Hi! Last time we met, I was going over why Bad Christians aren’t really the big problem in Christianity, but rather the symptom of it. At the end, I made an offhand comment that I thought “Good Christians” were way more of a problem, and today I want to talk more about that.
Let’s get a couple things up front. You probably see me use the term TRUE CHRISTIAN™. That’s not the same thing at all as this thing I’m calling a “Good Christian.” A TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is actually just the opposite of a “false Christian,” which is itself an accusation lobbed by (almost entirely) other Christians at someone they don’t think is one. Obviously, it goes without saying that the Christians making that accusation* are TRUE CHRISTIANS™ themselves. So by observing them, I’m able to see what they seem to mean by the term.
A TRUE CHRISTIAN™ fits the following definition:
* Follows more or less the same theology and doctrine as the person making the accusation.
* Practices the religion more or less the same way as the accuser does.
* Is currently a Christian and by all indications will die that way.
* Hasn’t been caught doing anything markedly unapproved, sinful, or questionable.
Any time someone falls afoul of any of those four incredibly idiosyncratic and subjective rules, that person can be accused of not being (or never having been) a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. And the solution is whatever religious opinion and practice the accuser happens to prefer; the implication is that if people only knew about their TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, they’d be very interested in it and want to join up (or rejoin, as the case might be). Their Christianity is superior and we know this because, well, they just rejected that ickie FALSE CHRISTIAN™, didn’t they?
But these rules don’t actually say a thing about what kind of person someone is. Someone can follow all four of those rules and still be a ratbastard you wouldn’t want in your home, dating your kids or yourself, selling your house, or handling your bank account. But I know several people right now who wouldn’t fit a single one of those four rules and yet are still people I’d consider good Christians.
When I was in college, I was a true-blue Christian. I knew exactly how to deal with hypocritical Christians, remember. I just ignored them as best I could and tried to keep my eyes on Heaven. I knew that people messed up and sometimes didn’t do what was best for themselves. I sidestepped them with ease like I was one of the characters in a Matrix movie and they were bullets arcing toward my faith. They couldn’t touch me.
No, what really messed me up were the good Christians that I knew.
I knew a lot of them. I wasn’t a member of any organized groups for the most part, but my friends sure were. I went to their events and hung out at their casual get-togethers. I knew people in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes–who completely disabused me of my previous thinking about athletes as hedonistic, mindless jocks. I knew people in Campus Crusade for Christ (before it was called “Cru”)–all wonderful folks who’d give someone the shirt off their backs. I was very close friends with people from a church outfit called Maranatha, which was (at least at the time) a non-Calvinist sort of Mars Hill evangelical outfit, and loved those friends dearly–even went into business with a couple of them. I had dear friends who were Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, and really, pretty much every right-wing evangelical or fundamentalist church out there.
Of course we all invited each other to each other’s churches, and often as a show of friendship and open-mindedness we’d take each other up on those invitations. Our pastors tended to approve of these
field trips ecumenical visits and regarded them as an important stepping-stone in our spiritual development–yes, even my elderly Pentecostal pastor.
And because we were very fervent Christians who all felt very strongly that our interpretations of the Bible were the correct ones, we holed up together with study Bibles to figure out and argue about stuff.
Most of the people I knew were not fundamentalists. They were evangelicals, which we interpreted as “not TRUE CHRISTIANS™” by default. They didn’t follow “holiness” dress codes; the women among them even cut their hair (gasp! Fetch the smelling salts!). They were almost all Trinitarian heathens, as opposed to believing in the one true doctrine of Oneness. Their churches played Contemporary Christian Music, and even had sound systems and synthesizers (which were of course the Devil’s beat machines–catch me! I’m fainting!). They went to movies and sometimes drank alcohol. They didn’t all think the Bible was literally true in every single way.
But they were still wonderful people and good Christians. They worked hard at charity efforts, were loving and gentle people, and–I had to admit–navigated non-believers a lot more gracefully than anybody I’d ever seen among my church peers.
They regarded me and the few Pentecostals attending that school (maybe four or five, all as driven and fundamentalist as I was) as quaint relics. And these evangelicals did not approve of us any more than we approved of them. One evangelical friend, Mike, who attended a near-Easter service at my church was quite annoyed that the sermon hadn’t been one he could take notes on; he said he kept a notebook of sermons to refer back to during the week–which I certainly did not do–and all he’d been able to write about that morning was the word “BLOOD” over and over again. He even showed it to me and yes, that was written all over the page but little else was there. I was startled by this denunciation; it’d been quite a good service, I’d thought, but he clearly thought it had no meaning whatsoever to his general daily life.
And I suddenly realized that my friend was quite right. It didn’t really matter after the service was over. This hyper-emotional, cathartic message had gotten the crowded sanctuary all rowdy, sure, and there’d been dancing and singing and raising of hands and shrieking of tongues, sure, but in reality, what had anybody learned from any of it that we hadn’t already known? Why did I value emotional display over learning and growing spiritually?
Mike’s observation didn’t deconvert me, no, but it made me feel faintly embarrassed and childish. He clearly thought my church was grossly sub-par. When I attended Maranatha with him and some other friends, I saw that his churchmates were happy people, and they clapped and sang with great energy and enthusiasm, but I immediately saw the difference he was talking about when his pastor gave his own near-Easter sermon. Taking a suggestion from Mike, I brought a notepad–and I came away with a page full of Bible verses and ideas for future study. It was night and day different.
Even worse, though, I began to notice that my evangelical peers at school had what sounded like good reasons for believing and practicing the religion the way they did. In fact, those reasons sounded just as good as mine. For every Bible verse I could produce, they could produce one of their own. They could take one source document–the Bible–and come out of it with a totally different take on subjects like the Trinity or whether people should dress a certain way. Our wrangling did not ever change anybody’s minds at all–or even modify anybody’s minds. We were all sure we were correct–which meant that the differing opinions could not be correct. On some of these issues, we couldn’t both be correct by definition.
Slowly the idea began to occur to me: No, we couldn’t all be correct. But we could all be wrong.
Worse yet: If we were all wrong, then how would we even know it?
I began to feel very uncomfortable about the many tens of thousands of denominations there are in Christianity. Many more have flourished, blossomed, and then died since things got rolling. Beyond those many thousands of formal denominations, though, there are untold millions and billions of Christians–many of whom differ significantly from their own denomination’s theology and doctrines. Some don’t belong to any church, favoring monikers like “spiritual but not religious” or saying they are merely “followers of Jesus,” and they may have their own quirky little takes on the religion’s ideas.Every one of those denominations and quirky individual Christians have good reasons for thinking what they do. And they well think everybody who differs is wrong.
Many of these Christians are perfectly good people–who, even at my most fundamentalist, I knew I’d be okay with dating or being friends with, handling my business or legal affairs, taking care of my cats while I was on vacation, or hanging out with. But they could look at the same stuff I did and come out with a totally different conclusion than I did, and their reasons were just as good as mine were for believing what I did.
What really set me back on my haunches wasn’t all the hypocrites.
It was these good Christians, these well-meaning people who were loving, caring, good, and respectful of others–yet who differed so much from me. I came to realize that while they are not “the problem” either, they’re an outgrowth of the problem itself just like all those hypocrites are.
Some years later, I ran into an evangelical pastor who fancied himself as progressive. I asked him–in seriousness–if he could maybe give me some very concrete, solid reason for why his take on the source material was the correct take and why all the more rigid, authoritarian, mean-spirited takes on that material were incorrect. I was starting to tangle in earnest with Christians (the toxic variety I write about on my other blog) and I sincerely wanted to know what I could tell these people to share with them that not only were they being terrible witnesses for their religion, but they were also just factually incorrect in how they viewed the Bible verses they wielded. And, yes, I wondered as well what someone could have told me as a young fundamentalist to make me realize that my own beliefs were incorrect, that I’d missed the mark so to speak.
Not only could he not do that, but he ended up getting peeved at me. I still don’t think he understood what I was asking for. I told him in the end that it kinda sounded like his beliefs boiled down to “I just like my Christianity better this way, is all,” and that’s fine, I mean whatever, all Christians end up there, but don’t try to act like it’s factually superior to anybody else’s preferences. Speaking as my younger self, I would not even have been tempted to shift my thinking after hearing something like that. People locked in more rigid interpretations of the source material need to be certain; they think a lot is riding on what someone believes.
I’ve heard a lot of rationalizations since then for why all these differences exist, but–like the rationalizations around prayer and healing–they ring very hollow to me. Some Christians have even tried to tell me that sometimes “God” tailors a message to a particular Christian and then gently leads that person to greater understanding as they progress through denominations. But that is not only obviously wrong but also incredibly evil. Some of these interpretations mean doing active harm to a lot of innocent people and encouraging an abusive mindset. And I don’t think for a second that a supposedly omniscient and omnibenevolent deity would purposefully deceive people. That’d be an evil god, not a good one, as well as an incompetent one who either couldn’t figure out how to communicate a message clearly, or else couldn’t get his followers on board with the correct beliefs.
Indeed, the number of these interpretations seems like it is only increasing as doctrinal differences split apart existing groups. Christians aren’t growing in understanding; they’re falling further apart.
And there is a reason for that.
Any time you have an idea based on something besides facts, this kind of shattering and splintering is inevitable, friends. Think for just a moment about all the Creation myths that exist in our species’ history. Here is a partial list of them. Go ahead. Thumb through them. One culture thinks a god basically had sex with the ocean and the dripping of the removed “spear” made an island. Another thinks a big tree grew in a swamp. It goes on and on and on. But the truth of how our world came into existence doesn’t look a whole lot like any of these myths, unless you spin them into the most arcane of metaphors.
We’re not totally sure exactly how life came into existence yet, but we’re pretty set on how the Earth formed. Every experiment we perform, every question we ask, every new discovery we make, either brings us closer to the answers we seek or tells us that the ones we had before weren’t quite right. Nobody seriously thinks that Flood Geology (a bit of Creationist flailing to try to explain the Grand Canyon and other huge geographical features as the result of the Great Flood) is anywhere close to reputable. Nobody seriously thinks that any Japanese islands formed from the “salty substance” of a “jeweled spear” that a god thrust into the ocean to “churn” it, either. We know how the Grand Canyon formed, and we know how islands are made. In the same way, we know how the Earth came about, and one of these days it seems likely that we’re going to know exactly how life arose on our planet.
And none of the answers we find to these reality-based questions seem to involve the machinations of an Ancient Near Eastern storm-god-made-good, any more than they’ve ever involved those of any other gods.
In the same way, if anything about Christianity was based in reality rather than sheerest conjecture, I would not expect to see such a wild, varied proliferation of different interpretations of its source material. Just as cultures that totally lacked a real understanding of geology made up their own myths about how they thought the world was formed, myths that faded as we gained reality-based answers, religions lack a real understanding of the concepts they’re making wild guesses about. In absence of any solid information about the afterlife and spirituality, their guesses are as good as anybody else’s–and potentially as bad. There’s no way to verify if there’s anything like an afterlife, much less that there’s a deity floating around anywhere, much less that this deity looks like the one the Bible describes, much that this deity cares very deeply about being worshiped or about what people do with their genitals.
We’re all just doing the best we can. And until I have some solid support for a religion’s claims, I’m not planning to expend a lot of energy worrying about what it thinks I should or shouldn’t do with my time or resources. Reality itself is keeping me busy enough of late; I’ve got a lot to learn and catch up on.
Did you guess what the problem actually is?
The problem is that Christianity’s claims aren’t true. The religion is not based on reality.
Some of us have figured that out. Of those few, some stay in the religion for other reasons, while others leave.
But that discovery’s just the beginning of our journeys. Once we know what’s false, we have a new voyage to make to find out what’s true.
That’s where we’ll take up next time, friends. Enjoy the last bit of your week–see you Friday!
* I can’t believe it took me this long to remember that Satan’s supposed to be the “Great Accuser of our Brethren” in Christian mythology. What does it say about Christians when so many of them seem to consider the making of accusations their favorite hobby? Curious and curiouser. Um, are we sure they’re worshiping the right guy?