. They saw Jesus hanging out with people engaged in “dishonorable” occupations. Because these folks were “immoral” and “dishonest,” they were frequently denied their civil rights, including exclusion as witnesses in legal proceedings.
The religious leaders responded negatively to Jesus’ parable because they had been taught:
- Not to hang out with people “outside God’s love.”
- Certainly God loves dutiful, hard-working people more.
- People are ceremonially unclean if they hang out with pigs.
- “Sinners” don’t deserve grace and forgiveness.
Jesus’ parable confronts these long-held assumptions about how God thinks and acts. The leaders thought they had God figured out, knew what God expects, and how God operates. Jesus dismantled their assumptions by holding up the father’s capacity to show unconditional love and forgiveness to the wayward younger son.
Welcome to the transformative world of dissonance! Upon hearing this parable the keepers of the law are confronted with questions like: “Is what I was taught and currently believe about who God loves and forgives correct?” or “Could God’s love possibly extend to people with whom we never associate?” Tradition and law said one thing; Jesus said another. Jesus’ truth: God’s love has no boundaries!
If you are alive and engaged, you will experience dissonance. Something you were taught and believed to be biblical will bump into new understandings or perspectives about God’s all-encompassing love. When dissonance comes….
- See the time as an invitation to growth.
- Read deeply and widely as you search for new options.
- Engage in theological reflection – bring issues into conversation with scripture, tradition, and experience.
- Consent to being shaped and formed in new ways and turn loose of certitude.
- Experience the joy of transformation.
- Welcome substantive dialogue with those whose ideas differ from yours.
God works in mysterious ways. Recognizing and wrestling with dissonance is one way God can challenge you, grow you, and convert you. Welcome the winds of change as Holy Spirit blows you toward God’s purposes.