THE BANNER HANGING from St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome showed Mother Teresa, hands clasped, looking out over the 100,000 faithful who had come to celebrate her sainthood. I was part of that crowd last September, and as I looked at that banner I couldn’t tell if her facial expression was a smile or a grimace.
In a museum a few blocks away were glass cases that displayed her sandals, her walking stick, and her blue and white sari, as well as letters, photos, and a timeline charting every major event in her life. In a different cathedral the night before, an orchestra and choir performed a magnificent original oratorio written in her honor.
Under the banner’s gaze at St. Peter’s, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was seated, along with dignitaries from dozens of countries. I wondered what thought bubble would be most appropriate if one suddenly appeared above Mother Teresa’s depiction on the tapestry. I decided it would be this: “If you only knew.”
Film critic Alissa Wilkinson writes that “Christian theology is rich and ... full of imagination that's broad enough to take up residence among all kinds of human cultures. It contains within itself the idea that art exists as a good unto itself, not just a utilitarian vehicle for messages.” The Wedding Plan is a prime example of this kind of religious art. It’s a message movie, a window into a culture that makes the specific and personal universally relatable, and still manages to tell a good story.
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Every year on Ash Wednesday, I seek out some member of the clergy to say those words to me. They come from the curse of mankind in Genesis 3, but I find blessing in hearing them in the tale of the loving purposes of God.
Teens across the world are still flocking to monks in France to deepen their Christian faith? Yes — and my family and I remained in awe of its tent-dotted fields and large scale kitchens staffed all by volunteers.
The Taize community of brothers from across Christian traditions — alongside sisters from a Catholic order — host religious thinkers, leaders, practitioners, and especially youth who want to engage biblically around issues spanning peace, justice, the arts, service, and Christian practice. We came to Taize as a spiritual "vacation-pilgrimage" during their 75th anniversary celebration and the 10th anniversary of Taize's founder’s death, joining religious leaders from around the world.
For American Christians who may be stuck in habits of religious thinking that promote "all or nothing," "left and right" interpretations of the Scriptures, Taize invites us to sing together and investigate the scriptures from a fresh global perspective.
There is a plethora of Christian bloggers who are “honest with our doubt.” We are hurt, angry, and cynical, and we are not afraid to talk about it. Predictably, there are some who are made uncomfortable by this negativity. And they respond with something like, >“You don't have to waste your time deconstructing things when you're committed to just building something better.”
I have so many problems with this it’s hard to know where to begin. Deconstructing is not a “waste of time.” Nobody enjoys questioning the ideology that has held their worldview intact. You don’t talk someone off of the ledge of suicide by telling them they’re wasting their time bemoaning what’s wrong with their life. You don’t say people are wasting their time figuring out what is causing them to feel such deep pain. But more importantly, it betrays a certain naivete toward the work of building something better. It assumes that constructing something rises from a vacuum rather than on the fruit of past labors. To believe you are constructing and not deconstructing is to be ignorant of what it is you are choosing.
Ultimately, Christianity is about Jesus — not Christians. Although we try our best to emulate Jesus, we constantly fail, but please judge our faith based upon Jesus and not our Christian culture — because they aren’t the same thing.
Inevitably, we’ll continue to be polarizing in numerous ways across political, social, and religious platforms, and we’ll still commit bad mistakes, make hurtful remarks, and end up being wrong about many things. But for most Christians, our ultimate desire is introduce people to Jesus, who inspires us to make the world a better place by loving everyone around us to the best of our ability. God help us.
What I am learning is that the new normal is not that I no longer experience God, but that God is meeting me in new ways. The new normal is that I don’t need to hear people play guitar telling me to feel God’s love from a stage. I find God’s love in much less conspicuous places, from the stranger behind me who felt too awkward to shake my hand, to the silly doodles my kids were making on the church bulletin. The new normal is that I no longer find authority in celebrity pastors preaching at me, but I do find it listening to unheard voices of small bloggers and older people who aren’t social media savvy.
The new normal is that I hear the "Roman Road" gospel preached and find it dull and superficial, and yet feel overwhelming conviction in the cross lived out by people who forgive their enemies.
The new normal is that although God has not changed, I have changed. And like a parent who stops cooing in baby talk, God is starting to speak in new, fresh ways to me.
My personal theology is a bit of a haphazard salad, and some of the odder items in the Bible make me pretty sure we aren’t supposed to follow the Good Book word for word. But I’d like to believe there’s Someone up there somewhere, and surely some Bible stories will teach my kids moral lessons that will help them grow up into the fine, upstanding people I want them to be. Right?
So I buy a book of bible stories — a charming little book filled with fluffy sheep and smiling cartoon people in tunics and sandals — telling myself it’ll be Aesop’s fables plus Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, with the extra heft of blessings from the Big Guy Upstairs. I sit down to pick out our first story.
And I can’t.
What’s it like to share your stories of loss to a room of hundreds? Wm. Paul Young (author of The Shack), Reba Riley (Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome), and Christian Piatt (PostChristian) are about to find out — and help others do the same. The three bestselling authors are launching a two-stop tour — "Where's God When..." — in Seattle and Portland on May 16 & 17, to help others hear, and share, their own stories of grief, heartbreak, and healing.
Sojourners sat down with the authors last week to talk loss, return to faith, and what it’s like to coordinate a tour focused on hard questions about God. Interview edited for length and clarity.
The definitive characteristic of Christian faith is that it is rooted in a historic event. We are the Resurrection People because the core of our belief, faith, ethics, and future hope lies in the 33 precious years of our God incarnated, culminating in him, the Suffering Servant, being nailed to that old rugged cross, and his subsequent rising from the dead.
The Christian faith has always been about God coming to save us in human form.
Everything we know about what it means to be a Christian is clothed with humanity. Jesus followers learn of what it means to be Christian by way of human relationships. We recite and affirm historical creeds passed down to us through the cloud of witnesses, the generations of believers before us. We are instructed in the moral values that align with Christian teaching by our mothers and fathers, whether biological or spiritual. Our local church community is our ethics classroom, a place where we practice, learn, and grow, working out our salvation and mobilizing the revolution of God in our particular corner of the world.
The day after Easter, it snowed. I was carrying in my last buckets of sap before leaving for Portland and was not surprised by the flurries, but they still stymied my expectations of warmer weather. The equinox had passed several weeks before, and while the start of spring had been marked on the calendar, it was (is) dragging its feet in coming.
Who has known the mind of God or even a good 7-day weather forecast?
We see and know in part. Certainty has never been the steady state of the human condition. Our lives are stretched with the awareness that clarity, at its best, comes with a smudge.
The experience of knowing we do not know can be felt in different ways. One is confusion, another, mystery. Both are confrontations of the hidden or unknown, but one brings us to awe and the other despair. One can leave us feeling isolated and the other in wonder at our relationship to that which is so much greater than ourselves.
The space between the two is not in the level of knowledge but rather our relationship to the knowing and unknowing itself. In the midst of our unknowing, we are faced with a choice: passive uncertainty or the stumbling action of faith. The beginning of wisdom is not the expectation of certainty with knowledge but the understanding that the kind of life most worth living is always an act of faith.
Have you ever been enamored by a child’s sense of wonder? Their incredulous awe in myths like the tooth fairy and Santa, their wide-eyed anticipation of unwrapping a present?
We are most inspired by the unknown.
A magic trick — how did they do it?!
A movie with surprising plot twists.
A news scandal shrouded with mystery.
We are drawn to the unknown because it tickles the innate sense of curiosity within us to discover and explore. Mystery invites participation, not for the sake of removing what is unknown, but to ignite a passion for learning beyond what is certain and be changed through the process.
Why is it then, we insist on equating our Christian faith to certainty? We sing about a Blessed Assurance and hold intensive meetings to discuss the essentials of faith. We share testimonies of God stories to shelve any doubts of God’s existence. We preach the same sermons, pray the same prayers, tell the same stories, week after week to convince ourselves it all is still true.
Is this what our Christianity has been reduced to, more of the same? I am sorry, but I simply cannot muster up anymore enthusiasm for such a formulaic faith; it’s like taking elementary classes all over again. I already know that two plus two equals four.
I am longing for the gift of uncertainty, a type of profound mystery that welcomes questions, a faith that requires a leap of faith to sustain.
The End of Our Exploring by Matthew Lee Anderson is worth reading. In fact, it’s worth getting the book just to read the last nine pages of his final chapter that beautifully and poignantly describes a Christian life well questioned.
The theme of the book is the challenge of questioning well. Anderson argues that not only is questioning important to a well-reasoned faith, but it is core to the development of Christian intellect and character. Writing out of a conservative Christian context that is often characterized as an anti-intellectual space that discourages those whose questions would disrupt the status quo, Anderson makes a critical case for questioning’s importance to that community — a case that applies well to the Christian community as a whole.
The End of Our Exploring includes his critique of a culture that prizes “sincerity” above all else (35), his distinction between easy access to information and pursuing understanding (72), his condemnation of the constant pursuit of novelty in place of truth (117), and his encouragement that churches allow “belonging after believing” for those who have turned away from their faith (204), just to name a few. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the section in which he points to our personal friendship as “good for America,” as we are friends who believe that the other is wrong about nearly everything (160).
In that vein, I don’t want to spend too much time pointing out my areas of agreement when we both have a lot more fun jumping in on the areas of contention.
Few things are presented more inaccurately than Christianity. Often marketed through evangelism as a joyful, peaceful, loving, easy way to overcome the hardships of this world, in reality practicing Christianity is far more grueling than many pastors, churches, theologians, and Christian institutions make it out to be.
Christianity isn’t meant to be a form of escapism, a safety net, or a crutch. Rather, following Jesus means bravely sacrificing yourself for the love of humanity, becoming nothing for the sake of others.
So instead of preparing people for failure, impossible expectations, disappointment, and false illusions, here are five things everyone should know before becoming a Christian.
Christianity is a lifelong journey of learning new things, growing in wisdom, and interacting with a wide array of difficult topics. Boldly asking tough questions is essential to spiritual development.
Today, few questions are as important, impactful, meaningful, or divisive within Christianity as the following six:
1. Is homosexuality a sin?
While much of society continues to accept homosexuality as being a culturally and morally acceptable practice, many Christian institutions, organizations, and communities still consider it sinful.
Increasingly, Christians who publically denounce homosexuality are perceived as homophobic, bigoted, and on the completely wrong side of a major human rights movement. This results in the Christian faith being wholeheartedly rejected by a modern population that sees this type of fundamentalism as incompatible with modern ethics and conventional wisdom.
But other churches, denominations, and spiritual communities are changing — and some have fully embraced and supported gay rights.
Christianity currently finds itself facing four basic responses: 1) support homosexuality, 2) reject it as sinful, 3) accept it but still claim it’s sinful, and, 4) ignore the issue as much as possible.
Believers are deeply divided on the issue, and ultimately your stance on homosexuality defines much of what you think about God, theology, church, sin, and salvation.
This is one of the defining question facing today’s Christians, and many are still processing through what they believe and struggling to come up with an adequate answer.
It was the beauty on the outside that drew me away.
Before social justice became trendy among evangelicals, people of all denominations, faiths, and philosophies had already been steadily working in the trenches without fanfare, caring for the least of these with a quiet strength.
Through seminary, I learned to grapple with justice being at the heart of the Christian Gospel — dignity, equality, and right to life for all — I marched out into the real world with zeal and vigor to champion the rights of the oppressed in the name of Jesus. However, I discovered the people who were doing this work often had no identification with Christianity, that those outside of church were behaving more Christian-ly than some inside.
I admired Nicholas Kristof, a self proclaimed nonreligious reporter, who tirelessly sheds light on humanitarian concerns.
I adored Malala, a Muslim, who stood up to the Taliban to bravely demand a right to education for girls.
I reflected on the justice heroes of recent history, people like Gandhi and countless other humanitarian workers who don’t claim the Christian faith for their own.
It disoriented me because for so long I believed it was only through Christ that one can walk in righteous paths; that without the Truth (which had been so narrowly summed up for me in John 3:16), everything was meaningless. I didn’t have an interpretive lens to categorize beauty that existed outside of the vessel I was told contained the only beauty to be found: the evangelical Christian church.
Faith: dealing with the meaning of life, the matter of eternal salvation — the bedrock upon which we build our families and society. This is serious stuff. Irreverence, by definition, is a lack of respect for that which is serious. It would seem that finding faith in the irreverent is impossible, like searching for the sun in the dark of the night.
Irreverence permeates pop culture. From HBO shows filled with crude nudity and violence, to musicals such as The Book of Mormon (where explicit ratings are applied to almost every song), to late night comedies featuring popular hosts like Jon Stewart and Colbert, who play-act a persona speaking exclusively in snark.
The Church, by and large, keeps irreverence at arm’s length. Sure, some pastors like to open sermons with a couple of clean jokes, but that’s about the extent to which humor interacts with the Faithful. While I agree there’s a social maturity required in expressing irreverence through appropriate channels, the Church is missing out on a deep authenticity of the human experience if we continue to fear irreverence instead of finding beauty in it.
“On the third day, he rose again.”
But how that statement is interpreted is the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity — and a stumbling block for some Christians and more than a few skeptics.
Did Jesus literally rise from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one, a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?
In a world where people are craving inspiration, growth, and information, many churches maintain a cyclical pattern based on redundancy, safety, and closed-mindedness. Unfortunately, many pastors and Christian leaders continue to recycle old spiritual clichés — and sermons — communicating scripture as if it were propaganda instead of life-changing news, and driving away a growing segment of people who find churches ignorant, intolerant, absurd, and irrelevant.
As technology continues to make news and data more accessible, pastors are often failing to realize that they're no longer portrayed as the respected platforms of spiritual authority that they once were.
Instead of embracing dialogue and discussion, many Christian leaders react to this power shift by creating defensive and authoritarian pedestals, where they self-rule and inflict punishment on anyone who disagrees, especially intellectuals.
From Julie Andrews’ performance as Maria in the 1965 film “The Sound of Music” to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Sister Aloysius Beauvier in “Doubt” (2008), many Hollywood actresses are particularly conspicuous for their habits. But although habits or veils are thought to symbolize purity – and especially chastity — some films presented a more complicated portrait of nuns.
The title of Maureen Sabine’s new book, “Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film” (Fordham University Press), refers to the paradox of having charismatic and photogenic actresses playing chaste nuns and, in the process, drawing attention to the desires their habits were thought to stifle.