I just got back from San Francisco. I went to (hides face) a Christian conference. I found myself hesitant to tell people that it was a Christian conference because of the connotations of that. My sense is that many Christian conferences are lame attempts at pep rallies for God, the adult version of church camp, where you get an emotional high that comes crashing down around you leaving only the rubble of guilt while you wallow in the reality that you’re a shit Christian in your day to day life. (Anyone else got baggage from teen church camp? Bueller?)
So, I told people, “Oh, I’m just going with some friends. We’re going to pal around SF.” That’s true but we also went to a conference. The conference is called “Why Christian?” and the diverse speaker table all answered that question for themselves. Why, in spite of the American church being what it is, do you still consider yourself a Christian?
Truly, it was astounding to hear an undocumented woman, a trans-clergy person, and several POC say that, despite all of the oppression that the church has lobbed directly at their faces, they still love Jesus. Many of them spoke poetically about how grace or love or compassion is what keeps them nestled in the bosom of Christianity.
However, I left wondering about my answer to that question. Why am I still Christian? What’s keeping me here?
I took only a backpack, which is unusual for me. I am usually a textbook over-packer but I Marie-Kondo’ed that shit and fit three days of outfits into one backpack. For the plane, I downloaded some podcasts and grabbed a few books off my nightstand. One of them was Insurrection by Peter Rollins, who is a Christian philosopher. I heard him on a podcast, understood a tiny portion of what he had to say, listened to the podcast three more times, and then checked out his book from the library. Insurrection is a newer one. I don’t remember who recommended it to me or even when I bought it but I shoved it in my backpack and left for the airport.
I caught a Lyft from work, shoved a Wetzel’s Pretzel in my mouth for lunch, and then settled in at my gate. I put on some Balmorhea music and started reading Peter’s book.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I had to keep putting it down because some of his ideas literally gave me shots of adrenaline. As in, my heart started racing. You know you’re old when existential words on a page make you feel light-headed.
I read little bits and pieces on the plane but I felt like I was going to have a philosophical crisis on aisle 28 so I stopped and did my crossword puzzle book.
That night, I woke up around 2am and laid in bed for several hours wondering if I was standing on the precipice of a faith crisis RIGHT BEFORE GOING TO A CHRISTIAN CONFERENCE. In the morning, my chipper roommate asked me how I’d slept and I gazed at her with bloodshot eyes, mussed up hair, and wailed, “HOLY SHIT, KARA. EVERYTHING IS MEANINGLESS.”
We went to breakfast, where I slumped forlornly in the corner, contemplating the meaning of life and drinking my coconut tea. We took a Lyft to the conference, and I sat in a pew for 8 hours listening to people talk about why they are Christian, knowing that I can’t answer that question until I grapple with the meaning of the cross, which is currently laying in pieces on the floor of my very clean spiritual house. I’ve been half-heartedly exploring the Christus Victor atonement theory, but it still left me feeling like thing were a bit unfinished.
The main point of Rollin’s book is that to fully participate in the cross (take up the cross, as they say), we have to go where Jesus did- to the cross. On the cross, Jesus was abandoned by everything that gives us as humans meaning, structure, and comfort. The political system failed him. The religious system failed him. His friends abandoned him. And finally,
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
At the cross, all of these beliefs and structures that we use to comfort ourselves- that life’s gonna be okay, that you’re not alone, that there’s a way for us to be okay before God- fall away. I think Rollins’ language around comfort is perhaps the most unsettling to me.
Throughout my life, I have constructed a very tall, teetering Jenga tower of ‘buts’. No, not butts, you weirdo. You can’t build a tower out of butts without alot of mortar and who has time for that? No, ‘buts’. Consider this leaning obelisk of ‘buts’ my own mixed-use Tower of Babel. Some of the ‘buts’ serve to try to get me closer to God by my own hand; some of them serve to assign meaning to seemingly meaningless situations; some of them are to quiet the banshee critic in my head, the one I call Dolores.
- Well, this situation is really painful, BUT God will use it for good.
- Well, I might be a shitty wife and mom, BUT I’ve done other good things in my life so that’s gotta count for something.
- Well, I might feel alone BUT I know God is near.
- Well, I didn’t follow through on my Lent plans, BUT God forgives me!
- Well, I don’t get why suffering happens, BUT there must be a reason for it.
- Well, I care deeply about poor people and know that loving money is bad BUT we need money to live, guys.
- Well, maybe I am more selfish than I want to be in my inner life, BUT my job is helping people so that atones for it.
- Well, that seems like it’s really heavy and hard but OH LOOK, SOCIAL MEDIA!
- Well, my life might be falling apart BUT my car is crystal clean, bitches.
This elaborate tower has become a security blanket to shield me from how harsh life can be, how meaningless it is sometimes, how some of the things I think are valuable have no value. When someone yanked the Jenga block that said, “Well, maybe I don’t have many POC friends, BUT the world is colorblind so it’s fine.”, much of the tower collapsed. A lot of it, actually. That toppling was a big factor in kicking off this faith deconstruction.
I started trying to rebuild, putting pieces back together, sorting through what I wanted to keep.
Rollins is arguing that I need to go the other direction and just knock the rest of the tower down. I need to take a deep look at my life and what I’ve constructed to bring meaning or comfort to myself. He talks at length about deus ex machina.
The New Latin term deus ex machina is a translation of a Greek phrase and means literally “a god from a machine.” “Machine,” in this case, refers to the crane that held a god over the stage in ancient Greek and Roman drama. The practice of introducing a god at the end of a play to unravel and resolve the plot dates from at least the 5th century B.C.; Euripides (circa 484-406 B.C.) was one playwright who made frequent use of the device. Since the late 1600s, “deus ex machina” has been applied in English to unlikely saviors and improbable events that bring order out of chaos in sudden and surprising ways.
Where have I forced God to fit into an image or role where God doesn’t really fit? How have I shaped my conception of God to comfort me and then also sometimes tell me that I’m shitty and I need to get my life together? I have sanitized God to make me feel more comfortable in doing what I want to do.
Rollins argues that we don’t sit with death long enough. We skip too quickly to “BUT THE RESURRECTION! WHEW! THAT WAS A CLOSE ONE.”
We’re too quick to look for the ‘buts’.
Participating in the cross means removing all of your armor, your security blankets, that protect you from not facing what you want to face.. Literally letting those things die. It means grappling with all those statements in my ‘but’ tower but not allowing the sentence to compound with a ‘but’.
Rob Bell says on the cover of Insurrection, “What Pete does in this book is take you to the edge of a cliff where you can see how high you are and how far you would fall if you lost your footing. And just when most writers would kindly pull you back from edge, he pushes you off, and you find yourself without any solid footing, disoriented, and in a bit of a panic…until you realize that your fall is in fact, a form of flying. And it’s thrilling.”
(Well, at least the first part where you feel like you’re gonna die). I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a precipice, peeking over the edge, watching pebbles fall into the abyss. If I knock down the rest of this tower, what happens? What happens when I really stare into all of the things I’ve been trying to avoid over my whole life? I’ve never lived life without an elaborate Jenga tower designed to protect me from all of the truth and reality that might hurt me. I’ve never lived life without ‘buts’.
There’s something about this discussion of the cross that just makes sense to me. Jesus was abandoned by all of the systems humans created to bring order and justice into the world. Jesus faced a life with no ‘buts’. For us, then, in order to really grapple with the cross and come to grips with it, we have to really know ourselves and what things need to die. It’s not some atonement theory that we pontificate about in a coffee shop, one that you can think yourself into. This one requires participation.
When I think about all those weird ultimatums that Jesus proffered, I think about how we protect ourselves from them with secret, silent ‘buts’ (usually, “but he didn’t really mean it that way”).
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.
And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. …
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Obviously, if you asked me, I would say, “Of course, Jesus meant those things!” but then I would have gone on my merry way and done whatever I wanted to. Rollins is asking us to take stock of the difference in what we say we believe and what our life really looks like.
If I have to read those things and I don’t get to add a ‘but he didn’t really mean it’ to the end, well, holy shit.
Some of you might be like, “Ummm, what did you think being a Christian was, you dummy? This is literally what it is.” But how many of us live this way? I CERTAINLY DON’T, my friends. Never have.
That’s why this whole process Rollins is talking about, blowing up my tower of ‘buts’, is fucking terrifying. So, here I am, standing on a cliff side, wondering if I should jump.
You’re probably like, “Well, okay then. Thanks for this horrifyingly depressing idea, BETH. You seem like you need a nap. Why don’t you go lay down in your coffin and come see me when you’ve wiped that black lipstick off?”
And, I know what you mean. I desperately want to wrap this all up with a pretty little bow. “Well, there’s death involved BUT THEN THERE’S A RESURRECTION! Whoo hoo! Party time!” However, that’s a ‘but’ and its function is to avoid having to think too much about the death part. I can’t wrap this one up, friends.
I’ve gotta die before I can live.
Will I be able to?
(Buy Insurrection here. (Fair warning, I might get like 25 cents if you buy it))
The beautiful thing about dying to things that hold you back from a closeness to God is the freedom that follows. It also takes baby steps. My desires to insert “but” keep me bound frequently.
That’s what intrigues me about Rollin’s book. He challenges us to confront our ‘buts’ and it sounds like he wants us to do it all at once!
I have always been amazed when people I have known that have attended church for many years and especially those that have studied the Bible seriously do not seem to have any sense that there are lots of difficult passages. If they are aware of these then they avoid thinking or talking about them.
There are endless excuses for not considering a personal application for those passages that they do understand but might challenge comfort zones.
So this opens the door to religious attitudes that are not confronted by the truth of the Scriptures.
I had a lively discussion with a neighbor today. One of the many verses mentioned was Romans 12:2 that I pray often. I do not want to be conformed to the ways of this world but be transformed by the renewing of my mind. The herds of the world are drifting along in mindless conformity to conventional toxic thinking. Challenging passages direct me to wake up from this zombie parade.
My brother has volunteered at hospice centers. After a little training then he just sat there with a person that was dying. He could not fix them or heal them. But just being with them put his life into perspective.
Note that all hospice centers are in great need for volunteers. Some time there could bring big benefits for any of your many readers.
Beth, kindly continue writing in this open, honest, and vulnerable way. The reading of your words is a medicine for my soul and an exhortation for me to be more truthful with myself.
Thanks for the encouragement, John. I think you’re right. The West has made certainty an idol and so, when confronted with scripture passages that feel uncomfortable, we don’t know what to do with them. I’m hoping once I jump from the cliff that I”ll have more insights.
I think your brother’s experience in hospice centers must have been very valuable. Not being able to fix or heal must be a good lesson.
It’s something how at the very end, at his death, that the last thing that happened, after the justice system and his friends failed or abandoned him, was that god abandoned him.
Perhaps that’s the last thing for all of us before we can die and can be resurrected? I can see how such a notion would be scary to anyone, but it seems like after god abandons you, you come back to life two or three days later and everything is just fine.
Exactly. (If you’re interested) I think you would like Peter Rollins. He has some very interesting ideas around the crucifixion/resurrection
I’ll see if I can find it at my library.
Hi Beth. I’m from Canada. I think you are an INFP as per myers brigg personality tool. I think you are way too hard on yourself. You have a beautiful empathetic caring personality and are an amazing writer. You courageously care for two children, one severely disabled… I see your volunteered motherhood as your cross. And it’s a heavy one. I am Catholic and also working on my faith. God is ultimately love. We are asked to try to immitate Jesus with our life and aim for perfection but failure is 100% expected and that’s why we have confession. Mostly I want to reach out and tell you not to be so hard on yourself. You are exceptionally selfless and empathetic and it’s in your nature to be self critical and look for meanin in life (cause you are almost for sure an infp).
Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving such an encouraging comment!
My sister Beth,
This confirms again that travel ignites excellent writing from you. So please travel as much as is reasonably possible.
Here we have another entry in the deconstruction and reconstruction saga of your internal world.
Your keen self-awareness, willingness to learn, questioning, and observations of social patterns seem to be the fuel that energizes your spiritual pilgrimage.
I have found over the decades that the best tool for spiritual growth is to grapple with provocative questions. That is what you are doing here.
I am reminded of a sermon I heard in college that deeply shook up my agnostic tower. The takeaway was to doubt your doubt. I had put all my faith into my doubts. When they were challenged that allowed much light and new learning.
Your command of the English language continues to astound me. I am somehow able to track along with your feelings and insights by means of just text. Your use of metaphors is lovely.
In the providence of God, you somehow went to a Christian conference. Those few hours have energized the latent theologian in you. WOW. And your readers get to benefit too.
From where I sit I am grateful to your parents and other Christian leaders that were used to embedding those Bible verses in your memory that you can recall and weave together during this season.
I greatly admire your courage to buy and actually ponder such books that challenge your preconceptions.
This blog post reminds me of the saying Memento Mori which is Latin for ‘remember you will die’. I have had several near-death experiences and survived cancer recently. So I have pondered my mortality, the temporal versus enteral nature of our passing world, and how my Christian faith informs my priorities.
Beth, you have come a long way in your earnest, honest, and authentic spiritual journey. You have a long way to go until your last day on earth. It is a delight to get these updates from a fellow traveler.
Your brother in Christ
John S. Oliver