Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3
Also, I'm planning to post a lot of excerpts, so if anyone knows how to do a blogger cut (you know, where a blue thingy reads "Click on this for more" so the post doesn't take up such massive yardage), I'd appreciate it. I can do it in LiveJournal, but not, apparently, in Blogger. Yet.
This is the hardest chapter I have to write, because if the plan of this book is going to work, it will be the first real, actual chance in years to bridge the gap between evangelical Christians, mainstream Christians, and other religions. (Or, to put it in evangelical terms, to bridge the gap between committed Christians, liberal or nominal Christians, and non-Christians.) This means that evangelical Christians have to be part of the conversation from the outset. And yet, unlike many authors on this topic, I know from experience what it’s like to be an evangelical, and I know that they’re very easy to turn off. To prove this, let me tell a story.
In 1988 I was taking an undergraduate class in The Renaissance and The Reformation with the world-renowned scholar Heiko Oberman. He was a mind-blowing teacher, not only because of his intense erudition (rumor had it that he spoke seven languages, slept only five hours a night, and used the spare time to write ever more groundbreaking research articles), but because he actually cared about teaching. He took the time to give us mere undergraduates honest-to-god oral exams, and every Friday, after doing long, intense lectures on Monday and Wednesday, he devoted part of the class to answering questions that had been placed in a sort of Suggestion Box he kept on the desk.
One odd thing about the course was that it had been cross-listed in both History and Religious Studies, and the class itself seemed to be split right down the middle: half of the students were logical, flinty-minded history majors, and half were devout, conservative Christians like me. The differences tended to come out in the questions we asked on Friday, half of which were things like, “How did the Peace of Augsburg impact the development of free expressions of Anabaptism?” and the other half of which were more like, “How come Martin Luther struggled to understand the concept of Grace, when the whole thing is clearly laid out in the book of Romans?” Heiko divided his attention between both camps and in general things proceeded in a more or less academic vein.
But one day he held up a slip of paper and announced, “This question is a little unusual, but I’ve gotten a few of these and decided I’d better address it. The question is, ‘What do you think about abortion?’”
At this announcement, the guy next to me—an obvious history major—leaned over to me, looking puzzled and a little scornful, and whispered, “What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”
I knew, but I simply shrugged and kept silent. This question had clearly come from one of my people. It would have taken too long to explain to the guy on my right, but actually, I’d been expecting a question like this for weeks. In fact, I had been tempted to write the same question myself, except I was too anxious about intellectual respectability to follow through. Fortunately, one of my fellow religious studies majors had been less fastidious.
The problem was this: Heiko was telling us troubling things. On the very first day of class, he had said, “Before I discuss the Reformation, I want to get out of the way several misconceptions that people often have about church history.” One of these myths was “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”—i.e., the idea that the church is unstoppable, and Christians who die only cement the church’s determination to spread. Heiko dismissed this as ridiculous. After all, he pointed out, the first Christian missionaries who came to Japan were completely slaughtered, and Japan heard nothing more from Christianity for several centuries. The moment I heard this, it made sense (no Christians in Japan? Of course! That’s why they have Buddhism instead!), but it was at odds with everything I’d felt about my own religion. I realized then, in that very simple example, that Christians rarely hear stories about where and how Christianity has failed. We know about terrible acts and terrible ideas (the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, etc.), but those are the fault, not of Christianity, but of flawed people. (To evangelicals, the perpetrators aren’t even “real” Christians, so such incidents barely even count as Christian history.) The idea that Christianity itself, in its purest form and deployed by well-meaning people, seeking only the good of others, might sometimes lose most of the battles and all of the war—this was a new thought that I had to make room for.
I survived this and following classes, but every week, and at every turn, I was aware that Heiko was offering us a view of Christian history that was essentially practical and unsentimental, a warts-and-all view that was far less triumphal than the “Jesus Rules!” history we’d gotten in Sunday school (or, for that matter, from the Bible). He talked like a Christian—rumor had it he was an ordained Reformed Church minister, and he seemed to be theologically accurate when he talked about things like grace and atonement—but he didn’t talk like a fellow evangelical. So was he reliable? Was Christianity susceptible to failure or not? We wanted facts and he was giving us ambiguity. And what had clearly happened on this particular Friday was that one of my fellow religious studies majors had had enough. “That’s it!,” he or she had said, “I’m going to find out once and for all whether this guy is just a really brainy true Christian, or just another godless academic who wants to undermine our faith.”
The abortion question was the shortcut—a shibboleth, really. If Oberman said he was against abortion, then he must be morally sound and, ergo, factually trustworthy, and it was worth doing extra work to actually learn and internalize all he was teaching. If he said the wishy-washy liberal thing, then he would be consigned to the outer darkness of the Secularists To Be Shunned. Oberman clearly didn’t understand this, or he would have addressed it in his response. Instead he waltzed right into the trap, answered the question on its face, and didn’t even survive his first sentence. “This is a complicated issue that requires…”he began, and he went on for several more minutes, but it didn’t matter. Whichever Christian had written that question had gotten their answer at the word “complicated.” And we lost at least one whole student for the rest of the semester, in spirit at least.
Tragically, this is what evangelical Christians do far too often. And while it’s easy for mainstream culture to scoff at a behavior that looks intellectually irresponsible, I’d like to point out that from an evangelical perspecive it’s a perfectly logical way to behave: since the world is divided into the saved and the damned, it’s important to approach books with a critical eye, being careful to divine the spirit of a work, to know whether its author is a believer or not. After all, lies are everywhere, Satan is cunning, and ambiguity is dangerous. So for the evangelical, the weirdness of using a blunt instrument like an off-topic abortion question is worth it if it at least results in an up-or-down vote of moral clarity. How can you walk forward if you don’t even know where you stand?
This is what concerns me. If you’re an evangelical Christian, I hope you can sense two things already: 1.) I’m not a conventional evangelical Christian myself, and 2.) I have not misrepresented you or your faith in any unreasonable way. Please remember this, because this book is about you, and I’m going to say things that are going to make you uncomfortable. I need you to keep reading, and in the process I promise to treat you more decently than most other authors on the topic. I was one of you, I speak the language, and I think I can empathize. And sure, I cuss now and then, but at least when I talk about religion I’m not an arrogant prick who thinks he’s so much smarter than everyone else. That’s worth staying for a few pages, don’t you think?
Of course, you’ll want to know who I am and what my bona fides are, but first, I want to address the rest of the audience, who may be wondering why this book matters, what I consider evangelical, and why evangelical Christianity is so important to address.
UPDATE: Parts 2 and 3 are now available, so you can read the whole introductory chapter. This link takes you to part 2.