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!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Response to the Grinch Analogy of Faith

My brother just sent me a very long thoughtful set of comments on my Objection #2 post from a few days ago, and I'm cutting and pasting my first-draft response because my Internet has become suddenly touchy and I want to get this down in a timely manner. I apologize if it's a little sloppy. I'm excerpting a part of Dan's commments, and my own expansion.

By the way, Daniel, I think that I've described what I'm doing very carefully and very helpfully, and I couldn't have done it if you hadn't posted. So please keep doing it! Eventually I'll get to the defending-evangelicals, anti-flaming posts. Trust me!


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.

You’re missing my point, and I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. What I was trying to do--as I will make clear in my final paragraph--was show how evangelicals can be decent people who wind up being accidentally moralistic, and do so without being idiots or hypocrites, but just decent people trying to solve a problem. If you're willing to accept that evangelicals are moralistic but don't think of themselves that way, and you're also willing to allow that people who do this aren't immoral fools, then you don't need this discussion. But for the Chris Hitchenses out there, I wanted to show that what evangelicals do is something human beings do all the time and while it may be a weakness from one point of view, it's perfectly sensible from another. Since my earlier post was evidently unclear, let me take a slightly different tack.

The moment we think of a story as “good” or “bad,” it stops being just a story about stuff that happened. Stories are “good” or “bad” because they feel, on some level, morally appropriate; they make us happy through some form of internal consistency (it’s not a happy ending, but it feels true to the story that Hamlet dies at the end) or because—in the case of real crowd-pleasers like The Grinch—it reinforces values we all believe in. To show how this works, let’s look at a few bad stories.

Wholly unsatisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and nothing bad happened.”

Slightly more satisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and squandered the whole thing foolishly. He suffered for the rest of his life, remaining forever full of irrational resentment.”

Even more satisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and squandered the whole thing foolishly. He realized then that he had made a huge mistake. He never went back, though.”

Truly satisfying story: The Prodigal Son, which you presumably saw coming a mile off.

When we rank these stories as more or less satisfying—and I doubt many people would disagree very hotly with my ranking—we are constructing a hierarchy of values: what lessons are so important and so comforting that we like to hear them told to us. (I don’t mean this in a bad way.) In the list above we can see that it is satisfying for hurtful people to be punished, but it is more satisfying that they come to realize that they were wrong, and best of all is the story that tells us that there is forgiveness and love even for very great sinners.

I would add that if the parable of the Prodigal Son had him returning without remorse, but simply because he needed a place to live for free for the rest of his life, and if he apologized grudgingly only once, and still expected that his inheritance include half of what was left…well, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular a story. It would, however, tell a story about truly radical acceptance and grace, because in the original story you could argue that the Prodigal Son sort of “earned” his forgiveness by at least admitting he screwed up and returning to live as a servant. His heart grew three sizes that day. But a lesser effort would not have deserved the forgiveness he got. It wouldn’t register as a satisfying story. (This is why, I imagine, there are at least a thousand times more sermons about the Prodigal Son than there are about the Eleventh Hour Workers, even though the theological gist is the same. But even the Eleventh Hour Workers, please note, work for an hour. They don’t just get the day’s wage for free. If grace is ever completely free, you’ve just eliminated the whole story.)

So in the Grinch, the overt anti-materialist message is quite obvious: “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” What I’m trying to point out is that for all practical purposes, the Whos get to have it both ways, because along with our hierarchy of values that says “Christmas isn’t about toys,” there’s another less noble part of us that says, “I know this, but I also feel that a Christmas without toys would really suck.” Seuss could have had the toys fall off of Mount Crumpet and then had the Grinch go back and see the happiness, come to his realization, etc. But the message is clear: Spiritual Christmas is better than Christmas of Materialism, but Spiritual Christmas + Toys is better than both. If the Grinch lost all the toys, do you really think it would have been as popular or as satisfying a story? That’s what I was saying when I say the Whos “earn” the right to have toys by proving they don’t need them. They don’t earn it overtly in the text, with the Grinch actually saying, “I’ll destroy all their toys unless the Whos prove they don’t want them!” But when we see the Whos singing happily without their toys, we are (hopefully) happy and impressed, and we want to see them rewarded somehow. That’s how they earn, not only the toys, but the right to enjoy the toys. And if I’m correct, by telling ourselves this lesson over and over again (in A Christmas Carol, The House Without a Christmas Tree, Jingle All The Way, and a million others), this is how we earn the right to enjoy our toys as well. We’re not materialist bastards who mistakenly think, like the Grinch, that Christmas is all about toys! Our hearts could grow three sizes, too, if they ever needed to. We might have been potential Grinches, but we agreed with the story and now we’re potential Whos.

Note that I’m not saying that we’re idiots for doing this. (Nor do I think Christians are idiots for telling themselves the story of grace and works.) What I’m saying is that we find the Grinch story’s ending satisfying because deep down, toys make us happy—possibly more happy than we feel they should. But we find the Grinch’s story—the overtly preachy part—satisfying because it tells us we aren’t that bad after all, because we obviously know what’s important, and we got there ahead of that poor Grinch. We are constantly tempted by materialism, and by saying an incantation together like “Christmas doesn’t come from a store!” we feel better about taking notes during the commercial breaks. This isn’t hypocrisy, exactly. It’s a way of coping with a natural conflict. If we stopped telling the Grinch story and just embraced materialism without embarrassment, I’d really start to worry about our culture.

What I’m trying to suggest is that it’s just possible—I didn’t say it was a sure thing—that when evangelicals talk about the distinction between grace and works, and how they’re not legalistic like those darned Pharisees, they may actually be saying, “Thank goodness we’re not like the Grinch!” When in fact, there’s a distinct resemblance between evangelicals and Pharisees; it’s just gone undercover because of a very popular narrative that gets repeated whenever someone worries about being pharisaical, to turn Grinches into Whos. And you can tell it’s there because, just like with the Grinch story, it starts to look less consistent the more you poke at it.



Blogger Chad E Burns said...

excellent post--I think the message was clear the first time, but you definitely handled the concern your brother displayed.

Not to disparage your brother--I don't know him or his faith, or anything else--but I see the same flaw in almost every discussion/argument with my evangelical family. They, I assume through their faith development (as I once did) get used to "rules" (not just Pharisaical--but the expectation of black and white answers) and want nice orderly systems. This story means this because this is what it means--and any attempt to bend the meaning, point a different moral, or approach it for a different point than what they (we) were taught it made is met with determination and resistance. NOT that they are ignorant, or even always close-minded--I just really think it is an off-shoot of having the "bible is literal" teachings shoved down your throat for years and years--everything comes to only be about the one interpretation we originally were told it was. Again, not disparaging your brother--I meant no offense to you, him or your mom. :)

2/01/2008 9:11 AM  
Blogger Kris the Girl said...

It would, however, tell a story about truly radical acceptance and grace, because in the original story you could argue that the Prodigal Son sort of “earned” his forgiveness by at least admitting he screwed up and returning to live as a servant.

I believe this story is about radical grace. The father saw the boy "while he was still a long way off" and ran to him, welcoming him back. The boy said his apology to deaf ears - the father doesn't even acknowledge it. He's already putting together the party! It's as if he doesn't care where he's been or what he's done - he welcomes him with open arms. He receives forgiveness for simply coming back.

Now the brother in the story...I think the brother is the modern church pharisee. The brother is pissed that dad has welcomed his wayword brother back. I think many "sinners" feel like this is how the church - and by extension, God - views them, and who could blame them? The modern church likes to sit around, congratulating itself on being so good ("All these years I've...never disobeyed your orders") not wanting dirty, smudgy sinners on what they see as their turf.
But the Father tells his older son "All I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."

I think this shows a radical grace, indeed - a grace that we have as soon as we come to the Father, just as we are. Once there, the very human error is to believe that we somehow earned it, and those who come after (or come back, even) have to earn it - from us. This is just not so. No matter how battered the idea of Christian grace has become, it doesn't change what that that grace really is.

2/01/2008 3:45 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Hmmm. That's an interesting point, Kris. I was reading it that we, the listeners, are ready to watch him be forgiven because we know he's at least sorry for what he's done. But you're quite right: whether he's sorry or not, the father embraces his son and celebrates anyway. (I also remember learning in a Sunday school lesson that the very fact that the father "runs" is a sign, in the Hebrew culture of the time, that he's lost all of his dignity.) So the story is supposed to be more offensive than it actually is. Interesting!

I would also add, however, that the analogy to the Christian life sort of breaks down because this level of grace isn't possible with God, because God really does know peoples' hearts, and I always felt, when I heard the story, that it wasn't that the father (who was clearly God) didn't care if his son was sorry or not, but that he knew it already without the words having to be spoken. I wonder if that's a common interpretation.

At any rate, if this is the model of Grace that Jesus is attempting to teach--you are saved before you even know you need saving; before you've even hit your knees--then the evangelical model, which generally requires a sinner's prayer and a promise to follow, misses radical grace by several yards.

When I was a Lutheran briefly, I first encountered the idea that (based on something in Ephesians) all of creation was already saved because of Jesus's sacrifice. It struck me then that if salvation from hell wasn't the main problem humans faced--if that had already been solved for everyone--then following God could really, for the first time, be an act of gratitude and love, unpoisoned by any fear at all. It was a nice thought, and it's stayed with me.

LATER: I just thought of another take. I think you can still argue that the son sort of "earned" his fathers' regard just by coming back at all. The father was looking out hopefully--but he was looking for a returning son. He wasn't going to hunt down the son and drag him back against his will. So there is a sense in which the son's trajectory is a factor in his father's reaction to him.

Thanks for your comments!

2/01/2008 5:16 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...


You think that because the son had to choose to return to his father that he "earned" his father's regard? That saying a sinner's prayer is a "work" that nullifies the concept of grace? The only thing that Jesus is asking from the younger brother is called "repentance" -- to turn in the other direction. It is a decision. A choice.

You say that the fact that the father didn't go and get him is evidence that the son "earned" his father's regard "just by coming back at all." What you are describing is free will. What would have been better -- to have the father put chains on the gate, and not let him go away at all? That doesn't describe grace, because then there would be no possible transgression. Similarly, he didn't go out and forcefully drag the son back against his will. And if he did, realize that the relationship between father and son would still be broken.

Giving someone the free will to make a choice does not nullify grace.

2/04/2008 3:06 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

I'm saying that demanding repentance is a kind of way of adding a condition to grace (since you could just as easily imagine a model of grace that simply saves everybody out of the goodness of God's heart, and THAT would surely be considered free). I'm also saying that this doesn't "nullify" grace--since, as I said, it's hard to imagine any other sensible way grace could function within a religious sensibility: if a religion provides grace, it seems reasonable that the minimum payment/tradeoff should be for the grace-seeking person to say, "I'm going to look into the truths of your religion."

What I'm trying to suggest is not that grace is destroyed by having a minimal condition attached, but that a.) some sort of condition is inevitable, b.) Christians DO have a minimal condition attached (repentance), and c.) so does every other form of grace in every other major religion I'm aware of.

So what I'm trying to get across is that evangelical Christians, who are extremely proud of the radicalness of their idea of grace, aren't actually preaching anything that different from other religions, and aren't even preaching anything that radical: a minimal tradeoff is still a kind of payment.

In fact, you misrepresent Christianity in at least one respect: you say that mere "repentance" is all that is required, but of course this isn't true: you need to exhibit CHRISTIAN repentance and become a Christian. In most forms of mahayana Budddhism, you can decide to turn your life around and then go in ANY religious direction and can trust in the redemption of your soul. (Although I'm importing Christian concepts into a Buddhist framework.) Ditto for Sufis and Baha'i and Unitarians and The Dalai Lama. So in this respect, the evangelical model of grace is actually LESS generous than many other models I've come across. (Although there are Buddhisms that have a similar kind of limit: grace is free, but you have to buy our bodhisattva's brand of it.)

To put it yet another way, the evangelical message of grace available to all is consistently undercut by its need to be right while everyone else is damnably wrong. Real grace wouldn't even think that way. When you compare it to the embracing faiths like Baha'i, conservative Christianity looks significantly like it's afraid to expand its tent and love too much or too trustingly.

That's what I'm trying to point out: evangelicals think they have the best model of grace. But what they have is a model that's almost exactly like others that are available, only it lets fewer people in. It may be "correct," it may be the only way, but you can't call it more radically accepting.

2/04/2008 9:26 AM  

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