| May 24, 2011
A few weeks ago, as Debbie and I drove that breathtaking mountain road between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Ashville, North Carolina, we passed the turnoff to Lake Junaluska, a place of great significance to that old renegade preacher and theologian, Carlyle Marney, who died there on July 5, 1978. Predictably, the road sign that signaled the exit set me off on a remembrance of one of the voices that shaped my vocation. In Marney’s case, “voice” is more than metaphorical. We always said that Marney had a voice like God’s – only deeper.
Stories are told of Marney’s intellectual brilliance, how he once met a young man in the back country of Amazonia. Desperately wanting to communicate in a common language, the two found that they were both fluent in classical Latin. Marney read absolutely everything, and his books, including The Structures of Prejudice: An Approach to Understanding and Dealing with Prejudice in Culture (1961), The Recovery of the Person: A Christian Humanism (1963), The Coming Faith (1970) and Priests to Each Other (1974) still merit study. He was to have given the Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale the year he died – thus John Claypool was tapped to deliver the series in his stead.
Stories are told of Marney’s prophetic insight and deep commitments. My friend, the great pastor, Dr. Marvin Griffin, once told me of Marney’s prophetic courage and leadership on behalf of the cause of desegregation and how that leadership took the concrete and subversive form of unequivocal, publically expressed friendship between the senior pastor of the largest white Baptist church in the region (Marney) and the young pastor of a large Black Baptist Church (Griffin). Marney taught many of us that sometimes the most prophetic thing you can do is be a friend. His prophetic commitments help explain the dedication of Mary Kraft’s volume about Marney published by Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte: “For those who loved him and some who didn’t.” His commitments may also explain why he influenced two or three generations of young Presbyterian pastors arguably even more than the young pastors of his own denominational tradition.
Among the stories about Marney that shaped me most were those about what I would call his prophetic compassion in the face of human brokenness, and how this compassion inspired the founding of The Interpreter’s House, a place where ministers’ lives, shattered in all sorts of socially unacceptable ways, were put back together. Those with a literary bent will recognize the allusion to “the house of the interpreter” from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan’s book – and in Marney’s world – The Interpreter’s House was a place where discernment happened, where lives came into focus in light of God’s grace and judgment, and healing occurred.
Maybe nothing Marney did was quite as prophetic as establishing a place that made forgiveness a positive therapeutic strategy. I have struggled for years with one story about what this meant in Marney’s own life.
It seems that one morning, as a group of area pastors gathered around a coffee pot in advance of some clergy meeting, Marney noticed a pastor sitting alone, looking troubled. Marney sat down across the table from him and nursed his coffee in silence. At last, the silence was broken when the pastor looked into Marney’s face and asked, “Marney, do you really believe, do you really believe, that almighty God can forgive anything.” Marney (as the pastor himself reports) leaned across the table and said, “I forgive you.”
Marney believed that forgiveness doesn’t mean much if we hold it as an abstraction, as a general principle. Forgiveness needs to be made real by flesh and blood, in ordinary “priestly” acts by ordinary people, or so he says in his remarkable book, Priests to Each Other:
“[T]he church is a womb where God’s kind of persons happen, are made, are called forth…. When church is church, life is koinonia, both as church-gathered and as church-dispersed. Life is life in common wherever you are. Koinonia means to know as you are known: to be known utterly by one who calls you forth…, before whom it is safe to come as you are.”
He knew that regret, even when combined with a sincere desire for forgiveness, (what we have classically called “contrition”) is not enough. Repentance is the key. But Marney also knew that repentance isn’t even possible unless forgiveness is sure and certain. Forgiveness makes repentance possible (not the other way round!) – something we may all want to recall on Sunday mornings when we confess our sins in worship.
In his perceptive sermons, like those in the collection, Beggars in Velvet (1960), he comes alongside his listeners and readers with a Word of God that speaks to them, because it speaks to him, a word of grace that is never cheap (because it does offer and demand renewal, repentance, reconciliation, and redemption), but that does not pretend to exempt the preacher from the sins against which he or she preaches. This is one of the great differences in Marney’s prophetic ministry from the thin, shrill, prophetic pronounces of so many others. When he confronted hypocrisy, he did so with a wry smile, recognizing the hypocrites desire to be better. When he confronted social evils, he did so with genuine grief, recognizing the part he played in perpetuating them. And even when he quarreled with the church – and he did sometimes – it was a lover’s quarrel. He understood, as a preacher and as a pastor, that the Word of God was not his possession, was not synonymous with his words.
Marney practiced a kind of faithful agnosticism, which was really just another kind of humility, as when he said of Karl Barth’s multivolume “doctrine of God” in the Church Dogmatics, that nobody knows 1,500 pages about God, not even in German! This humility could turn with scorn, to face the arrogance of certain atheists too, however, as when he said that while it is “a perfectly valid admission” for a person to say God is not alive to him or her, “to knock [God] off for the rest of the world seems to me presumptuous.”
I’m saying all of this today because Marney also said, “The first word of the Church is … against bad religion.” This is especially true when the “bad religion” comes from our own ranks.
I am more and more struck (and more and more saddened) by how many contemporary Christians seem to think that we are not known as followers of Jesus Christ by our love (as the spiritual song sings), but by our self-righteous contempt for people who aren’t like us, either in their values or beliefs or lifestyles. Maybe the most prophetic act we can perform, in this context, is to extend forgiveness to those our society doesn’t like to forgive, or to befriend those our culture would prefer to ignore, or to love those our co-religionists call “unlovely” and “unloveable.”
It hardly matters whether a Christian identifies him or herself as a “Red state” or a “Blue state” sort. Neither has a monopoly on the Christian gospel. And, sadly, neither has a monopoly on self-righteousness and judgment. Grace is neither a conservative nor a liberal value. So the prophet of Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, taught us long before we had phrases like “Red state” or “Blue.” As far as Marney was concerned, grace is a human value; it was confirmed as such by Jesus of Nazareth, a person with whom we share a common humanity – though, to be frank, we don’t share the same religion. Maybe that’s worth thinking more about.
 Mary Kraft, Marney (Charlotte: Myers Park Baptist Church, 1979), 76.
 Carlyle Marney, Priests to Each Other (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1974), 20.
 Mary Kraft, Marney, 92.
 John J. Carey, Carlyle Marney: A Pilgrim’s Progress (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1980), 84.