One of the many questions I’ve found myself asking lately concerns the cultural nature of Christianity: how much of what I believe about what it means to be a follower of Jesus has been shaped by what people have told me to think versus what’s actually true? And what haven’t I questioned yet that maybe I need to?
Take, for example, the question of modesty. I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my lifetime about how I ought (not) to dress. I’m grateful for the many women like Bailey who have been writing very frankly lately about the issues this raises – because the real issues are less about modesty itself and more about how men and women view each other, and there’s a lot of shame tied up in the debate. I distinctly remember bringing a sweater to a meeting one summer (in an office that wasn’t air-conditioned) and putting it on in the parking lot before I went into the building, even though it was as hot as blazes, because I worried that the spaghetti-strap tank tops I prefer in the summer would be an issue for the man with whom I was meeting. The truth is, what I was wearing was actually perfectly decent – but the culture we were surrounded by insisted that women needed to hide their curves, and while the concept was taught as a way of showing love and respect, very little proactive thought seemed given to how much shame it could teach women about their bodies, much less the shame that men could learn to associate with noticing that women are attractive. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for being thoughtful and considerate – but I feel like a lot of the communities I’ve been a part of have been so focused on rules that they’ve not only missed the point, but they’ve actually caused harm.
I’ve wasted a lot of time over the years, worrying about what I was wearing and how people would perceive me, and truth be told, I’m still learning to lean into freedom in the way that I dress – but I’m doing my best to take to heart a piece of sage advice from Like Me: “it’s better if you dress for you.” And can I just tell you something about living in Brooklyn? It’s not actually possible to get dressed in the morning without the risk of offending somebody. There are too many cultures on top of each other here to make finding a way of dressing that would make everybody happy realistic, and pretty much (from what I can tell) people just generally choose not to care. And short skirts? After surviving my first summer in New York, I’m fairly convinced that they’re basically necessary for survival. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually buy one next summer. (Scandalous, I know.)
And then there are things like the Billy Graham rule (which I won’t go into here; I’ve written plenty on gender constructs and cross-gender friendships already) – but the point is, there are a number of behaviors associated with being a “good Christian” (at least in the communities I’ve been a part of so far) that really seem to be rooted in fear, guilt, and shame – instead of being rooted in contemporary and culturally relevant interpretations of what the Bible actually says (and why).
Kent Dobson, in his recent memoir – Bitten By A Camel: Leaving Church, Finding God – tells a story about an assignment a rabbi gave to his rabbinic Judaism class: to read the story of Abraham and Isaac, and then make a list of all the questions it raised for them. The class came back the next day with their questions, and when they had finished, the rabbi said, “That’s it? That’s all you have? You are so lucky! I read this story and I have more questions than all of you combined. None of you even challenged God. You can accept a God who asks a father to kill his son, in the name of God? I cannot accept this.”*
For Dobson, it was a watershed moment, as he realized that it was actually possible to question God. He goes on to write, “We aren’t asked to blindly accept anything. The text is meant to stir our curiosity and our questions, not shut them down or give us all the answers like a test that’s already been filled out by the teacher.”*
The Bible isn't afraid of our questions, and somehow I really don't think God is, either. Click To Tweet
So why is the knee-jerk reaction of so many Christians when faced with legitimate questions so often one of the following:
a) feeling the need to have an answer,
b) feeling guilty for having questions,
or c) feeling threatened by public conversation raised around those questions?
Why isn’t “I don’t know” an acceptable answer? Where does that sense of guilt come from? And what kind of harm do we really think there is in conversation?
A little over a year ago, I posed a question on my blog: “What does it mean to be the church?” I invited a few friends to share their thoughts, and made a list of other voices I wanted to invite to the conversation. My intent was to foster conversation, to dig into the Scriptures over the course of several weeks, and to find out what the answer to that question could be. But before the series even got off the ground, I encountered a backlash of rejection, harsh judgment, and criticism. I’m not going to lie – for months I walked around feeling like Hester Prynne, the leadership edition. I even went so far as to take the post down – which is something I’ve never done before – but it didn’t seem to help. The damage was done. And most of it seems to have happened to me.
I’m so grateful for the close friends who stood by me through that, who encouraged me to remember that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong, despite the voices I’d given too much authority to that wanted to shame me into thinking there was something wrong with even having questions at all. And I’m grateful for time and distance, and the wise voices of people like Rob Bell (who has spoken so much truth and healing into my life without even knowing he’s done it). (Oh, and his new book, by the way, is phenomenal.)
But if I’ve learned nothing else from that experience, it’s that there is a kind of Christian I don’t want to be.
What I want is to be known for kindness, openness, grace, and generosity. I want to hold my theology a little more loosely, open to finding out that I’ve been wrong about something, and willing to change what I think when I encounter evidence that suggests I should. I want to read the Bible with curiosity, and lean into the mystery of faith with a little more courage. And I want to do what I can, in my own small ways, to change what the rest of the world thinks about the church.
Which feels daunting sometimes, in light of moments like this:
A lot of the voices that once helped shape my faith signed something called the Nashville Statement last week. Apart from the incredibly callous timing of it, in the wake of Charlottesville and in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, the fact that they found it necessary to issue a statement at all really bugs me. Do they not understand that drawing such hard lines in the sand alienates people? Why do this? And why now?! Wiser voices than mine have already addressed that mess (see Kathy Escobar’s post for one of the best responses, and Pete Enns’ post for another) – but it did reinforce for me how important it is to ask questions, and to not just blindly believe what we’ve been told.
So here’s to the journey – and all the questions we’ll encounter along the way.
More to come,
* Dobson, Kent. (2017). Bitten By A Camel: Leaving Church, Finding God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p.81
photo credit: © Depositphotos.com / olly18
Simple Felicity is, at its heart, a blog based on the unshakeable belief that happiness really isn't all that complicated. Sometimes finding it can be - but happiness itself is pretty simple, and it's often found in the simplest of things: good food, good books, and good company. So those are the things I write about, along with a few other things that really matter to me, including faith and feminism.
A bit about me: My name is Happy. I have an amazing talent for misplacing my keys, a deep appreciation for whomever looked at the coffee bean and thought, "Hey, I wonder what would happen if I roasted this?", and road trips to Michigan are pretty much my favorite.
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