07 September 2016


Found on vk.com (original scene from late-era Soviet film Heart of a Dog)
"How can I explain things to you if you don't even watch TV?"

When I was around eight years old, the subject of God came up one day in my grade school classroom. (There weren't the same restrictions on God-talk in public school then that there are now; that's another discussion.) Our teacher said, "Why should we be afraid to talk about God?" I was startled and panicky -- in fact I was afraid to talk about God, and couldn't even imagine making my mouth emit the word.

I made a mental note of this reaction, but didn't analyze it at the time. Later, I connected it with the fact that, in my family, any mention of religion was absolutely forbidden, along with any mention of disease or death. Whatever the roots of this barrier, it blocked me from communicating with anyone about a huge part of what it means to be human.

Obviously, something happened between grade school and my decades of working for the church! But I'm glad that I remember that block. These memories came back to me the other day when I was talking with some colleagues about expanding our students' access to informal English-speaking opportunities. "Some of my students do a great job with grammar and vocabulary," said one colleague. "But when it comes to speaking in a group, they just can't open their mouths. There's that old psychological barrier."

These young people aren't exactly facing the same barrier in speaking English as I encountered in talking about God. (Or, rather, not talking about God.) There's no actual danger in overcoming the language barrier, but there are several hazards in crossing into God-talk territory. For me as a child, there was a safety issue within the family. But, on another level entirely, do we want it to become too easy to talk about God? Is there a place for some reluctance to become glib about the Ultimate?

We Quakers have a number of indirect ways of referring to divine realities -- terms such as the Inward Light and the Seed, used generations ago to avoid an unseemly familiarity with holy realities, much as biblical Hebrew and its readers made substitutions for the Name. In my early years as a Friend, I remember hearing vocal ministry that referred to "the Author and Finisher of our faith" rather than naming Jesus explicitly. Nowadays Quaker terms such as Inward Light can mistakenly be used in the service of weakening our ties with Christianity, but that old impulse to curb our verbosity when referring to God still seems valid to me.

Even so, "faith comes from hearing the message," so there is something to be said for not letting psychological barriers get in the way of that communication. Part of our evangelistic task might be to confront the false barrier of cultural piety. Are we marked by a gooey sentimentality, a cloud of goofy cliches, or any other signals that you must, to gain entrance, turn off your critical faculties?

In John Updike's novel Rabbit Is Rich, there is a fascinating scene where the Episcopal priest, Archie Campbell, attends a family meeting to discuss Nelson's and Pru's intended marriage. The minister mildly defends "our brand of magic" while everyone else is trying to negotiate how much or little churchiness is necessary to accomplish the desired outcome -- a respectable wedding. Rabbit's own defense of faith is not exactly zero ("Hell, what I think about religion is ... is without a little of it, you'll sink") but the church-wedding discussion is mostly about appearances, not reality.

As long as it seems that the religion industry is just selling one or another form of respectability, people will find their "magic" elsewhere. And rightly so. Maybe it's not a psychological barrier that blocks the audience from yielding -- maybe it's a healthy boundary!

What exactly is the alternative that evangelists with integrity are offering? I think that there is no formula, no doctrine, no scare tactic, no magic that equals meeting someone who looks at you with God's love in their eyes, who offers access to a community that is shaped by trust in God. Some people in that community will know how to communicate this invitation quietly, with an assurance that doesn't depend on using loaded words. Others will know how to communicate with contagious enthusiasm, with generous love that covers a multitude of incautious cliches. There are infinite variations on this spectrum, and somewhere in God's economy, they probably all meet some blocked person's condition.

Along my own route, several people and incidents helped me overcome the barrier. Studying Asian civilizations in high school introduced me to whole cultures not shaped by the assumptions of Western materialism. The anti-war movement brought me physically into churches for the first time in my life. (It wasn't as weird in a church as I thought it would be. Specifically, it was the Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Evanston, Illinois.) My high-school fascination with writers such as Dostoevsky and Alan Paton played their part. But I remember a much earlier crack in the barrier: a tract I happened to pick up off the floor of our apartment building's lobby, not so long after the incident with the teacher. This tract described someone's conversion. In the process of getting to know God, this writer would walk way outside of their normal routes to pass a church that had Christ's name on it. That Name had such an attractive power for the writer. Hmmm, that's interesting, I thought. Even though I didn't understand or respond to that tract's invitation at the time, I somehow understood even then what the writer was feeling.

If I have any ability at all to represent the Gospel effectively, I believe that in part it's because I still vividly remember being a non-believer who couldn't even say the word "God." But I am not permitted to define my path or emphasis as the only one. I'm glad to share the responsibility of communicating God's welcome with many others, some of whom have very different approaches to removing barriers.

"What does it mean to enjoy the freedom bought for us on Calvary while still dwelling in the lair of the Beast?" Welcome to Babylon.

Two dramatically different views of Islam in Denmark. "So which story is the more accurate in a gestalt sort of way? The more narrowly focused Telegram piece or the massive Times story that paints with a broader brush, but still serves up a distinct point of view?"

"Everything happens for a reason" sucks as theology.

Russia's Norwegian colony.

"The war is changing even the 'women's page'...." Which war? Why, World War I!

Eve Monsees and Gary Clarke Jr., a case study in why blues will never die.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That blog about suffering and God's suffering with us is so profound. What else would a God who truly loves us be up to?