Circles and Boxes

This is in fact how many people see it…

A couple years ago I reviewed David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’ book, UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why it Matters. In it the Christian researchers give statistics attesting to the realities of Christianity’s image problem and the reasons behind it. Importantly, they add that Christians must realize that the negative sentiments “outsiders” express are not merely because they are critical, or even “deceived.” These sentiments are the result of personal experience with Christian family or friends.

They also note that Christians should “avoid being defensive about the culture’s push to remove Christianity’s power in society,” and that “if the enormous number of Christians in this country has not achieved the level of positive influence hoped for, it’s not the fault of a skeptical culture.” In fact, they add that young Christians themselves are hesitant to raise the Christian flag because they too see Christianity as embarrassingly judgmental, confusing, insensitive, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, hypocritical, and anti-homosexual, to name a few.

Some of the stats include:

  • Percentage of young non-Christians (“Outsiders,” ages 16-29) who see Christians as judgmental: 87% …Same question for churchgoers of the same age: 52%
  • …anti-homosexual > Outsiders: 91% …Churchgoers: 80%
  • …not accepting of other faiths > Outsiders: 64% …Churchgoers: 39
  • …out of touch with reality > Outsiders 72% …Churchgoers: 32%
  • …insensitive > 70% … Churchgoers: 29%

My purpose here is not to smear Christians or call out facts that many already know. It’s just to reiterate the point that any religious group that defines itself by what it must abstain from will obviously be defined that way by others…by what the group is against, not for. Now, I know that many Christians are trying to get beyond this; I have pastor friends who are working incredibly hard to simply offer love and healing to people. And I know that many Christians would say that they in fact really define themselves by what they are for: God’s grace, the principles of love taught by Jesus, intimacy with the holy spirit…all positive things.

But when one examines the qualifications of those things, it becomes apparent that the religion really does define itself by what it excludes more than what it accepts. An example… The benefit: Christians believe in the power of God’s all-encompassing grace which is available to all. The qualifications: “Jesus said that no man can go to the father except through him, the son (Jesus),” so no one is allowed to truly experience God’s grace unless he/she believes that 1) Jesus is God’s son 2) Jesus was born of a virgin 3) Jesus died on the cross and that process served as the only possible substitutionary atonement (payment) for the penalty of sin passed down from Adam 4) Jesus resurrected from the dead 5) Proclaim all these beliefs publicly 6) Be baptized (this may or may not count as the public proclamation) 7) Be filled with the holy spirit (preferably with the evidence of speaking in tongues, depending on denomination) … and I could add more, but I’ll stop at 7 because that’s God’s number. 😉 The theological explanation for this says that God’s grace is “sufficient but not efficient.” In other words, it’s power is based on the condition of our choice to accept it [on the terms given us by the church, to which Jesus gave all authority when he left earth].

So the circle of inclusion quickly gets smaller and smaller, the number of “acceptable” fewer and fewer. And don’t forget that, according to Christian teaching, “In the last days there will be a great ‘falling away,'” in which many Christians will become deceived themselves and will “backslide” and fall out from under the covering of God’s grace. So the circle gets smaller still. And all this makes me wonder if God’s grace, according to religion, really is all that powerful.

I choose to believe that it is, but the only time we get the picture of graceful inclusion is when a preacher is trying to “pull in the net” during an emotional altar call, or call for salvation. And this is what enforces the negative salesman image of preachers…Get in as many as you can without telling them the details of the deal. “Grace is the free gift of God for all,” it is said. “…Except…oh by the way…just sign here…”

So what’s my solution? I suggest that God’s grace is bigger than religion, bigger than Christianity, bigger than whatever box we humans try to fit God in, and yes, maybe even bigger than our ability to reject it. But I think that when we think we’re rejecting “God” we’re really just rejecting the notions of God that we’ve been taught.

This past Sunday at Journey we talked about the labels we put on God. And we had an illustration at the end of the gathering: A light box was up front. But the light was having a hard time illuminating the room because the clear side of it was covered with numerous strips of tape, so the light was very dim, only enough to let you see the overlapping lines of the tape strips. The strips were all the labels we put on God, maybe things like, “male” or “white” or “patriarchal” or even “Christian” or whatever. But at the end of the discussion we all lined up and one by one walked to the box. We each pulled a strip of tape off the clear front of the box, and with each removed piece of tape more light shined through. First a small shaft of light pierced through a split in the tape. Then another. Then another. Then light was getting more intense as it burst through all but a few strips around the border, and those got peeled off until the light emanated powerfully from inside the box and lit up most of the place.

I saw this and thought, “Maybe we should try to let God speak for himself.”

I know that’s hard because then who is to say that voice is verifiably that of God according to whatever criteria we come up with. Because even though the words touched the person who heard them and that person is better because of whatever they heard and however they heard it…even if it was through a tree growing beside a waterfall or a young man being nice to an old lady or a cartoon on YouTube…We must then gather a committee and debate and make sweeping proclamations and whoever has the best argument wins. After all, that’s how we got the Bible, aka, God’s Word.

There must be a better way, or as some like to say, another world is possible. I think God’s word, and God’s grace, is bigger than us. Bigger than all our little circles and boxes, no matter how nice we dress them up.

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3 Responses

  1. Agreed about the embarrassment by their own religion, but I’m reading the same statistics and seeing a relatively wide variance with the exception of homosexuality.

  2. I find the wide variance in the statistics interesting. It’s not surprising that insiders see themselves more favorably than outsiders (and vice versa), and I’d expect to find similar results with any social club.

    Anytime you’re a member of a tribe, you naturally assume your beliefs and practices are right and good. We can also assume that neither members nor outsiders know the complete truth or even consistently practice it.

    I will agree that an omnipotent, eternal God cannot be defined or even remotely known by our limited, linear minds. And our definitions of God say more about ourselves than about Deity.

    • Just a note: I posted the stats to show that there is actually a relatively narrower variance between young Outsiders’ views and their Churchgoer counterparts than what some might expect. I think it is generally assumed, at least by pre-Gen X Christian generations, for example, that Christian young people would hold similar views to the generally accepted view of Christians that they are not judgmental, insensitive, out of touch, etc.

      So my point was that many (conservative) Christians might find it surprising that not only do outsiders view Christians negatively, but so do some young Christians themselves — at least one-third on average, a significant amount — and they are embarrassed by their religion.

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