Saturday, March 21, 2009

why it is so effing hard to be a Christian

swear words

A few days ago I spoke with a church leader who characterized the "emergent church types" as people who, among other things, curse a lot, and I've since been mulling over this description. Those of you who know me know that I do not curse/cuss/swear much. Or at all. I attribute this to my fundamentalist Baptist upbringing, my stubbornness in the face of school friends who made a game of trying to get me to say certain words ("Say buh. Okay, now say itch. Say them fast together! Haha! She almost said it!"), and my distaste for speaking any words I consider particularly ugly. I'm aware that this last cause might be considered pathological.

I'm also aware that this cuss-busters style might be considered judgmental. I've had plenty of moments in my life where peers' realization that I will not swear leads them to wonder if I'm judging them for doing so. When I was thirteen, the answer was a resounding yes. I was judging them. But then, at that point in my life, I was also judging people for using the New International Version of the Bible and for wearing jeans to church and for listening to music with drums. Nowadays, my silence in the swears department does not indicate that I'm judging other people's language (in the same way that I am really and truly not judging your grammar). I'm well acquainted with four-letter words; they do not shock me; they are part of normalized human expression. [Footnote: from a completely different perspective, I am uncomfortable with the fact that most of the curse words in English belittle either human sexuality (and often women in particular) or spirituality. The counterargument is that nobody actually associates the words with their original meanings. I still wonder, though, if there are deeper resonances: call a woman a b**** or a man a son-of-one, and the force of the word still arises from its literal meaning.]

In any case, rather than particular words, I'm much more concerned with language that is used to show a lack of respect, a lack of care, a lack of love. My rubric for judgment (for myself and, when necessary, for others) is not which words one uses, but how one uses them. For instance, in my conservative childhood, I heard plenty of hurtful language--language that demeaned, language that wounded, language that judged too quickly--with nary a "naughty word" in it. This sort of legalism, this self-satisfaction that we've kept the rules, distracts us sometimes from the broader call to love everyone (including our enemies), even with our language.

Back to the characterization of "emergent types" as those who "swear a lot." I'm in no place to determine where this opinion came from, or what sort of swearing "these people" are doing. But sometimes I find myself compelled to spice up my language a bit just to prove to those around me that I'm not "one of those" types (or at least not anymore). The most I've managed is "crappy." Which is to say, I can understand the impulse to distance oneself from the legalistic religious folk (even from previous versions of oneself) by swearing on purpose. But this is just the beginning.

an unbelieving context

For me, the heart of the issue is really a question of different versions of "Christianity" at large in our culture and the drive to distance oneself from certain versions. How do I make clear to people that while I was raised in a religion that had institutionalized a good deal of bad along with the good, I've since grown into a faith that is based much less on fear and control? How do I explain that while I'm still (help me) an "evangelical," Pat Robertson tends to turn my stomach?

Sometimes my academic research helps me think about this. In his incredibly long but very insightful book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor takes on the difficult task of exploring how Western civilization changed from an "enchanted world" in 1500 to a "disenchanted world" in 2000. In other words, how is it that in 1500 it was the norm to believe in God and the spiritual realm, for this to be the most ultimate and assumed reality, whereas 500 years later no one assumes the existence of God, and even those of us who choose to believe in Him make that choice in a world full of other possibilities? Taylor argues against the simplified view that science replaced religion and argues instead that a complex and related series of changes in theology and popular religion, social norms, government, economies, philosophy, art, science, and daily life worked to bring about the change.

This is the first reason it's hard to be a Christian today: western culture typically assumes that God does not exist nowadays, rather than that he does. What we learn in school, what we see on TV, what we hear on the news--it usually privileges the view that the physical, material world around us is all there is. I'm not just talking about teaching evolution in schools here -- I'm talking about the structures of our everyday lives. The way we are socialized to spend our time, do our work (more and more of it, statistics show), watch the media, spend our money: the underlying value in all of these norms is that this world is all there is, that none of our decisions have any greater value beyond the years until our deaths. The transcendent, if occasionally spoken about, isn't made real to us in the fabric of our daily lives.

So the first challenge nowadays is establishing that there is more than cells and atoms at all. This at least gets us to the place where our 16th-century forebears were. But belief in God is not the same thing as Christianity (as the book of James tells us, the demons also believe--and tremble). This is as far as a lot of apologetics go since the 19th century -- proof of the existence of a God. But again, that's not Christ-following. I suspect that the citizens who assumed the existence of God in 1500 were not all Christians, either.

they will know we are Christians by our...?

Of course, the next step is belief in Christ: in both his historical person and in the radically mysterious and humanly impossible claims about his death and resurrection and his power to save--basically, his deity. This isn't exactly easy, either -- I'd say it takes a bit of faith.

But because we come to this concept of "Christianity" after around 2000 years of its history, we arrive at another complication. "Christianity" as a movement has a horrible history of oppression and violence: how does one contend with the shame of this heritage? "Christianity" also has a history of schisms, so we have myriad "versions" available: which does one choose?

Charles Taylor talks about this history of dissention, but he also demonstrates how Christianity came to be associated in the 17th and 18th centuries with other developments taking place in western civilization: developments like the value of order, civility, morality, decency. These values were not always part of what it meant to follow Christ. (One of my friends likes to point out the difference between biblical "kindness," "charity," or "love" and the non-biblical idea of "niceness," for instance.) As the middle classes rose, Christianity came to be associated with ideas of human flourishing and comfort as our ultimate goals ("of course God wants you to be happy!"). Needless to say, these ideas are very prevalent in the "moral majority" version of Christianity common in the U.S.

Hence the concern with swearing: it's a public display of "indecency." Our association of order and civility with Christianity impels us to create systems of rules: Don't drink. Don't dance. Don't swear. Don't miss church. Don't look bad in public. (Not: respect your body as a precious creation of God, and practice moderation; respect other people's bodies, and avoid using them for your own sensual pleasure; treat everyone with a love rooted in God's love for them; gather together for encouragement; always be ready to give answer for the hope that lies in you.)

The point here is not really the legalism (that's another topic for another time). The point here is that "Christianity" in the last several hundred years has taken on a lot of associations and norms that I don't think are rooted in the gospel. In other words, this is another element of the influence of culture on the church, only in this case we don't even realize it.

If we understand Christianity to mean a deep faith in the God-Man Christ Jesus, in his work in the world, on the cross, in his resurrection and ascension, in the fact that he is the only possible intermediary so that we can, through faith in him, enter into a truly personal relationship with a Triune God -- if we understand Christianity, too, as a radical call, as manifest in the bible, to commit our entire lives to Christ, to answer his invitation "follow me," to be part of his "body" the church on this earth, a representative of God's incomprehensible love and a taste of the kingdom to come when justice and peace will finally reign -- if we understand Christianity to mean all these things, then we must understand it to be profoundly countercultural.

And this is difficult. Because not only must we struggle against the pervasive cultural assumption that there is no transcendent, no "metaphysical" reality beyond the physical, we must also struggle against the cultural elements of "Christianity" as it is passed down to us and practiced around us that are not true elements of the Good News of Christ. We must develop--by the grace of God, and with the wisdom of His Spirit working in us--the capacity to think critically, to sort through the culture of Christianity and determine what is faithful to Christ's purpose for us and what is not.

This is why we need each other -- to sort through the mess together. To share perspectives. To call each other back from the extreme sides of the paradox and into synthesis (for instance, one might remind me that in another sense, it is profoundly easy to be a Christian, in the sense of childlike faith). We need to find a more adequate way to define ourselves against Christianities that are not faithful to the radical Gospel of Christ. Because honestly, I think this is something we need to do. But I also honestly don't think cursing up a storm is the way to do it, as good as the motivation may be. What do you think? And this time around, I really do want you to tell me, especially if you've made it this far.


  1. You're right. Particularly in the first part. There are unspoken assumptions that almost all of our culture makes today. Kind of scary that this goes unquestioned by so many people.

  2. The "not that" paradigm strikes me as a very foundationally baptist concept(based upon my upbringing and education). Rather than definiting myself, by beliefs, and my associations as being something or believing in something, the "not that" paradigm defines in relation to that which something is not.

    If the "cursers" are doing so for the purpose of being not that kind of christian, they have not avoided the mentality that makes those Christians the way they are...the inability to find a way to define themselves in the positive. I sincerely hope this is not the case. I imagine that the cursers have a different set of motivations...chief among be use the language of the people.

  3. I think that your "not that" reflection is a super insightful one. The impulse to define oneself against something else (and to draw boundaries to keep the others out and yourself securely in) is rooted in a lot of fear and fundamentalism. To define oneself positively is much more holistic and life-affirming, I think.

    At the same time, though, I struggle with the fact that because there are pre-existing expectations and assumptions about Christianity in the culture, sometimes I do have to contrast myself against, or explain my difference from, another "version" or stereotype that goes by the same name. Even the positive rather than negative paradigm is a contrast (found in the "rather than"), right? And isn't the desire to be "relevant" partly a reaction to the perception that the church is "irrelevant"? I don't know. I think it's complicated, but I still think you've hit on something with the impulse to be clearly "not that" -- some deep seated motivation, maybe?

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  5. Hi Cindy,

    I'm a couple weeks behind, but I find your post timely in my own reflections on Easter. Your cultural analysis is great.

    A couple years ago I made contact with one of the "bad boys" from my Christian high school and I thought it would be cool, considering my new context in NYC, to curse in my email to him. I was full of all kinds of conflicting motivations myself, but it eventually came out in our e-conversation that he was contacting me because I had spoken truth into his life in the past. My ridiculous cursing to show I was "cool" was completely unnecessary. And stupid. I was trying to be "relevant" and he wanted truth.

    It is very junior high to think cursing is cool or anything but demeaning. Believe me, I worked in one for three years.

    However, I feel that there are situations in which highly selective cursing can have an interestingly powerful effect (think: the very end of Catcher in the Rye when he sees a curse graffitied in the stairwell), but we shouldn't let that power go to our heads.

    The story you tell about the gospel is bizarre enough in todays culture. We believe in God become man, gruesomely killed and resurrected. It's not a very rational nor modern thing to base your whole life on... but, in a weird way, it works.