More on conscience vs. ‘obedience’ — with music

More on conscience vs. ‘obedience’ — with music June 17, 2013

Here’s a bit more on the theme of the last two posts — the unsustainable anxiety of those who believe that “obedience” to God’s Law requires them to do the opposite of what their conscience is telling them to do — prompted by two videos recently posted by bloggers I enjoy.

The first is from Kimberly Knight of Coming Out Christian who introduces this clip from America’s Got Talent with a warning that it might make you a bit teary:

If you can’t watch that video, it features Jonathan Allen, 20, of Lawrenceburg, Tenn., who tells the story of being kicked out of his parents’ house on his 18th birthday because he’s gay. He relates that background in his introduction to his Talent audition — shocking and dismaying the panel of celebrity judges.

“That’s a terrible story,” Howie Mandel says, and it’s hard to disagree.

After the kid brings the crowd to its feet — Jonathan’s got some pipes — Howard Stern said, “I don’t know if your parents are watching tonight, but I would like to say to them, ‘What a wonderful son you have.'”

And you realize, watching this, that what you’ve just seen is a lop-sided moral dispute in which two devoutly religious believers, acting on their idea of “obedience” to a holy God, have been publicly put to shame by Howie Mandel and Howard Stern.

Let that sink in. When your religious beliefs and actions cause you to lose the moral high ground to Howard Stern, then something has gone horribly wrong with your religion.

The other video that helps to illustrate how American evangelicalism has come to be racked by the opposing strains of “obedience” and conscience is from Darrell Dow of Stuff Fundies Like, and it’s not quite as inspiring or lovely as Jonathan Allen’s audition. This one is an earnest church trio’s rendition of Lanny Wolfe’s* “My House Is Full (But My Field Is Empty)” — a staple of missions/evangelism guilt-trips that will be familiar to anyone who’s been a part of the American evangelical subculture in recent decades:

That song captures the guilt-driven evangelism obligation that is, for many evangelical Christians, the first disturbing experience of a conflict between conscience and what we’re told obedience requires. Maybe it was door-to-door evangelism, or maybe it was “street” evangelism, or tract-bombing passers-by on the sidewalk or the Boardwalk. The experience was unpleasant and you dreaded having to do it, but you were told that it was your Christian duty. If you shirked that duty, you would be responsible for those lost souls being damned to Hell for eternity.

The pastor or youth minister seemed to know that you were reluctant to fulfill your duty to evangelize, and he would turn to Romans 1:16 to shame you into it. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,” that verse says. And if you were reluctant or hesitant or anything less than enthusiastic about this aggressive evangelistic effort, then the pastor suggested that you must be shamefully ashamed of the gospel of Christ.

That message worked on me, at first. I was not ashamed of Christ — I loved Christ. And if loving Christ meant I had to go out and perform a series of rude, clumsy, off-putting confrontations with strangers, then I’d just have to suck it up, set aside my discomfort and do my duty. “Who will go and work for me today?” I will — even if the thought of doing so makes my stomach hurt.

It took quite a while for me to realize that queasy feeling in my stomach had nothing to do with nerves or fear or a lack of faith or being “ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” That queasy feeling was my conscience reminding me of Rule No. 1 and pleading with me not to be a jerk. That was why I didn’t want to knock on doors or walk up to strangers on the sidewalk or distribute tracts to wary passers-by — because those things made me feel like a jerk. Why? Because acting like a jerk tends to make one feel like a jerk.

Contextless, cold-calling, hard-sales evangelism almost always and almost inevitably entails acting like a jerk. It involves treating other people as objects rather than as subjects. It involves forcing onto them an experience that none of us would want to have forced onto ourselves.

But I did it. I knocked on doors, I passed out the tracts. I did what I honestly believed obedience required me to do, even when my conscience was screaming at me to stop, just please, for the love of God, stop.

It’s a lose-lose situation. When conscience and “obedience” are pulling in opposite directions, guilt is inescapable. Your stomach hurts because your behavior toward others seems unloving, yet you’re unable to correct that because obedience tells you that to be “truly loving” to others will require you to double-down on that behavior.

Unless or until you find a way to reconcile conscience and obedience — to get them pulling in the same direction — something’s gotta give.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* In defense of Lanny Wolfe, here’s Sandy Patti and Larnelle Harris singing Wolfe’s biggest hit, “More Than Wonderful” which is really good despite — or maybe because of — the fact that it’s also immensely cheesy. It’s like having Barry Manilow and Dianne Warren as the church music directors in charge of a worship team led by Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle (or maybe led by Jordan Peele and Jane Lynch).

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  • Another_Matt

    These posts really resonate. I’m glad to see some words which fill out how I’ve felt for years. “Guilty no matter how you behave” is a most morally paralyzing state (though, I sometimes think that was rather Luther’s main point, and even sometimes the point of parts of the Sermon on the Mount).

  • ReverendRef

    I’ve been asking parishioners to evangelize door to door for years, but nobody seems to want to walk through the neighborhood swinging a thurible while dressed in cassock and surplice.

    Might have to rethink this . . .

  • You’re given an opening for an animated gif of someone screaming “You’re tearing me apart!” and you don’t go with Tommy Wiseau?

    I am impressed by your restraint.

  • MarkTemporis

    Heck, I’m an atheist and that sounds kind of awesome! Maybe try a local SCA group or something!

  • Carstonio

    These folks would in no way see themselves as losing the moral high ground to Howard Stern. Instead, they would see Stern and Mandel as failing in their moral duty to condemn the young man, or to praise the parents for doing the right thing. Plus, both men are entertainers and both have Jewish ancestry, so the evangelicals in question would automatically disqualify these two from having any moral credibility.

  • That sounds awesome… a chance to be weird. It sounds like doing cosplay! (I’ve had plenty of people give me weird stares on the way to convention centers dressed in a red gunslinger trenchcoat among people with weird hair and giant fake swords…).

    Aw crap, seems like once you’re logged in, you can’t log with another name. This isn’t my usual name here.

  • SisterCoyote

    Ah ow, does this one ever resonate… My childhood in a nutshell. That constant guilt of “I don’t like doing this, therefore I’m secretly ashamed of the gospel, aren’t I?” Nuts to that. I just got assigned a roommate – and this is her first quarter in the country. Rather than agonizing over how I’m going to witness to her, culminating in an unavoidably awkward and painful Talk, I can make friendly conversation with the words we do have in common and offer to share junk food.

    …I really don’t thank God often enough that my childhood ended where it did.

  • Guest

    I, however, have no such restraint.

  • Guest

    I, however, have no such restraint.

  • Matticus

    The gif’s not working, so I’ll just go with the clip.

  • Baby_Raptor

    “Coming out Christian” is actually a blog name? Is this something that Christians actually feel the need to do?

    If so, that’s…actually pretty offensive. There’s no need to come out when what you are is the freaking status quo. There’s no need to hide when the majority of the people around you share your beliefs/opinions/et cetera. And when was the last time that announcing you were a Christian got you beaten, or kicked out of your home, or fired, or…You get the idea.


    Edit: I opened my mouth before actually getting the entire idea. Baby Raptor pulled a dumb. Thanks to Alix and Josh S for correcting me.

  • Hexep

    I could not establish any time where I’ve heard this, but something in my gut tells me that those things are probably massive fire-hazards.

    When I’m a billionare, Ref, I’ll build you a cathedral out of solid concrete. Wood paneling optional, and there will obviously be slots for stained-glass windows. But solid concrete ne’ertheless.

  • Yeah. There is a real faux siege mentality among some Christian groups in the USA and Canada, and this idea that their faith is in danger (as opposed to their pushiness engendering ridicule) is a rather attractive one to them even if it isn’t true.

  • Alix

    Blog subheading: “Conversations about being gay and Christian in America”.

  • JoshuaS

    I think “coming out” refers to coming out as a gay Christian, not just a Christian. Surely you can imagine that gay Christian women face at least some discrimination from their faith community in addition to other forms of institutionalized discrimination? It’s not a “faux siege mentality” this stuff really happens to LGBT people, even ones who self-identify as Christians.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Yes, you and Alix are right. I should have taken a closer look before I opened my mouth. I buggered it, and I apologize.

  • DCFem

    This. My first through was “wow” upon reading what Fred wrote about Howard Stern.But then I let it sink in and came to the exact same conclusion that you have — his words will be cast off as the ravings of a Jewish entertainer and not a true believer of Christ.

  • Contextless, cold-calling, hard-sales evangelism almost always and
    almost inevitably entails acting like a jerk. It involves treating other
    people as objects rather than as subjects. It involves forcing onto
    them an experience that none of us would want to have forced onto

    I hated, hated, hated that stuff. Weirdly, it’s why I became the evangelism guy, because I figured that since I hated doing it I’d be better off becoming the guy who planned evangelism and my planning was always built around the question of, “How do we evangelize without actually, y’know, doing that sort of shit?”

    After I began the process of leaving Christianity I realized there was another, underlying issue. I evangelized all the time, but it was about bands and restaurants and stuff like that. If I found something I thought was cool I’d tell anyone and everyone who was willing to listen about that cool thing. I didn’t do that with Jesus, though, because the god I’d been taught to believe in was a jackass who had emphatically not made my life better. I couldn’t imagine trying to convince anybody to join up with the church, since I didn’t see the church as a force for good in my own life. So why would I have even bothered?

    Oh some level I suppose it’s an issue where I was ashamed. I think that the sort of people who bring the bit about not being ashamed of the gospel would try to hold that over my head or use it as proof that I was never a real Christian. My response is simple: I was actually ashamed to be associated with people like that.

  • Mariko

    Fred, thanks for writing this. My wife and I were both raised conservative evangelicals (in a conservative Episcopal church that then joined a conservative Anglican splinter group . . . sigh), but we have been quickly becoming much more liberal lately. However, I’ve moved more quickly towards theological liberalism than she has, and so sometimes I worry about bringing things up with her (though things usually end up well).

    That being said, we were talking about a big conference we used to go to with our youth groups; it was called Dare 2 Share, and it’s probably still around. The first night, they would talk all about hell and how awful it was (including lovely dramatizations), and then they’d send the kids out to do “backdoor” door-to-door evangelism; that is, we’d gather food for a local homeless shelter, and then talk to the people who were donating about Jesus. It was absolutely terrible, and we both hated doing it. So I was really pleased to hear her refer to it as “Dare 2 Scare.” Hit the nail right on the head, I think. The intention was to scare the kids into thinking that we were being disobedient if we didn’t want to do this bullshit, then send us out to scare targets (not people–as you pointed out, that’s not how they were treated) into accepting “Jesus.”

  • ReverendRef

    but something in my gut tells me that those things are probably massive fire-hazards.

    Um . . . yeah. At one of my previous parishes we did a massive (for us) refurb job — painted the walls, refinished the floors and installed new carpet. The day before the first service, I went in and attempted to eliminate the chemical smells of paint, stain and carpet by using my thurible for a few hours. I accidentally knocked it over, scattering hot coals and incense on the new carpet, burning several holes in it in the process.

    And at Virginia Theological Seminary (a seminary for being extremely low church — no candles, minimal vestments, etc.) they used a thurible for the very first time in their history. Unfortunately, not knowing all the ins and outs, someone dumped the hot coals in the garbage can which resulted in a fire that burned their chapel to the ground.

    Thuribles are like sex . . . wonderful things to be a part of, but you do need to be careful. Or something like that.

  • Bob Gifford

    Martin Luther had quite a bit to say about conscience, most famously at the stand-off at the Diet of Worms when he said “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, because it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” Lutheran theologians have carried on with this tradition. This article is a bit heavy, but very good:

  • Lori

    It’s not just that he’s Jewish, it’s that he’s “filthy”. No RTC is going to feel morally shamed by a guy who moved to satellite radio partially because the FCC rules about public airways were cramping his style and whose guest list would shrink substantially if he dropped the porn stars.

  • LL

    Yeah, this. I mean, WE know that the Howards really have the high ground here, but the RTCs would certainly never acknowledge that.

    The Howards are part of the liberal atheist Jewish elitist Hollywood conspiracy, or something like that. Not like the decent folk of the Heartland, who know what true goodness is.

  • ccc

    As a child, growing up in fundamental baptist/ultra conservative tradition, i used to cry myself to sleep thinking about my grandparents and aunts, and the kids we played with on the block sometimes, screaming forever the torments of a lake of fiery brimstone, all because I was too chicken to preach to them. We had little comic-book tracts, too, and there were some creative ways for delivering them, wrapped in colored cellophane like candy…
    “If you love them, you will witness”–and witness I did; i must have witnessed my grandfather into fits. When I learned the truth about the bible, how a bunch of people had voted on what to include a lot of years ago, I felt like someone had ripped holes in the world….but that’s another story for another day. It’s pretty horrible to feel, at 7 or 8, that you are sending people to hell by not Witnessing to them. My mom conjured up scenes of all the people I knew, asking “Why didn’t you tell me?” on Judgement day just before being cast into hell….

  • ccc

    Hey-I think I know you! Resonating right along with you. Remember the little comic books with the tortured souls in hell?

  • ReverendRef

    And on a note more serious than thuribles and sex . . .

    Damn. I read these stories and comments and they make me want to scream/cry/vomit and reach out. What comes immediately to mind is from the Gospel of Mark when the disciples try to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name because they weren’t a part of the original 12:

    John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

    Christians have caused too many instances of fear, hatred and desertions because they fail to see that other people can be doing good for God, even though they aren’t a part of the “approved” group. These self-appointed “gate-keepers for God” fail to see the damage they do to people who believe in God but are given reasons to lose that faith. The number one stumbling block to Christianity are Christians themselves; and I’m afraid that many of us will be saddled with a great millstone.

    Seriously. We need to get over ourselves and realize that we will probably do a better job of evangelizing over a common drink, game of pool, or — Newsflash — not being dicks.

    To all the people driven away or turned off: I’m sorry that happened.
    To all the people suffering from XPTSD (Christian Post Traumatic Stress Disorder): May you find peace.

  • That’s one of my favorite passages. Too bad so many people have definitions of being “against Christ” which include actions like “continuing to breathe without asking forgiveness.”

  • Fusina

    Hmmm. Maybe we are ashamed of the god we follow…Should find a better one in that case. I mean, by your definition of evangilism, (I think it is a good one, by the way, I also do this with restaurants and suchlike, even taking people there and buying them meals if they are really awesome) apparently I evangelize all the time. But not with tracts and that sort of thing, more like by overtipping wait staff while wearing a cross. I like subtle gestures. One of the nicest things anyone who wasn’t a christian ever said to me was, “I know you’re a christian, but you’re not like the others. You’re Normal.”

    Ah, members of the AG church I was attending at the time did not find that a good compliment…not that I shared it. I’m not that stupid, and I knew how they rolled. Err, pun intended?

  • Fusina

    Huh. The best time I ever had evangelizing (on purpose) involved a pitcher of beer, a box of chocolates, and a bar. And two people who had a problem believing that christians are allowed to drink beer. I was where I was to go to an open concert–like open mike but with music–at a coffee shop. The pair I met at the door of the venue was there for same, but were not christians. Dunno why they came, but we got to talking, the venue didn’t open, so we retired to a bar because the convo was fun. They got a pitcher of beer, I had a box of chocolates I was bringing to a friend (we were meeting at the shop) and in the course of the evening it came out that I was a christian. They first marveled that I would drink beer, and then asked what being a christian meant. I illustrated with the chocolates. Because, I said, becoming a christian was like being given a free gift. No charge And that all one had to do was accept said gift. I don’t know how theologically correct I was, but I hope God took it in the spirit I meant it in.

    I think he did, because it was the only time I ever drank beer that I didn’t get violently sick and puke my guts up. Dunno why, but beer makes me puke. And it doesn’t take much, a couple swallows will do.

  • Hmmm. Maybe we are ashamed of the god we follow…

    I wasn’t ashamed of said god so much as “utterly convinced he was a massive jackass who would kick me around whenever he got the chance.” I referred to god as “The Cosmic Jackass” during the last couple years of my Christianity. I was ashamed of being associated with the supposedly decent people who used said god as an excuse to tell others what to do. I was also, I suppose, ashamed of the person I felt I had to be to live up to the standards of the cosmic jackass.

    It’s all academic to me now, as I usually self-identify as an atheist. Interestingly, at least to me, I left because I had a crisis of faith that precipitated a re-evaluation of Christianity as a whole. My moment of decision came after I’d started going to a very nice, relatively liberal church that I will say nothing bad about. I sat there one Sunday morning listening to the pastor give an intelligent, thoughtful sermon entirely about aspiring to be a better person, rather than the ones I was accustomed to about how we were are crap because we weren’t living up to god’s standard. I suddenly realized that I agreed with the message but didn’t agree with the underlying premise at all.

    In general, though, and I think more to the point, the folks who pull the “not ashamed” stuff don’t get it. It’s taken me years to realize that there were all kinds of things about myself that I felt ashamed about and tried to hide from everyone. It messed up my ability to trust and to relate and to simply be a decent human being. It caused me to give things up that I enjoyed doing because I was worried someone would make fun of me. I can’t lay all of that at the feet of the church by any means, but the idea of avoiding shame and behaving in a manner considered acceptable by the group was drilled so deep into my being from such a young age that I had a finely tuned sense of shame built up from the very beginning.

    By then using and abusing the notion of not evangelizing (in the specific, required manner) due to shame it created a negative feedback loop that only made things worse. That, in turn, hit pretty hard when I would make friends outside of the tradition and discover that most people had their own issues and their own hurts and their own levels of happiness and that it had little or nothing to do with the enclosed little world I was trying to occupy. It was those relationships that convinced me to stop judging people on such narrow terms. It then took me the better part of a decade to realize I needed to stop doing it to myself.

  • To all the people driven away or turned off: I’m sorry that happened.

    As someone who knows more than a few Christians who are really good at driving away and turning off, I have a genuinely hard time imaging you amongst their numbers, Ref. I’d guess that you’ve pissed someone off from time to time through normal, human cluelessness, but, y’know, that’s normal. And human.

    Don’t beat yourself up over the behavior of others. That’s not going to get you anywhere.

  • Hexep


  • ReverendRef

    Oh, no; not beating myself up over the behaviors of others. It’s more like, “Damn, I’m sorry that happened. Hopefully I can give a better example.”

    And, yes, I’m sure some people consider me an ass. But at least I don’t actively try to piss off people.

  • ReverendRef


  • Wow, this post absolutely hits home. I remember trying to evangelize when I was 14-15 and it just being super awkward and making me feel like a jerk. My friend’s religious parents, who I kind of looked on as spiritual mentors for a while, told me what a great job I was doing. I remember thinking, “Then why do I feel like crap every time I do that?”
    Eventually I decided that I was doing the wrong kind of evangelism, that spreading God’s love should be done through being kind and treating people with respect. If religion happens to come up in conversation, you can explain why your faith motivates you to be kind, but the topic should not be forced. That was my philosophy for a few more years before I realized that Christianity wasn’t the religion for me anyways. Then I got to be the person who Christians awkwardly evangelized at. Karma, I guess.

  • It would be a neat version of the ‘door-and-grandma’ halloween story. You hear a knock at the door, and when you open it, there’s another door. On the other side are two pews, an altar, a reverend with a thurible, and maybe some choir singers in robes…

  • The_L1985

    Chick Tracts? A lot of people remember those. I find them entertaining for all the wrong reasons.

  • Randall

    It is kind of ironic, then, that you refer to your error as “bugger[ing] it”, don’t you think?

  • Daniel

    “the liberal atheist Jewish elitist Hollywood conspiracy”
    Shit. You know about that? It was a real nice secret society we had once.

  • Kelly S

    you clearly don’t know what “morality” is bro. pro-tip: so-called christians do not have a patent on it. many of them are quite amoral.

  • Kelly S

    yes, by amoral fools who think calling themselves “christian” makes them actual followers of jesus. jesus was a jew. but you know, it’s not like people read the damn bible.

  • Kelly S

    i’ll bet they think jesus worshiped himself.

  • Steven-Veronica Apphia Gutierr

    Howard Stern should be the last person to use as a standard of morality. Furthermore where can I truly find a piece of internet journalism that can actually interview the side of the parents and get their take on it? What if this Jonathan guy was a troublesome and rebellious child? It is a disservice not to hear both sides and be led astray emotionally like the Proverbs indicates “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” Proverbs 18:17

    My father kicked me out from his house and I thank God he did that because I would have never known the beauty of the Gospel and come to saving faith. Now I do go out door to door preaching the gospel not driven by guilt but by love for my Savior. I’m not ashamed of the gospel and nor am I ashamed to proclaim Him before men.