Friday, December 9, 2011

On writing about religion

Some people like writing. Others like having written. Me? I like having written without giving offense to people I love and respect.

By that standard, my musings in "Tim Tebow's ostentatious faith" and "Tebow, revisited" have been flaming disasters, with responses from my Christian friends generally ranging from stern disagreement to angry chastisement. The common theme in those responses: That (perhaps) I'd let antipathy to Christianity cloud my judgment.

The estimable William Voegelli weighed in with the least-angry but still-pointed variation on this theme: "If your point is that we would be better off rediscovering the value and satisfactions of reticence, I'm on board. If you're singling out Tebow because fundamentalist Christianity gives you the heebie-jeebies, I'm not." Privately, a close friend suggested (in not-so-many words) that I'd made a shtick out of being a big-city agnostic who was once a small-town Christian.

I didn't sleep much, or well, last night. It's quite a thing to have produced as intense a reaction as that.

But having examined my conscience, let me say this, unreservedly: Christianity doesn't give me the heebie-jeebies.

Here's my dirty little secret: You can take the man out of the church, but you can't really take the church out of the man. I know that 30 years of immersion in Christian circles—particularly among Mennonites—still shapes both me and my worldview. And though I've been frank about my own fall from faith, I've also felt a deep desire that (in the words of Paul writing to the Romans) I "not cause my brother to stumble." I've never wanted to undermine anybody else's faith: They have their journeys and I have mine. The idea of evangelical agnosticism is kind of silly if you think about it, anyway, and I've not had much use for the fundamentalist atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

There's a "but" coming, however.

I also don't believe that religion or Christianity are necessarily unmitigated forces for good, nor above critique. Just this week, Rick Perry released an ad that I believe to be a shining example of Christian chauvinism. It's not his faith that offends me; it's the political and societal implications of how he wields that faith that I find frightening and objectionable. I think it's possible to criticize that without being anti-Christian. But I also understand that if you're a conservative Christian, such criticism might look anti-Christian to you. To some extent, then, I have to offer my critiques in (er) good faith and let the chips fall where they may.

So what does any of this have to do with Tim Tebow, you may be asking. He's just a guy who is public about his faith, right? It's not like he's running for president or anything. Fair point. Why does an athlete deserve my critique?

Well, for one thing: Tebow's big news. His faith is big news, and controversial. Seems worthy of discussing in an op-ed column, then.

But let me tell a personal story. A number of years back, I was walking down Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, Kan. A church had gathered at one corner—as it often did weekly during early summer evenings—and one man stood atop a planter, shouting a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon at traffic and passerby. This was when I was still immersed in faith and church, but I stopped and chatted with one of the leaders. And what I told him was this: If the church was trying to win converts to Christ—it was—then the planter sermons were a bad idea. They were alienating far more people than they were attracting; the result being that by the church's own lights it was pushing more people away from Christ (and thus possibly condemning them to hell) than it was saving. This seemed alarming to me. It didn't seem to bother the street preachers.

In other words: What I say now is pretty much precisely the thing I was saying when I was a Christian.

Obviously, I'm not a man of faith anymore, so maybe I'm not the best person to counsel Tim Tebow about the effectiveness of his ministry. But if you look not-terribly-closely at what I wrote, some of the main thrusts were A) the Christ that Tebow worships seems to urge modesty in one's public displays of faith and B) evangelizing the way Tebow does might be counterproductive. I didn't tell Christians to shut up; in fact, I proclaimed that idea "undesirable." Given that I'm not a Christian, it seems likely that I was perceived as using Scripture to try to stifle Christians. I can see how it would look that way. From my perspective? I was evaluating Tebow by the standards of the Scripture he claims to adhere to. When you are so very public about your faith, that is going to happen. And it's often going to be people with a real antipathy to the faith doing the evaluating.

It legitimately grieves me that my Christian friends would perceive me as attacking their faith. I'm not sure what to do about that without forfeiting my option to write about issues involving Christianity—a bad idea in a still-quite-religious nation.

But I wrote in a provocative tone. And I provoked. I accept that some of my friends found that hurtful. I can't say I won't do it again. I will, however, be mindful.


Joel said...

Here's the funny thing: In a previous post, I was accused of sharing TMI because I wrote explicitly about my poop. This feels far more TMI to me than the poop post. I almost didn't publish it. But here you go.

Patrick Kelley said...

As a committed Christian and pretty good Episcopalian, I must tell you that I heartily agree with everything you say. But where you jumped from belief to agnosticism, I jumped the other way.
Both agnostics and Christians must, in the end, believe in the tendency toward goodness in humanity. Agnostics are full of doubt. So are thoughtful Christians.
Christianity, done well, gives an organization and direction to the practice of our better natures. Without my church, I would be less likely to seek an opportunity to help feed warm meals to the hungry (and hungry college students). I would limit my circle to people who thought like me and I would would not have the deep affection I have for people who disagree with me.
On the other side, agnostics never have to serve on the vestry.
Those who know you, know your heart and know it is good.
If we know that, surely God does too (sorry).
I know and understand your journey and am sure that wherever it leads you will be true to yourself and to others.

Kelly said...


First let me say that I am your father-in-law, and that you were present for my ordination to the Christian Ministry in '09.

I found nothing offensive in your T. Tebow post, but rather found much to commend. You were speaking from your position as one who formerly professed a relationship with God via Christ, but now don't. You were questioning the effectiveness of Tebow's witness, and I think correctly so.

I, too, find overt displays of "Christian piety" patently offensive and antithetical to God's intention for all of us who follow the Carpenter. Inordinate pride in religion is not really religion, but something else entirely, most probably a toxic form of … well, I'm not sure what it is.

Yet, if I told someone that I was an evangelical Christian, they would automatically assume that I held certain opinions (about abortion, prayer in public schools, etc.). They would be surprised to know that I am opposed to all the conservative Christian positions touted in the press, and I am opposed to them on solid theological grounds.

What passes for Christianity in our nation today would not be recognized as such by the first Christian's who inhabited these shores in the 1600's and from whom you know I am descended. John Stewart's ribbing of Congress this week made a similar point.

It is a sad thing that Conservative Evangelical Christianity has high jacked the "faith" conversation with its claim that intellectual ascent to a bundle of propositions is faith.

This is not faith, but certitude in opinions most of which are not worth holding, and many of which are harmful, to those who hold them and the people they influence.

Here is a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr's "Leaves From a Note Book of a Tamed Cynic", a note he wrote upon returning from a parishioner's Thanksgiving celebration near Detroit in the 1920's: "The Lord that was worshiped tonight was not the Lord of Hosts, but the spirit of Uncle Sam given a cosmic eminence for the moment the dear old gentleman does not deserve. It is a bad thing when religion is used as a vehicle of pride."

This is the underlying premise of your blog. Pride in religion negates G-d's effectiveness. Those are not your words, but I do believe it was your sentiment.

So, in closing, let me make this abundantly clear: Faith is an ever growing comfort level with the unknown, with ambiguity, with the ineffable, and learning to trust the comfort we gain from our experience with the unknown.

The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of the things not seen.(11:1)"

WE have had 30 years of bad theology in our public life. And bad theology in our public life gives us bad politics. AND We have a lot of bad theology out there today.

G & P


DOTDOT said...

Joel, Your background is exactly what adds weight to your religious discussions in my view. I have always been a bit too slow to keep up with the bloggedy blog pace of the exchange of ideas, and the result being the Tebow posts making a swoosh in the resonance of the civility post. Combined with this post, which gives voice to millions of us who travel a different road than those who raised us and love us, I hear a - how you say - "sub theme" involving the act of making a stand. I have stories awaiting Laphroig. One of these years, my friend.

Anyway. Agnosticism and Faith are not mutually exclusive. That's my stand. No doubt involved.