“We have met the enemy…”

It was tempting to head this one, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” – but I hope that I have more in common with Walt Kelly than Darth Vader.  Even today, as on the rampage as I have felt.

Good old Walt Kelly. I am getting a little lesson in Pogo today. Walt Kelly died the year I was born, so he was not on my cultural radar screen. Too bad. I was missing out.

He’s on my radar now, because I was trying to find attribution for that famous line, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It seems to be the theme for the week. For the past couple weeks. The “We… us” I have been thinking about is Christians, and no one knows how to turn people away from Christ and the church quite like Christians do.

We have been reading Home and Jesus Land in Ethics, and that has a lot to do with the whole “Christians are their own worst enemy” living meme. The fictional Jack (in Home) and the real life Julia (in Jesus Land) are exemplars of people who received the bad news of their unlovableness (and of the unloving impulses of Christians) loud and clear. As Dr. Hall succinctly put it -we don’t have to worry about the atheists, folks – it’s ourselves we have to worry about.

And then there was the matter of my friend, Will, who was writing a sermon and having trouble finding a commentary that allowed for the possibility that Jesus might actually have walked on water. And Jodi, writing on the class discussion board about how we fail in Christian education, because we don’t let our children and teenagers ask questions. And given all of that, it seems to me that I could easily rephrase Pogo to “We have met the atheist, and he is us.”

I have a lot more to write on this than time allows, but it has been troubling me for some time that Christians of all stripes are so – SCARED. The fundamentalists among us too often don’t want to let anyone question anything, because if one verse does not hold up, if one thread of an idea is broken, their entire faith is likely to unravel.  God will cease to exist! The scripture has become an idol because God is not sufficiently real. And the liberals among us are quick to concede that, of course, this or that or any one of 50 things is impossible, because their reason is more real than God.  God has ceased to exist!

A God who is more powerful than reason, more powerful than scripture?  Do we REALLY KNOW God is real?  I do.   Most days I know it in my bones.  True enough, I have my atheist times, when I become convinced that I have been duped by my pattern-loving brain, and I am a fool, and what the heck are we all wasting our time on Sunday mornings for?  In the same way that as a child, I was afraid when the sun hid behind a cloud that it would be dark forever, that the sun would never be so intense again.  But, as the sun always returned when I was a child, the light of God is simply a fact in my life (praise God!), and the full force of God’s reality always returns, and God is so real that even though I have known the pain of doubting God’s existence, I do not fear losing God, or God being somehow diminished by God’s own creation.

I have to admit, I am starting to lose patience with the atheists in Christian clothing misleading others as to the character of Christ, more even than I have lost patience with the new atheists and their evangelical certainty of the non-existence of God, as if it were possible to have evidence of absence – irrationalists in rational clothing. Give me an honest agnostic any day. Give me the questions of a child and the sincere and open Christian friend admitting to their atheist days, weeks, and tendencies.

And as for those who are unaware that their lack of faith in God, and the ways in which they use their “faith” as a weapon against those who are truly seeking God – I want to assure you that GOD LOVES YOU!  God loves each and every one of us so much that you could not be in better hands.  It will be okay – you can shine that Jesus light in even your darkest, cobwebbiest, most dis-believing corner, and you will be okay.  In fact – if you let Jesus into those places you are too ashamed to risk revealing in front of your Sunday school class, you will be BETTER!  Praise Jesus, my impatience with you is not the last word – God’s love, greater than I or anyone else could ever love you – greater than any creature could ever love any other creature – promises to have the last word.

This week’s soundtrack

So I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture for Thursday, for Dr. Amy Laura Hall’s Intro to Christian Ethics class.  I’ll be drawing together themes from the books Home and Jesus Land. (Pray for me, folks.  Seriously.)

This is my internal soundtrack for the lecture so far – songs in no particular order – if anyone has other suggestions about songs that would prove to be helpful companions while thinking through these books, let me know.

 

Tori Amos “These Precious Things” and “Crucify”

Tracy Chapman “Change”

Billie Holliday “Strange Fruit”

The Impressions “People Get Ready”

Dar Williams “Mercy of the Fallen” and “Iowa”

Indigo Girls “Galileo”

M. Ward “To Save Me”

Counting Crows “Round Here”

Cake “Sheep Go to Heaven”

Fleetwood Mac “Landslide”

 

Church history – what’s worth studying? How do we decide?

Sudan has been back in the news over the past couple of weeks, as the largely Christian south has voted to be independent from a more heavily Islamic North.

Christianity has a long history in Sudan, but this history was never mentioned in any of my classes – none of my professors in undergrad (where I was an African Studies major before I was a Religious Studies major) nor in seminary (where I studied Christianity for 3 years) saw fit to mention the history of Sudanese Christianity – and perhaps they themselves knew nothing of it.

I would know nothing of it myself, were it not for a major research paper in a seminary class on African Christianity, for which I could choose any topic.  I chose Sudan in part because I was ashamed that I had absolutely no perspective on the genocide that was in full swing at that time, and in part because there were lots of books on Sudan in the Divinity library that had not been checked out by any of my classmates. So in 2002, over the Thanksgiving break, I spent every free minute in a guest bedroom, reading hundreds of pages of Church history.  Not European or North African or Middle Eastern Church history – but Sudanese Church history.

It became clear to me rather quickly why Sudan is not studied in seminary.  On at least 2 (and maybe 3) occasions, Christianity came to Sudan, lingered for one or three or more generations, and then disappeared entirely.  The latest iteration of Christianity in Sudan is discontinuous with these earlier Christian communities.  We are generally taught about our forebears in the faith, but the early Sudanese Christians are ancestors to no modern Christians.   So how are they relevant to understanding who we are?  And besides, it is very demoralizing to consider that if Christianity were truly self-evident, such a disappearance would be impossible. Finally, it threatens our belief in the eventual triumph of Christianity, because it exposes our self-reliance – our insistence that our efforts are essential to this eventual triumph.

It is this very kind of question that demonstrates why we need to learn about, and meditate upon the history of Christianity in Sudan.  It is not the way of Christ, but the way of the world to consider only our immediate blood / intellectual forebears as relevant to understanding who we are.  If we are all one in Christ, if we truly believe in the communion of saints, then the Christians of Sudan in earlier centuries are our sisters and brothers in the faith as much as any other Christian.  The value in their faith is not in whether their grandchildren followed them in it.  Instead of asking “what did they do wrong?” (which is hard to do when there is so little record) – or worse, ignoring them altogether, we may find that we are forced to content ourselves with leaving the judgment of these Christians to Christ alone.

In their time, they prayed and sang and lived as best as they could in accordance with God’s will for them.  Dare we call them failures?  Dare we judge success on continuity?  Do we forswear ourselves when we sing of “Standing on the Promises?”  Do we (in our hubris) believe that we can earn full pews and professing grandchildren? Dare we forget that we follow Jesus, the one who asserted that God could raise up sons of Abraham from the stones if need be?

Evangelism – sharing the good news with another – is not for the purpose of perpetuating a Christian America, nor to reinvigorate a dwindling denomination, nor to fill gaps in a diminished congregational budget.  There are worse fates than America not being a “Christian nation” – whatever that means.  What could be worse?  ANY person being unaware of God’s love for them in Christ.

No person is more critical than another.  Or rather, the critical person is the person or people that God has given to me (today, now) in order that we might, through our time together,  draw one another closer to God.  Evangelism should have no agenda other than this – to the best of our ability, taking the kingdom with us wherever we go, and at all times pointing not to ourselves but to the One who alone makes a future for us and for all creation.

Many thanks to Dr. Amy Laura Hall, whose reflections on Augustine’s Confessions in her Introduction to Christian Ethics class today provided the stimulus for the post above.