Reactionary people without critical thinking skills

Last week, Jeffrey Overstreet quoted part of an interview with Sara Zarr, a finalist for the National Book Award this year for her first novel, “Story of a Girl”. When asked why she didn’t make her book safe and inoffensive, why she included stuff like underage sex and curse words, she gave this answer:

Reactionary people without critical thinking skills aren’t really my target audience. My family, my friends, my church have all been very supportive. There’s actually a pretty large and growing contingent of Christians out there who embrace all kinds of art and its capacity for delving into the gray areas that make up most of our lives. Anyway, I’m not really about making other Christians happy by being inoffensive. Life is offensive. If we, of all people — Christians, who claim to be offering some kind of hope for mankind, in Jesus — can’t grapple with that, then the claims of hope are pretty much empty. If we can’t deal honestly and authentically with the smaller heartbreaks of family and identity and friendship, how can we even open a newspaper? Christians who seek a squeaky-clean, inoffensive version of life are, in a way, denying that we might possibly need help with some of this, thereby rendering faith, well, pointless. That said, I do think there is a place for the good and beautiful and uplifting and clean, as long as it’s not sentimentalized and does not replace an at least occasional head-on stare into the world as it is.

As someone who grew up in and around the first group Sara talks about, and who was still a part of that group until a couple years ago, I’m also glad to see more and more people embracing art that isn’t afraid to look at the complexity of real life, people who don’t judge art by “swear words and body parts”. And I’m going to add that first sentence to the list of my favorite quotes – “Reactionary people without critical thinking skills aren’t really my target audience.”

Can I believe it all again today?

I have a friend who tells me that he is a follower of Christ because he really thinks he doesn’t have any choice. Like the apostle Peter, who, when asked by Christ if he and the other disciples would leave, said “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”, my friend says he knows that he has been chosen by Christ and has no where else to go.

I, on the other hand, don’t usually find myself in that camp. More often than not, I find myself wondering how I still believe after everything I’ve heard and seen, growing up in church and around religion. And there are times, like after browsing a christian bookstore or hearing another sermon that comes off more like an argument from ignorance, or having to endure another ‘praise and worship’ song, that it is hard not to be convinced that Christianity is nothing more than opium for the masses, a (sometimes) clever story created by and for the delusional.

While having lunch today with Randy, a pastor at my church, I mentioned to him that there are a couple of things that I keep coming back to in times like that. The first is that God is faithful, and the second is the hope that He has promised to make all things new, to set everything right. That is what I hold on to.

The late Madeleine L’Engle, after a lecture delivered in 2002, was asked during the Q&A time how she could believe in God, what the questioner thought she called “an easy fantasy”. He said that he was in such awe of the universe that “any idea of God that I’ve ever heard of seemed like such a limited, easy fantasy compared with the wonder that we find when we explore and think about the universe.” . L’Engle responded “I hope I never said that it was an easy fantasy; it is the hardest one in the world. If I believe in God, wholly and completely, for two minutes every seven or eight weeks, I’m doing well. This is not something that is easy, that we can hold on to every day and say yes. It is life-threateningly difficult. But it matters.”

Frederick Buechner once again articulates this better than I could hope to, in “The Return of Ansel Gibbs” (quoted by Philip Yancey in “Soul Survivor”).

“If you tell me Christian commitment is a kind of thing that has happened to you once and for all like some kind of spiritual plastic surgery, I say go to, go to, you’re either pulling the wool over your own eyes or trying to pull it over mine. Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself: “Can I believe it all again today?” No, better still, don’t ask it till after you’ve read The New York Times, till after you’ve studied that daily record of the world’s brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day. If your answer’s always Yes, then you probably don’t know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you’re human in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that’s choked with confession and tears and…great laughter.”

Weak and full of holes

“I don’t know why people are surprised or embarrassed when they find out their faith is weak and full of holes. It’s because they are weak and full of holes.”

At a conference I was at two weeks ago at Southeastern Theological Seminary, one speaker, in traditional Baptist fashion, while giving an illustration, said, “I was arguing with the Holy Spirit…and of course, He won”, with his inflection making it obvious that the Holy Spirit winning was a foregone conclusion. Now, of course everyone listening to him knew that it wasn’t true, that the Holy Spirit doesn’t always win. They knew that both for themselves and the speaker, more often than not we win, we don’t give a damn about what the Holy Spirit is prompting us to do. But as a Baptist preacher, speaking at a Baptist seminary, he knew there was no expectation of honesty. The goal is to always present a picture of being perfect, of being totally surrendered, of having a great, regular quiet time and prayer life and of desiring nothing more than a closer relationship to God. Forget telling the truth – if we don’t have it all together, why would anyone else want to become a Christian?

Growing up as a good Independent Baptist, that’s the kind of stuff I’ve heard all my life. Weaknesses are not admitted without a resolution tacked on, struggles are not spoken of if they are still ongoing, and a lack of faith or trust in God is only admitted as something that you have struggled with in the past, before you learned to really trust Him, where of course you are now.

And I’m sick of it. If that’s Christianity, then I’m done. I’d walk away today.

But then I hear sermons like the one I heard Sunday night from Kevin Twit, where he said, “I don’t know why people are surprised or embarrassed when they find out their faith is weak and full of holes. It’s because they are weak and full of holes”. And he went on to echo much of what Frederick Buechner says about faith, that, “Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting.” Buechner describes a Christian as “one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank”.

Philip Yancey, in “Soul Survivor”, articulates well the reason Buechner’s writings resonate with me and with others. Yancey writes, “I find companionship in Buechner’s writings because for me, too, faith is a Pascalian gamble. Though I spend my life in pursuit of God, I often sense that God lies just around the next bend in the trail, just behind the next tree in the forest. I keep walking because I like where the journey has led me thus far, because other paths seem more problematic than my own, and because I yearn for the resolution of the plot. I know a little of life’s tragedy. I have tasted of its comedy. I keep walking because I believe in the fairy tale, that a God strong and wise enough to create a world stamped with such beauty and goodness will be faithful in restoring it to the original design. With Buechner, I place a bet on God’s firm promise that in the end, all will be well.”

So if you are in an environment where everyone puts on their best face, where you are expected to have it all together, to be fully surrendered and without doubts 100 percent of the time, please know that that is not true Christianity. Don’t let yourself become disillusioned by a shadow of the real thing. And realize that you can help things to change, that you can be the first to admit that not everything is perfect but that you still trust, sometimes, and that it is enough.