Like most Southerners, I get roped into going to church from time to time for one reason or another, usually because of family. My friends on Facebook express dismay every time this happens, I suppose because they’re afraid I’ll get sucked back into the emotional manipulation of the whole Sunday morning production. I keep assuring them they have nothing to worry about because I have heard and experienced every kind of sales pitch and performance the church has to offer. The whole thing has utterly lost its appeal for me.
Each time I go, I get fresh reminders of why I left this world: The grandiose promises of a better life with Jesus in charge (been there, done that, thanks), the heavy-handed guilt trips because you have the nerve to be human when clearly you are supposed to rise above the limitations of your species, somehow.
And lately I’ve even detected a heightened sense of desperation as the culture wars have taken their toll, thanks in no small part to the fact that the church no longer accepts Jesus’s contention that the kingdom of God is “not of this world.” American evangelicals believe they are supposed to be running things, enjoying a privileged position in the world which Jesus never promised them, but which they’ve come to expect anyway. Every reduction in their cultural hegemony provokes shrieks of pain and claims of persecution.
Must be hard to handle. I can’t imagine feeling so powerless against the forces of your cultural surroundings. /s
But enough about that. I attended the service, and when the time came for the minister to stand up and deliver a message, his sermon hinged on an analogy that made me feel physically ill.
Worst. Parents. Ever.
The minister set up his main point the way all Baptist preachers do: by describing humanity as a broken species, plagued by fundamental problems of the human condition like loneliness, emptiness, and a gnawing desire for purpose, love, and security. Obviously God is to be seen as the solution to each of these problems, and after emphasizing these felt needs the time came for him to drive home his point.
When that time came, he chose of all things a story about a boy who skipped school for three days and was consequently punished by his parents by being sent to the basement to stay alone, day and night, for three days. He was given nothing more than a cot to sleep on, and was denied contact with anyone for the duration of that time, including contact with his parents. I can only assume they fed him but I can’t recall now if that was ever said.
This, we were being told, is a picture of God’s dealings with us.
Of course the story doesn’t end there. Before the first night of this banishment was concluded, the father felt bad for his son so he grabbed a blanket and a pillow and went down into the basement to join him there in the midst of his punishment. This, we were told, is a picture of what God did for us in sending Jesus to suffer and die to pay for our sins.
I have so many thoughts.
Obviously like most evangelical churches, this church believes in the penal substitutionary view of atonement which states that our being who we are merits a ruthless punishment by the flames of hell (or else by being sent to “time out” forever, which I call Hell 2.0). Who we are and what we have done (can they really be separated?) so angers God that someone has to be punished for it.
The “good news” according to this church is that God was willing to punish his own son in our place. In the preacher’s story last night, he could have maybe captured that better if the father had never sent the son down into the basement but instead went down there to serve his child’s sentence himself in his stead (the guilt value alone would have been good for several weeks of chores done without complaint).
But does that detail really matter?
Because it seems to me the bigger issue is that these are truly awful parents.
What kind of parents banish their child to a basement alone to sleep on a cot for three days without any human interaction? Are we really to see this as a beautiful picture of loving parents? Shouldn’t Child Protective Services be contacted in moments like these because clearly these people are not fit to raise another human being?
I wonder if I was the only one in the audience who was repulsed by this story? Surely I wasn’t. By the time the preacher finished his story, I was watching through my fingers because it was a lot to take in. So many problems it’s hard to know where to start.
“You’re Missing the Point”
I know the faithful members of my home church would argue that I’m missing the point of the story. I shouldn’t focus on the draconian disciplinary measures employed by the parents, but on the compassionate display of love exemplified by the father who decided to join his son after many hours of wondering if the child weeping alone in the damp dark basement was doing okay.
Are you kidding me with this? Can the “good news” of the father’s midnight change of heart be separated at all from the very bad news that he is an abusive parent?
Coincidentally, I awoke this morning to a link sent to me by a friend, and when I clicked on the link I found it included this brief excerpt of a talk by Dan Barker, who was once an evangelical preacher himself. I’ve seen this snippet multiple times before, but the timing for this note today could not have been more perfect. In my Christian days I would have said “it was a God thing.” It’s less than 2 minutes long. Take a look.
What gets me about this message is that it really does capture what’s so bad about the “good news” I heard last night. When I was still a Christian, I would have defended the message against criticisms like the one Barker offers above. Many will recoil at this analogy and say it is an unfair parody of the evangelical Christian message.
But is it really an exaggeration at all? Is it really all that different from the story the preacher told last night? The basic point is the same, and the internal emotional reaction to both is the same. This is a horrifying description of a deeply flawed sales pitch.
Absolving God from Hell
Some would quickly argue that the stories told by both Barker and the preacher last night are misleading in that they present the parents as the active agents in the punishments they enforce, whereas Hell 2.0 avoids this thorny emotional problem.
Back in the old days, Hell was a lake of fire that God himself throws you into in order to punish you for failing to worship him as the Supreme Being that he is. That’s just the way the Bible presents the scenario.
But nowadays people are put off by that notion, and the church has worked very hard to reframe the concept of eternal punishment so that it’s now a prison of your own making (not God’s), and all who walk into it do so willingly and against the protests of God, whose hands are now free and clear of this whole scenario.
I have argued elsewhere that it’s impossible to posit the Christian notion of eternal punishment without seeing God as the active agent in the process. Doing so would require divorcing the idea from its source material (the Bible) and would also require inventing a mode of existence in which God is both keeping a person alive forever and yet somehow not involved in the process.
[Read: “Absolving God from Hell“]
This was a Christmas sermon, and the end the message of Christmas (at least as it is understood by evangelicals) cannot be separated from the message of Easter. You cannot talk about the significance of the baby Jesus without fastforwarding to the moment of his gruesome death as an adult, which the Bible clearly tells us was ultimately enacted by God himself in order to appease his wrath toward humanity.
It’s a jarring message to find situated in the middle of a sweet birth story heralded by choirs of angels and “kings” from faraway lands. I’ve heard it all my life, but I’m actually glad I’ve gotten to a point in which the whole thing strikes me the way that it does. I think disgust is the only right response to a tale of a parent who treats any child of his this way.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]