Thursday, December 31, 2015

Be Careful What You Outgrow

John Pavlovitz has decided he’s outgrown American Christianity.

I am not losing my mind.
I’m not losing my faith.
I’m not failing or falling or backsliding.
I have simply outgrown American Christianity.

Okay. Well then.

To a certain extent I can sympathize with the sentiment, though perhaps the word “outgrown” might not be the one I’d reach for first.

Bigotry and Xenophobia

Pavlovitz gets more specific about what exactly he’s rejecting:
“I’ve outgrown the furrowed-browed warnings of a sky that is perpetually falling.
I’ve outgrown the snarling brimstone preaching that brokers in damnation.
I’ve outgrown the vile war rhetoric that continually demands an encroaching enemy.
I’ve outgrown the expectation that my faith is the sole property of a political party.
I’ve outgrown violent bigotry and xenophobia disguised as Biblical obedience.
I’ve outgrown God wrapped in a flag and soaked in rabid nationalism.
I’ve outgrown the incessant attacks on the Gay, Muslim, and Atheist communities.
I’ve outgrown theology as a hammer always looking for a nail.
I’ve outgrown the cramped, creaky, rusting box that God never belonged in anyway.”
There’s such a mixture of ideas in Pavlovitz’s screed that I’m almost as reluctant to start picking away at the details as I am to endorse them, but there’s a general theme here that one cannot miss, which is that he rejects the convenient use of Christian tropes in the service of American nationalism.

The Earthly People of God

And to that I would say a hearty amen.

God chose himself an earthly people. It was not, contrary to some, the United States of America. It was the descendants of Israel. That one privileged nation among nations has been temporarily set aside. In the words of the apostle Paul, it has experienced a “partial hardening” because of national unbelief. But since the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, national Israel’s time will come again.

At no point has America ever replaced Israel in the plans and purposes of God.

Patriotism and Christianity

Further, America has never been a “Christian nation”. Such a thing does not exist.

That said, there remains a strong tendency among some Americans to conflate patriotism and Christianity, a tendency which is more than a little understandable.

After all, for most of the last century the USA has been among the best and safest places in the world to live, and it would be hard to deny that it was a generalized appropriation of certain Christian values that made the difference: things like honesty, loyalty, generosity, hard work, monogamy, devotion to family, kindness to the poor and to strangers, respect for authority, the responsibility of the individual conscience, etc. Living out these values even a tiny little bit has made America a better and more desirable place to be, though it is unlikely that saving faith and the personal knowledge of Christ were a part of the package for most Americans.

Not every one of these values is uniquely Christian, of course. Further, not all are unique to America, not all have ever been practiced consistently, and each and every one is presently in the process of being vigorously attacked and severely eroded throughout America.

A Good Run

Still, America has had a pretty decent run. These Christian-influenced values had their positive impact on the broader culture, however fleeting it may have been. If America had ever really been the horrid white patriarchy its detractors still make it out to be, there would have been no welfare state, no suffrage, no feminism, no “Summer of Love”, no abortion, no civil disobedience and no abolition of slavery. America would be a lot more like, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran, with every public anti-civic, antisocial, irreligious or individualistic impulse quashed on sight.

But it’s not. In fact, every seed of leftism that has rooted itself in American soil was allowed to do so precisely because Americans embraced individualism, tolerance and a “live and let live” ethic that indirectly and purportedly drew its moral authority from Christian principles, an ethic one might well argue has ultimately done America’s structural integrity a grave disservice.

Selling Snake Oil

At the same time, politicians on both sides of the aisle have successfully manipulated generations of Americans by applying a Christian veneer to secular policy initiatives in order to encourage the buy-in of the religious right. Contrary to what Mr. Pavlovitz claims when he decries “rabid nationalism” and “a political party”, this conscious pandering to a religious demographic is not simply a Republican thing, it is quite bipartisan. As I have noted in the last couple of weeks, there are politicians and opinion makers currently packaging both pro- and anti-immigration sentiment as allegedly “Christian”. In fact, Barack Obama himself was cleverly packaged as “Christian” on the campaign trail, and I don’t doubt many Christians voted for him, believing that “hope and change” meant, well, “hope and change”. There are enough people in America today who think of themselves as Christian that their voting power cannot safely be ignored, whatever your political ideology.

Thus it is entirely understandable if Americans are a bit confused. Few of those who call themselves American Christians have any real understanding of the Bible or consistently embrace its values, but they are constantly seeing it trotted out to push one political agenda or another.

On such a level I can relate to John Pavlovitz and his conviction that he has “outgrown” all this. Who wants to be a pawn in somebody else’s political game? I sure don’t.

Baby and Bathwater

But bundled in with Pavlovitz’s repudiation of flag-waving sentimentality and jingoistic nationalism packaged as “Christian” are a bunch of things that might be more Christian than he thinks. We have to be careful about throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Pavlovitz says he has outgrown “furrowed-browed warnings of a sky that is perpetually falling”. If by this he means the warning that judgment is coming … well, it is. “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” There’s no getting around that fact. Whether you prefer left wing or right wing political ideology, the Huffington Post or Fox News, at some point you will have to give an account to God. That is not negotiable. You can “outgrow” it and remain American. You cannot outgrow it and remain Christian.

Likewise, Pavlovitz insists that he has outgrown “the snarling brimstone preaching that brokers in damnation”. It is probably wise for us to forego the snarling (though in my experience the fire-and-brimstone evangelist is largely a caricature in today’s church, a straw man from a bygone era reanimated for convenient dismissal). Still, in scripture, coming judgment has eternal consequences. To ignore that is to ignore a significant portion of the Christian message, a message we are compelled to faithfully deliver. Hell is eternal. It is not to be trifled with. It is not a concept we can safely “outgrow”.

Finally, Pavlovitz says he has outgrown “the incessant attacks on the Gay, Muslim, and Atheist communities”. If by this he means that we ought to be careful about how we speak about those in need of Christ, he’s not wrong: there’s little point in unnecessarily antagonizing the unsaved with abrasive rhetoric. If, on the other hand, he means that whether you are gay, Muslim or atheist doesn’t actually matter in the long run, he is sadly mistaken. Beliefs and the actions that inevitably follow from them have consequences, and some of those consequences are bitter indeed. The sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God. Those who have no love for the Lord are to be accursed.

Sorry, but if we are to be the least bit faithful as Christians, we don’t get to “outgrow” that.

Looking at Fox News these days, it’s not inconceivable that the “American” part of “American Christianity” might be best outgrown. But we had better be careful what we discard.

Not everyone is as crystal clear as John Pavlovitz which parts of American Christianity are merely American.

1 comment :

  1. I read the blog by John Pavlovitz in the link you provided. He seems to simply be missing some main points which, in my opinion, is due to him not honestly dealing with the subject material and due to his lack of discernment concerning his own inclinations and preferences. A first and primary responsibility in life for any faithful Christian person is to honestly evaluate their true inclinations and preferences and how they stack up against the teaching that defines the straight and narrow road. Then, based on that self examination you should notice when you are lying to yourself for reasons of personal convenience. For example, as the presumably intelligent person that he is, when making the statement "I have simply outgrown American Christianity" he should immediately have asked himself the question, which Christianity have I not outgrown? He would then honestly have to admit that it is Christianity itself and the straight and narrow that has become the yoke for him to which he no longer wants to submit. In other words, Christ was obedient to his Father unto death and that obedience is what is hard to imitate, especially nowadays, and we often simply do not even want to try. Curiously, the Catholic Church, for example, is very much aware of this internal battle that we all have to wage and hence is fought by many persons in private in monastic orders where the adoption of obedience, as opposed to rebellion, is a prerequisite. The call to therefore also imitate Christ in his obedience should be quite clear to the thinking person.

    Since Mr. Pavlovitz presents himself as a thinker, then he is simply disingenuous in not acknowledging the obligations that come with attempting to live as a Christian. There is no reason why he, as a thinking person, cannot sort out the fluff, the wrong material and misdirection from poor models of Christianity and remain focused on the true Christ and teaching of the Bible. Since he is not doing that I therefore have to attribute his disillusionment to no more than the usual personal convenience factor that I have so often mentioned as being prevalent nowadays as a form of modern day malaise. You make your choices based on what is convenient for you and ignore, denigrate, and discard what is not. I call that nothing else but human weakness manifesting itself in lack of personal integrity, honesty, and an attempt to adjust God to your preferences rather than the other way around.