A Stranger and Stronger Religion

First Reformed (2018)

Afternoon coffee is better with an afternoon cigarette. It’s just so. But life is better without cigarettes, when it’s all counted up. So the coffee makes do on its own and does so with aplomb. At least until the jitters, which not everyone gets, and some people get but don’t realize they’re getting, because not everyone is so aware of cause and effect.

I get the jitters sometimes. From coffee on an empty stomach, from those moments before a phone call, from the sound of my neighbor trying to find a way to climb up on the snow-weighted roof and shovel it off so that water will quit leaking through my bedroom window, the plunk-plunk of which gives me the jitters when I wake up in the night from the droning and crunching of the plows come to make our life easier. And certainly I would get the jitters up on the roof just inches from broken bones.

There are times when I get the jitters thinking about my religion. I’m a Christian, and painfully aware of my own shortcomings as a follower of Christ as well as the shortcomings of the way my religion operates in America. I know some of what Christians and non-Christians think of one another, what they know and think they know, and sometimes these things keep me up at night when I wake up overheated with a full bladder and a fierce thirst.

The cat I do not own because I don’t think I can afford it is concerned with the way these things affect me. He knows something of religion, considering that “he is the servant of the Living God” and “he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary,” as Christopher Smart has noted about feline companions. His ancestors were quite appreciated in Ancient Egypt, you know (the cat’s, not Christopher’s). At one time, his ancestors were running around pyramids built by the slaves who would walk on up out of there after a shepherd gained clout through magic tricks and dunking on the god-king. It turns out that story has really held up, even if cats don’t make an appearance but Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston do. It’s an important story for Christianity, but first it was an important story for Judaism. Many Jews must have thought of that story when the walls went up and help arrived only after millions were dead. I wonder what those who survived think when they see that cursed symbol worn again – its bearers treated leniently. It was also an important story for many African American Christians, at least for those who were allowed to read it instead of the parts of the book that say slaves should serve without grumbling. I wonder how they felt about a religion which their masters used to justify the way things were.

I get to thinking of these things, and I get the jitters as my thoughts unfurl and disperse like the smoke from the cigarette I am not smoking, and I’m confronted with a terrible knowledge and the fear of having no power over it, of being tossed about in a dark cauldron like the hot bean water I sip in the hopes of finding the alacrity and focus to address the problem.

I’m not sure sentences like that get us any closer. But neither do sentences like, “Just talk about the Gospel,” “Christianity is illogical,” “Leave politics out of it,” or “Thoughts and prayers,” (which is neither a sentence nor helpful).

Out of my feline fairyland of nicotine and caffeine might someday emerge a coherent, well-researched, well-argued piece of writing, but that would require a level of coherence, research, and argumentativeness which I, like a cat and a cigarette, currently lack. It’s the sort of thing I would organize a dissertation around, the sort of thing I would present at conferences. I’m not there yet, but this idea has infected me, and it chases me around the halls of my workplace and boils up in the water that will cook my brown rice for lunch and drips through the frame of my bedroom window and jumps off the page of whatever it is I’m reading. So I gotta say something about it, even in grand, sweeping, propositional terms.

American Christianity’s criticisms from within and without often stem from one inconvenient character trait – a predisposition to fascism. While a religion can (and I would argue should) strive for and uphold orthodoxy and sound doctrine, Christianity has taken the pursuit of Truth and the prescription of righteous living to an extreme. In upholding the Christian God as the God and the Bible as the holy book and Christianity as the faith, American Christians have created a religion that is dominated by a white, affluent, heteronormative Western perspective, resistant to counter-narratives, expansive interpretations, and anything strange or new. It is a religion about behaving, following rules, and learning “correct” Biblical interpretation.

Again, believers can insist that there is Truth, and that their religion is the way to it. They can insist that there is one God, and that their God is it. But if that belief system engenders a rigid set of rules which works rather nicely for straight white men of wealth and is settled on what is true and not true, then it is a religion that lacks the brawn to face serious challenges, the flexibility to account for contingencies, and the spirit to move human beings in meaningful ways outside the walls of church buildings. Fascist faith is doomed for implosion. Lao Tzu said an army that cannot yield will be defeated, and a tree that cannot bend will break.

For all its generosity, American Christianity has wed itself to capitalism. For all its inclusiveness, it has upheld white supremacy and led the opposition to LGBTQ rights. For all its morality, it gave us President Donald Trump.

Maybe I’m talking about your church and maybe I’m not. I know that a lot of good is done by Christians at home and abroad. I know there are open-minded, generous, selfless Christians. Again, I’m a Christian! I admit that the Christians that give me the jitters are – more often than not – the ones out there, not specific ones I know. More often than not. But just as systemic racism ends up being more oppressive than the sum of its mildly racist individual parts, the systemic rot of American Christianity is more than any one church (or Christian’s) failures. All our faults and failures coalesce into a destructive monolith.

American Christianity’s insistence on conformity and orthodoxy has made for a an intolerant religion constrained by its own adherence to the rules. It wants so badly to be, well…normal.

The solution might be to make Christianity weird again.

Let’s return to the catless story of Moses and the Exodus. It’s absolutely wild. There are plagues on plagues on plagues, of course. There’s a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, which sounds pretty. The sea parts. When Pharaoh is all like “Oh yeah Moses you think you’re so tough go ahead and prove it,” Moses is like “Show ’em, Aaron,” and his brother throws down his staff and it turns into a snake, and then Pharaoh turns to his magicians and is like “Step up my guys,” and they turn their staffs into snakes, and then Aaron’s staff is like “You come for the king you better not miss,” and eats the other snake staffs.

Oh, and before any of this happens, while Moses is on his way to Egypt, God rolls up on him and is about to whack him but Zipporah (Moses’ wife) saves Moses by cutting of their son’s foreskin, touching it to Moses’ feet, and exclaiming “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”

But never mind all that. Christians use the highlights of this Jewish story to teach God’s power and the importance of obedience. There’s a “right” way to explain it. Children learn it as part of their moral instruction. VeggieTales found a way to adapt it. “Everyone” knows it, except for some slaves who might have gotten the wrong ideas.

We have here what Dr. Raymond Malewitz (shouts) made sure we grad students knew to call a problem of contradiction. There are several at work in the way Christians read, understand, and apply the Bible.

First, the Bible is magical. Moses, Jesus, and other heroes are known for doing magic tricks. But only the Bible is allowed to be magical. Any other sort of magic is to be abhorred. Remember when Christians lost their minds over Harry Potter? Second, the Bible is bizarre. Like we could sit here all day and smoke cigarettes and pet cats and talk about all the weird stuff in the Bible. Some of it is funny, some of it is disturbing. Some of it is weird when you think about it long enough, and some of it is outright what did I just read? And yet, the Christian life is defined by normalcy, conformity, and uniformity. Christians don’t like weird things. Unless it’s teenage boys watching Nacho Libre and Napoleon Dynamite, well, then I guess we can allow for a little silly fun. Third, Christians believe in the miraculous, not just in the Bible, but in the everyday. Christians believe that miracles, even ones that defy the laws of nature, happen. But only if it happens within a Christian context, both now and in stories from history.

There is also what Dr. Malewitz made sure we knew to call a problem of clarification. The Christian worldview and its pursuit of Truth has made Christians wary of science based in rationalism and empiricism (your child’s science teacher) AND of progressive humanism (your child’s humanities professors). This is an inconsistent, anti-intellectual, untenable booyah which leads to embarrassments like the God’s Not Dead films. So what, exactly, do Christians base their beliefs in? How do Christians come to their understanding of the world? How did their orthodox understanding of an ancient compilation of histories, prophecies, testimonies, erotica, and letters come to inform what they deem too rational and what they deem too loopy?

These problems exist in part because of Christianity’s insistence on normalcy, and the consequence is that unfortunate susceptibility to fascism. The solution may be to free the Christian worldview from these constraints. The solution may to be weird.

Let’s allow – nay, embrace – magic, the absurd, the bizarre. Let’s re-imagine the way Christianity looks and feels, and explore how that can change from person to person across years, across borders. Let’s re-envision the stories of the Bible, reckon with what is lost in translation, and imagine new ways to see ourselves in the text and the text in our lives. Let’s find innovate ways to apply Christian belief to secular art and to create art that is Christian.

If the Bible is really “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword,” then it should be able to be interpreted and applied in diverse, innovative ways, free from rigid constraints. If Christian faith is a pervasive, all-encompassing worldview, then it should be able to engage with culture and concepts with creativity. The results can be enrichment of faith and culture.

What would this look like? In my Master’s Thesis, I wrote about envisioning abstract Black Jesus in literature (two novels in particular), but the possibilities abound – that’s what makes this idea so compelling.

So when I write this thing properly, maybe I’d have a chapter about Black Panther, and how the mythical world of Wakanda evokes separation from a heavenly country, paradise lost, and the aforementioned Black Jesus.

I could write about First Reformed, and how that film comments on faith and the religious experience by turning a seemingly simple clergyman with into an ecoterrorist. We’d have even more to say about the iconic moments in that film like the pepto-bismol in the whiskey and that wild ending.

We could see the Book of Jeremiah as a dark comedy, because that’s how it plays in my head. Why do we have to take everything in the Bible so…seriously? Can’t we be a little playful, and see how that might bring to light some things that reading the Bible like we’re reading the Bible might blind us to?

WE CAN READ HARRY POTTER!! We can embrace what a magical story reveals to us about love and choice. And we can get schadenfreude from Christians who lambasted the story before realizing how explicit J.K. Rowling would eventually be with Christian themes in the final book.

I can explore how Tolkien’s work is way, way more useful than the Chronicles of Narnia, even though only one is an explicit Christian allegory.

I’d explore the literary genre of magical realism, and by studying the ways masters like Gabriel García Márquez use it to explore complex topics, we can see how it can be used to explore content and concepts that defy the bounds of realism.

We can stop watching “Christian” movies and instead discuss films like A Serious Man, which has more to say about faith and theodicy than just about any piece of art I’ve encountered.

And on and on. Magic, absurdity, and the bizarre can enrich our understanding of the sacred and secular and provide new avenues for the creation of new culture.

What’s more, this is the season to speak, as I believe secular culture is ready to embrace this awakening in Christian discourse. Realism and strict “enlightened” skepticism is tired; the Western world is realizing how the Enlightenment produced its own oppressive structures. Notions of Truth are being eroded, and while its pursuit is as important as ever, the security of we used to find in absolute truth is seriously changed. Truth is something we work towards, a way of thinking and understanding that we speak into existence. The President is a prodigious liar and scientific conclusions are ignored. We need journalists and other truth-tellers to relentlessly pursue and speak truths, but we also need to approach truth as the elusive thing that it is, something that we come to know through experience as often as we come to through intellectual assent. This part of the story requires its own pack of cigarettes, but what I mean is this: I suspect secular society is ready to accept the truths presented by the magical, bizarre, absurd book called the Bible, but not through logical proofs and hardline doctrines aimed at presenting the Gospel as irrefutable truth and the Christian life as the only one that is not deluded by human fallibility (not to say there is no value in apologetics). Rather, I think secular culture is ready to accept concepts of Christianity like the existence of God, original sin, and the Gospel, Christian answers to questions like the problem of evil and the meaning of life, and Christian perspectives on love, family, and work if these things are presented artfully, and if conclusions are reached through a discussion, interpretation, or presentation that is guided by a worldview, not bent on a religious dialectic.

And so here we are. I’ve worked through some jitters and put these thoughts together and you’ve read and/or skimmed your way through them. I’m sure I will write more about this, whether or not I ever do the serious academic work which I think could make this something substantial to work with. It’s possible this was not the best way to start getting these ideas down on paper and out into the world, but, then again, this has all been about considering new ways to work through and exchange weighty ideas.

I’m a Christian. I believe Christian faith has truth and power that can transform people and societies, but I believe that truth and power has been distorted in terrible ways in America. I believe Christianity provides Truth for this life and the next, but I believe the presumption that Christians know just how that Truth works has created a rigid system of belief that is not only ineffective but oppressive. I believe Christianity is weird, but that American Christianity is both weird in the wrong ways and not weird enough.

“So, yeah…let’s do this,” he says, exhaling a thick cloud of smoke into the air, noting how the fleeting wisps resemble his mortality. He performs his nonchalance well, putting out the cigarette and sauntering on, even as his next cold breath shudders with the unbearable weight of what he thinks he knows. He puts one foot in front of the other in defiance of the petrifying fear that what he says will never matter, and he curses himself at the thought that it might.

And yet he draws hope from his cat:

“For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.”

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


One thought on “A Stranger and Stronger Religion

  1. Thank you, for being open and honest enough to express your thoughts and feelings here with us. Christianity, as “religion” can really mess us up, as well as steer us “in the right direction”, so to speak. Relationship, now that is something of Christianity that one has to enter into to know the reality of for their self! ‘Religion’ verses a ‘living faith’ will always come up short of proving its infallibility; because it can not truly make you better, only you and God can do that much. You have great insight. Let Jesus save you!; because they can promise you Heaven but can’t truly save your soul. In the love of Christ, Timothy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s