Thursday, April 29, 2010

Less Fear and More Friendliness

Recently, I attended a book launch for my old friend, Dr. John Bowen, who has just published a tome called, “Growing Up Christian.” It’s based on research he did with alumni of a Christian camp in Ontario where I and many other teenagers worked in the 80s and 90s, tracing people’s relationships to the faith after those formative years. Until he delivered his speech at the launch, I had forgotten that I was one of the participants in Dr. Bowen’s surveys about six years ago and my remarks, quoted in the book, read in part as follows:

“My MOST screwed up friends are those who were sequestered in church/Christian families all their lives. It fosters an insecurity and ‘us against them’ mentality, stemming from the repeated belief that the outside or ‘secular’ world is all evil....people lose ANY ability to relate to everyday folks. Whenever I travel to churches, I see that glazed-over look of the lifelong Christian....Less fear and more friendliness is what Christians should have.”

I stand by my comments today, maintaining that, beyond the extreme and tragic cases of abuse in recent news, Christian communities could do a better job of relating to those around them.

Unlike, say, Judaism, which is not particularly given to proselytizing, or Islam, which sometimes does it rather stringently, Christianity is a soft sell. That is, its adherents are called to bring people to the faith by the power of example and compassion. In figurative and literal terms, if you have a Jesus fish on your car, don’t cut anybody off.

Now, there is no shortage of showerless atheists poised to lecture Christians on how they should behave and point out their supposed hypocrisies. Likewise, within political and policy circles, from Howard Dean to Christopher Hitchens, there are plenty of non-churchgoing experts who use the faith to lambaste opponents or recite its history as a litany of crimes. But for my part, having fidgeted awkwardly through Bible songs with actions for more years than I care to recall, I believe I have the bona fides to offer a semi-informed opinion.

Christianity is a faith populated by deeply flawed people, including me. As Dennis Miller said of Watergate convict Charles Colson finding Christ just before he entered prison: “I guess Christ didn’t see him first.” This is precisely the point of the religion. Christ did not come to recruit the best and the brightest, and make them even better. Rather, he came to save sinners.

This is why, whenever some Christian politician, or champion of “family values,” is caught in a compromising position, it makes no sense for folks to cry, “hypocrisy!” The whole gist of Christianity is that people cannot achieve goodness on their own.

The problem arises, in my view as enunciated above, when Christians themselves forget this basis of the faith. When they become smug, convinced that their every action is forgiven in advance, clucking at their fellow man for smoking a cigarette or enjoying a beer, they become insufferable and, more important, do a disservice to the religion they represent (Jesus himself enjoyed a cocktail or two, lest we forget).

Bowen categorizes me as an “Absent Believer,” meaning someone who has not abandoned the faith, but who has departed from organized Christian communities (in fact, I have become a churchgoing Presbyterian, but my fellow congregants could be forgiven for suggesting that I give one of the other major religions a try). This is contrasted with “Loyal Believers,” who never left the fold. In either case, Bowen’s statistical and anecdotal research uncovers vastly disparate life stories as he seeks to determine what drives people from today’s church, and what brings them back.

“Growing Up Christian” gives consideration and voice to those who, for better or for worse, spent adolescent years in Christian communities, providing cogent analysis of the questions that arose from that experience. It is a timely work, by one of the few fellows I met in that milieu for whom I would go to the effort of contributing and reading. Whether Bowen’s subjects have stayed true to the faith, or have left and are contemplating a return, he encourages them to work out their salvation for themselves, advising, “God hopes for a response, but God’s love is a gift.”

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.