Absorbed

Hello to those of you who still surf by Wonderstuff from time to time.

I wanted to remind you that I’ve got a new blog and a new site, and it has basically absorbed the kind of thinking and writing you find on Wonderstuff. I hope you’ll add www.bobowenblog.com to your reading list, and check out the new site. As always, I welcome comments and enjoy the conversations that spring from them.

See you over there!

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God-willing, You’ll Read This Post

Let’s talk for a moment about this nebulous yet paramount Christian concept known as “the will of God.”

You may have heard the term used before in a variety of situations, but most often it is yanked from its holster when someone is trying to determine how to properly prepare for his or her future, or perhaps when people are discussing a specific turn of events in someone else’s life. “Well, you know, if it’s God’s will, you’ll get that promotion…” “There’s nothing more I can do – we’ll be together if God wills it…” “He’s in the hospital right now, but I suppose, God-willing, he’ll get better…”

"Look, a 14-point, and right in my line of fire. It must be God's will!"

It’s a kind of fate-and-fortune catch-all, really. If something happens, it happens because God willed that it should happen. If something fails to happen, it is generally considered to be “outside of” God’s will, i.e. what he desires to take place in the course of human history. A lot of religious folks – including most Christians – use this as the all-inclusive explanation for why some things happen and other things do not. However, problems arise when we attempt to apply the explanation to misfortune or difficult circumstances. The greater the trial, the more this explanation seems platitudinous and disconnected from reality. As a result, God’s concern for, and activity within, human experience is attacked.

For the last eleven months, I have been searching for a position on a church staff. I have applied for all kinds of associate positions that seemed like a good fit, as well as student ministry positions that gel with my ten-year background in church work. I have even sent my resume out to a few dozen churches looking for lead pastors. All in all, I have applied to almost one hundred churches. As of today, however, I remain unemployed. Occasionally, an acquaintance will ask me how the job hunt is going. Early on, I was optimistic that a good job was right around the corner, and I answered as the same vein. After eleven months, however, my optimism has almost completely dissolved, and in my mounting frustration, it’s hard not to fill that vacancy with cynicism and anger.

"What's it like to not have a job? It's like spending a whole day in a dirty, smelly deer stand and not being able to kill something majestic!"

These days, I respond honestly – that the search is not going well at all and times are very, very tough. The response I receive from people is almost always the same stock response I hear every time (whether I answer with positivity or negativity); it’s one of the Christian subculture’s greatest hits, and it is, in essence, the thoughtless application of this thing known as “God’s will.”

“Well, I just know God’s got a place for you.”

Thanks.

Care to venture a guess as to where that might be, or what I’m supposed to do in the meantime, or why he has chosen not to reveal this secret location over the past eleven months?

Like I said, cynicism is hard to avoid.

Let us dissect this ambiguous concept of God’s will, shall we? Especially why God apparently feels the need to play his cards so close to his chest. To give our analysis some form we can clearly recognize, let’s think of it in terms of dating. Now, the abiding belief in our culture is that there is one special someone out there for everybody (not counting the people who we brush off as unfortunate souls cursed into singleness like the remainder in a long division problem) and one of the main priorities of life is to identify who exactly this is. Dating is, in essence, sleuthing. Gathering evidence to solve the mystery known as “Who is my soul mate?”

By Jove, Watson! She's perfect for me!

Don’t want to accept this? Consider every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen. How many times did one of these movies end with Jennifer Aniston realizing this chiseled yet sensitive dude with perfect teeth wasn’t “the one” after all, but rather only one possibility in a thousand? How many times do eHarmony or Match.com testimonials feature a guy talking about how perfect five different girls were followed by footage of him walking in the park with a blonde, then sharing a drink with a redhead, and then visiting a carnival with a brunette, and so on?

It’s hard for some people – whether they are single or already married – to hear that the idea of that one special someone might be bogus, that there might be hundreds or thousands of special someones out there for them, and the determining factor in finding who they will commit to boils down not to the magical hand of God (in non-religious terms, “fate”), but to the choices they made that landed them in a certain place with a certain set of circumstances (“free will”).

Am I rejecting the notion that God has a purpose for our lives? I am not. Does this imply that God is not involved? It does not. On the contrary, I’m trying to elevate our level of personal responsibility in the lives with which we have been blessed. God gave us the ability to choose, to make decisions, to sometimes effect change according to our level of effort. Most of us would agree with this. We would never fully discount the existence of free will. But when, for better or for worse, we want to validate something (or someone) as having a distinct purpose, we tend to stick the “God’s will” decal on it in an attempt to authenticate the experience.

Unfortunately, like a sixteen-month-old left unattended in a scrapbook store, we’ve become sticker-happy. We slap the “God’s will” explanation on everything from finding a spouse to finding a good parking space at Target. We’re as comfortable using it as a reason for category five hurricanes as we are for our minivan breaking down.

"Whataburger's selling the All-Time Favorites again! It must be the divine will of Jehovah Jireh!"

Is God to blame for why I have spent eleven months searching for a church position with nothing to show for it? And if the people who point me to his lofty plan are correct and he does have a special place somehow set aside for me, am I supposed to sit on my parents’ couch in the meantime watching Sportscenter until I get the portentous phone call or e-mail? I mean, if it all boils down to God’s will – unalterable fate – do I even have a role? Or am I just the receiver waiting for the quarterback to spot me and toss-up a pass?

BAD PUN ALERT: It would be a "Hail Mary." Get it? (Yeah, I'm watching too much Sportscenter.)

I realize I’m dancing around the bang-your-head-against-the-pew-rail topic of predestination, specifically the age-old “vs.” debate: fate vs. free will. But my interest is not in opening that can of unconditionally elected worms. Rather, my goal is to remind all of us – especially Christians – that while it is possible for God to purpose something outside of humanity’s involvement, he does not work that way. He chooses to interact with our own choices. He wants us to make the effort, rather than wait for him to do the work.

Think of the most defining, pivotal moment in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. There he is in the little hillside garden called Gethsemane. He is kneeling in prayer, face to the ground. He is so anxious and fearful of what he has discerned is coming that blood seeps from his sweat glands. He’s crying. He’s struggling. He’s asking God – who remains silent just like he so often is with us – if there is any way for his will to play out differently. Would the Father please devise another way for humanity to be reconciled to its Creator? In the end, and I’m sure the words were some of the most difficult Jesus ever prayed, he blinks away more tears, clears the phlegm from his throat, and says, “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”

What did Jesus recognize to be God’s will? Was it not that God desired to fulfill his purpose through humanity rather than separate from it? The divine work of reconciliation was to be intimately wrapped up in human choices no matter where it may lead, even to the point of physical torture and death. Could God have devised another way? Some of us might believe that, yes, he could – after all, he’s God. But because he is not one who stands far off from our world and our experiences, he rejects doing things another way. He subjects his will to the choices of humans, because he knows us well enough to know that his purposes will be fulfilled eventually.

He places Jesus’ safety in the hands of a betrayer who chooses to sell out his master. He subjects Jesus’ sentencing to Pilate’s jurisdiction, who chooses even against his better judgement to condemn him to death. What if Judas had relented before leading the temple guard to the garden? What if Pilate had heeded the words of his wife? Did God force them into one specific course of action? Frederick Buechner writes of free will, “The fact that I know you so well that I know what you are going to do before you do it doesn’t mean you aren’t free to do whatever you damn well please.”

What if I never find a ministry job? What if what I interpreted as a call to ministry finds me working in a university office or as an English teacher in a public high school? I’ve already begun looking for employment in those places, because the reality is that I need a job. I need to support my family which will very soon increase by twenty-five percent. I need to stop waiting on God to do all the work, and start making decisions I trust to be the right ones. I won’t throw God for a loop. If anything, I’ll give him more opportunity to get involved.

"Hey, guys. He finally turned off that Walking Dead marathon! Let's get to work!"

These days, when I think of God’s will, it’s not as some unascertainable force that influences us like a manipulator does his marionettes. Instead, I think of God’s willingness to trust me, even when I act in untrustworthy ways. I think of the faith he has in me to find a job even when I collapse in despair from rejection after rejection. I think of the confidence he has in his purpose for me, even when my own confidence is shattered, duct-taped back together, and then shattered again. I think of the way he doesn’t fault me when my prayers turn into rants and I question his concern for me.

I’m not saying it’s always comforting to think this way, nor is it easy to face failure when I know God could step in and nudge a situation into working out a bit differently. I haven’t learned how to find joy in this interaction between God’s holy will and my own fitful capabilities, and I’m not sure I ever will. I suppose accepting the mysterious cooperation, though, is a good first step.

Sometimes, though … Ah!

It is a terribly irksome thing to be so trusted by God.

7 Misconceptions about Christianity – Part Two

With the three major ones covered in my previous post, it’s time to move on to four more widely held misconceptions about what Christianity, and, by extension, living life as a Christian in America, is all about.

#4 – “Christian” is an Adjective

I’m not so sure my argument is going to hold up against the vast array of examples commonly spoken and written today, but here goes. What is most important to remember here is that while the word “Christian” may indeed come with a connotative sidecar in which it can be a modifier, the word originated as a noun. Today, if you were to look up “Christian” in a dictionary, you’re likely to see it listed as an adjective, too, but dictionaries today are also letting in verbs like “tweet” and “text,” and gerunds like “facebooking,” so it’s important to take what Webster says with a grain of salt.

You’re just riding Arnold’s coattails, kid.

Okay, so, what exactly is the misconception?

It is not so much that the word “Christian” is being misused so much as the original spirit of the word has been forgotten. The New Testament contains the story of the word’s inception; interestingly enough, it wasn’t invented by Jesus or by Peter or any of the other disciples, and it didn’t come out of Jerusalem or Rome. According to the eleventh chapter of Acts, as well as other historical sources, the term was applied to the “believers” living in Antioch, a city in North Africa. Most scholars indicate that the term was meant to be derogatory; essentially, it means “little Christs.” Indeed, a close reading of Acts 11 reveals that something very interesting was going on in that community: believing Jews had begun telling Greeks (often referred to in the New Testament as Gentiles) about Jesus Christ, and they had in turn become devoted followers. This local movement gained such strength that word reached the apostles in Jerusalem, and they sent to Antioch two of their most revered teachers, Barnabas and the recently converted Saul of Tarsus. These two ended up living with the Hellenist believers and teaching them for an entire year. Acts 11 claims “a great many people” were taught, so much so that the rest of the people of Antioch took notice and began calling this odd Jewish/Hellenist hybrid sect “Christians” because they found it absurd that the worship of this Christ figure had transformed the believers entire lives.

So, again, what is the misconception?

Simply the fact that these days the word “Christian” refers to a person who goes to church, or who lives a somewhat noticeable moral life, or is honest or polite or hails from Mississippi.

This makes my eyes bleed.

Do you see what I’m getting at? These days, we use the word more as a descriptor of behavior and/or religious affiliation than we do as the moniker for someone who is living a dynamically counter-cultural life – someone who has released his or her grip on the status quo and chosen to submit themselves completely to God and the salvation made available by the sacrifice of Christ. Sadly, there aren’t a lot of true Christians turning heads today. No wonder such a drastic yet wonderfully descriptive label has lost all of its intrigue and effect.

#5 – You Don’t Have to Believe in Miracles to Be a Christian

Sorry, but you do. There’s really no getting around this one, despite what some people who you may have run across believe. There’s something going around in postmodern America today that, at first glance, seems healthy, but has turned out to be nothing but self-actualizing fluff for most people. That is the abiding interest in developing a personal spirituality based on a hodgepodge of various religious ideologies down through the centuries.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy living in a pluralist society. I embrace the diversity of America and the freedom of people to adhere to the religion they choose. Religion should never be forced on anyone, young or old. It is the acceptance of  the existence of an ordered and purposeful reality beyond ourselves. To be meaningful at all, it must be freely chosen. However, the drawback to living in a pluralist society is that many people have come to believe that these religions can be gathered together as if in a buffet, and that you can stroll along filling your plate with whatever looks good while leaving behind the less-tantalizing aspects of these faiths. If you’re jonesing for a little mysticism to garnish your rationalism and scientific method, no problem. You take all the contemplative prayer or creative meditation you need to keep you feeling connected to a Higher Power.

“Ooh, it says here the Vedic Thought is free-range and grass-fed!”

The first thing many people are willing to leave out of Christianity is the miracle component. These are the same people who are quick to call Jesus a “great moral teacher” (sometimes, they might even label him a “prophet”) but will make that squinchy, well-I-wouldn’t-go-that-far face when you press them on whether or not he was the actual son of God, or if he actually rose from the dead. You see, a man who was fully divine while being fully human isn’t physically or empirically possible. Neither is resurrection from the dead. When it comes to these things, as well as all the miraculous works in both the New Testament and the Old, Christianity starts to weigh down the buffet plate. Accept all this, and suddenly your personal spirituality appears exclusive – it becomes its own meal – and requires a greater committment than people are willing to give to it.

If “Christian” means what it has come to mean today, I suppose you can go ahead and continue believing this misconception. However, if it means what it actually originally meant, then miracles can’t be left off the plate. They’re like vegetables – sometimes they’re hard to swallow, but they turn out to be what gives you the most strength.

“No offense, rabbi, but is the bread whole grain? Levi is on Adkins.”

#6 – Christianity Helps You Achieve Success and Prosperity

It is extremely frustrating for a humble Christian dedicated to daily self-denial and sacrificial love that the most well-known and listened-to spokespersons for Christianity are those pearly toothed slick suits preaching to five-digit congregations every week while being broadcast all over the world. But even that wouldn’t be so bad if their message was true, if they were providing accurate, evenhanded exposition of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The problem is that most of them don’t even come close to what the real truth of Christianity is. But why not? Do all these preachers really think that this whole “health and wealth” interpretation of Christianity is actually correct? Is Joel Osteen serious?

Here he is preaching or teaching his audience how to deliver a double knuckle sandwich.

I can’t really answer this. What I do know is that the gospel of Jesus Christ, as far as I understand it, outlines a lifestyle that is not nearly as attractive and desirable as what the majority of these televangelists are offering. Jesus himself saw most of his followers abandon him because of how tough his teaching became; at the very end, only a couple of women watched him gasp his final breaths. So, either these televangelists are better sales persons of the gospel than the actual Savior is, or somewhere the message has gotten off track.

This is not to say that all mega-churches are nothing but factories manufacturing lies. When you come to truly accept the gospel of Christ, you find it to be something infinitely more compelling than anything you’ve ever encountered, and you are all for joining with other believers to worship and pray and study together. The one thing you don’t do, however, is put this gospel to work for you as if it were some sort of investment incentive or financial benefits plan. Jesus is recorded as saying several different times something to the tune of, “I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (see John 14-16). The difference between the Christians who commit themselves to justice, live mercifully, and walk humbly with God and the “Christian” televangelists who tell you that God is all about getting you that promotion or raise or new house or nicer car is … well … I think it’s obvious, don’t you?

#7 – America was Founded as a Christian Nation

There’s that adjectival use of “Christian” again. Uh oh.

If you’ve ever visited Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, you may have learned about a famous copy of the Bible known as the Jefferson Bible, the text of which is freely available online. The story goes that Thomas Jefferson, one of the most revered of America’s founding fathers, appreciated all the moral teachings of Jesus, but, like the type of people mentioned earlier in this post, was not ready to accept the miraculous side to him. He was a fan of the human Jesus, but Jesus the deity was too much of a stretch and, according to Jefferson, nothing but a way for priests to get rich. So, Jefferson took a razor blade and cut out all the passages in the gospels that contained miraculous events, and then pasted the rest together to provide a chronological account of Jesus, that great, sane moral teacher (who we’ll try to forget referred to himself as divine).

He also owned a copy of The Lord of the Rings with all those annoying elves and orcs cut out.

While some of the people who were a part of our country’s inception indeed professed an unwavering adherence to the doctrines of Christianity, the majority of our founding fathers – including some of the most well-known like Ben Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, and Jefferson – were deists. If they believed in a Higher Power at all, it was in God as merely the Creator, with the business of redemption left to the devices of humanity. It’s hard to blame them, really. They were products of the Age of Enlightenment, a time when the Western world saw scientific study grow by leaps and bounds, when France overthrew its government and bowed to the Goddess of Reason, and that great patriot Thomas “These are the times that try men’s souls” Paine could also pen lines like “My own mind is my own church.” Hence, science and reason became the keys to salvation, rather than submission, confession and repentance.

There’s a difference between founding a nation of Judeo-Christian principles, and founding it on the Judeo-Christian religion. Thus, while the formation of a democracy was a bold and dynamic move, and these men were careful about instituting law and order from a biblically moral perspective, there is nothing about the foundation of America that is exclusively Christian. Godly, maybe. Virtuous, sure. Honorable, absolutely. But “Christian?” Go back to number four and consider again what it really means to be a Christian, and then decide if the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution delves anywhere close to the depth of the Epistle to the Romans or the Gospel of John. Sure, the documents may mention God (invoking his name as “Creator” or as “Divine Providence”), but Christianity is about much more than a simple belief in a Creator. In truth, while our founding fathers should be admired for their extraordinary leadership in forming a new nation, assuming the United States of America is a Christian nation is groundless, and, ultimately, pointless.

To a lot of Christians, this may seem like a shocking statement. After all, there is a large contingent of churchgoers who are convinced that the separation of church and state is a thing to lament rather than to celebrate. In truth, we have a Baptist minister to thank for that, not to mention a handful of other ministers and pastors who ensured our founding fathers made the right calls when it came to religious liberty.

It always strikes me as odd that some of the people who whine about how crucial it is for America to return to its Christian heritage are quite often the same people who can’t even get along with the Lutherans or the Methodists just down the road.

This is all your fault, Reverend Leland!

A Final Word

So, how should we conceive Christianity? If these seven thoughts are wrong, what’s the right way? Is there even a right way?

I could begin to answer these questions. After all, I have laid down my life in submission to answering them. However, in the interest of bringing an end to what is already a very long post, I’ll just make a simple plea for now.

If there is one thing that I have learned about Christianity – and I mean true Christianity – it’s that it is not for the faint of heart. There are a lot of people who have walked away from the Church or have given up on the whole Christian “thing” because of one or more of the misconceptions I have mentioned, as well as a great number of other misunderstandings I have failed to mention. The tendency in our modern society is to expect results as quickly as possible – to understand how something works enough to be able to control it and to put it to work for ourselves. We do this with iPhones, televisions, the Internet, our cars, even our paychecks. We have a bad habit of doing this with our beliefs, too. If we don’t see the results we expect, we reject what we believe in favor of an upgrade, or a different model. Some of us become so frustrated that we throw the whole system in the garbage, assuming that because we don’t understand everything about it, it must be defective.

All this to say, don’t let the bad habits of our modern society keep you from this beautiful mystery, this saga of runaways limping their way back home.

7 Misconceptions about Christianity – Part One

According to some of the most recent polling data, somewhere between 70-80% of Americans identify themselves as “Christian.” According to the recent census, that’s roughly 220,000,000 people. Many of these polls break down the figures in smaller percentages under categories like “professing,” “active,” and “attend church occasionally,” as well as by various denominations and sub-groups. However, despite the obligatory clarifications, I find it hard to believe that if I bump into ten people on the street (I should probably stop playing Angry Birds while walking), at least seven of those people would, if asked, identify themselves as Christians.

“Watch where you’re going, %&$*! Oh, and peace be with you.”

This begs the question, do all 219,999,999 of my brothers and sisters in Christ really understand what Christianity is all about? After all, having worked in churches for over ten years, I’ve met some people who don’t always seem to have the best grasp on what claiming to be a Christian really means. Meanwhile, there are a lot of folks not belonging to that 220 million figure that have their own ideas about what Christians believe.

Martin Luther nailed ninety-five clarifications to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. Right now, I’ve come up with what I feel are seven pervading misconceptions, the first three of which are contained in this post. Thus, what follows here is by no means an exhaustive list. But, hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? I think ol’ Martin would be proud.

#1 – Christianity Isn’t A Religion

This is the first, and most significant, misconception carried around today. Most of the time, the ones that have it wrong are the people who actually profess to be Christians. The problem is that the word “religion” carries a certain stigma these days. In the modernized West, a “religious” person is often considered old-fashioned, or backwards, or regressive. The word “religious” conjures up vague images of mysticism or superstition, or, at the very least, a close-minded or obstinate person. The connotative reality of religion is that it is obsolete. This is all the more reason why Christians (as well as many other people who subscribe to a particular system of faith) hesitate to label their specific belief as a religion. They’ll call themselves “spiritual” or people “of faith,” but it takes a lot of prying for many of them to agree that they subscribe to a specific “religion.” And, if they do, they are quick to clarify that it isn’t a religion like all those other ones that aren’t true and are therefore plain old religions for religions’ sake.

And it shows!

The problem with this is simple. Even if we can agree that Jesus never intended to start a religion (in actuality, he claimed to be the fulfillment of one), the simple fact of the matter is that Christianity is a religion. It is the belief in and worship of a supernatural power, specifically that of a personal creator – God. It has tenets and doctrines. It is driven by particular theological viewpoints and contains specific rites and observances. Some Christians can try to sugarcoat all this as much as possible, but there’s no getting around the obvious. Consider this: While living in San Francisco, I decide to buy an SUV. To avoid the stigma and the requisite criticism, I swear up and down that it isn’t really an SUV, but merely a convenient transportation device I use to get to and from Oakland. “But it’s an SUV,” you tell me. “No, no,” I say, “It’s really more of a Smart Car, or, if anything, it’s a Sedan.” “But,” you say, “it has ‘Expedition’ written on the side, it seats nine people, and you average only eleven miles per gallon.” “That doesn’t prove anything,” I say, and then I proceed to invite you to visit the dealership with me because, hey, everybody should have one of these. You might suspect I was losing my mind. How much more if I refused to acknowledge the simple, historical reality of the very thing upon which I posture my entire life?

It’s high time Christians stop trying to paint over the religion-y parts of their faith just so they can avoid a stigma that is founded on its own misconceptions, such as…

#2 – Christianity was Established by Powerful, Chauvinistic Men Only to Further Their Prejudices

You have probably heard this criticism, whether you consider yourself a Christian, a spiritual person, or an atheist. On the surface, there seems to be some evidence for this assertion. For one thing, every one of Jesus’ twelve disciples were men. Not only that, but the Bible instructs women to submit to their husbands, that they should hold no authority over men, and (if you read closely) that they not even speak during worship!

SINNER!

To top it all off, Christianity was born during a time and in a culture that embraced patriarchy both in the family and in government. Men ran the show at home, and they ran the show at work. The stigma of Christianity being backwards or regressive must be true, and, as such, any self-respecting person, male or female, should shake off its oppressive chains and start living in the twenty-first century.

Once again, this criticism is without compelling merit. While it is true that Christianity was born within a patriarchal – and, some might label, chauvinistic – society, time and again history reveals how little it conformed to the standards of the day. While the twelve disciples were men, they were by no means seasoned leaders, and they were by no means alone. In fact, according to the gospels, the first person entrusted to tell people that Jesus had risen from the dead (the first missionary, as it were) was a woman – Mary Magdalene – who, at one time, had been demon-possessed, but had since become a devoted follower of Jesus, emphasis on the “devoted follower” part.

Later, Dan Brown would remind us she was also Jesus’ refugee wife with a penchant for scavenger hunts who liked to hide DNA evidence in France.

As to the instructions for women to submit and to hold no authority over men, never was historical context more important. The most significant passage suggesting this is found in the letter to the Ephesians, a society that contained a very influential cult of goddess-worship – Artemis Ephesia – the temple of which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the celebration of which included rampant promiscuity and debauchery, and the worship of which could sometimes go as far as objectifying women as divine beings and lead to the castration of some male worshippers.

“Whoa! Is this cult still around? Count me in!”

Because the early Christian communities often had an issue of listening to false teachers or merging their beliefs with the local hot deity of the day, the writer of Ephesians sets a standard of leadership that would prevent the infiltration of goddess-worship ideas within the congregation. Perhaps the instruction sounds extreme, but the last thing you need are your women refusing to listen to their pastors and your men taking literally Jesus’ figurative statement that “some have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God.”

Unfortunately, St. Origen didn’t always grasp the concept of figurative language.

Does this mean the teaching that women should submit is not meant to be heeded in the church today? That’s not the point. Not only is that teaching used as an extended metaphor of Jesus Christ’s relationship with the Church, but context reveals that this has nothing to do with one gender holding the power. Rather, a good marriage is built on mutual respect and submission to one another in love. Of course, there are denominations today who still refuse to ordain women, and some that even follow Ephesians to the letter. This is their prerogative, but the structure of a local church’s authority was never the focal point of Christianity’s message.

So, what is that message?

#3 – Christianity is Chiefly Concerned with Getting People into Heaven

If there is one abiding belief that Christianity, more than any other religion, is most responsible for influencing the greater public with, it is the existence of a place called heaven. Cartoonish, groundless portrayals of heaven as some temporal realm in clouds aside, there are plenty of people who do not profess to be Christians but who still believe in the prospect of heaven. Many of these people are willing to state that there is a God, and he/she is in heaven, and after we die we get to go and live there, too. As far as the conditions for “getting in” to heaven, this normally boils down to a measure of moral fortitude and the cumulative number of good deeds outweighing bad.

“In your case, Robin, I fear there may be quite a lot of paperwork involved.”

The thing is, Jesus was never all that concerned with the details of heaven, where it is or what it looks like. He spent his time talking about righteous living in the here and now, and telling story after story about what it looks like when the kingdom of God (often considered synonymous with “heaven”) is established in our world. At one point in the gospels, his disciples ask him to teach them how to pray the way God would want them to, and he imparts to them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Consider the first few lines: “Our Father in heaven, you are holy and we honor you. We want your kingdom to come and for your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven…” When asked how to pray to God, Jesus opens with a call for God to bring heaven to earth. At another time, when some of the religious heavyweights were asking him when exactly they could expect this kingdom of God to come, he replied, “It doesn’t come in a way that you can observe and predict it, nor can anyone say, ‘Oh, there it is,’ or ‘Hey, here it is,’ because the kingdom of God is found within you.”

It may seem a bit Zen-like, but the main point to understand is that while salvation in Christ – sometimes referred to as justification by faith – is at the heart of the Christian message, it was never meant to be a stamp on your hand so you can pass by heaven’s bouncer without getting harassed or thrown into a dumpster around back.

Interestingly, “gehenna,” the word often used to refer to hell, was Jerusalem’s garbage dump.

Instead, it was meant as a complete life change. Call it a reversal, call it a paradigm shift, call it a clean slate – Christianity is concerned with the way we live our lives right now. Sure, there is a lot of talk in churches about “eternity” and “heaven,” but just like the churches that pay too much attention to the gender of their leaders, some Christians spend too much time thinking about “heaven by and by.” It goes beyond a comforting hope to a kind of obsessive escapism. Still, though, assuming such a notion is what being a Christian is all about is a tragic misconception that can cause you to miss out on the grander and much more wondrous reality of this religion we call Christianity.

I’ve only scratched the surface, but I think this is enough for now. We’ll continue with the next four next week…

The Gospel According to American Lit: 4 Writers Who Must Be Read Theologically

There’s a misconception going around in America that you can’t talk about God in public schools. It’s an erroneous assumption perpetuated by a media fascinated by even the most absurd lawsuits that are waged against teachers and school districts by parents and/or community activists terrified of what exposure to the spiritual hocus pocus might lead to (I can only assume the majority of these “concerned” individuals believe talk of God leads down a road that ends with clones of David Koresh rather than Mother Theresa). In reality, what a teacher is not allowed to do is proselytize in school, or lead the class in prayer; however, he or she is as free as a bird to talk about God if the subject itself is relevant to the curriculum. This is another reason I adore literature. If you’re reading most classic works correctly, you can’t get away from God. Spiritual fulfillment, spiritual isolation, spiritual confusion… the list goes on – these themes actually lend a great deal of depth to works that would otherwise be terribly mundane or run-of-the-mill. From Fitzgerald’s discontent with materialism in The Great Gatsby, to Huxley’s haunting description of a moral-less dystopia in Brave New World, book after book and poem after poem cry out for readers bold enough to look under the surface and discover deeper, richer meanings. It is a technique that harks back to the work of medieval theologians who sought to understand not only the literal significance of the Scriptures (and by extension all literature), but also read for insight into the moral world and search for the threads of redemption and transcendence.

Even when the work itself is not overtly focused on Christianity in particular or on God in general, the human experience captured by the writer is significant for its observation of the beauty of nature or its grappling with the nature of beauty. There are four American writers, however, who must always be read theologically, lest their works be blanched and robbed of power.

#4 – Emily Dickinson

1830-1886

If you’re familiar with her poetry, it is not hard to recognize that despite a pretty stable life, Emily Dickinson had some emotional problems. She maintained complicated relationships with teachers, cousins, a sister-in-law, a sister, and even her mother, and despite dying in her early fifties, she still outlived several members of her family. These things might account for her reclusiveness and the morose and morbid tone in many of her poems. And yet…

Dickinson’s poetry is extraordinarily reflective and courageous. Spirituality was certainly important in her time; she was born during the inception of the Second Great Awakening, and her family was close with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder of Transcendentalism. Perhaps this is why so many of her poems brood upon subjects like death, immortality, natural beauty and personal worship. She examines the necessity of genuine corporate worship in Poem 57, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church; / I keep it staying at home, / With a bobolink for a chorister / and an orchard for a dome…”  One of her most convicting works is Poem 185: “‘Faith’ is a fine invention / When Gentlemen can see – / But Microscopes are prudent / In an Emergency.” To read Dickinson’s poetry is to delve into a remarkably honest consideration of the nature of faith and the possibility of forgiveness, redemption and life after death. Her poetry reminds us how important it is not to stifle questions and theologically reflective thinking – that doubt and anxiety may very well be a window that opens out onto the rich landscape of devotion and eternal hope.

#3 – Nathaniel Hawthorne

1804-1864

A grandson of one of the judges of the Salem Witch Trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne had significant issues with American Puritanism. He used the theocratic community as a backdrop for many of his stories and novels, but he also delved much deeper into morality and the struggle with deeply rooted human sin. The Scarlet Letter is his quintessential work, but some of his most captivating pieces are the short stories he compiled in his Twice Told Tales, including the extraordinary “Young Goodman Brown,” which plays upon a Faustian concept of the devil while examining the doctrine of election and the Calvinist belief in total depravity, and “The Minister’s Black Veil,” which focuses on secret sin, hypocrisy and the power of symbolism. Another great work from Mosses from an Old Manse, “The Birthmark,” is a parable-like examination of the conflict between scientific arrogance and divine mystery.

To read Hawthorne in merely a historical light is to miss the potency of his works – his works are steadfastly focused on challenging the reader to reject the desire to create God in his or her own image. Many of his stories reveal the dark side of religious fervor and the complexity of the human psyche, and while it is not hard to miss the morals in his work (he was a dutiful Romantic), there is nothing ineffectual about his conclusions. They are as convicting today as they were back then.

#2 – T.S. Eliot

1888-1965

Although England may claim him as its favorite poet, Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, the grandson of a Unitarian Church pastor and son of a successful businessman. He was privileged, from an affluent New England-based family, and received a thorough education of the highest quality. While he became a British citizen in middle-age, he claimed his poetry was still connected to and born out of his American experience, especially his time spent by the river in St. Louis, which he claimed was more influential to his writing than if he had grown up in any other city.

It is, perhaps, easier to read Eliot’s later works theologically – that is, after his conversion experience and his membership in the Church of England. Certainly, Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets ring with theological significance. However, even his earliest published poem, the magnificent “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” focuses on themes of isolation, inferiority, self-esteem, social malaise, and anxiety toward death. All matters to which spirituality relates. What makes T.S. Eliot’s poetry truly remarkable is his ability to capture the roughness of life, as well as the much-maligned feeling of body and soul, even in lines that seem to glow with beauty. A particularly haunting stanza from “The Hollow Men” reveals such a powerful grasp of language: “Those who have crossed / with direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom / Remember us – if at all – not as lost / Violent souls, but only / as the hollow men / The stuffed men.” To read T.S. Eliot is to be taken on a journey through the dusty landscapes and frustrated cities of this world, searching for a hidden doorway into redemption, into paradise.

#1 – Flannery O’Connor

1925-1964

She once paraphrased Jesus, saying, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” Odd in the sense that an encounter with God’s grace does not make someone normal, or self-possessed, or status quo. Odd in the sense that salvation in Christ does not beget physical safety or charismatic popularity. Odd in the sense that God’s will for our lives has absolutely no regard for the comfortable little trenches we dig for ourselves in this world. In truth, none of staunchly Catholic Flannery O’Connor’s peculiar and perplexing short stories come across as neat and tidy pictures of Christianity. None of them would sell very well (if they were to be welcomed at all) if placed on a shelf in a Christian bookstore. O’Connor’s stories are dark and earthy, and focus often on the outcasts and scapegoats and seekers stumbling through their dimly lit lives, unknowingly propelled on a collision course with the reality of God. Every story by Flannery O’Connor contains a moment in which the grace of God is either accepted or rejected by a major character, and this cuts to the heart of every individual message in her fiction.

It would be a travesty of education to read Flannery O’Connor’s stories purely for the social context of the American South of the 50’s and 60’s, or simply as an inclusion in the collection of Southern Gothic writers of the early and mid-20th century. While there is much to learn from her regarding the nature and structural technique of short story writing, her painstaking attention to detail and her incomparable grasp of character development, none of these things make her stories into the powerfully transcendent tales that they are. Rather, it is her dedication to uncover truth in even the darkest of places (that place most often being the human heart), and to avoid watering down the message of salvation, a message that is as scandalous and shocking as it is victorious.