Hold on to the good

Hold on to the good October 15, 2010

This post is addressed to one person in particular and I'm afraid I don't know his name.

Your name.

Your aunt, unfortunately, didn't mention either your name or hers when she drunk-dialed me Thursday to let me know I was at the top of the list of Bad People she's praying against due to my supposedly contributing to your doubts about the inerrancy and infallibility of the footnotes in the Scofield Reference Bible.

Your aunt was too intoxicated — three sheets to the wind on self-righteous indignation — for me to make a great deal of sense of your situation or hers. She is, I think, your father's sister, and she used to live in California, but now has an area code that Google tells me is in the really lovely part of Washington State. She seems to really enjoy telling people that if they believe in evolution then they don't believe in the Bible. And by "the Bible" she's apparently referring to some set of scriptures that includes the Complete Works of Hal Lindsey.

She's kind of a piece of work, your aunt. Has this unfortunate habit of asking questions that turn out not to be questions, because when you start to answer them she cuts you off and answers them for you in the way she imagines you were going to, whether or not it's anything like what you would ever have said. And then she criticizes you for giving such ghastly answers.

I discovered that I can be wonderfully patient with this kind of hectoring monologue for about 17 minutes and only moderately impatient for the next 10 minutes or so. After that, however, I discovered I really can't tolerate that sort of thing at all.

And I'm afraid your aunt had me on the phone much longer than 27 minutes. So that last little bit didn't go very well.

Is this ringing any bells? Because even though I can't offer a very clear description of your aunt, I think you're more likely to recognize her from my description than you would be to recognize yourself from her description of you.

What she told me about you was that you had rejected Jesus Christ. (She was quite emphatic about that word "rejected" — used it over and over.) She also said that you have come to believe that you don't need to love your neighbor or to care about anybody other than yourself. Your decision to renounce Jesus and to become a nihilistic narcissist, according to your aunt, was largely due to the pernicious influence of this blog which, she told me, you've been reading for eight years now.

Let me pause a moment to say thank you for that.

Eight years is about as long as I've been doing this, and I thank you for sticking with me all this time, even when I seem to be repeating myself or when I veer off into long tangents in which I forget that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Reinhold Niebuhr or subsidiarity or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So, again, thank you.

But I don't trust your aunt when she tells me that you've become a self-centered antichrist. That redundant term is my paraphrase. Your aunt wouldn't use the word "antichrist" in the biblical sense. What she said was that you didn't care for anybody but you.

I don't believe her. If you really believed that, if you were convinced that you don't need to love your neighbor and that you don't need to care about others then I can't imagine why you'd want to keep reading a blog that says otherwise. Plus I would really, really hope that this blog did not play a role in convincing anyone not to love their neighbor, since "love your neighbor" is supposed to be kind of a central theme here (even in the bits on Niebuhr, subsidiarity or Buffy — especially in those bits, actually).

Seriously, though, don't get this wrong. "Love your neighbor" is the one thing you can't afford to get wrong. Get everything else right but that wrong and you're still nothing and nowhere and no one. Get that right and you can get everything else wrong and still be OK.

And but so anyway, I don't know your name, but I'm hoping all of that will help you to recognize that it's you I'm talking to here, in particular. Because I very much want to tell you this one thing:

Test everything. Hold on to the good.

That's from the Apostle Paul, actually. It's a bona fide biblical commandment. Both parts of it. Test everything. Hold on to the good.

Note the difference between the first part and the second. "Test everything" is unconditional. What should we test? Everything. But the second part is conditional. We're not told to hold on to everything — only to "the good," only to that which withstands testing. Test everything and drop whatever can't pass the test. Let it go and don't look back.

But hold on to the good.

From the sound of what your aunt described, that's going to be the really tricky part for you, because she says you were always taught that everything must be accepted unconditionally — that it mustn't be tested and that it all, every bit of it, must be held on to forever. All of it or none of it.

I think you were probably taught some good things, but they seem to have been mixed in with a grab-dag of dubious claims and outright hokum. You learned about Jesus' boundless sacrificial love, but that came to you as part of a package deal tied up with 19th-century End-Times "prophecy" fever dreams and early-20th century young-earth creationism.

And, based on what I heard from your aunt, you were always told that the whole concoction was inseparable — an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it deal. Instead of being encouraged, or commanded, to test everything and hold on to the good, you were told that you must either hold on to everything or abandon it all. And you were told that these were your only possible choices.

I'm sorry you were taught that. It's wrong. It's factually wrong, biblically wrong and logically wrong. And teaching such a thing to a younger person is morally wrong. It's evil.

I'm afraid I may have used that word "evil" when speaking to your aunt, some time a bit after the 27-minute mark of her soliloquy. That was a bit harsher than I was trying to be, but it wasn't inaccurate. Or unearned. The all-or-nothing bill of goods she sold you when you were younger really is evil. It invites a crisis of its own making. It batters a child with a series of cruel non-sequiturs: If the earth is more than 6,000 years old, it says, then Jesus doesn't love you. If there weren't dinosaurs in Noah's flood, it says, then life is meaningless. If Isaiah was anything other than a carnival fortune-teller, whispering secrets to be decoded millennia later by the magic formula, then all hope is illusion.

This all-or-nothing mixture of sense and nonsense is a house built on sand. Eventually, it will be tested and it will fail the test. And it will fall with a great crash.

And that, your aunt says, is just what happened to the all-or-nothing house she helped to build for you. It fell with a great crash and she found that crash very upsetting. She had put a lot of work into that house, picking out just the right squishy spot on the sandbar, and now she's upset with you for letting it collapse and even more upset with me for cheering when it fell.

She doesn't yet realize what I think you've come to realize — that you couldn't live there. That rickety all-or-nothing edifice with its sandy foundation of fantastic heresies wasn't fit for human habitation. It couldn't withstand high tide, let alone hurricane season. It wasn't true. It wasn't good. It wasn't worth holding on to.

But the worst thing about that house wasn't just the obviously shoddy bits — the Lindseyian stubble or the young-earth creationist papier mache. The worst thing about that house was the all-or-nothing blueprint, the way the whole thing was built so that the sense would inevitably be dragged down with the nonsense, the truth dragged down with the lies, the beautiful with the ugly, the good with the bad.

The house is gone now. You don't need to stick with that all-or-nothing blueprint anymore. Pick through the rubble a bit and you'll find it's not all rubble. Some of it may be quite sturdy and useful. Some of it may be beautiful or valuable or necessary.

Sort through it all. Test everything. Hold on to the good.


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