Neo-Christian Myth #5: The Velocity of Holiness

There’s a delicious irony in the fact that one of evangelical Christianity’s favorite phrases—“a long obedience in the same direction”—comes from the pen of “God-is-dead-and-we-have-killed-him” Nietzsche. It was appropriated by one of our most venerable writers, Eugene Peterson, for his classic book, and thus baptized for our purposes. I can’t say how Peterson chose that phrase, but he chose well, demonstrating a masterful handling of the meaning and practice of Christian spirituality.

So far the neo-Christian myths I’ve been exploring—connection with God as feelings, preaching as lectures, music as entertainment, and worship as pleasure—are things I picked up from Donald Miller’s posts. He freely confesses he doesn’t go to church very often because it doesn’t make him feel close to God, he doesn’t benefit from the preaching, the music doesn’t move him, and it just plain isn’t enjoyable. I don’t think he’s a heretic or whatever; he’s just expressing attitudes and expectations that have wandered far from the path of ancient Christian tradition. And the question in my mind is always, can Christian faith, both personally and generationally, be sustained with those attitudes and expectations?

But in this post, I want to step back and get a bigger look at something unsaid (and maybe not even implied) in Miller’s post, but something I felt when I tried to listen to him. This neo-Christian myth is uniquely our age’s problem, and is so deeply resonant with our lifestyles and our worldviews that unless I make it sound really weird, you won’t even recognize it as anything unusual.

I hear it in Miller’s restlessness when he describes his occasions of going to church; I hear it in my students’ comments when they talk about their spiritual habits, or lack thereof; I hear it in myself when I get to seasons like Lent that actually demand something onerous of me. It is indeed that “long obedience in the same direction” that makes us fussy. Because it’s long. Because it involves obedience. And because it’s in the same direction.

Myth #5: If a Christian practice doesn’t “work for us” spiritually right now or in the near future, it probably isn’t worth our time and effort; we should move on to something else that might.

This isn’t exactly a comment about distractions, which are as pervasive and as ancient as any spiritual reality. (“Hmm, yes, Eden is so lovely, and God is so good to us, and ooh, look at that piece of fruit…”) We’re all obsessed with shiny objects, though there are more of them perhaps than there used to be.

It’s more a problem of a time-collapse. Our lives are getting longer, but they have also gotten faster and therefore oddly shorter, and spiritual formation has just not kept up the pace. We don’t need rhythms practiced over years, we need apps… oh wait, there are apps for your spiritual life. Google “speed spirituality.” You’ll find a book and program by that name. You’ll find a website called Spiritual Speed, whose subtitle is “Transform Thyself,” and which promises us that transformation should be “fast, fun, and fabulous.” I am not making this up.

What chance does the voice of St. Anthony, who spent twenty years of solitude in the desert before “ministry,” have in today’s world? Where does a Thérèse of Lisieux fit—she who craved the tedium of cell and obscurity as the means of finding God? And Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s “sacrament of the present moment”? How will that make any sense when we don’t know how to yield? Or the Puritans’ idea of this life as a gymnasium, in training for the life to come? We understand reps in the gym, but it makes no sense in the spiritual life.

How will Donald Miller, or you, or I tell the next generation that “going to church” doesn’t give you what you’re looking for until it has become a long, deep habit; that praying and reading scripture doesn’t become “meaningful” without surrendering to it acutely; that song and word, bread and wine, cold church classrooms and hard pews and lukewarm church coffee are good, even very good, after years of “giving them a try”? How do we explain the great, great joy of rhythms developed in darkness? of the eventual pleasures of Sunday morning self-forgetfulness? of long satisfaction and multifaceted peace harvested from furrows plowed in sometimes deathly dry seasons?

How do we teach the ability to wait without wandering away, holding still for the times when we hear a snatch of a heavenly tune, the nearly audible mirth of God, a sound flickering and then gone, caught between days of slogging on in persistent trust and days of easy gladness?

Such things require a long obedience in the same direction. Meaning: we engage in these practices, such as “going to church,” out of obedience, not out of a quest for fulfillment or personal satisfaction, but, as Kingdom economics usually work out, fulfillment—far more intense and gratifying than you might imagine—follows.

About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.

  • Censored

    I prefer independent thought over obedience. Why?

    The Milgram Obedience Experiment was a disturbing examination of the consequences of obedience.

    The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow.

    Milgram, S. (1973). The perils of obedience. Harper’s Magazine, 62-77.

    • kmulhern

      There is One, however, whom we can obey freely without fear of any nefarious consequences. Everyone else’s authority should be subject to some level of independent thought.

      • Censored

        A long track record of obeying “divine revelation” of the “One” works in reality is like this:

        Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to the LORD your God. ~Deuteronomy
        Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. ~Romans
        My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. ~a speech in Munich, April 12, 1922

        Hopefully you mean obeying, not alleged revelation, but only “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

  • bob k

    Thank you Kathy–you work and reflections coach well and provoke curiosity!

  • Tom Beckwith

    Years ago, I heard a story about Mother Theresa. The story goes that, as a girl, she had a profound religious experience that established the trajectory of her life.

    It was also the last time that God ever drew close to her. The rest of her long life was one long, unremitting desert–or in St. John of the Cross’s vocabulary, a Dark Night of the Soul.

    Interestingly, her subsequent service–her obedience to God–was never about recreating that religious experience, let alone obtaining a better one; instead, it was about serving with her whole being the One who had disclosed Himself to her.

    Just about everything in our society encourages us to think of ourselves as the chief (sometimes the only) protagonist in our own personal narrative. Hence the explosion of the “selfies” internet meme. But narratives are always compressed (as any novelist will tell you), and our temptation is to gloss over those quiet times, those times when we are not advancing the plot of our life’s adventure.

    Ultimately, I think your neo-Christian myth of the “Velocity of Holiness” has its origins in that old and most pernicious of deadly sins: Pride. Or the even older Greek fault of Narcissism. My exasperated mother was frequently known to tell me (in public as well as private), “Dammit, Tommy, the world doesn’t spin just for you.”

    Seemingly, we don’t point that out to people any more.

  • Yonah


    Obedience to what? Be specific.

    What a vanity it is to suppose that God is all impressed with some impressionistic inner urge to arrive at a modern equivalent of St. Anthony when truth is Tony went out to the desert to just get away from the bs.

    Your problem: entirely Western…you, yourself & I and yer all so important spirituality…YOUR spirituality…sans the basic agenda of any development worker in the third world to just get the village to the break even point.

    To cut to the chase: The reason why Donald don’t feel nuthin is because there ain’t nuthin there. Your ‘anity does not exist and never has. The Church has completely ignored the outright etymology of the root word of your ‘anity. The militant movement of Jesus and Co. did not erupt so that Augustine and Luther and Kierkegaard could have angst.

  • Al Cruise

    In my many years of street ministry,[40 years] I have dealt with people of all walks of life. My wife works[20 years] in the public school system with special needs children from elementary to high school. We raised two children both are in university. In my area there are about 30 different Churches. I have seen no difference between the regular Church goers and non-Church goers when it comes to what we describe as moral values in the West. Neither has my wife in the children at school. When it comes to living out the truth where Jesus says in Matthew 9.13 “I desire mercy not sacrifice”, the non-Church goers absolutely destroy the Church goers. Many times my wife and I have organized fund raisers for people of low social/economic, who don’t attend a Church and need treatment for a serious illness. It’s always the secular and non-Church goers who help the most. If you try to raise funds for a physical need like a single mother needing her car repaired so she can go to work, when I ask Church goers I’ve been told [this is the most common response] “no they will just spend it on beer or cigarettes.” Non- church goers have always come through. I could write a book on the stupid things Church people say about those who Jesus loves. My wife has had the “F word” told to her in school just as many times by Church going students as non-Church going. She often sees more compassion coming from non-Church going kids. The Church goers tend to be cliquey and elitist. The street where everyday life occurs, is where you will see the real fruits. I totally get where Don Miller is coming from. With all respect your article and many others like it, doesn’t want to face the real truth, so you try to sugar coat everything with those typical Christian cliché’s. Going to Church out of obedience does not produce Holiness, I see the Ten Commandants broken daily by those folks, with no real desire for any kind of repentance. I believe Don Miller sees that too.

  • R Vogel

    All you have to do is commit yourself to a tired, pointless, and largely irrelevant institution and their desiccated practices for a few decades and you will be so invested that you will have a dickens of a time getting out. No thanks. Reminds me of a movie I saw a long time ago about a slave who had a ham chained to his chest as punishment for stealing it. They left it on there so long that when they finally did take it off of him he wept because he had become so accustomed to it that he actually missed it. You can keep your ham. I have better things to do with my Sunday mornings. I go meet with Jesus at the food shelter.

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