Book Club Discussion: Those evangelicals are so judgmental!

So I’ve been reading through our book club selection - unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons—nodding my head and humming in agreement with every negative statistic that the authors uncover.

Eighty-five percent of non-Christians think that Christians are hypocritical, the book says. “Well that’s because they are,” I think to myself, “especially evangelicals.” The first word that comes to most people’s minds when they think about Christians is “anti-gay,” the book says. “Well, that’s because the Religious Right opposes basic civil rights for gays and lesbians,” I tell myself. “They’re giving the rest of us a bad name.” Nearly nine in ten young outsiders say that the term “judgmental” accurately describes present-day Christianity, says the book.  “Well, clearly, that’s the fundamentalist’s fault,” I respond, “THEY’RE the ones being judgmental.”  

...Oh, wait.

As I've been reading through the book’s chapter on judgmentalism, it has become increasingly clear to me that I'm very judgmental myself.  And lately, I've suffer from a sort of reverse-judgmentalism that makes me unrelentingly critical of conservative evangelicals.  In other words, if there’s something wrong with the world, I tend to assume that it’s probably James Dobson’s fault. While the Religious Right blames everything on the liberals or the gay community, I blame everything on the Religious Right. If this sounds like a vicious cycle, it’s probably because it is.

In unChristian, the writers conclude that “stereotypes kill relationships.” (p. 190) Boy, isn't that the truth! And while a good deal of conservative Christians need to be reminded of this, so does a know-it-all blogger from Dayton, Tennessee.

Sure, a lot of Christians I know make ridiculous stereotypes about so-called “liberals” like me. They assume that I’m flighty and that I lack conviction. They assume that I’m just going with the flow, that I haven’t read my Bible enough, and that I “drank the Kool-Aid” when I voted for Obama. Most have no idea how long and hard I have struggled with certain theological issues—like heaven, hell, pluralism, determinism, and free will—and how much I’ve wrestled with certain political positions—abortion, gay marriage, poverty, war. They hear through the grapevine that I’m not so certain that all Buddhist go to hell or that I’m probably going to vote for a democrat and they put me on their prayer request lists, rolling their eyes at my “un-biblical” worldview.

But I do the same thing to them! When I’m on the campus of the Christian college here in town, I find myself making judgments about the students. I assume that they come from privileged Christian homes, that they’ve been sheltered their whole lives, that they believe whatever their professors and pastors tell them to believe, and that they would judge me the second they knew what books were on my bookshelf.  When  I meet someone who identifies himself as Reformed, I  make all kinds of assumptions—that he is stuck up, that he thinks Calvin must sit on the right hand of the Father, that he delights in the idea of people being predestined for hell, that he will call me “uninformed” and “unenlightened” when he finds out that I’ve explored Open Theism.

(Notice how my judgment so often corresponds with my own defensiveness and insecurity. Hmm....)

Sometimes I tell myself that it’s okay to be critical of the religious establishment because Jesus was critical of the religious establishment.  But I think this is a cop-out. I can be critical of certain theologies and positions, without looking down my nose at those who hold to them. Besides, Jesus had unique authority when it came to correcting the Pharisees, and He gave very clear instructions regarding judgment to those who wanted to follow Him:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? [I always imagine that the people listening to Jesus laughed a little at this point.] You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)

So, if my standard of judgment is judgmentalism, where does that leave me?  Could I measure up to my own standards? When I go around barking about how conservative evangelicals need to pry the log of judgmentalism out of their eyes, do I make a fool of myself with my own?

 I know what it feels like to get labeled. It’s awful, and I hate it. But if I intend to treat people the way I want to be treated, I’ve got to ease up on my more conservative brothers and sisters in Christ—even the Calvinists.  I’ve got to remember that a person is not defined by his or her religious, political, or denominational affiliation. Everyone has a story as deep and varied and nuanced as my own.   

It’s so much easier to blame other people than it is to “be the change” and simly do what Jesus said to do. (If you just made a judgment on my use of the phrase "be the change" consider yourself caught in the act!)

If Christian are ever going to correct the attitudes identified in “unChristian,” we’ve got to start with our attitudes toward one another. And I’ve got to start with myself.

***

So, who do you find yourself judging? Christians? Non-Christians? Republicans? Democrats? Calvinists? Dispensationalists? People who still listen to Boy Bands? How do we break the vicious cycle of judgment?

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Finish the Sentence Friday: Confession

So Bob Jones University issued an official apology this week for its racist policies. Believe it or not, Bob Jones refused to admit black students until 1971 and banned interracial dating until 2000. A statement on their Web site said that these rules were shaped “by culture instead of the Bible.”

Lest we get too proud and look down our noses at the “fundies,” let’s remember that all Christians carry the burdened of a troubled history.

I’m reminded of the chapter in Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz in which he and his friends set up a confession booth at Reed College. They used it to apologize to their classmates on behalf of the Christian community for everything from the Crusades to Columbus to televangelists.

So, in that spirit, finish the following sentence: 

As a follower of Christ, I am sorry for...

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Following Jesus and Maintaining Your Mental Health

So after years of teaching myself to say “no,” I've been experimenting with “yes” again. I know, I know. I've read Cloud and Townsend.  I am aware that it is important to maintain boundaries in one’s life. I know that I can’t do it all, and that if I spread myself too thin trying to meet everyone else’s needs, I’ll be drained of emotional energy, rendered incapable of giving and receiving love, devoid of all sense of self, etc.

And yet, “yes” is becoming more and more of an option these days.

It all started when I confidently announced to friends and family that I would like to be referred to as a “follower of Jesus Christ” instead of an “evangelical Christian.” (I think perhaps I’d been watching election-year poll results at the time.) This was all well and good until I started re-reading the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. (I figured that if I was going to say I followed Jesus, I ought to adhere to His teachings.) Well, as it turns out, His teachings are nuts.

Jesus, who clearly never read a self-help book, said this:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

It seems to me that Jesus not only advocates saying “yes,” he advocates saying, “yes, and what else can I do?”

This poses a particular challenge to my husband and me. Because we both work from home, it is often assumed that we are either a) unemployed and poor, or b) rich and bored. People under the impression that we suffer from option “a” generally leave us alone and pray we will find respectable occupations. Those under the impression that we enjoy the perks of option “b” ask us for stuff. Sometimes it’s time. Sometimes it’s money.

Now, I am absolutely convinced that saying “yes” to everything can be unhealthy. I’ve seen families torn apart because of over-commitments to ministries. I’ve seen godly people lose their spark and personality and love for the Lord because they tried to keep everyone happy. I’ve experienced first-hand the emotional exhaustion that accompanies unwarranted guilt and pressure, and I know what it is like to need some alone time to re-charge and re-focus.

But I am also convinced that Jesus calls us to live radically set-apart lives, that we are to be known throughout the world by our love for one another and for our care of the poor and suffering. This, I believe, involves a lot more than simply being nice and playing by the rules.  It involves opening our homes, giving liberally, meeting needs, sharing our things, doing favors, making sacrifices, listening, helping, cooking, cleaning, praying, hugging, and maybe even saying “yes” when we don’t really want to.

So how do we reconcile these two positions?

I have a hard time with this, especially after years of fine-tuning my ability to make priorities, stand up for myself, and say “no” when something requires more time, money, or emotional energy than I feel I have to give. For example, I find it pretty easy to send money to India, where I know indigenous missionaries living on about two dollars a day. It’s much more difficult, however, for me to say “yes” when I am asked to support ministries I’m not so crazy about, or missionaries that might not share my values or priorities. I’m happy to write articles and give presentations about the HIV/AIDS crisis, but I hesitate when asked to do menial tasks like feed my neighbor’s dog or babysit for a few hours.  I struggle to say “yes” when friends need help recovering from irresponsible decisions. I struggle to say “yes” when I know my sacrifice will go unappreciated. I struggle to say “yes” when a task doesn’t line up with my gifts or interests. I have a hard time giving when I suspect that I won’t get anything in return.

I am reminded of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. He’s such a pushover!  When Homer asks to borrow a lawnmower or hedge trimmer or bike, Ned gives without hesitancy, knowing there’s a really good chance he’ll never get his stuff back.  Some have complained about how Christians are portrayed on the show, but I think that Ned (like all the characters) represents the best and the worst of his type. When it comes to neighborliness and giving without expecting a return, Ned (imperfectly) represents the teachings of Jesus.

Of course, who can forget the episode where Ned finally goes crazy and leaves town? So how do we give like Ned without suppressing like Ned?

I used to think that it was all a matter of balance, that I could follow Jesus and maintain a comfortable emotional lifestyle at the same time. I’m not so sure anymore. Jesus wasn’t necessarily into the whole balance thing. He got crucified on a cross, you know. And He asks that we be willing to suffer the same fate, which isn’t exactly a commitment to fortifying our personal boundaries.

Giving isn’t really giving unless there is some sacrifice involved. Perhaps following Jesus requires a willingness to be uncomfortable now and then, to say “yes, what else can I do?” even when it violates our sense of well-being.

What do you think? Is it possible to maintain boundaries and still follow Jesus? How do you decide when to say “yes” and when to say “no”?

[P.S. I’m running behind again, and will post our next book club discussion on Wednesday. ]

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Your Spiritual Journey: Send Me a Postcard!

So recently I’ve been bumping into a lot of old friends on what was once a lonely and frightening path away from religious certainty. While most of us share a common starting point, we are often headed in different directions. I’ve talked with some who have given up on faith altogether, others who have shifted allegiance to another religious tradition, and a lot who (like me) are still a little uncertain about which road to take next. We’re an eclectic troupe of misfits, doubters, and explorers…and I’m delighted to have the company.

My hope is that this blog serves as a safe place for fellow travelers to stop and take a breather, to perhaps share a few stories and exchange some traveling tips. As I continue to work on my book and plan for future posts, I’d love to hear from you.

In what ways has your faith changed over the years? What life experiences triggered these changes? Have you encountered any life-changing books or influential people along the way? Have you found a religious denomination or tradition that feels like home? What sort of issues/ideas would you like to see addressed more often on the blog?

If you are a blogger yourself, you may want to take the opportunity to invite us to your site.

If you’re uncomfortable posting your ideas publically, (or if there’s simply not enough room to tell your story), feel free to correspond via the “contact” feature on the blog. I’m more interested in making connections and building relationships than racking up a bunch of comments here.

T.S. Elliot wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Sometimes I feel like the harder and faster I run away from Christianity, the closer I get to something that resembles the gospel of Jesus.

The other day a friend asked me if I’d “gotten over” my faith crisis, if I was done asking all those obnoxious questions. All I knew to say was, “Well, I certainly hope not.”

Keep exploring, friends!

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Finish-The-Sentence-Friday: Finding God

This one is especially reflective. Finish the following sentence: “I feel closest to God when…”

I’ll start. I feel closest to God when I am among “the least of these.” When I went to India to work with my sister  at an orphanage for AIDS-affected children, I felt closer to God than ever. Somehow, the gospel just made sense there.

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