Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How To Love God Excerpt: Objection #2--You Don't Understand Grace

View Objection #3 here. The last update--part one of Evangelicals and Evolution--is here.

I'm still working on the analysis of how evangelicals tend to read troublesome Bible passages. But it turns out it's a complicated process, and I'm still double-checking everything to make sure I'm being accurate. In the meantime, here's a piece I wrote some time ago but haven't yet posted. It's from this earlier section titled Answers to Objections. (I've kept this as #2, but it's occurred to me that I actually need a fifth obejction, and it needs to be #1: "What gives you, an atheist, any right to tell religious people what to believe?" It's such an obvious question I almost missed it. But that'll have to wait for another day. Today, here's Objection #2.)

Bear in mind that, at this point in the book, I have just proposed a model of good religion (which amounts to decency, a breakdown of tribalism, and an increased capacity to love others wisely), and then propose to critique religions as more or less useless based on what their actions look like. (And I apologize that this section has some redundancy in it. It's late, and I couldn't yet figure out how to streamline it.) Now to the chapter:


OBJECTIONS ANSWERED #2: Your model of good religion misunderstands grace.

Another reaction I get from evangelical Christians specifically is that I don’t understand Christianity, since by focusing on the effects of religion, I’m judging (evangelical) Christians by their actions, and in doing this I’m ignoring the one real innovation of Christianity which makes it actually different from every other religion in the world: grace!

See, as conservative (and even liberal) Christians see it, most human beings, like the Pharisees as presented in the Bible, try to achieve salvation through “works”—doing good deeds, leading a clean life, helping the poor, et cetera. But this is pointless; God is perfect and can’t be impressed by one deed more or less. What Christianity teaches (they say) is that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the price for our sin, and a person enters into salvation not by “doing” anything, but by accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior—and then you don’t really have to do anything at all. (Though of course you will if you love Jesus; we get to this shortly.) Therefore Christianity is the only religion that emphasizes grace instead of works! (And also therefore, since I’m looking at Christians’ behavior in my critique, I’m not looking directly at their actual religion, but its mere shadow on the ground.)

This tale isn’t exactly true, but Christians believe it because they hear it from each other all the time, and they rarely look into other religions just to make sure. The uniqueness of Christian grace is relatively easy to disprove: just off the top of my head, Mahayana Buddhism and Sufi Islam both stress mankind’s inability to influence the spiritual world, and our own utter dependence on, and love for, the saving deity (Allah for the Sufis; any of a number of bodhisattvas for the Buddhist). This isn’t even counting all the religions (such as Taoism or Jehovah’s Witnesses) that don’t even posit a hell that anyone needs to be saved from in the first place. And in a way it stands to reason: given that most spiritual experiences are feelings of being overwhelmed by the numinous, any schema that relies entirely and helplessly on the goodness of the Other is a short conceptual leap away.

I hasten to add that depending on how you define “Christian grace,” it may indeed be unique. But this isn’t necessarily saying anything interesting. If you say, for example, “Christian grace is unique because only in Christian grace is God’s love made manifest by God actually killing a part of himself out of love for humanity,” you certainly have a point. But Sufism is unique because its adherents spin around. This sentence is unique in all of human history because it’s the only one that ends with the word “borftaglock.” Uniqueness is nice to have, but it’ll only get you so far, and it might be utterly useless in terms of pursuing meaning, as you can easily demonstrate by looking up “borftaglock” in a dictionary. [FOOTOTE: If there are any enterprising lexicographers out there who want to slip a definition in, may I suggest the following? “Borftaglock n. A word that has no definition. See also Catch-22.”]

If you mean something more specifically focused on actual value, you still run into problems. If, as I can easily picture, many Christians are going to read this and think, “But the Christian concept of grace is the best solution to the problems of mankind,” I’m going to want an actual definition of “Christian grace,” since the definition itself has varied over Christian history and geography—even the geography of the next pew over. But even if you’re claiming something really popular—say, “Christian grace is unique and the best because it posits Christ’s atoning death to pay the penalty for our sin nature and thereby save people from hell,” I’d want to explore each of those questions individually—is it better to believe in hell or not? To accept an atonement model of salavation? To believe in a sin nature? The mere assertion of uniqueness is nothing more than a staking out of turf; surely it would be wisest to first figure out if the turf is worth defending.

There’s yet a third form of uniqueness that might be asserted: you could in effect argue that Christianity is unique because “it’s the only religion I’m comfortable with.” The weakness of this as a compelling argument is so obvious I won’t belabor it. I only bring it up because many Christians essentially argue this without realizing that’s what they’re doing. There may be a log in your eye; I’m just saying.

So forget about whether or not Christianity’s version of grace is in any sense unique. Let’s talk instead about grace as I learned it, and as Christians actually use it. Because again, remember that what I’m asserting here is that religion can be judged based on the effects it has on its truest adherents, and I’m defending myself against the charge that in saying this, I’m misunderstanding the true nature of Christian grace, since we are saved by faith, and works are utterly secondary.

My response: Although this looks consistent on paper, surely it’s safe to suggest that just because Christians say that actions don’t matter, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they actually believe that actions don’t matter. In fact, what if Christians say that actions don’t matter so often precisely because they’re obsessed with actions and are trying to convince themselves they’re not?

This wouldn’t make Christians who do this silly or stupid; it would make them human, with ample precedent. In fact, something like this has a tendency to infect American thinking at every turn. My favorite example is the Dr. Seuss classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas. As you’ll doubtless recall, the Grinch hates the Whos because they’re noisy (and, presumably, publicly happy) on Christmas. So he steals all the presents. And then, just as he’s about to dump everything off Mt. Crumpet, he listens…and discovers that The Who’s Christmas has proceeded without the presents at all. “What if Christmas, he thought, didn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, he thought, meant a little bit more?…” Impressed by the Whos utterly spiritual sense of giftless celebration, The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, and he brings all the present back. Hooray!

I don’t remember how old I was when I first thought, Wait a minute! If the lesson is supposed to be that we don’t need presents to celebrate Christmas, why does he bring the presents back at the end? Wouldn’t it be best if the whole sled just fell off Mount Crumpet and the gifts were lost forever? And yet, the only reason the story registers as a happy ending is that the Whos get all their gifts back. The answer, it seems to me, is that we’re witnessing an exorcism: we want presents, but we’re afraid we like them too much, so we tell each other a story where a group of Whos earn the right to enjoy their presents by first proving that they don’t actually need them at all. (We could do the same thing, if given the same choice!, we tell ourselves. Thank God we’ll never actually be offered the choice.) Watch the movies and you’ll see the same pattern over and over again. American Pie tells the tale of four high-school seniors who are obsessed with losing their virginity by prom night. So all year they try and try and try, with comic misadventures, up until the actual night of the prom, when they say, in essence, “to hell with this; it was a stupid idea anyway.” And then, having proven that they don’t actually want to get laid, they all get laid, just like they wanted. You’re not allowed to get what you want until you presumably want something better or more important. Just look around; you’ll see the message on TV or in the movies this very week. I can practically guarantee it.

So what if Christianity is something like this—a way for intensely judgmental people to indulge in their desire for moralism, but to conceive of it in such a way that they first clear their throats and claim that moralism isn’t really the point? I’m not saying this is the case—though surely even Christians will recognize the subgenus homo christianus phariseeus—but for the sake of thoroughness I have to at least float the possibility.

What I can say with some authority is that the evangelical Christian lives inconsistently in response to the doctrine of grace. And this may be why it gets repeated so often and so loudly: like the Trinity, it might be a way to temporarily unify, through repetition and sleight of mind, a system that’s basically incoherent and in constant danger of unraveling. There’s only one way to find out: let’s see what it looks like in practical terms.

I repeat: To hear Christians say it, regular religion is man’s quixotic attempt to reach God through human action—feeding the poor, loving one’s enemies, etc. Christians, by contrast, simply accept Christ’s sacrifice and God’s forgiveness, and then, out of gratitude, the Christian feeds the poor, loves her enemies, and so forth. That’s the story on paper.

Don’t you believe it. I was a Christian, and I know how it works, and I would like to poke at the premise a little, since I never looked at it closely when I was espousing it the first time around. I’m doing this, not to attack Christians, per se, but to examine the exact dimensions of a belief, instead of simply accepting what it says in the brochure. Because, as we have seen and continue to see, orthodox religious theory does not always match the orthodox practice.

As evangelicals tell it, when they accept Jesus Christ, they stop trying to impress God with mere human “works”—being good—and instead obtain salvation and forgiveness by, in the common phrase, accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior.”

In practice, of course, Jesus’ gift of salvation has to be protected from abuse. Because if the brochure-version theory is correct, a cartoonish reading of it would have someone accept (freely!) God’s gift of salvation, and then murder thousands of people and then still go to heaven ahead of his neighbor who never accepted Jesus at all, even if he also never murdered even a single soul. The theory—faith alone saves—has to have a subclause added, because we all feel we know the difference between genuine faith and someone trying to pull a fast one. For starters, the person who genuinely believes shouldn’t, we feel, be focused on looking for silly loopholes.

Some people do believe the cartoon version of this faith-alone-saves argument, but it’s usually reserved for diehard Reformed types. Mainstream evangelicalism, on the other hand, generally goes in another direction: faith saves, but it has to be the right type of faith: authentic, sincere, motivated from love rather than self-interest, etc. As a popular presentation has it, “faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone.”

In other words, to really be a Christian, you ought to be at least aware of the problem (your own sinfulness) and care enough to want to do something about it. And then, of course, actually do something, even if it’s something as minor as improving your quiet times or cutting back on swearing. Anything else would look understandably suspicious. By their fruits ye shall know them.

The question, then, is: how is this actually different from the way any other major religion gets practiced? For a Muslim, the act of saying “inshallah” is enough to mark one as a Muslim—but it requires the actual familiar trappings of full-on Islam (praying, ritual washing, tithing, etc.) to make someone “count” as a Muslim in good standing to the community at large. Baha’is are easygoing, but even a Baha’i is expected to at least come to the meetings. However much religious traditions try not to focus on mere behavior, nevertheless devout people are still expected to behave. It’s hard to imagine how any other arrangement could work.

What I’m saying, in essence, is that first, I do in fact understand the theory and practice behind grace. I just don’t think it’s particularly unique, and I think shouting “grace!” loud enough is a way that many Christians cover up the works that they really are more comfortable doing, but don’t dare believe is important. Even if we posit that there’s an ideal form of grace to be practiced somewhere that would be wholly different from anything any religion has come up with (I don’t believe it, but let’s pretend), it remains irrelevant to my discussion because I’m talking about how to observe and fix problems with things religious people actually do. Most devout people from most religions act roughly the same and have the same do-unto-others idea of morality. When this breaks down in the name of religion—when tribalism, intolerance, and willful ignorance rears its head—then I believe something’s wrong, no matter what label you attach it to.



Blogger Sneb said...

I'm reminded of this post here:

"The gospel that is being taught in almost every evangelical and fundamentalist church in America is a false gospel, and it has condemned tens of millions of people to eternal damnation in the fires of Hell."

1/23/2008 9:59 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

I think there is no definition to "Christian Grace", which is why it's so great - it's like Spackle, and it always goes so perfectly along with the "well that depends on your faith" response I've heard time after time. It's easy to become a Christian, because every Christain is trying to win your soul, but it's impossible to be a Christian, it means your judged, so the more Christian you are the more severely judged you get, it wouldn't matter if you stole a cookie from the cookie jar - a mass murderer will go to heaven when he accepts Jesus in prison while a card carrying member will rot in eternal damnation for having impure thoughts.

1/23/2008 11:50 AM  
Anonymous Derek said...

Great analysis of how the concept of grace so often breaks down in practice. Excellent closing paragraph.

I like your reference to the Grinch, and your insight that this same sort of theme (not getting something you want until you renounce it) appears in many stories. But I think it endures not because it's a cover, but because that's the way things often work out in real life. It is a paradox. (I'm reminded of that quote from Broadcast News: "Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?")

It's a difficult frame of mind to maintain, like a scientist trying to remain uninterested in the results of their experiment, or a performer trying to forget about the size of their audience.

Another reason grace is hard to internalize is because it means that you will then need to extend grace to others. Last year I saw a parallel between this aspect of grace and the free software movement, which I wrote about in my own blog.

All of which is to say that it's hard to find someone or be someone who understands it, but it is real and valuable.


1/27/2008 11:04 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...


Let me first say that I agree that this argument is irrelevant because you are observing people’s actions rather than measuring their soul. It makes sense to approach it in this way because one’s actions are the only thing that are truly observable, so the objector’s argument is flawed. However, during your discussion you have clearly proven that you don’t, in fact, understand grace.

I admit I am reluctant to post here, because I'm pretty sure I'm only going to get flamed. Additionally, the line of defense is weak, because you are criticizing Christian belief as the problem with Christians, while I really want to say that it is not the belief, but those who practice it who are wrong. Every time I visit your blog I am greeted with more slaps in the face by my brother against "true believers" who I suppose are like me, when really your criticisms on this basis should be against most people on the planet. For example, it is not atheism that makes someone a subhuman ass-hole, but rather the ass-hole himself who chooses atheism. Do you see how that might be offensive? Do you? I'm not saying this is true; it is only how I personally take what I read on this blog.

But on to the objections.

All religions tell you to do things in order to achieve whatever it is they are ultimately after: whether it be Nirvana, or inclusion with the 144,000, or the 700 virgins, or whatever. And it is disingenuous to say that Jehova’s Witnesses understand grace simply because they don’t technically believe in Hell. This is because the JW thinks that when an unbeliever dies, he rots, while the believer (if he has been good enough to earn himself a place with the few and the humble), will rise again in order to enjoy heaven. On what I presume is a very small continent.

Similarly, Mormons claim to understand grace, but they get it wrong too. They say a boy might attempt to purchase an expensive bike with a 25 cent allowance -- the “grace” is that God pays the entire bill, but only after the boy has “done everything he can” to earn it. But that misses the point. Paul clearly teaches that we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by works. If it was with any works at all, grace would cease to be grace.

Buddhists don’t have a concept of grace, either. I took a few religious studies classes in college, and I found Buddhism to be the most accessible and appealing of the eastern religions, mostly because it seemed to be based on logic and reason, in contrast to many others. Taoism is one I never understood, and unfortunately I think that was partially the point of it. Buddhism however, with its subtleties, I felt a kinship with. But you cannot say that Buddhism has a concept of grace. Grace is more than simply admitting that there are large things out there that are out of our control. The fundamental goal of Buddhism is still doing (or not doing, through great concentration and effort) things in order to achieve Nirvana. The goal is somewhat different from Western religions, but the things you do certainly count toward that end. Christianity is the only religion I know of that makes the claim that no action you take has value for salvation.

I haven’t studied Sufism at any length, but judging from your answers on these other religious beliefs I suspect you haven’t either. They may use the term “Living In God’s Grace”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they define it in the same way I do, as getting salvation by faith alone. Unless they believe that all are saved regardless of what they do. At first glance, it seems to me to be just a mystical approach to Islam, which emphasizes controlling one’s thoughts and desires. I suppose it could be considered to be very similar to Buddhism in this way. But regardless, mysticism does not equal grace.

Please forgive me for quoting the Bible here on your atheist blog -- I hope the readers’ eyes don’t burn too much as they read this -- but it describes very well the function of grace and works. Ephesians 2:8 - 10 says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, though faith -- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” If we do works in order to earn salvation, this leads to pride and hypocrisy, which is I believe your chief criticism of evangelicals. But it goes on to say that God does in fact intend for us to do good works, simply because this is what God intends for us to do. But these works do not earn for us a place in heaven.

What is inconsistent about saying that faith itself saves, and that the actions a person takes to do good, do not add up to salvation, but merely point as examples of that faith? Is it really that far off to say if you mean what you believe you will attempt to improve yourself and get to know God better, so you can follow what He wants for your life? I don't see the contradiction.

I love the bit about “borftaglock” -- very funny definition. But the term grace does remain something that should separate Christianity from other religions.

You wrote:
“Although this looks consistent on paper, surely it’s safe to suggest that just because Christians say that actions don’t matter, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they actually believe that actions don’t matter. In fact, what if Christians say that actions don’t matter so often precisely because they’re obsessed with actions and are trying to convince themselves they’re not?”

I hope you are merely talking about hypocrisy, but I don't think you are.

Please admit that you are painting with a broad brush when you say, “Christians say that actions don’t matter”. Um... actions do matter; in the Bible we are instructed to live in a way that honors God, but these actions do not add up to salvation. Salvation is a gift from God. Note that this makes no attempt to say that the actions we take are useless or unimportant. Helping people is still a good thing. It just doesn’t add up to salvation.

Now, I have no problem with this, and I don’t think that this belief creates a rift in my psyche that manifests itself as a deep-seeded obsession with actions or works. Perhaps as an atheist with no rules to live by, you think that the person who does something “just because the Bible says so” is obsessed with arbitrary rules, as if I was constantly doing mental calculus to figure out what actions will cause me to be voted off the island of Heaven. It isn’t. My mind is entirely at peace.

No writer of any of the letters or gospels tells us that how we behave is irrelevant to God, or that our choices or actions should be irrelevant to us. It is just that these actions we take do not add up to salvation. Salvation is a gift from God that nobody can earn.

About the Grinch: David. Dude. Perhaps as a bitter old atheist you missed this one, too. The story of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas is about the Grinch and the transformation of his life. It hinges on the changed heart of the Grinch, not on the loot he stole, you crazy materialist! Were it not so, it might have been called “The Christmas That Was Ruined By Commercialism.”

“In Who-Mart the Who-Boxes stood in the aisle.
So the Who-Carts would have to pass by single-file...”

...but that would have been a slightly different story.

It is funny that you miss the point of the Grinch in exactly the same way you miss the point of grace. It is because of the Grinch’s change of heart that he returns with the presents, not because the Who’s have earned anything by enduring a toy-less Christmas. The Who's enjoyed a toy-less Christmas because of what was already changed about their hearts.

On another depiction of grace, you wrote: “...if the brochure-version theory is correct, a cartoonish reading of it would have someone accept (freely!) God’s gift of salvation, and then murder thousands of people and then still go to heaven ahead of his neighbor who never accepted Jesus at all, even if he also never murdered even a single soul.”:

In practice, I don’t live in a cartoon, so I don’t need to wrestle with the idea of what would happen to my soul if I whacked a bunch of people for no reason. Maybe life in New York City is different for you in this way.

But the question about whether there is such a thing as phony faith is addressed in the Bible. It speaks of saving faith implying sincerity, and this does not create any internal conflict or problem for anyone that I know. The book of James addresses this issue in great detail: Show me your faith without works, and I will show mine by what I do. He is saying, if there is no smoke, then how can you be sure there is any fire? I think this is because, as you have stated, the thing you evaluate is the works, but the meaning of the term grace still remains. The word still means the free gift of salvation from God. Free, as in beer.

You wrote:
“In other words, to really be a Christian, you ought to be at least aware of the problem (your own sinfulness) and care enough to want to do something about it. And then, of course, actually do something, even if it’s something as minor as improving your quiet times or cutting back on swearing. Anything else would look understandably suspicious. By their fruits ye shall know them.”

Obviously, I agree (and most people should agree) that a true Christian should be concerned about sin and should want to improve their selves. To say otherwise would be to promote hypocrisy. I consider it a mercy that on most days I am only aware of a small handful of things that I am “working on” in my spiritual life, when this could easily be a much longer list.

But it is deeply inaccurate to say that this has anything to do with the function of salvation.

I have never imagined that improving my quiet time (or any spiritual discipline for that matter) has anything to do with grace or salvation. You describe a person who is doing things as a means to “not look suspicious.” In fact, what you have described is the person who is at their core, a Pharisee. This person will ultimately prove to be a hypocrite. Spiritual disciplines are all about your connection with God, and none of them are about looking good to other people, which is what the Pharisees are concerned with.

When you criticized the concept of grace with a description of moralistic behavior, I immediately thought of the statement from scripture that reads “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” because this passage is taken much differently depending on if you are an evangelical or an atheist. The evangelical reads this with humility, knowing that he continues to sin in various ways, while the atheist takes this statement as an attack, because while he doesn’t believe in the “glory of God,” or even in the notion of sin for that matter, he doesn’t think this text has any right to tacitly call him a sinner, or criticize his moral compass. The sincere evangelical reads this to say that we’re all in the same boat; all of us, and that I am no better than anyone, including you, but this is wrongly interpreted by the atheist as moralistic behavior.

But then you take it too far for me to sit idly by, and this is the real reason for my response. I admit that this part of your posting was a maze to me, but in this second-to-last segment, informed by your observation of teenage sex films and your misreading of Dr Seuss, you propose the notion that the concept of grace is actually a dishonest shield that Christians hide behind, because they are at their core, “intensely judgmental people” who merely wish to indulge in moralism. You are so wrong that I’m not sure why I’m even bothering to read your blog anymore. But I read this as another weird, backward attack on Christianity in the same vein as: not swearing makes you a less-human hypocrite, and those who practice celibacy are evil. Now you attempt to maintain that the doctrine of grace is evidence of a horrible, intensely judgmental heart. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the forgiveness of sins, or baptism.

1/31/2008 3:41 PM  

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