Immersion Therapy for Doubters

For me, Thanksgiving wouldn't be complete without turkey, stuffing, football, and late night conversations about the hermeneutical inconsistencies of five-point Calvinism. It’s as American as Black Friday. 

This year, Dan and I were fortunate to have our good friends from college—Micah and Judi—stay over for a few nights. I always learn a lot from these two, and enjoyed picking their brains about everything from church planting to politics to eschatology.

One night, our conversation turned to those troubling passages of Scripture that seem to condone genocide. 

Micah told the story of how he took a graduate course on Joshua and Judges in which the professor, on the first day of class, went around the room and asked each student why he or she elected to study these two Old Testament books. 

When it was his turn to respond, Micah said, “Because if I could take out any two books of the Bible, it would be these.”

I thought that was a fantastic response.

Like me, Micah struggled to reconcile God’s love with his command to kill every man, woman, and child in Jericho. But rather than ignoring these questions, Micah confronted them head-on.  Instead of suppressing his doubts and fears, he acknowledged and addressed them and took an entire course that discussed them.

Sometimes I’m reluctant to take the same approach. Admitting that I take issue with certain tenants of Christianity and then purposefully studying those tenants in order to better understand them takes a lot of courage. Sometimes I’m afraid that the more I learn, the more I will doubt. And the more I doubt, the more faith I will lose.

But this hasn’t been the case.

In fact, when I’ve actually taken the time to study the issues that trigger my doubts—issues like religious pluralism, the Problem of Evil, biblical interpretation, evolution, predestination and free will—I come out with a stronger, more resilient faith. It’s not because all my questions go away. It’s because I’ve subjected myself to all the fears and insecurities surrounding those questions and managed to survive. It’s a bit like spiritual immersion therapy, I suppose.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Serious doubt, the kind that leads to despair, does not begin when we start asking God questions, but when out of fear, we stop.

Micah says he isn’t completely satisfied with the various solutions he encountered regarding Joshua, the Battle of Jericho, and other startling Old Testament tales. These are difficult stories for a modern reader to accept, and to claim immunity from their potency is to show a callousness that borders on pride.

But as we talked late into the night about ancient Near Eastern culture, Rahab, and the goodness of God, I felt strangely comforted. Questions are a lot less scary when they are out in the open and when, in a moment of solidarity and relief, you discover that they are shared.

***

What questions tend to trigger doubt in your life?  What have you done to confront those questions? What have you learned from them?

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Finish-the-Sentence Friday: Creative Outlets

I was talking with some friends today about creative outlets and how important they are for folks like writers, students, and computer geeks—folks who spend a lot of time working with their heads rather than their hands.

When I need a break from word-working, I like to make music mixes for friends, create collages from magazine and newspaper clippings, work on my design skills in QuarkXpress, or take the camera out for an afternoon of shooting. Every now and then, when life gets particularly stressful, I tap into my inner child and break out the coloring books, crayons, and markers.

What about you?

Finish the following sentence: When I need a creative outlet, I...

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Have a liberated holiday!

About this time every year, I suffer a mini nervous breakdown in the baking aisle of Wal Mart.

It goes something like this: Upon discovering that the only instant pie filling left on the shelves is banana-flavored, I launch into a profanity-laced tirade against JELL-O franchise, followed by a stifled sob into my shopping list, followed by a public declaration of outrage regarding the inequitable burden of being a woman during the holidays.

There’s just too much to buy, too much to cook, and too much football to miss while trying to get it all done, I tell the little old lady sifting through spices. Why are the stores packed with women and not men? Why must women be in charge of all the holiday preparations? Whatever happened to women’s liberation?

After the breakdown, I call my mother and suggest that we ditch Thanksgiving dinner altogether, order a pizza, and donate the difference to the local food bank.

“That’s obscene,” she says. (She actually uses the word “obscene.”) “If you want to donate, go right ahead. But we’re doing Thanksgiving with all the trimmings whether you want to or not, just like we do every year.”

Just like we do every year.

And so, just like every year, I dig out the recipes from generations past and get to work.

There are recipes from my maternal grandmother, who grew up in rural Appalachia in the wake of the Depression.  The daughter of a farmer, she learned to cook on a wood-burning stove.  Thanksgiving guests included uncles who worked in the nearby coal mines, grandfathers who remembered fighting for the Confederacy, and aunts who were honest-to-goodness relatives of the American hero Daniel Boone. The first in her family to go to college, she became a gifted schoolteacher. For years, Grandma’s inheritance was withheld by her brother, who claimed that land traditionally went to the male heirs alone. Grandma got herself a good lawyer, and in October was liberated from years of sexism to claim a little hill in North Carolina as her own.

There are recipes from my paternal grandmother, an excellent cook, who liked to serve lamb and duck on weeknights.  Born of Lithuanian immigrants, she rejected her Catholic background and converted to Protestantism, writing a letter to the Pope explaining why. She overcame alcoholism and alienation from her family to become an important member of her church and community. Strong-willed and smart, she held her own in political debates with my grandfather. She passed away on Thanksgiving Day a few years ago. There are wind chimes hanging from the trees around her grave.

Of course, most of the recipes are from my mother, whose handwriting on the gravy-stained note cards sets my mind at ease. Mom grew up Independent Baptist, and as a girl, was forbidden from dancing and going to movies and marching for civil rights. As a kid, she spent Saturday mornings scrubbing toilets and ironing clothes. Determined to break the cycle of legalism, Mom ran a home filled with compassion and grace, with very few chores, no forced church attendance, and special concern for the least of these. She and my father honeymooned in Mexico, rode donkeys through the Grand Canyon, and shot photos of grizzlies in Yellowstone. They were in the stands during the great Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game of 1976, when backup quarterback Clint Longley threw the game-winning 50-yarder to Drew Pearson. When they got home from the game, they found that their turkey (and most of their kitchen cabinets) had caught fire while they were away. Mom says it was totally worth it.

And so, just like every year, I take a pause from my rant about women’s liberation to remember the women who came before me—women who probably cried in grocery stores, swore at meat thermometers, and struggled through shopping lists, all to preserve our seemingly insignificant traditions surrounding gravy recipes and turkey garnishes. It’s the only time of year when I feel a strong, palpable connection to all of them at the same time.

Perhaps this is why I keep going, even after the annual breakdown. Perhaps it’s why I insist on making strawberry salad every year, even though I know Dan secretly doesn’t care for it. Perhaps it’s why women all over the country keep cooking and cleaning and hosting and shopping and sharing and giving, on top of all the additional opportunities and responsibilities we take on every day.

We don’t want to forget how far we’ve come in liberating ourselves in the important things.

***

Ladies, how do you cope with all the holiday preparations? What traditions do you strive to preserve? I actually get a lot of help from Dan, so I can't complain...well, I can...but I probably shouldn't. :-)

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Interview with Jason Boyett about doubt...and pantaloons

Jason Boyett is one of my favorite bloggers. Author of the Pocket Guide series, he has a disarming sense of humor and fluid, easy style.  So you can imagine my delight when I learned that Jason has written a book about his experience with religious doubt, which will be published by Zondervan in the summer of 2010. (Sound familiar?)

Entitled O Me of Little Faith, the book opens with this:

I am a Christian. I have been a Christian for most of my life. But there are times--a growing number of times, to be honest--when I’m not entirely sure I believe in God.

There. I said it.

So now you know, and we can both relax and talk about it.

I love it! Seeing as we have so much in common, I thought I’d interview Jason as a way of introducing him to you.  Enjoy!

R: So the shirtless kid on the cover of O Me of Little Faith is by far the cutest character to grace the cover of any of your books. (I’d put the haloed fellow from Pocket Guide to Sainthood at a very distant second.) In what ways do you identify with this little boy? How is he a good representation of your own faith journey? Or is this just your way of telling the world that you too wear bandages over your nipples?

J: What about the scampering skeleton from Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse? He's not traditionally "cute," but he really grows on you. Regarding the little boy on the cover, I can't speak on behalf of the nipple bandages. That's one of those deep metaphors we'll all still be trying to unpack years from now. But here's how I identify with him right now: the kid is skinny. He has no muscular tone. He is as unripped as they come. But look at him pose! Look at the confidence! This kid is scrawny but shirtless and flexing. He's not worried about what anyone thinks of his lack of muscle.

In O Me of Little Faith, I tell a story from my junior high days that highlights my own physical scrawniness. I was a skinny, wimpy kid. The rest of the book fills in how that physical weakness also had a spiritual counterpart -- I was spiritually weak, too. Unmuscular when it comes to faith (I'm still that way). But the book is about how I'm learning to be OK with my lack of faith, and how I've begun to embrace doubt as an intrinsic part of my spirituality. Like the scrawny kid on the cover, this book is me taking off my shirt and showing my scrawniness to the world. Without fear or worry or pretension. Without hiding my doubt. The apostle Paul wrote about the value of boasting about his weaknesses in order to magnify God's grace. This book is my way of doing that.

How is O Me of Little Faith different from any other book you have written?

It's way, way, way more personal than anything I've written. Up to this point, the books I've written have been advicey books (Guy's Guide to Life) or snarky history/theology books (the Pocket Guides). In them, I could adopt a voice or persona and write from behind that mask. The Pocket Guide persona, especially, is an artificial one. He's sarcastic, supremely confident, and unafraid of stepping on toes. That's not really me. (Not that I'm not claiming responsibility for those books. Of course they're mine. They have my name on them! It's just that I sort of adopt a different writing voice for them in order to keep them entertaining and funny. It's...complicated.)

Anyway, my previous books have been about various subjects. The afterlife. The apocalypse. But the subject of OMOLF is...me. There's no hiding behind any persona. So in many ways it was refreshing to write because I could just spill myself out onto the page. But in other ways it was a little painful. I wanted to be transparent and honest as I wrote about my spiritual doubt, which meant taking risks and removing filters. That's kinda scary.

Why do you think it is important for Christians to talk openly about their doubts?

The first reason is because doubt is a necessary part of faith. We tend to think that faith and doubt are opposites, but they're not. The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. If we are certain of something, we don't need faith. Faith and doubt, then, exist side by side -- and that plays itself out all over the Bible ("Lord I believe! Help me overcome my unbelief.").

But -- reason #2 -- doubt is about as taboo a subject as you can bring up in church. When was the last time anyone in a small group or church service admitted to not knowing if he or she believed in God? Or wondering if God was really present at all, or good? I've honestly had readers tell me that they'd love to read my book, but worry about what their friends or family might think when they see them reading a book about doubt. It sounds flippant, but maybe they should hide my book behind a Playboy. It's more acceptable to be a Christian with a porn problem than a Christian with a doubt problem. That's horrible. I want doubters to know that they're not alone in the journey, and that it's OK. That they don't have to pretend to have it all together. That they don't have to fake it. I hope this book gives them the freedom to be honest, and the encouragement to continue pursuing God, however that might look.

As you’ve opened up about your own doubts, have you found yourself meeting other folks who are eager to talk about theirs? What have you learned from them? Have you picked up on any common themes?

I've learned that being open about your doubts makes you a magnet for other doubters, which is wonderful. I've had a lot of people, whether in person or via email, tell me that they, too, are doubters -- because suddenly you're a safe person to confide in. And yes, people are eager to talk about it. Doubt is one of those things we bottle up. When you do that for years and years, the pressure gets too intense. It's good to let that pressure out, and talking to someone who 1) can identify with you and 2) won't judge you for it provides an excellent release valve. We need that. I need that.

One theme I've discovered is that, despite the wealth of Christian apologetics resources and Lee Strobel books and how-to-convince-atheists-to-love-Jesus videos, the usual answers don't always cut it. "You should read your Bible more. You need to pray more. You need to look at this cross-shaped diagram of a laminin protein and then you'll no longer doubt God." Seriously, we've heard the answers and not only are they often intellectually insufficient, but they're patronizing. Those who don't struggle with doubt tend to blame our uncertainty on pride or arrogance before God or some kind of sinfulness. As if we are looking for reasons to doubt because we want license to sin or escape the restrictions of Christianity. That's rarely the case. I don't WANT to be a doubter, but I am. Just like you can't unring a bell, you can't will yourself to believe something. Faith is a process, it's not a switch. The super-certain super-faithful seem not to understand that.

Are there certain situations/questions/theological positions/ people on TBN that trigger your doubts? Do you find that it is best to avoid such situations/questions/theological positions/people on TBN or to confront and explore the doubts that they trigger?

Yes. My triggers are science and history. Definitely not people on TBN. 

Let me chase a rabbit when it comes to basing your belief or unbelief on people: Not believing in God because of hypocrites or weird Christians is, to be blunt, a stupid reason to become an atheist. You might as well dismiss the idea of democracy because you know some ugly Americans. But choosing atheism because science or biology or rational thought leads you in that direction? That makes perfect sense to me. I'm not there, of course, but I can understand it. The more we're able to explain human behavior in terms of molecular genetics or brain activity or biological function -- absent a Creator -- then the more questions I have about what I believe, and why. The same goes for biblical criticism. A historical-critical reading of the Bible shows the fingerprints of man on it, and that makes it difficult to trust what I'm reading. That's how my brain works. I can't just automatically ignore science or scholarship because it doesn't line up with my Christian worldview. That's intellectually dishonest.

Along the same lines, I don't think it's healthy for me to avoid outside criticism because it seems to conflict with my faith. Christianity is supposed to be a religion committed to truth -- Jesus described himself as Truth -- so it needs to be able to stand up to honest questioning. I can't stick my head in the sand and pretend those questions don't exist. Besides, I love science. I love history. I love learning about the Bible. To steer away from those because they might conflict with what I'm struggling to believe isn't just a bad way to practice Christianity. It's a bad way to be a human.

One reason I find myself returning to your blog so often is I like how you don’t take yourself too seriously. How can a healthy sense of humor help in times of doubt?

Good question. I've never thought about that. I guess if I can keep laughing, then it distracts me from the weeping? (Kidding.) Humor is definitely a coping mechanism, but I'm also a big believer that it's a way to get at truth. Anything worth taking seriously is worth laughing about, and faith is the same way. But as a sometime humorist, I've learned that the least confrontational and most humble way to ask hard questions -- especially about religion -- is to ask them of yourself. I have a lot of trouble requiring others to keep to do certain things or hold to certain standards that I'm not willing to hold myself, so in the places where I don't measure up, I don't have any trouble admitting it. And there's the whole honesty and transparency aspect of it, too, which I'm big on. 

How does humor help? It would be so easy, as a Christian, to fall into despair when the doubts take hold. But it's not like becoming depressed about it helps that much. Moping just compounds the problem. And since it's impossible to hide it from God and unhealthy to hide it from others, why not talk about it? Why not laugh about it? If you can't be certain, at least you can try to be joyful. It's better to go through life with more joy than sorrow. I'm sure about that.

And now, (because I feel a bit like James Lipton), a few short questions from the Pivot Questionnaire:

What is your favorite word?

"Slake." It is an awesome word, and I've loved it my whole life, but I can't put my finger on exactly why. In 2nd place is the word "pantaloon," for obvious reasons.
 
What is your least favorite word?

Phlegm.
 
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?

The future. Thinking where I want to be, who I want to be, who I want my kids to be. Those things drive me forward in my career, in my creative life, in my imagination, and in my faith.
 
What turns you off?

Arrogance and ignorance. Combine those two and I become inwardly violent. (Outwardly, though, I will become exceedingly polite to you in an attempt to hide my desire to punch you in the mouth.)
 
What is your favorite curse word?

Honestly, I rarely curse. As a very clean-cut kid, I just never got into the habit growing up. Occasionally, for unknown reasons, I have found myself saying "Yamaguchi!" when I hit my thumb with a hammer or burn a finger. Yes, Yamaguchi. As in the last name of the Japanese-American figure skater, Kristi Yamaguchi. It's a good stress-relieving word that can be said through clenched teeth. My apologies to Ms. Yamaguchi for using her last name in vain. I have just outed myself as a total weirdo, haven't I?

I also think "dagnabbit" is a hilarious pseudo-curse word, especially coming from someone not wearing an oversized cowboy hat.

What sound or noise do you love?

The quiet crunch of walking on snow in the woods. There is no better sound than the muffled silence of footsteps right after a snowfall.

What sound or noise do you hate?

The sound of clicking jaw when a person chews. Gives me the heebie-jeebies.
 
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

I have always said that if I won the lottery and had millions of dollars I would still want a job doing something every day, even if it involved being a custodian. I could sweep floors and empty the trash and stack chairs all day. I seriously could. That said, I'd love to try my hand at being a flyfishing guide, a professional adventure racer, a backpacking gear tester, or a television/film actor. (I think acting would be fun, but who wants to live in Los Angeles? Not me.)
 
What profession would you not like to do?

There is no way on earth I could be a surgeon. Not because of the ickiness, but because of the pressure. Having someone's life (or liver) in your hands? Not for me, thanks.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

I think it's wonderful, first of all, that you start the question "If heaven exists," because lots of people will think you can hardly be a Christian at all just for including that clause. I love it. To answer the question: I'm of the opinion that, if heaven exists, there probably aren't literal gates. And there's no "arriving" there as if you have to be let in. And if St. Peter really is the bouncer, then I will eat his halo.

But, if that's what happens, then I'd love to arrive and hear God say, "Jason, you sure did have a lot of questions...and a lot of dissatisfaction with the answers. But that's how I made you, so no worries. You have been faithful with a few things, and I took care of the rest. It's on me. Now, please enjoy these chocolate-chip cookies. They're just as heavenly as your wife's, but so much healthier here!" 

Jason blogs at http://blog.jasonboyett.com. You can read more about O Me of Little Faith at the Zondervan website, or you can pre-order it right this very moment at Amazon.

***

What do you think? Will doubt become a less taboo subject among Christians as more and more writers confront it?

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Should Christians apologize?

As you may have heard, Shane Claiborne wrote a letter to non-believers for Esquire this week. He opens the letter with an apology, saying, “I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity. Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.”

Claibrone’s heartfelt apology reminded me a little of Donald Miller’s story of the “confession booth,” recounted in Blue Like Jazz, in which Miller and a group of young Christians apologized to their Reed College classmates for everything from the Crusades to televangelists.

For those of us who claim to follow Jesus, it’s inevitable that we will be confronted now and then with the humbling discrepancies between the way of Jesus and the way of Christianity. The regret I felt over my own shortcomings compelled me to issue a public apology to the LGBTQ community in a guest post I wrote for my friend Adele’s Queermergent blog entitled “An Evangelical’s Apology.” 

But lately I’ve been wondering if apologies are effective. As those of you who are married certainly know, apologies are meaningless unless accompanied by a change in behavior. So what are Christians to do when we know we will always fall short of our Savior? Is our hypocrisy made worse when we apologize without change? And how can we effectively apologize on behalf of a large and diverse community over which we have little control?

Things get especially complicated when you consider the fact that Christians disagree over which behaviors should be changed in conjunction with our apologies.

For example, most Christians I know agree that gays and lesbians have been horribly mistreated by the religious community, and that it’s time for a change in attitude and approach.  The problem is that some of us think this means we should stop picking on the gays and lesbians regarding their civil rights, that the 84 million dollars spent on Proposition 8 could be better spent somewhere else—on poverty and hunger, for example. Other Christians think that abandoning the fight against gay marriage signals a lack of conviction. Both sides are pretty convinced they are doing what Jesus would do. Are we making things worse by apologizing on behalf of one another and exposing our lack of unity?

I am not ashamed of the Gospel, but I sure as hell am ashamed of abuses of it. And I imagine that you are too. But how do we respond to these abuses in a Christ-like way?

For Christians: What do you think about apologies? Have you ever apologized to a person or to a group of people for falling short of your commitment to live like Jesus? Have you ever apologized on behalf of the Christian community? How can apologies be more effective?

For Skeptics: How do you respond when Christians apologize for their shortcomings? Do you find it encouraging? Ironic? Hypocritical?

For Those Who Have Been Hurt By Christians: How have you been hurt? Has anyone ever apologized? How would an apology make you feel?

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