When I was a “leader” in the church, I always assumed it was supposed to be about people. I thought crazy things like: a pastor (shepherd) was supposed to actually know the sheep. And, that the shepherd was primarily a sheep, receiving love from the Great Shepherd, before anything else. When it became something other than that, I had a real problem doing it anymore. When my “billable hours” shifted toward working “on” the church (the institution), rather than “in” the church (with actual people), it wasn’t long before I had to step away.
A turning point came for me when some good friends had some real questions about “women in leadership.” They had gone to one of the “elders” of our church, and his explanation was “this is just the way it is.” Period. This sent me down the “slippery slope” of actually trying to answer someone’s question. What I discovered was that there was no easy answer. A real person with a real question made it very difficult for me to toe the party line. At the time, this kind of “caving” (theology from the bottom up, rather than the top down) was seen as a weakness (which, in that world, was a negative thing), while simply regurgitating the freeze dried theology of our “tradition” (i.e. neo-Reformed complementarianism) was hailed as “courageous.” I used to hear the phrase all the time that some things are “closed hand” issues. But, what I experienced was that a closed hand is just another way to say “fist”, and a fist is a weapon.
I met Jay Bakker several years ago, but I’ve tried to keep up with his “ministry” ever since. From day one, he has been a broken record. And that’s why I’ve had a hard time ignoring him. Just like all the prophets that I admire, Jay’s message is pretty simple: life is about receiving and giving grace; as he says “to make grace famous.” To thrive, to live an “abundant life”, is to love. On my worst days, this message makes me want to kneel at the altar of Bishop Richard Dawkins, and demonize “religion.” Some days I agree with Nietzsche (and, ironically, the neo-Reformed) that this kind of absolute acceptance is a negative. That real compassion, empathy, forgiveness are pitiful, ridiculous. Less than “manly.” But, when I’m able to take a breath, something deep down tells me that it’s better to love than to hate, better to dialogue than to drop bombs, better to receive and give grace than to hold on to suicidal bitterness.
I was pretty stoked to hear about Jay’s new book, “Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed.” Thankfully, there are an increasing number of Christians who have found space to be honest about their doubts. But, just like it may seem that there are more gay people today than in the past, the truth is that they have always been around; they just weren’t as able to be out like they are today. But, though we may have seen the mountaintop, we still haven’t reached the Promised Land. Freedom and equality have yet to be realized in many ways. And, I see the lack of honesty among religious people to be part of this much larger problem. We still need a revolution in what Tillich called “the courage to be.” I see Jay’s brutal honesty (“I’m not sure I believe anymore”) as part of this paradigm shift in what is to come: a new, sustainable spirituality.
Jay talks in the book about getting ripped apart theologically, and, if you’re like me and have read way too many philosophy and theology books, you will quickly realize why. Jay doesn’t write (or speak) in a straightforward, systematic fashion. It’s more from the hip, stream of consciousness. And, this is a huge part of what I love about his writing and speaking. I doubt that most people are going to pick up Kierkegaard or Derrida or Levinas, or, even if they do, they will lose patience pretty quickly, and move on to something else. But, I think religious and irreligious people alike need to get their hands on Jay’s book. I wish I would’ve had access to stuff like this before I walked away from “the church.” If nothing else, for the sake of understanding. To eliminate a lot of the caricatures that exist in our divided culture today. I would guess that many people coming from my side of the “does God exist?” spectrum would resonate with most of what Jay says in this book, and would find his understanding of God and Jesus compelling.
But, in the spirit of Jay’s brutal honesty about his own doubts, here are the kinds of questions that came to me while reading the book. Once you have so redefined and separated yourself from the mainstream, orthodox views of Christianity, what’s the point? (And, I’m not saying what’s the point of living or anything like that, but what’s the point of holding on to “God” or Christianity at all?) Is theological language even helpful anymore, when the most dominant voices among us are painting a completely different picture? I often feel this way when reading someone like Pete Rollins. I can go pages and pages and be fully on board, and then some religious word or phrase is used and I get really confused. It’s hard for me to see it as helpful or necessary. When I’m having real conversations with real people, it more often seems to be completely unhelpful. So, while I resonate with what these kinds of religious conversations are “getting at,” I just have a hard time understanding the urge to throw in such divisive language in order to communicate clearly. If the majority of people do define God in the ways that Jay critiques in the book, then why not quit using the word?
I say all this because I’m often torn between two worlds. I see that theological language can be helpful, in certain situations. But, I don’t think it’s helpful in elevator conversations, or in our soundbyte culture, where no one wants to take the time to actually listen to anyone else. This is part of the reason why I describe myself as an atheist, because most of the time I don’t have the patience, or time, to actually elaborate on where I’m coming from. But, for those who will listen, when my guard is down (and most likely after a few beers), I will be much less hesitant to be more agnostic than atheistic about Jay’s God (who “cannot be known” but is “found in the love between us”) and Jay’s Jesus (who “fulfilled the law by breaking it”, who really accepts everyone).
So, while I support Jay’s effort of changing Christianity from within, I have a really hard time personally investing my life in that. A bigger part of me just wants to let it die, to focus my time and energy on creating something new. Thankfully, I feel that I have been welcomed into a spiritual movement that allows both of our “teams” to come together and figure out the best way forward, for the good of everyone.
I was going to try to post a lot of direct quotes and my responses to them, but I don’t want to give too much away. Seriously, you should read this book, wherever you are on the spectrum of belief or unbelief. Give it to friends and family. Start conversations around it. Then, tell Jay how much you love it. As a real shepherd of real people, Jay needs our encouragement.
Thank you, Jay. In a possibly strange way, you’ve become like a pastor to me.