I was struck by this post, called An Open Apology, which Joe also read in church this week. He essentially proposes that the best form of apologetics is apologizing – demonstrating that God is real by apologizing up front for the things people have done in his name, rather than by careful reasoning and arguments (which also have their place). I identify with this expression of faith much more than what the word evangelism is typically taken to mean.
There are many folks out there who are dropping associations with Christianity as much as possible and using other labels or identifiers, like “follower of Jesus”. Lately I’ve been one of them. It’s a simple and surface-level way to dissociate myself from the evils and cultural crap associated with Christianity as a religion. Certain people and groups have made themselves de facto authorities and spokesmen in our culture for Christianity, the voice of the religion to the country. I can’t say I identify with many of them. Rush Limbaugh, the late Jerry Falwell, George W., Fred Phelps, and all those people who bomb clinics and pray at the gas pump. These are the more extreme, perhaps; these are also the most visible. Or Joel Osteen, The Pope, or any other national Christian figurehead for that matter. Also not folks whose faith I particularly identify with. Anyone heard of John Eldredge? Michael Spencer? Dave Schmelzer? These are people in the public sphere whom I would perhaps trust more to speak for my faith.
And yet as I was recently reminded, dissociation isn’t quite enough. Changing my language in order to say I am not like them is on the one hand only changing language, and on the other hand only an implied disapproval of them. It doesn’t do much beyond perhaps prompting someone to ask why. The Christian faith, as has been true in one form or another throughout its history, has been co-opted for other means by those who presume to represent it to the world while those who perhaps better represent the life of Jesus are silenced, or maybe just silent, and protest mostly by example if at all.
I had an exchange a while ago with a friend of mine who is an atheist, who himself was frustrated with this dynamic in modern American Christianity. “It is sad to me,” he said, “that people, who outnumber the enemy I think, give in rather than stand up for what is right. What I seldom see is public outcry by Christians against this co-opting. It is my hope that rather than run/hide/rename that more Christians would protest, fight, take back what they see as the tenets of the religion.”
He understands the personal and social values of Christianity, and agrees with many of them in principle, if not with the spiritual claims of the Bible. He might even agree with me when I say there is a need in the world for the sort of love and sacrificial lifestyle Jesus demonstrated. Not that the world needs conversion to Christendom – we’ve seen how that went over. But that there is something powerful and necessary in the life and teachings of Jesus that satisfies a need in humans at large.
It’s probably worth saying at this point that most churches and ministries and Christian communities would say this is what they are about – in one form or another demonstrating to the world the life of Jesus and teaching others to do the same. But is this what the church in general is known for, at least in Western culture? Are churches the places that people go looking for help and support in their deeper needs, and growth and empowerment in their lives? Perhaps those who grew up in the church. And many of them are looking elsewhere lately.
What message then are churches sending? What do people – again, people in Western culture on these terms – think of when they think of Christianity? Or Christians? Rush Limbaugh & co.? At the very least the general hypocrisy of Christianity is glaring. Those who get the most press seem typically to be the ones resisting, categorizing and generalizing, or worse, condemning, attacking, or murdering. “Are people fighting back against them?” My friend asked me. ” Is this a concern in the modern movements?” Actually, no. Not with any visibility at least. And of course there can be a fine line between genuinely protesting the hypocritical co-opting of the faith and becoming another internet watchdog calling foul at every latest outrage from someone who is clearly less Christian than them. That of course is not what I’m thinking of here. I’m thinking of the gap between what the church is and what it could be, to put it broadly.
Culturally modern churches have taken the cool and laid back approach. Come, have coffee, let’s hang out. Which I think is pretty helpful. People need Christians to put down their guns, so to speak. My friend had a different take on it though, which frankly floored me.
“The people at your church are marketers – they want to sell me, don’t just send me a postcard about music and a good time, send me one that says I am a Christian and I don’t kill doctors. Make it very pointed. I am a Christian and I am not so stupid I think Obama is an Islamic terrorist. I am a Christian and my Christ preached love, not shooting at holocaust museums. I am tired of getting happy feel good letters and postcards – Come visit us. I want to see where they stand. I want to see them take a stand.”
The church that would send his sort of postcard probably is not the church for everyone. Then again, who would that church attract? What kind of people would walk through the doors of a church that marketed themselves like that? Troublemakers, boat rockers, idealists, activists, and thinkers. Better still, what kind of Christians would speak of themselves that way? Or live like that?
Here’s one, for starters. A Georgia pastor who has offered to take in any and all unwanted infants. Are there others?
I ‘ve been reading through Donald Miller’s much-accoladed Blue Like Jazz recently, and came across this quote:
I believe in God, and as I said before it feels so much more like something is causing me to believe than that I am stirring up belief. In fact, I would even say that when I started in faith I didn’t want to believe; my intellect wanted to disbelieve, but my soul, that deeper instinct, could no more stop believing in God than [my friend] Tony could stop being in love with his wife. There are things you choose to believe, and beliefs that choose you. This was one of the ones that chose me.
I like the distinction that there are types of belief that are intentional and types that are unintentional, whether through social conditioning and the like – which upon reflection may still fall into the first category of adopted beliefs, or simply the fact that they happen, like love. I feel like the last four years has been a shaking out of the beliefs I have chosen to adopt, more or less leaving only the ones that have chosen me, the ones that despite an extended series of poor circumstances and all the evidence a man would need to discard or significantly revise them have stuck around largely unchanged.
I can’t really explain it. The reason I’ve held to the conviction that God is real, and incredibly and consistently good, and interested and involved in my life isn’t because everyone around me has held the same belief, or that I didn’t have significant logical and circumstantial evidence contradicting it, or even the fear that I would be disappointing my family or many of my friends if I were to abandon it – rather it was more the sense that I would be disappointing God himself if I were to discard my faith, the awareness that despite all the above factors God had become no less real to me even through my lowest times, that there has continued to be someone who transcends the reality I experience and perceive and who still offers comfort, rest and inspiration to face what comes next.
It’s an interesting comparison as well between this unchosen belief and love. I don’t think love is an entirely unintentional process – perhaps some forms of it are, like having a crush or love for a child, but not the commitment-oriented, long-term sort that a fulfilling marriage requires. And even that kind involves continual decisions to stay in the process, make sacrifices and invest in the relationship. All this said, there is a persistence to love, a relentless belief that can’t be walked away from without painful self-convincing and heart-hardening, like trying to fall out of love with someone.
It’s again an interesting parallel. My faith is still around because I still love, and I still am loved. Turning around and walking away from it is turning around and walking away from love. I am or have recently been frustrated, confused, hurt, angry, even demoralized and depressed, but the love is still constant. I am aware of it on some days and unaware on others; I occasionally pursue it or often times leave it be. But it does not change. I don’t think it will ever go away.
I can say what I will about the high profile aspects of Christianity that condemn, lobby, argue, assert, belittle, and otherwise fight against the world of humans outside the subcultural time capsule of Christian religiosity. I can disapprove, disagree, or disavow. I can amend my list of disclaimers to my faith which sometimes seems much longer than the content itself. But in the end in my own way I am fighting too. Resisting, dodging, distancing, keeping watch for the line before judging. So how’s one who calls himself a Christian in the basic sense of the word, a follower of Christ, not to become entangled by the holy war against the atheists, secular humanists, pagans, and otherwise “not us”-es in the arena populated by those who by their words and actions belittle, demean and otherwise redefine the term Christian into a sociopolitical platform, a free get-out-of-jail/reality appelation, a self-created cultural caste from which everyone else is…down there?
And why is a question like this even necessary?
You could say love is the answer, the antithesis to war, that ignoring the fight and acting and responding through compassion rather than compatriotism disempowers the vitriolic arguments. But you can’t ignore the mess the fight has made, the carnage of the modern Crusades of words and culture that everyone exposed to it, Christian or not, has to at some point reckon with. And living a life of love towards others is made that much more complicated by having to navigate the morass of unlove.
I like these people’s thoughts on the matter:
A letter, written to a friend living in poverty, composed surprisingly enough for a sermon competition (“10 sermons you’d never hear in church”), and which perhaps not so surprisingly was awarded first place.
Reflections by a current pastor and former atheist on a recent Christian radio interview.
The title of the latter seems to define the gap well: Do battle with the world around us? Or engage it? A question I imagine will endure.