Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Closet Christians

Ada Calhoun has a great essay over at on her life as a Christian in the closet. Not that closet. She is an east-coast liberal who struggles with confessing her faith to friends who have come to equate Christianity with the popular and loud version made famous by religious right leaders & their congregations. Calhoun makes a case for faith in Christ and honestly calls out the 'new atheism' [as did Frank Schaeffer on NPR this week] made famous by Bill Maher's Religulous and popular publications by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris:

I'll give the atheists a lot: The Creation Museum is a riot. The psychos shooting up abortion clinics and telling gay couples they're going to hell are evil, and anyone of faith has an obligation to condemn them. Abominable stuff has been done in God's name for centuries. The Bible has a lot of crazy shit in it about stoning people for using the wrong salad fork. Up with science and reason!

And yet, atheists are at least as fundamentalist and zealous as any religious people I know, and they have nothing good to show for it: no stained glass, no great literature, no great art, no comfort in the face of death. Just dissipated Christopher Hitchens sounding off on "Larry King Live" and a stack of smug books with childishly provocative titles.

As I read the article, I found solidarity with Calhoun. She is New York City born and bred and did not grow up in the church. She became compelled by Christian faith because the priest who performed her wedding was 'smart and eloquent and fulfilled.' For her, participation in that rich tradition, from the Eucharist to passing the peace, is a worthwhile cause:

All of us need help with birth and death and good and evil, and religion can give us that. It doesn't solve problems. It reminds you that, yes, those challenges are real and important and folks throughout history have struggled and thought about them too, and by the way, here is some profound writing on the subject from people whose whole job is to think about this stuff.

The idea of an eternal community brings me comfort: I like the image of a long table extending backward and forward in time, and everyone who's ever taken Communion is sitting at it. The Bible at the 1920s stone church where my husband and I were married was filled with the names of people in the community who'd married, been born and died. When my son was baptized in our church in a traditional Easter eve service, the light spreading from candle to candle through the pews of the dark church made me feel, at least for one moment, we were united in a sense of gratitude for new life and awe in the face of the numinous.

I, though rooted in a slightly different brand of Christian faith, living in the Evangelical climes of Southern Orange County, often struggle with admitting that I am a Christian. This struggle, however, usually creeps up on me while in conversation with Christians who represent a softer version of the Christianity made so infamous by politically powerful and popular Evangelical superheroes, from politicians to pastors. What is so troubling to me is that the very significance of Jesus life and death is contested. For my OC Christian friends, salvation is a spiritual and future guarantee and the gospel is proclaiming how you too can make the decision to receive the absolute certainties of personal relationship with Christ, heaven when you die and a self-evident access to Truth [yes, with a capital 'T']. This breeds an ambivalent political stance ['no!' to abortion, gay marriage and higher taxes and 'apolitical' with most everything else] and a deeply individualistic view of what is wrong with the world [personal responsibility to pull oneself up by one's own bootstraps].

Don't get me wrong, I do not deny being a Christian, but I find myself making it clear through disclaimers like, 'Yes, but not that kind...' Orange County is a culture of many different brands of Christian faith, but conservative Evangelicalism, as the intensely dominant type, is mostly oblivious to this notion. They speak assuming all Christians think and act as they do, highly suspicious of anything that diverts from their narrow dogma of inerrant biblicism [God said it, I believe it and that settles it!], penal-substitionary atonement [Jesus died for my sins!], personal morality [and tough punishments for those who falter], GOP politics and flag-waving American patriotism. The dead giveaway is that Evangelicals don't call themselves that, but instead just 'Christian.' As if none of the other brands even existed.

I have a hard time imagining a more confusing time to be a Christian than right now in the American Empire. Thankfully, Christians like Calhoun are coming out of the closet to give a vision of something quite different and a lot more faithful to the legacy of Jesus, a '3rd way' that transcends Christian fundamentalism and anti-religious zealotry.

--Theological Autopilot

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