and Stars to Steer By
We seem . . . to be suspended in
what the anthropologists call a liminal time, a time
between the fading of the old stories to live by and
the emergence of new ones. A character in one of John
Updikes novels refers to it as "one of
those dark ages that visits mankind, between
millennia, between the death and rebirth of gods,
when there is nothing to steer by but sex and
stoicism and the stars" (Couples, 372). Surely
we can do better than that. Our believing communities
must work to fashion stories we can share and live
by. (Robert Detweiler, "Is Faith a Plot?"
lecture presented at Goshen College, Goshen, Ind.,
Were in a liminal time, says
Robert Detweiler. Liminal, the dictionary says, has to do
with what relates to or is situated at the limen. Limen
The hope of our time is that we stand
at the threshold of a new age. Ours is the frightening
but also spine-tingling task of sailing across the ocean
to find the new world somewhere ahead, not too far now
beyond the horizon.
The sadness of our time is that
were lost, wandering lonely across a trackless
waste, searching the sky for stars to steer by. Though we
catch a twinkle of stars in those rare nights when the
smog of our time rolls back, they dont yet offer
guidance. Thats because no one has ever gone quite
this way before. Until the stars are charted, they tease
and haunt us with their promise of a guidance they
cant yet deliver.
So we sail in this interval between the
ages, in this time when old stories have vacated the
throne but new ones havent yet risen to guide our
lives. Many of us experience as powerless the stories our
Christian tradition offered us. Creation. Fall.
Redemption. Consummation. Demythologized, each one,
wounded by the rise of critical thinking about both the
Bible which offered us the stories and the Christian
tradition(s) which preserved and transmitted them over
Not only in their precritical form have
the stories been deposed, however. Increasingly the
criticism which deposed them (and the forms of the
stories it created) is also under attack. Many are
finding this route dry and unfulfilling. It doesnt
let living waters, waters the Bible may offer us even
now, flow freely into our parched modern lives.
What, if anything, will replace the
stories in their precritical and critical forms? Can the
ancient images live again? Can Adam and Eve stir again in
our bones? Can we, with the Israelites, cross again the
Red (precritical)/reed (critical) Sea? Can Jesus still
save us, whatever salvation means in a sad and cynical
age? Does a time when well weep no more by the
waters of Babylon lie still ahead?
Who can say? We must still cross this
time between the times, when the shape of the new remains
unclear. How to travel across this period between the
collapse of the old and the rise of the new is what this
book is about. Its about what it feels like to be
"postmodern" people, with all the danger and
promise being "post-anything" carries with it.
"Post-" carries the name of the age it succeeds
but adds the "post-" to say the age has
disintegrated. Its name alone is no longer enough.
We postmoderns know the name of the
modern age were leaving. We know its no
longer our home. Were beginning to grieve. But
within our grief stir glimmers of the hope that beyond
the postmodern there lies a new age. Someday there will
again be stories to stir our souls, to light our way, to
give us a home.
Why do I believe so strongly were in a liminal age?
I offer three sources: personal experience, pastoral
experience, and the larger world revealed through books,
magazines, newspapers, movies, personal relationships. A
word about each and the role they play in this book is
appropriate because they provide the raw material from
which the book emerges.
A primary reason for believing our age
is liminal is having experienced the world that way
during my thirty-odd years of life.
My missionary parents raised me in a
milieu strongly influenced by both Mennonite and
fundamentalist streams of thoughts. The Mennonite stream
offered strong social boundaries. We were a people set
apart, called to create a haven of peace, security, and
right living in an evil and threatening world. When I was
young my dad wore a plain coat and my mom a plain dress
and prayer veiling as visible signs of commitment to that
alternate community. I set myself apart in junior high
school by exercising alone in one corner of the gym while
my classmates square-danced.
The fundamentalist stream offered
strong intellectual and doctrinal boundaries. The Bible
is the literal, inerrant Word of God. Just about
everything in it is actual, historical fact, including
Adam and Eve, the Great Flood, and Jonah in the whale or
big fish. God is an omnipotent being (male) in the sky, a
benevolent dictator we can blame or credit for whatever
happens. Accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior
brings salvation. Following this you feel the burden of
sin drop awayas it does for the pilgrim Christian
in Pilgrims Progress. After this you
abstain from smoking, drinking, swearing, and dancing.
And you prepare for heaven.
This is a caricature, I know. As I
proceed, I want to show that fundamentalism has a
richness to offer in the voyage across trackless wastes.
But thats how I experienced fundamentalism at the
Because I experienced it that way, I
finally rebelled against it. I decided I didnt
believe in God. The Bibles fabulous stories
werent true. Jesus was just an odd man. We came
from no place and are going nowhere. When I encountered
critical approaches to the Bible and faith in college, I
concluded they supported my faithlessness.
I had entered my own liminal time,
between the guiding stories of my childhood, now dead,
and whatever stories might arise to replace them. I
wandered lonely and cold. The stars haunted me. I wanted
the guidance they seemed to offer, even as I doubted
there was any home toward which they could lead me.
But gradually, without jettisoning
critical insights, I began to reappropriate faith. The
old stories began to move me again. My liminal time
isnt over; I remain a child of my age and
cant find my new home alone. Yet I find myself
standing sometimes at least on the threshold, looking
through the door, seeing glimmers of the new home in the
Turning to the pastoral experiences
that fed my conviction of living in a liminal age, I
spent most of the 1980s pastoring a strange congregation,
Germantown Mennonite Church. It was founded in 1683 by
Quaker and Mennonite families fleeing troubles in Europe.
Its the oldest Mennonite church on the American
continent. Tradition therefore wells from it in a
ceaseless stream. Yet during my time there, participants
in this venerable church were mostly in their twenties
and thirties and producing children by the bushels. We
did our youthful thing while the wraiths of those long
dead, the many who had preceded us over the past three
centuries, fluttered around us and reminded us we had a
heritage not yet willing to be forgotten.
Many attenders shared my kind of
background. Whether Mennonite, Baptist, Quaker, Catholic,
or Jewish, we had experienced our age as liminal. The
faith of childhood had died, the faith of the future was
shadowy, yet the quest for faith was sharp enough and
poignant enough to bring us regularly to church. We too
stood sometimes together on the threshold, suspecting we
saw a home in the distance, and perhaps Jesus standing at
the door, ready to welcome us in.
Then there are all the hints of
liminality the world is giving out. In the United States,
presidents tell us we got lost when one president did
this, and another president thatbut now they have
found a new way. Ronald Reagan told us it was morning
again in America, correctly articulating for us our sense
of being lost in a featureless twilight. But even as the
ever-popular actor rode his horse into the setting sun,
people knew that homelessness, environmental degradation,
budget woes, and more, would create tense plot lines when
the sequel, with George Bush as lead, hit the screens.
In just about every feature of current
life we sense the loss of old certainties. Our
institutionsgoverment, economy, schools, churches
and synagogues, intellectual lifeare faltering. But
were not sure what the antidotes are. In Habits
of the Heart Robert Bellah and company mourned the
loss of national cohesion. What would replace it? In The
Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom hit a
reactionary nerve when he mourned our loss of old
certainties and argued that their replacement,
uncertainty as prime virtue, wouldnt do the job.
Even as disintegration proceeds, however, the very fact
its being recognized offers hope. Perhaps the
nation stands on a threshold, ready to look for what lies
on the other side.
In Canada too, the center is weak.
People clash over which language they should speak. They
debate budget priorities as the national budget deficit
mounts. They choose religions from the pluralistic
Around the world they crumble old
certainties turned tentative by ceaseless change.
Together we yearn, millions of us, to cross to the other
side of our liminal time.
In the pages ahead I want to travel
toward the other side in three broad stages. First
Ill describe in more detail the shape of our
problemthe symbolic forty years of wilderness in
which were wandering. Ill place tentative
steps toward a solution at the heart of the book. Finally
Ill explore what outlines of the new home we can
see, if only faintly, beyond the threshold.
Plenty of books have examined the
issues I propose to discuss. Why write another? Because I
believe a book is needed that relates the issues to
congregational life and the struggle to make sense of
contemporary life all Christians face. I want to write a
book rooted in life as people who feel caught in this
liminal time really live and experience it.
I will consult some experts as I
proceed, because they have much to offer. I hope to write
intelligently enough to interest a few of them, even if
their response is only to tell me how very wrong I am.
Ill be writing primarily, however, in the only way
a nonexpert canas one personally caught up in the
dread and joy of our time.
I hope to be helpful in some small way
to kindred travelers. My intended companions are all who
care about congregational life and Christian identity in
a pluralistic and muddled ageChristians on the way,
and the teachers, preachers, and church leaders charged
with offering guidance. The Questions for Discussion and
Reflection at the end of each chapter make the book
potentially useful for Sunday school or small-group
discussions of the journey.
It may be a forlorn wish, but Id
like to reach an audience that includes both
fundamentalists and people so disenchanted with a
disintegrating Christianity that they put
"post-"even in front of the word Christian. I
risk being too pluralistic for the fundamentalist and too
committed to a particular way for the post-Christian. But
I hope to speak to both ends of the spectrum, because I
need them both. We all, I believe, need them both.
A final word on method. The astute
reader will note that a key tool I use to get where I
want to go is dialectical reasoning. Im hopelessly
seduced by this method, which tries to hold extremes in
tension. It takes polarities, opposite ends of a
spectrum, and refuses to jettison either. It examines
thesis and antithesis and shows how both are needed to
create a synthesis greater than either. I use the method
because Im drawn to it and because its well
suited to a liminal time in which old truths and the
reaction to them are ingredients we can use to find new
The singularity of the old, old story
of Jesus joined to the pluralistic reaction against all
old stories can give us a new story. This story can be
both new and Christian. It can reach out to an
ever-changing world and throb still with the life of that
old, old story, as John tells us.
In the beginning was the Word, and
the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . .
All things were made through him, and without him was
not anything made that was made. In him was life, and
the life was the light of men [and women]. The light
shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not
overcome it. (1:1-5, RSV)
Even in a liminal time, even as
trackless wastes and eternal night threaten to swallow
us, the light shines and leads us on. Where and how it
might lead is what now needs exploration.
Trackless Wastes and Stars
to Steer By orders: