Tuesday, November 14, 2017
A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz
When it comes to removing barriers between people or between people and God, we as the body of Christ should be on the very front lines. We should be leading the charge. We should be defining the movement of equality and justice, not bringing up the rear and definitely not digging in our heels and fighting against it with all that we have. That simply doesn't glorify God, and it isn't making disciples either. The world is seeing this and rejecting it. I hear their stories every single day. The name Christian is no longer synonymous with Jesus out in the world, but with bigotry, with power, with discrimination. This is the script that we who desire the bigger table must flip.
I'm having trouble starting this review, so I'm going to do a self-interview to help myself out a little. Today, I will be interviewed by an unbiased wooden table. Is it a bigger table or a smaller one? I don't know, since it doesn't actually exist. You can picture it however you like.
Unbiased Table (UT): Hello, Bookfool.
Bookfool (BF): Hello, Table.
UT: Tell me a little about why you chose to read A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz.
BF: I've been following John Pavlovitz on Twitter for around a year or so, having discovered his articles through a shared link on Twitter. Pavlovitz has been vocal about the dangers of our current U.S. President and his administration, the wave of Christian support that he received in the 2016 election, and the changes he believes need to be made to churches if they want to bring people back during a time when many are fleeing the church. We hold similar (if not perfectly matched) viewpoints about Christianity and inclusion. So, when his book was released, I was eager to read it.
UT: What kind of viewpoints are you referring to?
BF: John Pavlovitz believes church memberships should be more inclusive and reflect the practices of Jesus. The theme is building, metaphorically and realistically, a "bigger table" and not excluding anyone at all from joining in. He also believes church members should be allowed to express their spiritual doubts with each other in order to work through them, rather than feeling silenced and having to fear being cast out, ignored, or snubbed by members of a church.
UT: Tell us a little more about A Bigger Table.
BF: A Bigger Table is, in general, a memoir that goes into the author's beliefs and the eventual application of them. He begins by telling readers about his Catholic upbringing and early Christian beliefs, how he came to leave the church for many years, and how his experiences at work and at home informed the alteration of how he viewed Christianity. He talks about how he went from studying graphic design to becoming a pastor, how he feels like he fell into the typical patterns of Christian dialogue, and eventually how a move and getting fired from a pastoring job led to changes in his work as a pastor, finally reflecting his belief that churches should be more open and inclusive.
UT: Did anything about this book change how you personally feel about your beliefs?
BF: No. It was totally a comfort-slash-echo chamber read for me. It did, however, help me make sense of something I've wondered about for a long time.
UT: What was that?
BF: Why some people are completely unable to see the human behind the sin - or what they believe to be sin. Pavlovitz talked about how there are two kinds of Christians. This is a simplification - you really need to read the book to fully understand what he has to say about it - but he says there are those who see sin and those who see suffering. Those who see, or are focused on, sin emphasize the need for people to be saved and to those folks saving souls is the end goal. Those who are focused on the suffering of others desire to stop their suffering. The easiest example is probably homosexuality. Those who see sin are entirely focused on what they view as a sinful life - being gay as a sin that one must repent of to be saved, in their view, and until that sin goes away they're not interested in allowing gay people into the church as members. Those who see suffering see the inequity in how gay people are treated and their end goal is to stop the suffering and welcome them into the church as they are.
UT: Does the author believe homosexuals are mistreated by Christians?
BF: Yes, he believes that the church mistreats a lot of people by denying them membership. His philosophy is let everyone in and welcome them equally. The whole "bigger table" concept boils down to, "How can you grow a church if your entire belief system is based on exclusion and judgment of others?" He also believes that doubt is just a part of faith and that in order to grow in one's faith, church members need to be able to express their concerns and talk through them.
UT: What did you dislike about A Bigger Table?
BF: I would have liked to see the referenced scriptures included in the book. Sometimes, the author simply mentioned a scripture without explaining why he was referring to it and he never actually quoted them. He just referenced them, which meant looking up a Bible verse or passage and then trying to fit it to what the author was saying. It's easy enough to include a Bible verse in the text of a book. It's also incredibly easy to look verses up online, these days, but doing so interrupts the flow of the reading and means it's not handy for underscoring if you want to relate the assertion of the author to the verse in one place. And, I would have liked to see more Biblical references in general. The book is part memoir but it's also about why the author believes what he believes and it all comes back to Jesus, what he knows of Jesus' life and why Jesus' actions should apply to how we should treat people, today. If you're going to lean heavily on Jesus, I think it's important to show his words and actions. Personal opinion. I also thought the theme was hammered home pretty hard.
UT: Anything else you'd like to say about the book?
BF: My copy of A Bigger Table is so heavily marked up with flags that it's hard to know what to share and what not to, but I just flipped open to a passage that I think is worth mentioning:
The only way the table can really expand is when we, like Christ, are willing to take our place across from those who appear to be or even desire to be our adversaries. Jesus' call to embrace love as theology isn't merely a surface, sugary platitude. It's the most difficult, radical, time-consuming work of reflecting Christ to the world around us. In the end, the thing that glorifies God isn't our belief system, but how we treat those who don't share that belief system. We can be people of deep conviction without needing to pick up a bullhorn.
UT: The bottom line?
BF: Highly recommended. While I was reading, I occasionally bopped over to Goodreads to read a review or two because I was curious what other people thought of A Bigger Table and the reviews are all over the map. A frequent complaint was the lack of exegesis (which I had to look up - it means "critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially of scripture"). The author actually wrote about that. He said that exegesis was not his intent in this particular book; in other words, he wasn't there to talk about specific Bible verses and deconstruct them, but to describe general practices (my words) - taking what Jesus did and applying it to church practice.
And, specifically, he was referring to Jesus' willingness to eat with anyone. I found the book a little repetitive but definitely worthy of discussion. And, by "discussion" I mean calm discourse, which can be a tall order. Pavlovitz acknowledges the fact that people become very emotional when you challenge the way they've been doing things and sometimes will get so upset they never return to church. But, he would rather upset a few people and embrace those who are traditionally outcast -- and believes that's what Jesus would do -- than continue to drive people away from God by rejecting them for who they are. The subtitle of the book reflects the difficulty the author has experienced in trying to change minds and hearts, convincing people to open up the church to folks who have typically been rejected outright from participating.
UT: This interview turned out to be longer and wordier than you intended.
BF: Amazing how an imaginary table can read my mind. Yes, it did. My personal beliefs tend to lean toward "the greatest of these is love" -- that little sound bite in First Corinthians that is one of many verses I believe to be the foundation of Christianity - loving everyone, no matter what. So, A Bigger Table was seriously a comfort read, like Rachel Held Evans' Searching for Sunday. Thank you for interviewing me. Goodbye, imaginary table.
UT: [disappears in a large puff of smoke because it was, as it turns out, a very big fake table]
BF: Well, that was a dramatic exit. This is my third book review of the day and I'm going to try to squeeze in one more, if I can.
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