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!

Monday, February 04, 2008

More on Grace and Christian Branding

[Moved up from the comments because it seemed interesting:]

My brother 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.

My reply:

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 saying 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 (though I don't know how anyone could prove it), but you can't call it more radically accepting.

Having said all this, I also want to make one thing clear: Christianity--and this includes every form of it--has done the excellent thing of taking the "inner/mahayana" concept of religion and bringing it to everyone in the faith. A Hindu yogi might well find it necessary to tell the "vulgar/popular" Hindu person in the street, "Sacrificing rice to Ganesha, while a worthy act, is simply exterior to the experience of satori, so don't get distracted." Modern American Christianity is unique in that its adherents don't need to be told this. (Although, admittedly, rituals and specific exterior acts seem to get added every time Christianity gets syncretized with something preexisting, as in Vodun or santeria.) So if you want to ask me what's unique about Christianity, that's what I say: it popularized the idea that externals are irrelevant--that God looks on the heart--more than any other major tradition. But you then make a mistake if you assume other traditions don't have this same insight available to people who genuinely look.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you on speed and where can I get some? You're a prolific blogger, dude.

Thanks for mentioning widdle ode Twaci and me on your HIGHlarious blog.

Next time you're picketing at the Colbert Report, please give me a call. I'll fly out in a New York minute. (Get it? See how I did that?)

2/04/2008 11:35 AM  
Blogger Chad E Burns said...

Dave pickets at Colbert? I didn't know that--we need a blog post on one of those!

Great, Great post. I love the way you handle the real issue and not get sidetracked. Your praise for Christianity (perhaps mostly evangelical Christianity) getting it right about popularizing "externals are unimportant" but as I said on my blog--just because an external isn't codified, doesn't mean it doesn't exist. There are many fundy's who sacrfice rice to Ganesha in the form of "singing desperate praise sings" or working on the Ladies' Ministry Board, or what have you. I do agre the overall focus is on internal, but as with all religious movements fundy's have their comfort rituals and routines as well.

Again, EXCELLENT post--and anyone who reads it should actually have a better appreciation of Grace--apart from any specific religious tradition.

2/04/2008 1:50 PM  
Blogger Small voice said...

Hey, all, I'm late to this party, but I think this grace/works, internals/externals discussion is interesting, but if you take a look at what Jesus said and did, it sure doesn't bear much resemblance to modern evangelicalism. Jesus said "Follow me!" a LOT. He was not a big fan of faith without works. He was definitely down on bogus rituals and works for show, but real genuine works seems a lot closer to what he was talking about than the "pray-the-prayer-in-the-back-of-the-booklet (PTPITBOTB)" nonsense spouted by evangelicals today. Understandable that evangelicals go the PTPITBOTB route. Much easier than actually following Jesus' example. But honestly, I find it hard to believe that Jesus ever imagined that there would one day be millions of fat, happy, consumption-crazed, suburban Americans running around calling themselves "Christians." Don't you think if he were to show up today he would condemn the whole evangelical movement, and say "Time to clean out the temple again and start over?"

6/19/2009 4:09 PM  

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