Christianity: Now in 3-D and Living Color
Life’s reality is very different from what I was taught to expect growing up as a middle-class American Christian. In that context, church meant traditional families brushed and smiling, all members present. Religious activities meant coloring books of a clean-cut Jesus and his disciples and Bible stories as two-dimensional as the flannel board on which they were played out. Testimonies meant point-by-point speeches that described hardship and sin in the past tense—and dramatic and permanent change suddenly materializing to save the day. Christianity meant a clearly defined right and wrong for every situation—and absolute judgment for those who did not abide by our standards.
As a young adult, I know Christians who live and share lives that are three-dimensional and colorful, lives of depth and experience-reflecting truth that look beyond false absolutes and black-and-white thinking. This kind of living involves a faith that does not worry as much about hardline “shoulds” and “should nots” and lists of “rights” and “wrongs” as difficult to prove as they are polarizing. Instead it is a faith that simply seeks to see and hear the people and stories around us and help where we can. It is a faith that communicates at its heart, in the words of Over the Rhine,
All my favorite people are broken
Believe me, my heart should know
Some prayers are better left unspoken
I just want to hold you and let the rest go
All my friends are part saint and part sinner
We lean on each other, try to rise above
We are not afraid to admit we are all still beginners
We are all late bloomers when it comes to love
This type of colorful, multidimensional faith requires honesty about ourselves as weak, broken people. It also requires a humility regarding the uncertainty tied up in belief. Paradoxically, our lack of completeness and surety is one fact in which we can be confident. Instead of hiding behind a false and uninteresting image, we can emerge as complicated and insecure people to truly engage with God and others around us.
I am blessed to have the people in my church help me to move beyond a two-dimensional, uniform faith to one that acknowledges life’s hardship and uncertainty as inevitable and even good. In my church, there are people who are married, single, divorced, and widowed. People who have no family and attend church alone, people who have family yet attend church alone, and families. People who are younger and older, both in terms of actual age and in terms of the experiences life has thrown at them. People who feel confident in their faith and people who doubt more often than not. People who struggle with depression and people who cannot understand its pull. People who have found relief from a difficult situation and people who seem so valiant in their efforts to climb out of a situation, though a reprieve seems nowhere in sight. People who find common ground despite disagreeing with one another about theology, politics, and even the ins and outs of everyday morality. People who, despite all these differences, are equally welcome and, as my pastor has said, all “completely and utterly dependent on God’s grace and kindness.”
Going through the process of counseling has similarly challenged my perceptions about what it means to be a Christian. Prior to counseling, while I was aware to a certain extent of my flaws and maladjustments, my knowledge of my own depravity was also paired with an uncompromised belief that I was still “okay” and, however subconsciously, that I was somehow better off than others. Through counseling I have come to a more honest assessment of my own state, one that is strangely more aware of my own brokenness and unknowing while much less disturbed by it. It is in increasingly fuller knowledge of my own bereft and fragmented state that I have begun to realize I am no less weak and destitute than anyone else.
What if Christians were comfortable with mystery, honest about our brokenness, and known for our vibrant, authentic faith? Wouldn’t people be drawn to the person of Christ rather than repulsed by a religion that is static, flat, and so easily caricatured?
And yet, although we all have it in common, it seems we would rather hide our weakness and destitution. Since Adam and Eve and their useless fig leaves, we have been trying ineffectively to hide. We don’t use fig leaves anymore, but we wear masks and labels, such as “Christian,” that we use to thank God that we “are not like other people,” like the Pharisee in Luke 18. Whatever sins we have committed, whatever situations we find ourselves in, however flawed our theology, at least (we believe) there is someone out there who is worse than we are or who knows less than we do. We are not willing, like the tax collector, to beg for mercy or acknowledge the depth of our inadequacy.
It is only in seeing and sharing our brokenness that we can truly realize and share the power of Christ’s redemption, even redemption not yet realized. Christ’s redemptive power is more vast than we can comprehend, especially given the physical comfort and less visible sins and trials that define most of our lives. Most of us do not have stories like that of Cambodian Kang Kek Iew, or “Comrade Duch,” of the Communist Khmer Rouge base. He oversaw the torturing and execution of tens of thousands of people during the late 1970s. Between fleeing Cambodia because of Vietnamese invasion and eventually being discovered and arrested in the late 1990s, Kek Iew converted to Christianity and spent time working for refugee and relief organizations, including World Vision. During his trial in the late 2000s, Kek Iew fully confessed to his crimes and begged for forgiveness, despite other leading members’ refusal to acknowledge their part. This kind of radical transformation—from unspeakably horrific actions to remorse and full cooperation—is one we are unlikely to witness or experience in a concrete fashion.
In the context of our relatively protected First World lives, our wounds (both inflicted and received) are less dramatic and less noticeable, as are the redemptive patterns that may coincide with those wounds. All the more need to identify and communicate both our wounds and our healing, regardless of whether either line up neatly with the way we want or expect life to happen.
If we are to present ourselves to each other and to unbelievers in this authentic manner, we must let go of our need to command and wield the Scriptures for our own purposes. “To take the Scriptures seriously is not to take them literally,” writes Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. “Literalism is invariably the lowest and least level of meaning.” Instead, when we read the Bible for its transformative message rather than a historical or utilitarian text, it becomes “true on many levels, instead of trying to prove it is true on just the one simple, factual level.” We can become so concerned with proving our faith that we forget that the nature of faith is that it cannot be proven. A faith ironed flat to avoid any hint of ambiguity is not much of a faith at all. We should never stop trying to learn and understand, but at the same time, we live in the mystery of a peace that passes understanding.
When we let go of the desire to feel secure in our own knowing, we can truly listen to others. In The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction, Peter Rollins terms this practice “literalistic listening.” As Rollins explains, when we approach someone with a differing view, we typically come from a place where we consider our own views and experiences above theirs. We automatically assume we need to make a decision about whether we agree or disagree or give some kind of biblical advice. When engaging in literalistic listening, however, we allow the other person’s views to “challenge and unsettle our own.” Instead of assuming we know what they are trying to say or that we need to make a judgment, we consciously monitor our own experience-based filters and try to imagine the other person’s position as they see it. This is not an attempt to understand someone’s perspective in a way we cannot or to assess their position so as to persuade them otherwise, but to genuinely consider their position with more weight than we give our own.
I am not suggesting we glorify our brokenness or that we abandon our sense of absolute truth. We do not need to start introducing ourselves with our name and a description of our issues and ask others to do the same. We also do not need to begin and end every explanation of a particular conviction with the qualifier, “but I really have no idea what is and is not true.” However, there is a demeanor of grace and humility with which we can present ourselves and engage others, a demeanor that will encourage authentic interactions that acknowledge our weakness in order to point towards our hope of redemption.
The past few years of my own life have been tumultuous, and I have increasingly found myself seeking out people who are open about experiencing hardship, wanderings, and doubt. These are people with whom I can be in true relationship, because I can relate to them and they to me. They live in the reality that we have no guarantees about how earthly life will unfold and the realization that there is much about life we do not know or understand.
The reason movies in color and 3D are exciting is because they seem more real. What if Christians were comfortable with mystery, honest about our brokenness, and known for our vibrant, authentic faith? Wouldn’t people be drawn to the person of Christ rather than repulsed by a religion that is static, flat, and so easily caricatured? What would happen if, as Christians, we could communicate the words of Over the Rhine to the world around us?
All [our] favorite people are broken
Believe [us], [our] heart[s] should know
Awful believers, skeptical dreamers, you’re welcome
Yeah, you’re safe right here, you don’t have to go.