At a recent campus ministry conference, the closing sermon was about Jesus’ exhortation to “enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction” (Matthew 7:13). The speaker said that our challenge as campus ministers is to promote “narrowness” in a university environment that promotes “open-mindedness” over against “narrowness.” He quoted a recent evangelical sociological study of young adult spirituality that divided young adults into six categories supposedly representing a one-dimensional range of religious commitment. At one end of the scale were “committed traditionalists” who comprised 15% of the population. Next were the “selective adherents,” the 30% of young adults who purportedly pick and choose which beliefs they like from their religious tradition. The gist of the sermon was that the “selective adherents” need to be corralled into the “committed traditionalist” category, because that’s what it means to “enter through the narrow gate.” But is that really the “narrow gate” that Jesus was talking about? After all, the “committed traditionalists” in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, were the ones who crucified him.
If we look about the religious landscape of American Christianity, the “committed traditionalist” path doesn’t seem all that narrow; it’s actually tremendously popular for a significant minority of the population. When committed traditionalists aren’t talking about how narrow their path is, they point to how rapidly their churches are growing as proof that they’ve found the truth. What if “committed traditionalism” is actually the set of values that most validate the sensibilities of white middle-class America? As I understand it, we’re people who need for life to be competitive and difficult enough to be meaningful, but also expect it to come with clear directions that will guarantee success if they are followed.
For example, college admissions, the goal that defines white middle-class parenting, has to be fiercely competitive or else helicopter parents would have no raison d’etre, but if you sign your kid up for Kaplan SAT prep courses, they will guarantee success. In the same way, God needs to be strict and exclusive for heaven to be a sufficiently difficult achievement, but accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior offers the same guarantee for admission into heaven that Kaplan provides for college. The Bible becomes an “owner’s manual” of Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, much like all the middle-class household appliances that are always supposed to work right if you just read the directions carefully before assembling them. Christianity becomes a “narrow” path in the sense that everyone’s path to discipleship must look exactly the same, but a wide road in the sense that it’s an easy, formulaic journey for everyone who’s willing to follow directions without innovation.
But there’s a different kind of narrow gate that I’ve seen in American Christianity. It’s the kind of narrowness that manifests itself in congregations of 50 or fewer people who meet in sanctuaries which once seated 500. It occurs among the people who would probably be labeled “selective adherents” by evangelical sociologists. Not because they pick and choose doctrines like a bunch of finicky spoiled brats going through a college cafeteria line. But because they haven’t cloistered themselves in homogeneous gated communities of “committed traditionalism.” Their struggles come because they’ve had encounters with a variety of perspectives and people who are non-Christian that they’ve been unable to dismiss or ignore, which have caused them to wrestle with some items on the long list of “non-negotiables” that the “committed traditionalists” take pride in never questioning.
It never occurred to me until quite recently to ponder the relationship between the word “ignorance” and the word “ignore.” Peoples’ ignorance is measured by how much they’ve ignored about the world around them, whether by choice or circumstance. I realize that many people would say that ignorance is “narrow,” while having your mind “opened” by challenging interactions with different perspectives “widens” the path for you. But that hasn’t been my experience at all. My journey grows more narrow and treacherous the more that I lose the ability to ignore realities that contradict my ideology. I don’t find myself more free to believe whatever I want to. I find myself more accountable to realities and people whom I will betray if I caricature them dismissively because my ideology requires it. For example, it’s because I’ve met too many beautiful, compassionate non-Christians that I can no longer confidently pronounce billions of people to be utterly wicked and deserving of hell in order to demonstrate my fidelity to the exclusive truth of the Christian gospel. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in hell, but simply that my speculation about the afterlife is chastened and narrowed by the beautiful humanity of all the non-Christians I’ve known.
My road has been narrowed by a number of things. It was narrowed when I attended my first United Methodist church in Toledo, Ohio where I was nurtured and shown the gospel that I preach today by a group of lesbian spiritual mothers. It was narrowed when I spent two months trying to teach computer and physical education classes at a private Muslim elementary school in Flint, Michigan where I encountered a compassionate, strangely matriarchal community that completely contradicted my stereotypes of Islam. My road was narrowed when the drummer in my rock band was arrested for walking on the sidewalk while black and then released into my custody at his arraignment when I testified on his behalf as his white, well-dressed patron. My road was further narrowed when I served a church filled with generous and dedicated military families who made it impossible for me to say the ignorant things I had said about people in the military as an anti-war activist in my early twenties.Because of the various ways in which my road has been narrowed, I’ve had to wrestle with things like my beliefs about homosexuality, what happens to people from other religions after they die, how our society’s underlying racism has probably poisoned the white evangelical theology I grew up with, and the fact that really gentle, Christlike people are part of our military. My road has also been narrowed as I’ve noticed things about scripture that make it a little bit less than “perfectly clear.” I’ve noticed that Genesis 2 plainly contradicts Genesis 1 by having God create all the animals out of dust after Adam in order to find a “suitable helper” for him (Genesis 2:18-19). I’ve noticed that Noah’s ark was described as being the size of a football field in which a food chain of more than a million species of animals who depend on killing each other for food were supposed to have spent several months together (here’s a funny video about it). I’ve noticed that God confuses the languages at Babel because he’s scared of what humanity will accomplish if they build a tower to heaven. I’ve noticed that God commands King David to sin by conducting a census in order to have an excuse to punish Israel.
None of these things that I’ve noticed have caused me to dismiss the Bible’s authority, but they make my understanding of Biblical interpretation a bit more narrow and nuanced than the smooth, wide road of declaring, “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” I suspect that my answers to a set of survey questions about “traditionalist” beliefs would probably get me categorized as a “selective adherent” by the evangelical sociologists if their survey is based upon ideological propositions rather than lived practice. I can no longer just ride along uncritically with the narrative that many of the “traditionalist” Christians I grew up with have never questioned.
A pastor friend recently shared an article critiquing the now-infamous Rolling Stone article about a rape that allegedly happened at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. The critique looks at the inherent clash between narrative and raw facts. Basically, a good journalist is not supposed to get so swept away in concocting a sensational story that she ignores any contradictory facts that make the story bumpy and awkward. It’s very hard to stick to the facts even when we’re trying to be truthful with our storytelling because we naturally smooth out the raw sensory data of our memories into smooth-flowing narrative. Our minds inherently crank out narratives rather than tedious reports of facts. It isn’t just individual people who do this. Cultures of people do it collectively. There’s a tremendous pressure to conform to the default narratives of your tribe, whether the narrative is a fundamentalist Christian account of American history or a feminist activist account of campus rape culture. We don’t let let the facts get in the way of our already knowing what’s going to happen before it happens when we’re listening to a story that seems to snap into a particular default narrative.
Narratives aren’t inherently bad. When you build a community that really synchronizes around the same narrative, that’s a community that can’t be stopped. The question is whether we have the integrity to notice contradictory facts when they arise. Or do we ignore them which is what ignorance literally means? Those who don’t ignore the facts that contradict their default narratives face a narrow, treacherous road filled with the cognitive dissonance that the apostle Paul refers to as “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Faith is not the same thing as ignorance, though many equate the two. It’s a lot easier to insulate yourself in an echo chamber of any number of “committed traditionalisms” than to walk among people and situations that contradict your ideology. It’s a very wide and reassuring road to walk on when you’re part of a megachurch where everyone simply believes everything the pastor says. Faith means actually having to trust God himself rather than just passively going along with your echo chamber’s consensus narrative. People who have never appropriated a faith of their own are fine as long as they stay in the gated community of their subculture, but if they’re ever thrown into the outside world, I have a feeling that they will fall a lot harder than the “selective adherents” who expect faith to be a journey of continuous wrestling.
What’s really hard is to face the reality that God is actively loving and guiding other Christians who passionately disagree with me. It would be a lot easier to decide that they are simply possessed by demons so that I can be certain that my beliefs are right. I don’t always stay on the narrow path of integrity. I often find ways of dismissing and invalidating other Christians whom I don’t understand. It’s very hard to let their contradictory witness narrow my road even further. Honestly, I think we can narrow our roads to the point of complete paralysis if we try to completely submit ourselves to every contradictory fact or witness that comes along instead of allowing ourselves the grace to roll with the narrative that God seems to have called us into following.
I’ve decided to make peace with the reality that not every other Christian has to understand Jesus’ story the same way I do, because I figure God has presented the story to each of us in a unique way that will best shape us for the different mission fields and vocations to which we’ve been called. My mission field is definitely not “committed traditionalists,” but that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. I’m called to the “selective adherents” who question and wrestle, not to tell them that their approach is completely flawed, but to show them how to find and follow Christ given the way that they’re wired. That’s the narrow road that I’m trying to walk.