Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mere(ly Nominative) Christianity

I was saved at a young age, around fifth or sixth grade. I had been raised in church my whole life—Sunday school, Sunday worship, Wednesday night prayer meeting, VBS, church camp. The list of the ways in which I was exposed to church in my life goes on and on. I had that gentle tugging of the Spirit deep down, and eventually I prayed the sinner’s prayer. But in truth, I had thought it and uttered many times prior to that because I never thought it felt real. Then one day it did. So at the onset of my adolescence, I became like so many of the people around me: saved. My developing mind thought it had an understanding of what this meant, but in the intervening years, I’ve wondered if I truly understand what commitment I had made. From what had I been saved? Stealing a fellow student’s pencil at school when he wasn’t looking? Telling a white lie every now and then? I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I cussed rather infrequently, if at all. And thoughts of sex had only just begun to creep into my mind. But I was saved, of that much I was sure. But I really suppose I had no idea from what. And this is a theme that has become a constant in my fiction since I’ve begun to take writing seriously. I often find myself reflecting on those early years of my faith and my infantile understanding of what I was professing.

I suppose at that early age, I had a very legalistic view of Christianity: don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t have sex outside of marriage. Oh, and don’t be gay. And don’t support those who are. Those were the strongest messages that I seemed to hear most often in the churches of my youth, and they continue to be the ones I hear quite often. But it was around my freshman year of high school that my already questioning mind began to consider the beliefs I professed, the stances I took, and what they meant for me, especially in a developing world that was shaping around me: exposure to new ideas, new beliefs, foundations so different from mine. And this questioning would extend into college, where I was exposed to different worldviews, different religions and the beliefs thereof, to elements of history that had been sugarcoated or just ignored in high school and church to that point in my life. I attended secular postsecondary schools, and I delved into the humanities with much enthusiasm. Always an avid reader, I truly began to become the intellectual that I am today in humanities courses in my early twenties. By the time I reached nineteen, my thinking was more developed than it had been ten years before, obviously, but as my thinking developed, matured, and evolved, it began to resemble the thoughts of my early faith less and less. More and more, I began to see myself as different from the Christians around me: I was more freethinking, more liberal, more open to other religions. I began to feel as though church wasn’t necessarily the place for me, particularly after certain situations over legalistic views came to a head and I found myself engaged in debates I had never truly expected with those who stood behind the pulpit each week. I considered myself a Christian, but I didn’t fit into a neat little mold of Christianity, the image I so often heard about and saw around me.

I was sitting in a Sunday school class when I was about twenty and I heard a statement that shocked me. The question about the extent to which Christians should be tolerant of other religions was posed, a seemingly decent question to generate discussion. An answer was issued and the general acceptance of the answer shocked me: Christians should only tolerate the religious views of others to the extent needed to win them to Christ. I’m open to religious discussions and debates because I have an interest in the ways others live. I couldn’t imagine looking at a friend of another religion and tolerating him/her only so that I could convince him/her that he/she was wrong. True discussion should have far more room for listening than for talking. If I enter into a conversation only with the purpose of changing the other person’s views—the person’s foundation and life—how much listening am I actually doing? I believe we can learn from each other, and we should be tolerant of other views for the sake of being humanitarian and respectful.


Someone in my family once proposed that maybe I would be a great preacher. I don’t know what led her to make that proclamation, what she had seen in me at an early age that would lead to such a determination. But I’ve always had that idea wedged in the back of my mind. Maybe I could have been a preacher. Maybe a youth minister. The idea resurfaced when my wife and I were in marriage counseling for the second time. I had just begun teaching high school, and something during the counseling sessions led me to begin thinking about it again. It was an idea that had been tucked away, springing up only in my fiction, as characters struggle with missed callings and wondering how life would’ve been different had they answered what they believed to have been God’s calling. The idea comes and goes. I’ve often joked about it. What sort of pastor would I be? I drink. I cuss. Major no-no’s in most Christian circles.

It’s been hard for me to shake the legalistic views I saw while growing up. I began to see everything as a sin, everything from smoking a cigar to going to a bar to see a band play. I saw Christianity as a list of rules that shouldn’t be broken. My reading the work of Donald Miller helped combat this view (if you haven’t read his work on Christian Spirituality, I recommend you do so.) But some days this view still lingers at the back of my mind. My mother once told me, though I don’t remember why or in what context, that there were men in our church would go get drunk. I’m fine with drinking—drunkenness, no; that is one point on which I will agree with fundamentalist Christians. Over ten years later, though, I still find myself wondering about whom she was talking. Not that it matters—I wish the best for those struggling with alcoholism. Or any form of addiction. And one of the most beautiful sentiments I’ve heard from the pulpit came from one of my ex-wife’s friends, a local youth pastor. He talked about the perception some people have of church and those who attend it. “Oh, but that guy’s an alcoholic,” he said, mimicking those who would caste a negative light on certain groups who may attempt to worship during a service. “Oh, yeah? Great, he can sit next to me. I’m a liar.” And it was beautiful, and it was all about love.  

Dress was another issue. Sandals were okay for women if they were dressy sandals. Guys—well, you’d better be wearing shoes. Shorts? Forget about it! Khakis with worn and frayed hems? Not a chance. I saw women turned away from singing in church for wearing pants. All of these views bothered me. I thought Jesus was far more concerned with my heart and how I helped others than with the fact that I may be wearing a Ramones t-shirt and jeans to church.

And all of this is not to make a blanket statement about Christianity, which I would have once used it for. I merely want to relay my understanding and views and how my beliefs and ideas have been shaped. Some of the best Christians I know are also some of the best people I know. Others of the best people are of no religious affiliation. Or they are Pagan. Atheist. Agnostic. And these are people who once I would have looked at mainly in the light of being non-Christian.
When my wife left me the second time, I called someone in her family to meet me to talk. He is one of the best Christians I know, answered the call to preach, has led house churches, and once called just to pray with me. We met at Starbucks for coffee, and over the course of a couple hours, we talked about everything from God, to my faltering marriage, to music and film. And one point of the conversation that stuck in mind was what he said when I told him I felt as though there were people in my life who were offering too many opinions on the state of my marriage. I understand now that they were only trying to help; but I suppose I wasn’t really looking for help as much as I was looking for sounding boards. I told him this and his response surprised me: “Man, you’ve to tell them to just move the fuck out of the way. This is your relationship.” I was stunned, for he wasn’t one I’d have expected to use the F-Word (as it is so often called in polite, conservative circles). But I have to admit that his doing so made him seem more human. He then proceeded to pull his Bible out of his backpack and lead me in a quick devotion and prayer.

There were other areas of my life that didn’t (and perhaps still don’t) really seem to mesh with my Christianity. Although I was technically a virgin when I married, most pastors would debate my using that term to describe myself. I don’t pray as often as I should. I rarely read my Bible, and I’ve been known to read the Bible looking for bits that I’ve never heard read in church, wondering about the social and cultural context in which they were written. I am a strong proponent of gay rights: gay marriage, gay adoption.  I drink in public. I go to R-rated movies and read books about other religions and views not so I can find the errors of their ways but because I find them interesting. All of which I have heard preached against at one time or another.

But somewhere along the way, I began to see Christianity far less as rules to follow and more about helping others. The legalism began to fade, though remnants still linger, and I began to see it as more about missional living, about helping those around us—the poor, the needy, the downtrodden. For a while, I wanted to find a church that practiced missional living, for I felt that that was where I needed to be. I didn’t really see that at my church, but that’s because I was convinced it wasn’t there without really looking. After a crisis of faith, I tried different churches, each of which had its merits. But for now, I’m home, where I spent so much of my time questioning. Are all of my questions answered? No, of course not. I don’t agree with everything that I hear preached, especially in a socio-political context. I’m a strong liberal, socially and fiscally. But it’s home, with Godly people, who love God and who love each other. And who have a concern for those in society who need help.


I used to scoff at the idea of Christian music and the idea that it is so strongly represented on local radio. We have no jazz station, no true oldies station, no indie rock station, but there are three or four Christian stations. I’ve always had a love for gospel music, a love that I’ll not discuss to thoroughly here for I’ve written an essay about it that I’m trying to get published. But I have to admit that I’d have not gotten through several months in the last year without KLOVE and WALKFM, stations that, cliché as their commercials sound, truly are encouraging and uplifting.

These days, I find myself reading and listening more to people like Derek Webb, Donald Miller, and Rich Mullins. And I suppose I’ll end this with one of my favorite Rich Mullin’s Quotes:
 “I had a professor one time... He said, 'Class, you will forget almost everything I will teach you in here, so please remember this: that God spoke to Balaam through his ass, and He has been speaking through asses ever since. So, if God should choose to speak through you, you need not think too highly of yourself. And, if on meeting someone, right away you recognize what they are, listen to them anyway'.” 

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