true? Truth? not true? or just true-ish?

Posted: December 14, 2012 in believing, fundamentalism, my personal journey, the "true-ish" series
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Find part 1 HERE;  Find prequel HERE (in which I come clean about my faith)


Part 2 of 3

I just finished reading UnChristian, by David Kinnaman, president of the Barna group, a Christian research organization that set out to explore Christianity’s reputation today, especially among people between the ages of 16 and 29.   Every conservative Christian should be required by law to read this book. 

What would you guess are the first things that pop into people’s heads when asked their perception of present-day Christianity?  Think about that for a moment, then let me ask you this as well:  What are the first words that occur to you when you think of Jesus? Don’t read on until you’ve answered that question!

For me, I think “love,” “radical,” “grace,” “counter-culture,” “compassion,” “truth.”  Wouldn’t it be cool if those were the first thoughts people had when they thought about modern-day Christians?

So what do you think all those young people said when asked their impressions of Christians today?   The most common response was “grace.”   The next most common response was “love.”  Then came “acceptance.”

I’m just kidding.  Actually, taking the number one slot was ”anti-homosexual.”  An astonishing 91% of non-Christians and 80% of churchgoers think of this word first when asked to describe Christians.  As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that “Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.”

And the next word?  (Maybe they saved “compassion” for the number two slot?)  Nope.  It’s “judgmental.”

The most common insight these people had?  “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.”  This comment was the most frequent unprompted concept that these people called to mind.


Kinnaman’s recent book

So, the score:

Jesus = grace, love, forgiveness, truth, compassion.
Christians = anti-gay and judgmental.

What the hell happened?  How did we get here?

As I wrote about in part one of this series, I believe that we as humans have an innate attraction to the supernatural, to things that are greater than ourselves, and as that drive toward the spiritual coalesces into something organized (i.e., religion) it can and does bring an amazing amount of good to ourselves and to our world.  But at the same time, human beings (some more than others) tend to have a rather low tolerance for mystery.  Our fears, our smallness, our lack of control over the world and of our own fate tend to drive us to create rules and answers and systems and lists – so that we can feel less fear and experience a greater sense of control.  We have this insatiable drive toward certainty – the more we know, the less we have to fear. And so we slowly move from a position of humble dependency and openness to a place in which Absolute Truth is pre-defined and proscribed, and a big honking line is drawn in the sand between people who are “right” and people who are “wrong.”   And the people who view themselves as “right” get to feel less fear and doubt and more certainty and control.

But at what cost?

I believe that four very unfortunate and ultimately dangerous things occur when individuals exchange mystery for certainty – when they fail to use their brains and hearts and histories and communities and experiences to interpret truth and instead solely rely on religious professionals to tell them what to think.  (I will mention two of these dangers here, in part 2 of this series, and the others in part 3.)

1.   We become polarized…and hurt one another
As we become more “religious,” our capacity for nuance and shades of grey and our tolerance for diversity of experience and opinion give way to an overwhelming drive toward rigidity and conformity.  Lock-step truthism gets thrust on the people who basically showed up for the love.

When we use Jesus’ name in our marketing campaigns, we are advertising a place of acceptance – a place where it’s ok to be human, to be flawed, to not know all the answers – a place to be loved.   And don’t get me wrong – many millions have found this very thing.   But an increasing number of people have been hurt by a bait and switch scheme, where acceptance becomes dependent on their willingness to join the right side, interpret Bible passages the correct way and conform to the right set of expectations and rules.

Many years ago I decided to teach an evening communication workshop in our town.  It was about how to give feedback to people in a non-offensive way and how to receive feedback non-defensivly.  It included active listening, conflict resolution and negotiation skills.  The first night about two dozen people showed up, and we had a great time. I had been working for a Christian organization for about a year, and a couple days after that first class I was asked to come see my boss.   He had gotten word about my class, and was not happy.   At first I thought maybe this was going to be about “moonlighting” or something like that – maybe he didn’t like me working a second “job?”  But no.  What he told me was that I was teaching anti-Biblical concepts out in the community, and that this was unacceptable, as I represent the organization and needed to be mindful of it’s reputation.   I asked him what was un-Biblical about the communication skills I was teaching, and to this day I can’t remember the scriptures he referenced or if he referenced any at all.   I was in shock.  And it got worse.   I had recently struck up a friendship with a local man, a liberal-leaning Lutheran (say that three times fast).  We became quick and easy friends and were able to talk about anything.   My boss apparently had gotten word of that, as well.   He told me that as a Christian leader in the community, I need to be careful about “being unequally yoked” with unbelievers, and that he would prefer it if I stopped spending time with this guy.   I then did two things that I’m still ashamed of today.  I was pretty invested in moving up the leadership ladder in this organization – so I capitulated.  I cancelled my class.   And worse – I stopped hanging out with my friend.    The Christian Taliban had struck again, and won.

2.  We destroy Jesus’ reputation
Call me crazy, but my understanding is that all Christians know that their primary “job” here is to represent as accurately as possible the spirit of Jesus.  Even their name – “Christian” –  (loosely) means “little Christ’s,” or “copies of Christ.”

images-1I’m talking about the guy who reminded us that “they will know you are Christians by the love you show” and who instructed us to “love them as I have loved you.”   The one who inspired the famous passages in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  And if I give everything I own to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it doesn’t profit me in any way.  Love is patient, love is kind….and now remain faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.”

And now at least the most visible Christians (the conservative, evangelical version of the faith), according to research, are known primarily as judgmental, unkind and unloving.

I want to say this again – because I know this can be really offensive to my Christian friends if they don’t read this in context.  There are many, many Evangelical Christians who don’t fit this mold at all – who are able to embrace mystery and nuance and who don’t draw those honking lines in the sand, who don’t give off an air of judgment or intolerance, but instead show the grace and compassion of Christ.  Most of you, my friends, are like this.  And I try to be, too, and I often succeed.

However, I know there are also many conservative evangelicals who believe that they project grace and love – and often do – but who are unaware of the judgment and intolerance that leak out of their conversations and interactions, due to their intolerant and judgmental theology.   One of the sweetest people I know, a Christian who does charity work and meets the needs to people in her church, recently told me that I am being deceived by Satan (always a fun thing to hear) and that I’m obviously “in trouble spiritually” because of my views on evolution.   She said this in a loving way.Hide-behind-your-religion-to-hate-84261703275

I have another friend who attends an “accepting church.”   This means, in part, that you can be a homosexual and be welcomed at his church.  My friend is frustrated, however, because so far no openly gay people have taken them up on this amazing offer.   As we talked, I discovered what the problem was.  It turns out that by “accepting” they mean something along the lines of, “We are all sinners, and your sin is no worse than mine, so welcome to our church.  We love you, even while hating your sin,” the “sin” in this case being the person’s homosexual orientation. “You know,” I lied, “there’s an awesome church in the next town.   They believe that black people are inferior to white people, however they are extremely welcoming and are totally ok with black people attending their services!”   He wasn’t amused.

When Christians give in to organized, pre-defined, package-deal “truth systems,” people stay away, and believers begin to filter away, and everyone loses, including Jesus.

I’ve had people tell me that they wish they could be more tolerant and loving, but that their faith (read:  proscribed truth) won’t allow it!    I want to end this with a refreshing story:

I used to teach a Bible study in my home, and one of the things I attempted to bring forth was the supremacy of love over doctrine.  Edith, a regular participant, asked me to stop by and chat one day.   She told me that several years earlier she had been told the news that her adult daughter was a lesbian, and that she was now feeling badly about the way she had responded.  Apparently she had quoted Bible verses to her daughter, and told her that she was sinning, and that she couldn’t accept her anymore.  They hadn’t spoken for years, and Edith was grieving the loss of this relationship, and the hurt she had caused.  And she was questioning how to be “Christian” in this situation.  I gave her my opinions (of which, you may have noticed, I have many).   A couple of months later she came by and told me a beautiful story.  She had re-thought her position – had used her brain and her heart and the input of people she trusted – and had decided, in part, that bronze-age social norms didn’t trump the 21st century mother/daughter relationship.   So she had made a big sign that said, “I love my gay daughter!”, taken a picture of her holding it up, and sent it off to her daughter.   Lots of tears, apologies and forgiveness later, they’re back in relationship, and love has won.

Find part 3 HERE

Find epilogue HERE

  1. […] out the follow up articles: Part 1 (true? Truth? not true? just true-ish?) CLICK HERE Part 2 CLICK HERE Part 3 CLICK HERE Epilogue CLICK […]

  2. nash says:

    Reblogged this on stuff that matters and commented:

    A few readers asked me to repost this one.

  3. Chelle says:

    Kinnaman’s book sounds a lot like Borg’s Speaking Christian. It was the first on my path of rediscovering my religion and it is about reclaiming our faith words with their ancient meanings. Awesome read for anyone currently struggling with today’s Christianity.

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