Is Your Theology Giving You Bad Breath?

Robert Farrar Capon and the Sweet Smell of the Gospel

Blake Nail / 4.26.21

But you know that the belch of the food that has been previously swallowed yields the fragrance. For a belch is nothing other than the going forth of the wind from the mouth revealing the quality of that which has previously been swallowed. If someone should eat an apple, he has the belch which bears the quality and odor of an apple. Therefore whenever a holy man eats the “bread of life” and the flesh of Jesus, which is true food and the fruits “of the tree of life,” and drinks the wine which is reaped from “the true vine,” he has a belch which corresponds to the foods he has previously swallowed.

Didymus the Blind

If no one has ever had the decency to tell you about your bad breath before, you’re most likely aware of it by now in this face mask era. I, myself, recently had a dental operation that in my healing state has left my mouth a bit ghastly, as some would put it. (“Some” being my wife.) And the thing about bad breath is, face masks aside, you never quite realize you have it unless someone tells you you do. Which is precisely what Robert Farrar Capon sets out to do in his short book, The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-and-Found of Church History.

Capon quickly covers the different models of the church spanning from the traveling tent in the wilderness all the way to the likes of Joel Osteen’s stadium. It isn’t an extensive look at history but rather a glance at how models worked at different times in history, all with the point of showing that models adapt with the times they reside in, and asking the question, What should our new model be? Because currently, or at least at the time of publication in 1996, Capon was getting a whiff of the stank coming out of the church’s mouth.

This stinky breath of ours comes from what we’ve been shoveling in our gullet, or had served to us, depending on how you look at it. A full course meal consisting of a bloody pound of Law, an unhealthily sized scoop of Rules, and some steaming Dos and Don’ts. And don’t look now, but there’s a delicious slice of Thou Shall Not for dessert. Capon argues we’ve become unastonished at the Good News and been operating as a group of people who’ve figured it out, waiting for everyone else to catch up to us. But that was not the task given to us. Without our astonishment at the gospel, we lose track of our purpose as the church. Capon puts our confusion on the mission of the church this way:

It is not a transactional agency through which God deigns to reward the cooperative with his cooperation; rather, it’s a simple fellowship of trust in the universal work of the God who has promised to include everybody.

There is no transaction to be completed. Yet we continue to breathe this transactional stench on the world. It’s not by chance that the common person believes the stereotype of the “goody good” Christian or self-righteous judgmental religious nut. Of course, we are to be fools to society. The gripe is not in our perception as fools. Rather, it’s what we are fools for that’s the matter. The church’s breath should be one that reeks of pure grace and undeserved mercy. Often times, though, it’s not. And this isn’t to point fingers or blame but rather to offer a cupped hand over the mouth for a breath check. We just might smell what others are getting in their nostrils and think twice, as Capon says.

The world has long been convinced that the church’s main business is sin prevention, and that the salvation we proclaim is a matter of getting people to straighten up and fly right. We ought to think two-hundred-times twice before we risk throwing salvation by grace alone into the angelic trash can any more than we already have.

No matter what model of church is attempted, if the Good News isn’t the message on the forefront, there will always be an issue. It may not be obvious at first but eventually will fester and show itself in ugly ways. Perhaps in the form of turning Joshua’s life into 10 Ways to Be a Better Leader. Or taking God’s unmerited grace and setting hurdles in front of it, like exterminating all your bad habits first before enjoying God’s grace.

This isn’t a matter of trying to appease people with an acceptable message. This is about being a fool over the proper things. Not stipulations, commandments, and shaking accusatory fingers. Being a fool over unconditional, undeserved, and undeniable grace. I don’t have the answers for how the church should function nor for which model works best. Capon has some ideas, but he also doesn’t proclaim to know the solution. Perhaps Capon has a point we can all agree on, if anything, about whatever form the church takes:

For all its sometimes barbarities, it [the previous forms of the church] did teach us to care. Any future form of the church that does less than that — that threatens to make us a club dedicated to our own uplift rather than cheering section for the whole created world — should be nipped in the bud. We don’t need it and God doesn’t want it.

Maybe the world still won’t want to hear about what the church has to offer when it comes to forgiveness. The chances are likely people will continue to turn away and be offended at the stench of our breath. But at least we’d know it was for being a proper fool. At least we’d know it was a breath that stank of God’s good grace for humanity. And maybe if we caught a sniff of it ourselves, we might find our hearts astonished once again.