Untangling the Gospel #2: Sneaking Suspicions

There are certain things that strike me as being slightly off-base from the first time I encounter them. New Coke, Grease II, and anything involving William Shatner (save the original Star Trek) come to mind immediately.

But there are also a few things that, though I can’t put it into words, just feel wrong, incomplete, or off the mark. Its not that there is some obvious, glaring thing that makes me immediately recognize a problem. Its just a sneaking suspision that something isn’t quite right.

Problems – even those that are glaring problems to outsiders – are seldom obvious when they involve ideas that are widely accepted among the people that are closest to us. Its hard to see problems, whether they are problems in relationships, problems with addiction and co-dependence, or problems in belief systems, when you (and the people you love) are deeply entwined in them. But sneaking suspicions are another thing. They tend to be present even when you are too close to a problem to see it outright. Some things just feel odd, even when everyone around you seems to accept them as normal and appropriate.

For the better part of my life, I’ve had sneaking suspicions about many of the things that I’ve been told about God and what he is doing in this world. I wish I could say that, all along, I’ve been able to articulate the exact problems with these things, but the truth is that I am only now beginning to find the words to speak about them. And I am still not sure that I have all of the words I need to fully express those feelings.

* The sneaking suspicions began when I was very young. I often read about God’s love for the entire world. But in a lot of the sermons I was hearing, I was being told about how – on “judgment day” – everyone who ever lived will acknowledge Jesus as Lord, and that the vast majority of that same throng (including sincere followers of Jesus who didn’t get certain fine points of doctrine straight) would then be consigned to an eternity of the most horrific torture imaginable, because they got it “right” after it was too late. I read all of the “proof texts” that were used to make this point, but something just didn’t seem right. Was this the nature of human existence in the universe? For most of us, does it come down to suffering on earth, and then even worse suffering through eternity, because – often through no fault of our own – we didn’t intellectually assent to certain truths?

* I was also looking around, noting how many Christians were angry with other Christians about allegedly incorrect “beliefs” about certain subjects. It didn’t feel right, and I often wondered, what if everyone is missing the point?

* In my faith tradition, we had a tendency to attach words from the King James vernacular to things that we did. Often, these were words that were never used in day-to-day conversation. For example, we have fellowship halls and post football game fellowships. It felt weird using this obscure term to describe these events and places, like we were trying to reassure ourselves that we were doing something correctly. I couldn’t see then that efforts to institutionalize things that were inherently spiritual in nature were a symptom of a larger problem. A much larger problem.

* I cringed through my young adult years every time politicians used the words “family values”, a phrase that was also widely used by Christian leaders in the media. I knew they were supposed to be talking about concepts that were biblical, but it felt like those words really stood for something very hurtful and un-Christ-like. Almost like code language. But I couldn’t tell you why.

* I often watched Christians use the tactics of high-pressure sales to goad people into stating that they “accepted Jesus as their Lord and personal savior.” But, as I read scripture, not only did that tactic seem bizarre, the words that people were being pressured to state seemed a little odd. It was as if something very critical had been distilled out of the process, and I couldn’t quite tell you what it was. Those experienes always made me squirm.

*…and while we are on the subject, I often wondered where the word “evangelism” came from. It suggested a process. Like martinizing the dry cleaning or sterilizing something that was infected. It seemed cold and impersonal. And I never saw this term in scripture. It bothered me that people used this word – almost exclusively – when they talked about what Christians should be doing to non-Christians (and make no mistake, it was about doing something to non-believers, not for them or with them), but I couldn’t exactly say why.

* I hated personal evangelism. I tried it, mind you. But it made me feel like a used car salesman with a bible. I felt like what I was doing and saying was missing a lot of things that were very important.

* In a similar way, I slowly came to cringe when people started talking about how they could explain “God’s plan” for things: whether it was for salvation, or for the family, or for the Church. I agreed that God was doing something in the world, something wonderful, but does it always have to work exactly the same way for everyone?

* There were also many around me who insisted on a literal interpretation of the seven day creation in Genesis 1. I could understand why they thought this belief was faithful to scripture, and I respected their desire to take scripture seriously. But I could never understand why those same people either inferred or outright stated that one cannot be accepted into the community of believers if they interpret Genesis 1 in any other way. Why tell people they can’t follow Jesus just becuase they happen to struggle – intellectually -with issues of how God went about creating our world and man?

So there you have it: the mess of tangled cords that now lies before me. Somewhere in all of this, the gospel about the Kingdom of Heaven can be found. But it is lost, obscured, and deeply entwined with ideas that don’t seem to fit.

I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that something is wrong, sometimes terribly wrong, with the way we are “doing” Christianity. And I am not alone. But it is only now that words are beginning to come to many of us. Why is that? Why weren’t the words there to deal with the sneaking suspicions sooner? I hope to answer that question in the next post.

But for the time being, does anyone want to add to the list that I’ve made above? Have you ever had the feeling that something isn’t quite right with the way Christianity is understood and practiced? If so, when have those feelings been strongest for you?

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