Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Prelude

I've been chewing on a post I'll call "A Theology of Love" for a while. This post is not that, because I don't think I'm quite ready to write it yet, but in any case, that's not what this post is about. This is a meta-post, if you will. A post about the post I have yet to write.

Over the last few years, I've done a lot of wrestling. That wrestling is largely chronicled in this blog, so if you want to read about what led up to this point, it's all there. But the relatively, but definitely not absolutely short version is thus:

As a preacher's kid, by the time I was at the point where I might start to make my faith my own, I already had a lot of expectations as to what my faith was supposed to be, and what my faith was supposed to do. If I had started questioning or doubting, it would have been some significant boat-rocking - there were a lot of people watching me, expecting me to be what I wasn't yet. So I learned to playact. And I got really good at it. Now a lot of this process was subconscious, but I believe it to be pretty accurate. I'm not saying it's anyone's fault, and I obviously have a big part in it. But whatever the reason, by the time I headed off to college, I was an excellent doer of church. To borrow a phrase from my new friend and author of Stuff Christian Culture Likes, I was really good at "doing things and avoiding true relationship." And also had no personal faith whatsoever. I don't believe that to be an exaggeration.

Then I showed up at SPU. In comparison to my middle school (which is where I formed/was handed most of my good Christian Conservative beliefs), SPU is pretty liberal. Granted, their social policies are somewhat stringent (no alcohol or sex), but they teach evolution and have several Catholic faculty, and profs have told me that America was definitively not founded on Christianity. All of this contributed to the realization that there was a duality in my beliefs: the Christianity that I was raised with and professed, and what actually made sense to me. The latter, of course, was what I actually believed and based my decisions off of, especially now that I was free of expectations. This set off a long process of deconstructing my worldview that I was given, and building up, bit by bit, one that was I could honestly say I held. This involved throwing off ideas that were not essentially Christian, and problematic to my worldview, such as Creationism or American Sovereignty. I kept a tent, as Descartes would say, of basic Christian morality (which I do adhere to), but did a lot of stripping my worldview down to the core. Some great books such as Mere Christianity, Pagan Christianity? and Language of God were very helpful in not only distinguishing the core from the periphery, but also in reassuring me that I'm not crazy, and that I'm probably not on my way to Hell.

Now all of this deconstruction caused much strife in my family, my friends back home, and many people who care about me. Many feared (and may still fear) that I am "straying from the faith", that I'm suffering in "my walk", or I'm drifting away from Christ, or am being deceived by the world. Now, I can't say for sure on the latter, but the rest could not be farther from the truth. I am just now truthfully, sincerely approaching faith and Christ for the first time. Up to this point, I have had no faith to stray from, no walk to suffer, and no relationship with Christ (on my part, anwyay) to drift from.

That brings us to today. At this point, most of my deconstruction is done. I've cleared out a huge portion of the periphery that was standing between me and a genuine faith. Depending on who you ask, I may be a bad Christian now, but frankly, they can believe that if they want. I'm done arguing. So now I've found myself asking: what now? What do I do with this? I know pretty well what I don't believe, but what do I replace that with?

That's what I've been wrestling with for the past few months. I've had some fantastic people that have helped me with this - first and foremost my girlfriend, who is an incredible blessing and a fantastic co-conspirator, and is constantly wrestling with me, keeping me accountable, questioning alongside me, offering a refreshing perspective on things, and most of all, setting an example of what it means to truly, deeply love people. My father, the preacher of "Confessions of a Preacher's Kid," has also been very open to my questions and struggles, is more like myself than I had imagined, and has been very honest about what he has been wrestling with. John Chase, my former college group leader, former pastor, and always friend, has been a great "elder" to talk to and bounce things off of. I've had some good conversations with Nancy Smith, my Mom's college friend who has also gone fairly liberal, but has a solid faith and asks me tough questions, but is confident in my search regardless of my answers. UScholars has been an incredibly helpful experience as well. And I've also read some books that have helped steer me towards something that I can actually believe, instead of steering me away from things that I don't. First and foremost, Shane Claiborne's raw, honest testimony of a man living out the words of Christ - not the words of Christianity - in Irresistible Revolution has had a profound effect in focusing my thoughts, and is basically the mainfesto for my life. I also came across an excellent little book called Stories of Emergence that has some excellent thoughts by real people. And recently A.J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically was surprisingly insightful in getting down to the reasons and meaning of religion and belief.

So after all this talking, reading, and thinking, where am I headed? I'm still not exactly sure, but I do know this. It will be a theology of love. Period. This is the prelude for the yet-to-be-written manifesto, if you will, of that theology. But basically, it is this: God is Love. Again, period. It is a theology of reaching out, of loving people, regardless of who they are or what they believe. A theology of helping the poor and the widowed, of sharing your wealth, your life, yourself with others. Of loving your neighbor as yourself, and doing unto others better than you would have them do unto you. Of accepting people as they are, without judgement, and loving them where they are at. Of forgiveness, of not holding wrongs. Of defending the downtrodden, and questioning and fighting anything that devalues another human being. How exactly that meshes with Christianity I am still hashing out, and will elaborate on later. I'm still pretty clueless as to what it really means to do things like put your faith in God, ask Christ to forgive your sins, or be in a relationship with the divine. But seeing as how this idea of love is pretty much what Christ did, I think I'm on the right track. Because last I checked, Christianity pretty much means be as much like Christ as humanly possible, and then some. This is common knowledge, but it is surprising - and heartbreaking - how often it is lost by the wayside by peripheral, insignificant squabbling. One of the reasons my father understands where I'm coming from is that he wrote his thesis on how ludicrous it was that churches split over millenialism. We don't really do that today, but there are a multitude of issues that are just as arbitrary, and just as divisive. My goal is to shout at these debates, STOP! Please, stop! This is destructive, stupid, wrong, and, as far as I can tell sinful. Please, love people. Be Christlike. Stop fighting each other, and instead together fight homelessness, genocide, injustice, human rights abuse, slavery. And individually, fight loneliness, discrimination, and apathy. Society today needs us. Not to protect it from the gays, the liberals, or the ecofreaks. Not to rescue it the humanists, the atheists, the Mormons, or the Catholics. Not even to save it from the Christians or the conservatives or capitalism. Instead, society needs love. It needs people who care, both for and about their fellow human. People who love others, for no other reason than the fact that they, too, are human. People who work to relieve the suffering with which this world is rife. In short, it needs Christ. In person-sized serving sizes known as "Christians."

That is what I believe. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now, the hard part: doing it.

Here goes nothing. Or maybe, just maybe, everything.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I apologize. This is not a positive post. I really did intend to change my ways, and still do, but this is a necessary exception.

It strikes me that "devotions" is a significantly different word than "devotion". The latter is outright allegiance to something or someone, throwing yourself completely and wholly into something, almost with abandon. It's living, breathing, active, dynamic by nature. You can't be passively devoted to something.

The former, on the other hand, is maybe reading a scripture passage, and definitely reading a usually far-fetched illustration or story that attempts to make the scripture passage things like "cool" or "relevant" or "funny", usually creating characters that are laughably unreal or reprinting stories from Christian humor books. (Example: "Jennifer likes a guy at her school named Ryan. She talks and thinks about him constantly. Her friends think she's psycho because everything is always about Ryan, Ryan, Ryan!") This is usually followed by filling in (or answering orally) the same questions as everyone else and perhaps "discussing" it afterwards. This usually consists of the "group leader" reading the questions out loud, looking around at a bunch of blank stares, perhaps some canned answers that kids remember hearing in Sunday school, and then suggesting the "correct" answers.

I thought maybe I was exaggerating a little bit, but read the Sample Text from Youth Specialties, from this promo text: "You'll love the exciting look and feel of this Bible. The page-by-page bursts of surprising facts, cool graphics, crazy humor, and radical ideas to chew on—and apply." It even has 22 full-color pages!



22 full-color pages? Crazy humor? Cool graphics? Ideas to chew on? THIS is what is going to encourage me to devote my life, radically and completely, to the man whose prophet dressed in camelskin and ate locusts? The man that demanded I give up my wealth, my shiny things, and love people radically? THIS is going to shake up my world, cause me to question everything I find important?

No. This is a spiritual vita-gummy. It gives me my daily dose of scripture, tries to force me to regurgitate the correct answers, and throws in pretty pictures to make it less painful.

I would cite more examples of how ludicrous, and surfacey these "devotionals" are, but that would just cause more frustration. Just check out more examples of these sugar-coated booster pills that think rewriting the Bible to dub Jeremiah "Jer" and give the Isrealites "relevant" phrases like "sooo negative" and "lighten up" is the ticket to fostering devotion.

This post was started because I walked through campus today, and there were all these kids, presumably from some Bible camp thing, scattered about the lawns, all doing their individual devotions and prayer, like good little Bible camp kids. It brought back memories of the many devotions I forged through at Bible camp, and while Bible camp was fun*, we'll just say it wasn't because of the devotionals.

So what do I suggest? I don't have a cure-all, a one-shot solution. But I can suggest a mindset. Children, youth, Christians - they're not a market to target. They're not a demographic to satisfy. Physical age is somewhat related to emotional maturity, but has zero correlation to spiritual maturity. None. I know there are plenty of people younger than me that are significantly more spiritually mature, and there are lots of people way older than me that are still babes in Christ. Jesus can't be packaged. He wasn't meant to be made "cool" or "relevant". He's not your handy phrasebook to help you out of tough situations.

Christianity is a way of life, a frame of mind, not a bunch of right answers. Growth is accomplished by asking hard questions (the ones that aren't in the devotional books), loving people, living out Christ.

Devotions are a lot like the educational system. Both of them give kids the right answers, assume that people at the same age are at the same level, and largely treat children as a large, homogeneous group. Both work very well to equip kids with the right answers, and infuse in them the correct groupthink, make sure they know how to toe the party line. And neither work very well for those kids who think outside the box, who want to learn things, who can never get enough, who are always curious. I can comfortably say that the majority of learning I have done has occurred outside of, or in spite of, the classroom. Not all - classes like math, English, History gave me some tools to work with. But most of my learning took place either outside of those classes, or in homeschool. I am incredibly grateful for my five years of homeschooling. Individual attention, varying education according to a specific child's needs, makes all the difference. Maybe that's what we need - more spiritual homeschooling. I still don't know how I'm going to raise my kids. As I've said before, they screw everything up. And despite all my anger, annoyance, and skepticism, I am very grateful for how I was raised, cheesy devotionals, camps, and all. I ended up where I am, which I'm okay with. But it's been a hard and painful journey. I'm sure I've hurt, and continue to hurt, the people that raised me, primarily my parents. And I apologize, but I don't know how else to do this. And that's what I hope to avoid. I look back at everything in my spiritual past, and realize that it did get me to a point where at 18, when I realized I had no personal faith or devotion whatsoever (despite dozens of devotionals), I had something to work from. But I wonder if it could be better. If I could somehow avoid that breaking point, that pain, that confusion. My parents are anything but failures - they have been supportive, loving, and gave me the equipment I'm working with now. But it's only natural that I want to do better, right? I can at least try, and hope that when my kids grow up, they'll at least have as good of a foundation as my parents gave me.

*Except for AWANA Scholarship Camp. That place was run like a military operation. Patriotic songs played over the PA system for call to Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, no kidding. Eugh. Oddly enough, those are the only devotionals I specifically remember, mostly because I colored in the Apostle Paul with highlighter.