Category Archives: Belief
This weekend I attended the Women’s March in Washington, DC. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by so many people passionately expressing their beliefs in a whole host of causes, and I was proud to be included in what I know deep my bones will be regarded as a historic event in the years to come.
The March in DC was largely touted as a pro-choice event. Of course pro-lifers were welcome to march, but they were not represented among the list of speakers for the pre-march rally, and pro-life organizations were not allowed to be listed as partners on the official Women’s March website. Many of the signs at the March proclaimed pro-choice messages that largely pertained to the idea that women ought to have the right to make their own choices when it comes to reproductive health.
All of this has inspired me to share my own complicated feelings about abortion, since to be honest I took issue with many of the pro-choice signs I saw. The more I consider this controversial issue, the more I realize how terribly complicated it is, and how difficult it is to develop a view on abortion that is morally consistent.
Growing up as a conservative Christian, abortion was one of those many issues in which there is only one “godly” position to take: it is nothing less than murder, and as a Christian I am obligated to support legislation that would make abortion illegal, since a fetus is a human being entitled to all the same rights that an infant, child, or adult would have.
I first started to question this belief when I stumbled across the blog of Samantha Field. She wrote a six part blog series called the Ordeal of the Bitter Water, and at the time I stumbled across it I believed in the divine inspiration of the Bible enough that if the Bible taught certain things, I believed that teaching should hold true in my life in some form. So when I learned God mandated abortion among the ancient Israelites as a form of punishment for an unfaithful wife, I was shocked. Reading about this caused my first tailspin into doubt, because I realized that the Bible is more complicated than I thought when it comes to scriptures about abortion. If God mandated abortion in ancient Israel, how could I say that my pro-life stance is in line with God’s will? If God could justify abortion, then why shouldn’t I?
The more I learned, the more confused I became. At first I thought it was pretty clear that the root issue that determines whether a person is pro-choice or pro-life is the personhood of the fetus. After all, if you believe a fetus is a human being, you can’t really regard abortion as anything less than murder.
I have a few problems with this, though. The first is that natural abortion – a.k.a. miscarriage – happens all the time. It is a natural part of the reproductive system. The reason this complicates things is this: who gets to decide whether a woman has had a self-induced abortion or a miscarriage? There have been women who have been wrongfully incarcerated for as many as 30 years in prison when their miscarriage was determined in court to be an abortion. This is a travesty, and it is an injustice someone who is pro-life will need to come to terms with if they believe abortion should be criminalized.
That is the problem with taking a hard line on treating a fetus as a human being. One cannot regard a fetus the same way that they would an infant because that fetus is growing inside a woman who also has rights. That is not a nuance I have ever seen in a pro-life stance, and it’s because they can’t take that stance; you have no choice but to place the rights of a fetus over the rights of its mother if you end goal is making abortion illegal. And that is a big problem.
The second problem I have with the pro-life stance is that it takes for granted that life begins at conception. This is also illogical when you really think it through. From what I understand, the most widely accepted definition of cconception is when an egg becomes fertilized by a sperm. If you are hard-line pro life, it is from that moment on that abortion becomes murder. Yet, women naturally dispel approximately 80% of these fertilized eggs before they plant on the uterine wall. How can one possibly say that a fertilized egg that is naturally dispelled suddenly becomes murder when it is expelled through medical means? I would never be able to wrap my head around charging a woman with murder for having such a procedure done, when it is one that her own body does naturally. Yet that is what you must do if you believe a zygote ought to be endowed with the inalienable rights of a human being who has been born.
Thirdly, I cannot accept the pro-life stance because it deprives women of choice. For a long time I never fully understood the gravity of this. I bought into the conservative lie that women always have abortions for selfish reasons; they are not responsible enough to be abstinent, and they don’t want the responsibility that comes with having a baby were the two biggest reasons I heard for why women have abortions.
This is not true. There are many cases in which a pregnancy is not viable, and the woman must have an abortion to save her own life, or cases when the pregnancy is not viable. When I reach of one such case, it just about broke my heart. This woman named Karen conceived, and she and her husband were joyful with anticipation. They found out she was a girl, and they named her Evelyn. Twenty weeks into her pregnancy, Karen discovered that her unborn daughter had a disease called skeletal dysplasia. Not only was the disease lethal, Evelyn was also in terrible pain. Karen and her husband had a choice to make: carry the baby to term with excruciating pain and the very small chance that she may live up to a few hours, or terminate the pregnancy and spare Evelyn that pain as well as lower the health risks to Karen.
This couple chose abortion. In my mind, there is no argument one could make in which the government would be justified in charging Karen with murder for aborting her child. She wanted this child, she was this child’s mother. By choosing abortion, she believed that she was making the best possible choice available not only for herself, but for Evelyn as well. It was her right as a potential parent to make that choice, and no one – especially not the faceless legal system – has any right to make that choice for her.
I chose this story as the last and biggest problem I have with the pro-life stance because it also highlights the problem I have with the pro-choice stance as well. Often, among those who are pro-choice, I see the unborn child stripped of all humanity; it is a collection of cells, it is a developing fetus; it is not a human being. It is almost as if an unborn child is not human at all – just a thing developing in a woman’s womb – until that child is born. Women should feel empowered about abortion; they should not feel guilt, or angst, or have any negative emotions.
This is troublesome to me because like it or not, a fetus developing in a womb is potential human life. That is something that should be taken seriously, because every single human being on the planet was once a developing fetus. They are so much more than a collection of cells, and I think the idea of abortion on demand undermines the sacredness of that potential life.
A world in which abortion is freely accessible to anyone, anywhere, for any reason is a world that is, in my opinion, freakishly unbalanced. Just as the pro-life stance does not value the woman enough, the pro-choice stance does not value the unborn child enough. Especially when I see those rare few stories of late-term abortions, I am horrified that we have compartmentalized humanity so much that we justify ending the life of an unborn baby as old 7 months.
In many cases, I can see why women might believe abortion is the best choice available for themselves. But on the other side of the coin, I can’t help but wonder if having an abortion chips away at the heart of the woman. After all, abortion is not a routine medical procedure no different than a minor surgery; it is the end of what would otherwise one day grow up into a boy or a girl as beautiful and unique and full of personality as you and I are. It is no small thing to make that choice, and I believe that the psychological damage caused by abortion is often underestimated among those who are pro-choice.
As I said in the beginning of this post, this is no easy issue to navigate; it is very complicated and the more I think about what is at stake for both sides, the more I realize that neither really has an answer that would grant autonomy to a human being because before a child is born, that unborn child and its mother are one. To argue for the rights of the unborn baby denies the rights of the mother, and to argue for the rights of the mother denies the rights of the unborn baby. And what is more, the concerns that both sides of this issue have are valid and worth considering.
Typically when one writes a post like this and hashes out the “for” and “against” reasoning behind an issue like this, they conclude with taking a stand one way or the other. But for all the reasons stated above, I truly can’t. What I can say with conviction is that I believe with all my heart in minimizing abortions. At least half of abortions occur because the woman cannot financially afford a child, did not have access to affordable birth control, or is too young to be ready for motherhood. Under the Obama administration over the last eight years, abortions have reduced to an all-time low in this nation precisely because the pressures of all the above factors were alleviated.
So if there is any stance that I have on abortion, it is this: for the sake of women everywhere, and also for the sake of unborn children everywhere, let’s make it our primary goal to reduce abortion by improving the condition of the pregnant woman instead of taking hard-line stances that dehumanize mother or child. Investing our efforts in that cause will achieve a result that everyone can get behind.
This blog post is my review of the third chapter in Peter Enn’s brilliant book The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending the Bible Has Made Us Unable to Read It. You can find the previous two under the Bible tag.
So far, I think this has been my favorite section of the book. After deconstructing what our expectations should be when we read scripture—especially the Old Testament—Peter Enns builds on these concepts and constructs something meaningful for us as readers. He peels back another layer of these ancient stories and reveals the depths of what the writers were trying to communicate when they penned some of the greatest stories in history.
Enns begins by really tackling the hard truth: there is no such thing as “straight” history! It doesn’t exist in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter. Anyone who takes pen to paper and writes out an account of something that happened in the past, whether it was yesterday, or fifty years ago, or two thousand years ago, is going to write it from a particular angle. A different person might tell the exact same bit of history in a completely different way.
To illustrate this very important point, Enns explores the four Gospels and the choices each writer made when describing various key moments in Jesus’s life, such as his birth, the miracles he performs, his death, and his resurrection. Enns writes:
“Getting the past ‘right’ in a modern sense wasn’t high priority. All four Gospels are connected to history, but each also tells us a lot about how these writers saw Jesus, what they believed about him, what was important to them and their communities.”
He gives a few examples of how the three synoptic Gospels especially build off each other and tell the same miracle stories, but sometimes in different sequential order, or with different details that highlight a particular point that is in line with that particular Gospel’s overarching theme. Each writer shaped their telling of Jesus’s life in a way that was tailored to their own audience.
The implications of reading the Gospels in this manner are fascinating. For example, Luke’s Jesus is very kingly. The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary that is only present in Luke’s Gospel, immediately tells the audience that this baby is a descendant of David and Israel’s rightful king. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth reveals a different goal; he is echoing the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. God used a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites in the desert; God used a star to guide the Magi to the infant Jesus. The historicity of some of these details may be questionable, but their implications for the significance of Jesus’ birth certainly is not!
After providing several more of these examples, Enns shifts his attention from the Gospels to the Old Testament stories and evaluates them using the exact same framework. In the Old Testament, as well, we can see plentiful examples of how the writers shaped the events of history to reinforce a particular overarching agenda. He walks through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Chronicles, and Kings. Just as with Jesus in each of the Gospels, we see in these books that very different images of Solomon and David are presented. In the Chronicles, David is the charismatic, brave, bold king that Israel needed most at the time. The Chronicles’ David is a symbol for Israel’s future: promising and full of hope.
In the Kings and Samuel books, however, we see a more human David; he has an affair with Bathsheba and murders Uriah, and at the end of his life he disrupts the order of succession by naming his younger son Solomon as his heir (speaking of which, the theme of younger sons being favored over their older brothers is also peppered all throughout the Old Testament). He also begins the process of building the temple despite God’s clear command to the contrary. He is, in short, a very different person from the heroic figure in 1 and 2 Chronicles.
Enns rounds out the “God Likes Stories” chapter in an incredibly fascinating manner. As the final chapters of this section unfolded, I became amazed at the intricate way that so many of the Bible’s most iconic stories are interconnected. The same themes emerge again, and again, and again throughout these stories. Applying this lens of the “present shapes the past” helps to bring these themes to light.
Reading these stories in this way also helps us place them within a genre appropriate to their content. All of the connections and interplay between them point to the reality that each of these stories are myths. And before you start thinking that myths are just wild fairy tales spun out of thin air, just read Enns’ definition of a myth:
“Myths were stories that were part of ancient ways of describing ultimate reality, which is found not here and now but on a higher and more primal plane of existence, the behind-the-scenes actions of the gods in primordial time.”
The myth of creation in the first three chapters of Genesis is a perfect example of this. In this story, Adam symbolizes Israel; God creates him, makes him a promise, and fulfills that promise until Adam disobeys God, along with his wife Eve. The two are then exiled—cast out from the garden. If that doesn’t echo Israel’s own relationship with God I don’t know what does!
Likewise, in the Genesis story, there is an ancient Mesopotamian myth that the god Marduk violently murdered the goddess Tiamat, rent her body in half, and formed the waters above the firmament and below from her carcass. In Genesis, God performs the exact same creative act, except he does it by his own spoken Word; he is uncontested among gods.
Speaking of water imagery, the connection between the Genesis story, the Noah story, and the Exodus story are fascinating. By separating the waters, God is creating order out of chaos (the untamed sea was a symbol of chaos in the ancient world). And when God flooded the world in Noah’s story, he unleashed the waters to their chaotic fury, but created a vessel of safety for Noah and his family. Likewise, Moses is rescued as an infant when his mother forms a basket for him to navigate the waters of the Nile. And later, we once again see the imagery of God parting the waters when he rescues the fleeing Israelites from the Egyptians. The connections are endless!
Under the surface, each of these stories is declaring the sovereignty of God and his unrivaled power over the other gods of the day. The ten plagues, for example, are essentially a slap in the face to Egypt’s gods: they worshiped the Nile as a god of life; Yahweh turned its waters to blood, a symbol of death. The Egyptian goddess of fertility was depicted as a frog; Yahweh multiplied the frogs of the land himself. And on it goes.
If we value these texts for nothing more than what we believe they can tell us about Israel’s literal history, we are missing the forest for the trees. We are overlooking the broader, deeper things that were going on when these writers immortalized these stories in writing. Enns explains this with wonderful clarity:
“The Bible, then, is a grand story. It meets us and then invites us to follow and join a world outside of our own, and lets us see ourselves and God differently in the process. Maybe that’s really the bottom line. The biblical story meets us where we are to disarm us and change how we look at ourselves—and God.”
The writers were comfortable with changing, adding, erasing and exaggerating history to create meaning in their contemporary age, and the result is a Bible that doesn’t always behave how we expect it to, but is full of so much more dynamic retellings of God’s part in the history of Israel than we could imagine.
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” ~ Matthew 7:13-14
This little pair of verses is one of the most commonly quoted among Christians. It is almost a mantra, I have heard it so many times growing up: from the pulpit, from my dad, and perhaps most often, in my own head.
When I was taught this passage growing up, it was almost always about salvation. It split human beings into two groups: the big group of people who take the easy way in life, and the small group whose lives are flipping hard because they are living for Jesus.
As a Christian, I’ve undoubtedly had to consider that I belong to the smaller group. And based on the way I was taught this passage, I’ve always understood it to be based on belief. I choose the hard beliefs; I choose the beliefs that leave people thinking I’m a judgmental asshole sometimes. I choose the beliefs that result in being misunderstood, or naive. Because of course, if this Christian life is easy and without trials and difficulties, and if my beliefs aren’t challenged and opposed by the world around me, I must not be on the narrow path after all, right?
I wish that Jesus had offered more context when he spoke this saying. But there really isn’t any; it comes right in the middle of a bunch of other quick, brief teachings: don’t judge, don’t throw you pearls before swine (a weird passage if I ever heard one!), have confidence that God will give you what you ask for.
In light of that, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that we can look at these verses with an entirely different lens than the salvation/damnation paradigm. A little while ago, I read Rob Bell’s wonderful little book Love Wins. He has this remarkable way of personalizing Jesus’ teachings in the book while staying faithful to their message. He talked about heaven and hell—i.e., the narrow way and the broad way—not in terms of two places that human beings are divided into based on God’s judgment, but rather states of being that we choose for ourselves in this life—in the here and now.
So if we choose bitterness over a past wrong, we’ve chosen hell. If we choose to go out of our way to show kindness to someone, we’ve chosen heaven.
I think that same idea can be applied to this saying about the narrow way and the broad way. I think it might tie in nicely with all the stuff Paul says (in Romans I think, but probably in other letters too) about the lure of our sinful spirits, and about how difficult it is to choose Jesus. And really, choosing Jesus and choosing life are the same thing at the end of the day, aren’t they?
Anyway, tying back to what I said earlier about choosing the hard beliefs, I think the narrow way, the way that leads to life, isn’t about an exclusive set of beliefs. Or at least it isn’t just about that. I think so much of it has to do with how I view people, how inclusive I am of those around me.
At the end of the day, that is so much harder than having beliefs that “the world” thinks are silly and archaic. I’ve done that my whole life—believe me, I’ve got that down pat, and it doesn’t really faze me anymore (probably because I have come to realize that a lot of my beliefs were silly and archaic!). What is so much harder is breaking down stereotypes, seeing the people around me for the beautiful souls that they are instead of judging them based on the myriad ways of judging that human beings have invented and then passed down to their children.
That is hard. That is a narrow path that few people ever find.
But maybe, at least when looking at it this way, recognizing the path you are on is the first step to retracing your steps and finding your way back to the narrow path that Jesus desires us to take. I don’t think choosing the broad path has to be the final word, for otherwise what is the purpose of grace?
It’s so incredible when you peel back the layers of scripture like this, and unfold the myriad meanings that you can draw even from little sayings like this. That is why I love the Gospels so much; each story, each saying, each teaching can be viewed from a dozen different dimensions, and can result in a dozen different meanings. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it.
So yeah, I think narrow path could represent choosing a set of beliefs that most of the people around you have rejected. It could also represent the kind of radical inclusion that Jesus displayed (a path that I think many Christians today are totally not on!). Or it could be about something else entirely. You could pick your demons, really, based on what you are struggling with or what areas of ignorance or blind spots you currently have in your life. That’s the beauty of stories; there’s more than one way to read them.
Today I read an article linked on Facebook by one my favorite bloggers of all time, Rachel Held Evans. I had so many thoughts running through my head as I read, and I figured there was no better place to get them all down in writing than on my blog (at this point, I really recommend you read the article, as my post won’t make much sense otherwise).
I believe that the message of this article is a game-changer in the Christian treatment of homosexuality. Though I “came out” in support of gay marriage a year and a half ago, I’ve also been consistent in my defense of the beliefs of more conservative Christians who believe homosexuality is sinful. I am always quick to remind more militant LGBTQ allies that your capacity to love others has nothing to do with what you believe, and that we can love across the divide. I think about my parents and many of my friends, who are non-affirming yet also very loving people. I suppose in a way, it is them I am defending.
And yet. I don’t think I can anymore, because I don’t think that doing so is faithful to the Gospel that I believe in.
I found the parallels the article drew between anti-Semitism and homophobia to be incredibly alarming. To stretch the analogy further, if I lived in the time before the Holocaust when anti-Semitism was still so deeply engrained in the Christian religion, and I rejected that hatred for the Jews, how could I not believe that anti-Semitism was a toxic belief? How could I not challenge those who believe Jews are little horned devils responsible for the death of Jesus?
In the same way, I have very slowly come to the understanding that believing homosexuality is sinful is, at its core, toxic. I know the situation is a little different. But I also know that there has been no shortage of hatred for LGBTQ people throughout church history, and I think that this hatred, and the belief that homosexuality is sinful, are intrinsically linked.
This harmful belief marginalizes those who identify as LGBTQ in such incredibly hurtful ways. I understand the belief is born out of a desire to be faithful to scripture, and a desire to see God’s will carried out in the lives of others. But I think that in its underbelly, it is a breeding ground for contempt, as the article I shared explains.
I think about my life growing up, how I was implicitly taught that people who say they are gay are just freaks who are displaying a lust-filled distortion of sexuality. I think about the derision and annoyance I felt in my heart whenever the “gay agenda” was “pushed on me” by television. At the time I didn’t know there was a label for what I felt for the LGBT community, and that this label was homophobia
And now, here I am, staunchly resting on the other side of this debate. When I think about my more recent experiences with both affirming and non-affirming Christians, I have discovered that in almost every situation, I need to defend the humanity of LGBT people to non-affirming Christians in ways I never have to do otherwise.
I remember debating fiercely with a friend when the Phil Robertson debacle happened, and I remember feeling so sad and angry when she very callously told me she thought what Robertson had said was funny, and that gay people just need to grow a thicker skin. This is just one experience of many that perhaps aren’t as extreme as anti-Semitism in Europe was, but are harmful nonetheless. And my own experiences have been very mild indeed, compared to some of the heart-breaking stories I have read in which LGBT people are rejected, bullied, and hated.
My experiences have led me to the understanding that to believe that homosexuality is sinful is to believe that an entire people group’s capacity to fall in love is inherently and uniquely broken and distorted. So it comes as no surprise that the non-affirming view generates such contempt.
I never thought I would come to such a place of earnest conviction about my belief in this because I have always, always been the sort of person who desires reconciliation and mutual understanding more than winning an argument. But there is a time when reconciliation requires taking a step away from the radical inclusion of Jesus, and from the powerful message of love which is in the undercurrent of everything he teaches. And supporting gay marriage fits that message in profound ways, ways that the non-affirming view cannot.
So I’ve been writing a lot about books lately, because I’ve been picking up some fascinating ones. Right now I’m reading this book called Inventing Hell by Jon M. Sweeney, and it’s really, really freaking me out. It’s screwing with my head and everything I’ve always believed about the Bible, and I just don’t know what to do with this new information I’m soaking in.
Before I get into all that, let me briefly explain what the book is about. Basically, it analyzes how we as human beings have conceived of the afterlife throughout history—specifically, what we have believed about hell. Sweeney mostly tackles this from a Christian perspective, delving into every Old Testament reference to the afterlife and explaining what most people believed about it in those times.
The bulk of his book, however, is devoted to discussing Dante’s Inferno and the incredibly pervasive influence this great work has had on how we conceive of hell today. It’s been pretty mind-blowing to realize that so much of what we believe about the afterlife is extra-biblical, and how the scriptures are anything but uniform when it comes to the fate of perished sinners.
I picked it up because I wanted to become more informed on what the Bible really has to say about hell, and if belief in its literal existence is biblically sound, or if it is simply a man-made doctrine like so many orthodox doctrines seem to be (technically, I guess you could say all doctrines are man-made, but that’s a whole new can of worms). But oh my goodness, have I gotten more than I bargained for by reading this!
So, all of this brings me to why I’m freaking out. In the chapter I just finished, Sweeney talks about the transition when people first began exploring the belief in the immortal soul. Almost exclusively throughout the Old Testament, it was generally believed that every human who dies descends to Sheol, which is a huge spiritual graveyard—essentially a permanent resting place which is neither benevolent nor malevolent.
All that changed when Socrates and Plato came on the scene, roughly 400 years before the birth of Christ. They introduced the idea that the soul is immortal and lives on after one’s body has died. Sweeney then spends a large chunk of the chapter outlining very specific ways in which Paul was heavily influenced by Plato and Socrates’ ideas when he penned the letters that would later become part of the biblical cannon. For example, Sweeney writes:
“For centuries, Christian theologians pointed to Paul’s words in Romans 1:21, saying that he was talking about some of the Greek philosophers when he said, ‘For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God.’ And so-called pagan authors like Pythagoras, Plato, Cicero, Horace, and Virgil were quoted and paraphrased, their words seemingly baptized as holy whenever necessary.” (Inventing Hell, p. 83)
And another, more thorough excerpt, in case that one didn’t really hit home:
“If you are an orthodox Christian believer, you probably never knew just how Greek you were. Even Paul’s most famous one-liner, about welcoming the soul’s release from the body at the time of death, wasn’t an original. ‘I say that to die is gain,’ said Socrates in the Apologia, and then Paul: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21)! The idea of an ideal city, introduced by Plato in The Republic, also seems to be addressed in similar terms by Paul in his lengthy letter to the Romans. Enough. The comparisons could go on forever. Simply put, Paul learned from Greek philosophy and made use of the immortality of the soul in the formation of Christian theology.” (Inventing Hell, p. 84)
Now this is my crisis. Over the last few years I’ve essentially been putting a lot of the Christian beliefs I’ve always held as inerrantly true on the chopping block. Some I have reconsidered, and some I haven’t. But one that I have held on to quite tenaciously is the belief that the biblical cannon was assembled under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and its content from Genesis to Revelation is divinely inspired by God.
I’ve always believed that, and I’ve never wavered, because how else am I to know what is Truth and what isn’t unless God has revealed it to us tangibly?
But now I am discovering that the theological foundation of the Christian faith, and in some cases the verbatim words themselves that Paul wrote and that most orthodox Christians consider to be God’s Holy Word, are based on the philosophical writings of two pagans! That is a really hard concept to grasph considering the high view of scripture I’ve always believed in.
Needless to say, all of this will take a long time to digest and process. I’m going to keep plugging along in Inventing Hell, because it really is a remarkable book and I’m learning all kinds of fascinating things. I just don’t know where I go from here, regarding what I believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible. I guess, essentially, I feel I have no rational choice but to add it to that growing list of beliefs that are going on that chopping block.
I’d really love your thoughts on this blog post. Reading Inventing Hell has given me so much to process, and doing so is always easier with the wise input of others. Specifically, I’d like to hear about how you believe Christians ought to reconcile the divine inspiration of scripture (if you believe in that, of course) with the fact that much of the New Testament is quite clearly based on pagan writings.
Just so you know, this is going to be a rambling, unfocused blog post because that’s how my relationship with God is right now.
The way I approach my faith and my theology has undergone so many shifts in the past few years, and I’ve realized that some of these shifts are unhealthy. I’ve written about the negative effects of having shed the little box of conservatism that I grew up in (see this post, and this one). But recently I’ve been mulling over how my attitude about Christianity has become largely reactive.
Christian people say things, or write things, or share them on Facebook, and I so often impulsively push back against what they say. You’re trying to tell me that the Bible is “clear” about this issue or that issue? Let me show you how incredibly ambiguous it is. You think that this is the way Christians should respond to such-and-such an issue? Let me show you how that person responded, and how I think it is a very Christian-like response despite looking nothing like what you’d think.
The list goes on. I resist the attempts of those around me to guide me to a place of agreement and mutual understanding, and instead dig for the flaws in their ways of thinking.
I think it’s because I’ve gotten used to being disappointed whenever I bring up my struggles with my faith to another Christian. Much more often than not, when I talk about my shifting ideas and my new ways of seeing God and believing in the Bible and interacting with other people as a follower of Christ, I am met with firm advice to remember that God is God, and I shouldn’t be reinventing His character to suit my conscience, or twisting his Word to make it believe what I want to believe.
So the conversation turns reactive. I push back against their ideas, trying to make them understand in my own naturally antagonistic, argumentative tone that there is more to experience in Jesus than the same old tropes we hear about time and again.
But then I feel like a hypocrite, because even as I try to convince the Christians around me that I have discovered something stronger, deeper, more lovely than what I was taught to believe growing up, I remember that I’ve lost that feeling and I’m in a spiritual dry spell right now. And if that is how I feel, who’s to say I am right about any of it?
But you know what?
It’s a good thing faith doesn’t depend on how I feel. Or on how distant God feels. Or on how much I am struggling with these strange new theologies I’m exploring, even as I see a ring of truth in them. Faith is more than that. It’s realizing that God is working in my life even when it doesn’t feel that way. It’s realizing he loves me deeply even though I alienate those around me with my rash opinions and my reactionary attitude.
I know that is all basic stuff; the kind of stuff people like me who have been a part of the Christian religion their whole lives should have nailed down and secure by now. Be kind and gentle, not argumentative. Know you are beloved anyway, don’t doubt it.
It is easier said than done, easier said than believed. But it’s true.
So in case you haven’t noticed, I’m continuing to write very sporadically. I think it’s because right now I’m in something of a spiritual wasteland in which God feels quiet and distant and I feel very disconnected from my spiritual life. Several times now, I’ve sat at my computer and started at an empty blog draft screen for minutes before realizing I just don’t care to write about my meager and sputtering faith right now.
This past weekend, I went on a retreat with my young adult group. We spent an evening, a whole day, and a morning at a cabin in the woods, having fun and chatting and kayaking in between listening to a speaker from our church and discussing his sessions.
I felt as though everyone there grew, and learned, and found a gold mine of truth there. I did, too, in a way…a non-spiritual way. I enjoyed laughing and having fun conversations and spending a whole day kayaking on a lake. I learned how much I value relationships.
And if you had been at the retreat, I bet I could have convinced you that I had just as much a good time during the spiritual talks and the discussions we had about them afterward. I offered well-thought out input in the form of carefully worded responses, and I listened attentively during the sessions (though I admit I may have scoffed my displeasure at a few things he said. Real mature, I know.).
But inside, I spent this past weekend coming to a terrible realization: I feel as though I’ve been living out a farce. That whole time we spent talking about the Bible and how to live as Christians, that whole time we spent sharing testimonies and exchanging Bible verses…that whole time, I feel as though so little of what I said was truly the genuine expression of my heart.
I realized for the first time how much of my life I spend in fear of judgment, in fear of how others will perceive me if I’m honest about where I am in my spiritual journey. Behind closed doors, inside the recesses of my heart, I hold all these convictions that I earnestly believe reflect the heart and will of God. Be radically inclusive; don’t alienate people. It’s okay if you don’t have the answers to life’s hardest questions; the Bible teaches us, but it is not the direct Word of God himself, and it is certainly not a simple, cut-and-dry road map. Gay people can love God and have faith that is as genuine as a pastor’s.
These are the things I was thinking, the things I feared to say aloud. And I realized: authenticity is one of the scariest things imaginable. To lay yourself bare, to express the truth as you best understand it, is freaking hard.
So I stayed silent while the speaker spoke. I stayed silent while he talked about Sodom and Gomorrah and how homosexuality is one of the few sins God says he especially hates. I stayed silent while he talked about how the mark of a “solid” Christian is that you read you’ve said the Sinner’s Prayer, you read your Bible daily, and you witness to nonbelievers.
I stayed silent through this, and a lot of other teaching that I have found to be life-draining and oversimplified and alienating of other human beings. And I realized that I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to craft careful answers that I know won’t raise red flags, for the sake of convincing others that I’m right on the same page as everyone else. I don’t want to hide my beliefs about homosexuality, about the Bible, about the way that I often struggle with doubt.
I want to be real. I want to be truthful.
But the next question is: do I have the guts? Because if I don’t, I fear leaving church may be the only way I will ever acquire authenticity in my life. And I know that running is just never the answer.
I know I’ve hardly wrtten at all this month, but life has been unusually busy with my new position at work and the added activities I have been doing on the weekends (both of which have been very good for me, but not conducive to blog writing!). So I won’t say I’m back to writing on a regular basis, I’ll just say that I’m writing whenever I have the words and the time. This might be monthly, or weekly, or multiple times a week. It just depends.
Anyway, today what I want to write about is a revelation I had while visiting a very dear friend of mine last weekend. As you may know if you read many of my blog posts about church, I have quite the love-hate relationship with it. In fact, with the exception of last Sunday when I went to church with my friend, I hadn’t attended an actual church service in about a month and a half (I’ve just been going to Sunday school instead). I’ve just been feeling quite disillusioned in general, and I’ve found that going to church often makes me feel frustrated instead of fulfilled, so I just haven’t been going at all.
So that’s my context. Now for my friend’s context. She’d grown up going to a tiny United Methodist church her whole life, and found that it did not meet her needs for spiritual sustenance and sound teaching. She has found all of that at the church she is attending now, and she is even considering becoming a member. She is s grateful to have found the church that she has, and feels blessed to be included there.
The sermon on Sunday was on the passage in 1 John 2 that talks about how the church at that time had “anti-christs” in its midst, and how the believers must be wary of such teachings. The pastor went on to talk about how we today must be wary as well, and to denounce as “anti-christs” anyone who teaches ideas contrary to the gospel.
This is an important message, to be sure. But I started bristling and becoming defensive when the pastor offered an example of an “anti-christ” which I didn’t all think fit the bill, then proceeded to offer other examples of people whose counsel Christians ought to shun, all of which I thought were problematic.
That’s all I’ll say about the sermon, but suffice it to say that I listened to it with a terribly judgmental spirit, resisting the pastor’s words even though the over-arching point—Christians should cling to the truth of the Gospel and be wary of those whose ideas run contrary to it—was a sound one.
Anyway, I voiced all these grievances to my friend on our drive home, and she ended up telling me that she felt hurt that I was so antagonistic toward the pastor’s ideas, because she believed in his message. I apologized, and we were fine after that.
But our discussion—and my reaction to the pastor—got me thinking. I don’t even know what kind of Christian I am any more. I’m the kind of Christian who walks into a sanctuary with my arms folded metaphorically, with a mind that is already filtering the pastor’s words with the lens of my own experience and ideas and my own understanding of God’s Word. I’m the kind of Christian who analyzes the living daylights out of pastors whose beliefs are generally conservative, as this pastor’s was, yet who drinks in the sermons of more progressive pastors (for example, I listened to an Adam Hamilton podcast sermon on the drive up to visit my friend, and his sermon was basically the opposite of the one I heard at my friend’s church, and I really thought it was a good sermon!).
Here’s the truth. In reality, I’m the kind of Christian who hasn’t truly felt at home in an evangelical church for a good long while. I recognize that this is partially because of my own attitude, and my own bitter heart, and my own antagonistic disposition that is wary anytime a pastor uses the phrases “biblical principles” and “God’s truth” and such like that in the same sentence. But I don’t know what to do with that just yet, because I also don’t want to be the sort of Christian who blindly accepts the word of every pastor who tells me this is what it means to be faithful to the Gospel, and this is what it means to be an anti-christ.
So my revelation was two-fold: I realized for the first time that I’ve got an attitude problem that needs to change if I’m ever going to feel comfortable with a body of believers. And I realized I need to remember what my friend and her roommate wisely told me: God doesn’t separate people based on conservative or progressive beliefs. He judges us by our hearts, and while this doesn’t give us carte blanche to accept harmful beliefs, it should give us pause and remind us that in the end God’s judges the hearts of men, not us. If I remember that, I think I might find it a little easier to get along with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and not be so hard on them and their beliefs.
A blog post I read awhile ago on Addie Zierman’s blog rings through my ears every now and again. In her beautiful and poetic writing style, Addie captures the scandalous nature of God’s grace. She writes:
“This is the only place in your whole world where there are no expectations; this is the one person you cannot disappoint. There is no test. God is not waiting for you to do some certain thing or to say some particular combination of words to give you Good Things.”
God’s grace is limitless—there is no end to His love for us and no time in our lives when we are required to earn it. We are infinitely loved exactly as we are—with all of our baggage, bad attitudes, shameful pasts, and every other part of us that the world might deem to be unworthy of love or forgiveness.
We are accepted by God, we are loved by God, and there is nothing we can do in this life to make that untrue.
More often than not, I struggle deeply with this idea. My human nature rebels against the grace of God because it seems too marvelous, too beautiful to be true. And what’s more, I think most people struggle with this, because whenever I talk about that with someone—whenever I say, “God accepts us, God loves, we are cherished by God more deeply than we could possibly imagine exactly as we are” the response I hear is always one of conditions: “Yes but God doesn’t want us to stay that way. True repentance means turning away from sin.” Or they say, “Yes but, remember, God is holy, and he cannot tolerate sin.”
I listened to a sermon once that talked about that incredible story of the pharisees and the adulterous woman in John 8. If you don’t know the story, it’s basically about how the pharisees are trying to trap Jesus into drawing a line in the sand when it comes to sin and stoning a woman for committing adultery. But Jesus turns the tables on them, and tells them that only a sinless person has the right to condemn her. He defends her in such a beautiful way, a way that would have been unprecedented at the time for a man to treat a woman. It’s a lovely story.
And here’s the part that is relevant to grace and our inability to come to terms with the enormity of it. During the sermon, the pastor talked about how that story was very nearly omitted from John’s gospel. It was too scandalous, too shocking, too incredible to imagine that the Messiah would respond in the way that he did, by offering her grace, by saing “Neither do I condemn you”. Early Christians thought it might communicate the wrong kind of message to put in print that Jesus would do such a thing.
They couldn’t conceive of a grace so exhaustive that it would rise to the defense of not only a woman, but an adulteress.
Yet that is exactly the depth and breadth of God’s grace. It knows no limits, and there is no corner of humanity that is so dark, so lost, so cruel or filled with hate, that God’s light can’t break in and wash it all away. It has no conditions, and no requirements to live up to in order to receive it. All that is required of us is to let it happen, to simply let God’s grace wash over us.
In this post, I will be writing about the final three sessions of the conference, since they all revolve around one question: why are millennials leaving the church? Of course, as someone right in the middle of the generation labeled millennials (who are generally considered to be people born between the years 1984 and 2002), this conversation is very pertinent to me, and I found the discussions concerning this topic to be very enlightening.
The morning breakout, titled “Vanishing Acts”, discussed several key “felt needs” that the church should be addressing if it is serious about creating a space that is inviting for millennials. The breakout was led by Nick Cunningham, the young adult pastor at Ginghamsburg Church.
The first felt need Nick talked about is the need for relationships. He cited a study which revealed that 60% of millennials who have chosen to stay in the church do so because of the friendships they have developed. Often, however, churches can make this environment difficult by structuring small group gatherings as classroom lectures. When a group leader spends a whole hour teaching a lesson, it creates an environment that prioritizes lessons over relationships and gives people the perfect opportunity to leverage curriculums as a shield against forming genuine relationships.
Another felt need we discussed during the break-out was the need for authenticity. Nick used a pop-culture example to illustrate this need: Anne Hathaway, whose image has traditionally been associated with the smiling, sweet girl next door (think The Princess Diaries, Ella Enchanted, and Bride Wars) didn’t gain the respect of the public until her role in Les Miserables. In this film, her life is tragic, and her distressed emotional state is revealed for all the world to see. In short, Anne plays a role that is authentic.
Millennials today are looking for an oasis from the hype—a place where all the gaudiness and unrealistic representations of life are blessedly absent, and we can be real about our dreams, fears, doubts, and hopes about our faith and our future. We are looking for a place where the truest, hardest questions in our hearts will be handled gently yet seriously, instead of being glossed over with an oversimplified answer that doesn’t really hold water when we step outside the doors of a church and into real life.
Admittedly, vulnerability is hard; revealing our authentic feelings is hard. But it is also the truest way to form meaningful relationships, and in that way, the first and second felt needs we discussed are inextricably interrelated.
Nick concluded his break-out with an appeal to millennials. Of course, the work to reconcile the lost generation of young people back to the church cannot be a one-way street. He encouraged our generation to challenge ourselves in three ways: first, to stop being cyncial, and look for the hope that is the kingdom of God instead of dwelling in wariness at every turn. He also encouraged us to not be reluctant to make decisions and step outside our own bubble of comfort. And lastly, he acknowledged that it is often so easy for us to become ensnared by shallow, trendy approaches to church. He encouraged us to continue seeking that authentic community which is so important in the body of Christ.
After the morning sessions, we broke for lunch then continued on to the final two sessions of the conference—the two I had been anticipating greatly during the weeks preceding the conference. Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger and author of two books, delivered the afternoon keynote entitled “Keeping the Church Weird.”
She started with the sobering statistics: today, 59% of millennials have stopped attending church. Rachel contended that the reasons for this are varied and complex, but at the heart of it is grace. We wrap the gospel in so many layers of theology—so many principles for “right belief”—that we make Christianity more exclusive instead of more inclusive.
Rachel also talked about the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, which you can read in Acts 8:26-40. Traditionally, pastors use this story as a framework for evangelism: this is how you reach people who are seeking after Jesus. However, to connect this story back to Nick’s point about authenticity, reading the story that way overlooks the absolute scandal of what Philip was doing.
As a eunuch, the Ethiopian was ceremonially unclean. He was a outcast of the religious right, deemed unworthy to participate in temple worship, let alone be baptized. Yet when Philip explains who Jesus is to him, he does not hesitate to ask Philip to baptize him. Rachel points out that alarms must have been going off in Philip’s head: “But this guy isn’t clean; how could he understand the gospel?” “This man is the last sort of person I would expect to baptize!”
Yet when the rubber met the road, and Philip was poised with a simple question, he did not hesitate. He led the eunuch down into the water, and he baptized him.
It is a beautiful example of the truth that the Gospel isn’t offensive because of who it keeps out; it is offensive because of who it lets in. If we get out of the way, and let God do his work in the world, he might use methods we don’t approve of, and that thought can be terrifying for those who have the methods—who have the theologies—all hammered out.
Church, Rachel reminded us, needs to be a place where the outcasts, the eunuchs of today, feel just as welcomed as the middle-class “acceptable” people. It needs to be a place where everyone can pass within the doors of church, breathe a sigh of relief, and lay out the real and true baggage of our lives before our fellow believers.
In short, church needs to start looking like an AA meeting.
After Rachel’s enlightening discussion, there was time for Q&A, and of course one of the first questions asked was what church leaders can do practically to demonstrate that they are serious about implementing this sort of change. At this point, Rachel bravely shifted the conversation from the eunuchs of the ancient world to the eunuchs of today: the LGBTQ community.
She talked about the many changes we can make in order to demonstrate genuine compassion for them: first, use their language. Learn what the acronym means, and why they use it (and as a side note, don’t ever use homosexual as a noun!). Create room for their voices to be heard, and listen to their stories in the same way that Philip listened to the eunuch as he explained his fascination with Isaiah 53.
Rachel concluded her talk with reminding us that solidarity is not the same thing as conformity, and people rarely fit into the categories that we try to assign them. She offered the idea that the best way to establish that solidarity despite the differences is confession. Confession drops our guards and puts us on level playing ground as equally broken human beings. When we are honest about what hurts, honest about our own shortcomings, we pave the way for others to do the same.
The Q&A with Rachel continued into the afternoon break-out session, where we returned to the broader discussion of evangelicalism in the United States. Rachel discussed how it is troubling that those who are most committed to the evangelical label are also the ones who define it most narrowly.
This is very problematic in the Church today, because our narrow theology has led to what Rachel called the “cost of false fundamentals”: people are leaving the church because the feel they must make choices that aren’t central to the Gospel (i.e., believe in creationism or evolution, be gay or be Christian). And when their reading of scripture and their experiences of the world lead them to embrace a view contrary to the conservative one, that rejection is equated with rejecting the Gospel.
Yet, for every rule we create, for every stipulation we place upon what constitutes a faithful follower of Jesus, there will always be someone for whom the rule doesn’t fit. There will always be someone who is walking unashamed in the grace of the Father, yet who seems to our limited vision to be living a life contrary to our idea of Christianity. Embracing these people and accepting that sometimes God accepts those we deem unacceptable is the epitome of grace.
This, Rachel suggested, is the direction the church must turn. We must embrace those who seem unlovable. We must be willing to step out and speak an honest word, even when we fear upsetting other or losing their respect. Sometimes, our capacity to love despite our differences is more resilient than we expect.
Thank you for listening along with me as I write out my experiences at the Change the World Missional Conference at Ginghamsburg Church. I learned lessons there that I will never forget, and I hope you learned a little something as well by reading about the teachings of these incredible men and women of God.