Love, Beauty, and Ungrace

I’m not Max Lucado or Ann Voskamp.

Pretty words don’t gush from me.

Maybe I just need soft-edged photos of cute small children or a rural farm.

The story that I have hurts, but I want it to say beauty.

I want people to come to my blog not for confronting, but for comforting.

Maybe confrontation is comforting to some.

Maybe laughter is cathartic.

I watched the Rich Mullins Film Ragamuffin last night. I can’t even tell you how much I loved it.

It resonated with me – Rich’s distant father, his brokenness… there were a lot of similarities.

Sarcasm is my native tongue. I am fluent in snark. I grew up with a critical father, and it’s so easy for me to spot the flaws in things. Modern Christianity in America is awesome. I look at it, scratch my chin, pull out my sarcasm and snark, and think to myself, “There’s a lot of material here.”

But I wonder what all of this is doing to my soul.

It’s easy for me to be cynical about the very loud evangelical church in the United States. Cognitive dissonance is everywhere. But if I’m cynical, it’ll eat me alive.

Somebody said that behind every cynic is a disappointed idealist.
Peter Bishop from Fringe said that behind every cynic is a frustrated romantic.

I believe that this is true.

It is much easier to be cynical than to “take this fallen world, as [Jesus] did, as it is, and not as I would have it.”

It is especially difficult to do that with church.

Church, where the righteous sit in judgment over the sinners, and the sinners judge the righteous right back, for judging them. Where those of us who have been hurt are now hurting others, because hurting people hurt people – and the people that we hurt pay it forward. Richard Beck put up a blog post about that a while ago.

I feel like there’s this ideal that we all have about Christianity, where it’s about loving God and other people, and I feel like somehow that ideal always gets fucked up. Somewhere in the first few chapters of the story about the reckless love of God we stop being the prodigal and start listening to the older brother. And who we listen to determines who we will become, so given enough time, we become the older brother, beating the prodigals into submission and getting them into line. God, save us from the spirit of the older brother.

We start deciding who is in and who is out. The conservatives say the gays are out, and we liberals say it’s the conservatives who aren’t really Christians, but we’re gracious by being universalists and saying and praying that God’s going to save them anyway. We draw lines around Christianity and make it about what we subscribe to instead of who we love, and we make loving people a rule that we keep instead of an overflow of the grace of God that we feel.

And even when we don’t do that, we start to act like God has all of these rules that he wants us to follow, like he’s some kind of divine rule-maker instead of some kind of divine lover. Sure, some actions are better than others, but that’s not the whole enchilada. Hell, that’s not even the beans or the rice. It’s not even the silverware. It’s not even in the same restaurant.

We forget about grace, and we don’t have time for peace. And then we feel guilty about it all.

There’s a quote in the beginning of the Ragamuffin movie by Brennan Manning. He says, “I am now utterly convinced that on Judgment Day, the Lord Jesus will ask one question, and only one question: ‘Did you believe that I loved you?'”

It’s like I’m so scared of being kitschy, of falling for anything, that all I do is stand here with a gun and take pot shots at anybody who thinks that God is mean. Unkind. Cruel. Hurtful. But violence isn’t the answer. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

I love a good argument like my dad likes his coffee: Hot, black, and regular. I want people to believe the right things, because I’ve lived the consequences of dangerous belief made into harmful action. My issues are not with illogical belief, but with destructive belief, belief that hurts us and others.

Maybe one of my destructive beliefs is that a good, logical argument will fix the problem of harmful belief in the person I’m arguing with.

Maybe one of my destructive beliefs is that if I could just convince this person that I am right, then they would be more like I think that they should be. Maybe one of my destructive beliefs is that I actually could convince this person that I am right.

Why do I go after the Bible so much? I go after the Bible because I think Biblical literalism is the root of all evil. No, seriously. Everyone I know who is mean and hateful and unkind and is a Christian believes that we should take every word in the Bible as though the Bible were an instruction manual. (Not everyone who believes that is mean and hateful and unkind, however). And if they’re right about the Bible, then they’re right about what the Bible teaches, or so it seems. There are a lot of messed-up passages in the Bible, I’m not gonna lie.

But what about those people for whom Biblical literalism isn’t harmful? Those who are gentle and generous and not mean or vindictive to those who disagree with them? The literalists who, in living the effects of grace, have had their hearts softened and highlighted the verses about love and mercy and kindness and truth and grace. I know people who believe firmly in literalism (even a scant few fundamentalists) who are the kindest people you would ever want to meet. So maybe it’s not literalism. Maybe it’s a heart thing. Maybe it’s the obsession with being right – an obsession to which I have succumbed more than once, even since abandoning literalism.

And what about those who haven’t? Those who are so firmly trapped in their fear and resentfulness and legalism and want nothing to do with escaping because it’s the only way to avoid an eternity of damnation?

I wish that I could make them atheists. I would rather that they believe in no God at all than the God that they believe in. I think that it would make them more open-minded and less afraid. Plus, they’re bad for PR.

An atheist is someone who takes responsibility for his or her beliefs. They pursue logic and reason.

Of course, atheists can be mean, too. Anne Lamotte says in Help, Thanks, Wow that her parents worshipped at the church of the New York Times. Anybody can be stiff and unmoving and know for sure that what they believe is the real and only truth. Even I can do that. I’m pretty sure I do do that. I get as mad listening to fundamentalist preachers as I’m sure they do (or would) reading my blog. The problem isn’t deeply-held beliefs. It’s deeply-held beliefs that hurt other people.

Are there deeply-held beliefs that don’t hurt people? I think so. Maybe. I think maybe Brennan Manning has a few of those.

Maybe it’s like my friend Keifer said after he read this post. “The issue really isn’t literalism or non-literalism… it’s love… or not love.”

And I’ve been beating literalism over the head trying to make literalists more loving, and wondering why it isn’t working.

Jesus said it’s in the fruit. May mine, and ours, be the fruit of love and kindness. And maybe what makes that fruit grow is to be centrally rooted in the belief that Jesus loves us no matter what.

David M Schell About David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

Author: David M Schell

I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

One thought on “Love, Beauty, and Ungrace”

  1. I’ve figured the stereotypes of conservatives gone bad and liberals gone bad — each of them replacing their birthright for “a mess of pottage” — fit nicely into the categories of Pharisee and Sadducee. Pharisees stop caring about people — but Sadducees stop caring about God, and truth. They end up worse off than the Pharisees, not better.

    Why? Love for neighbor is the second greatest commandment, but it is nothing without being founded on the first. We do what we do for others for God’s sake, and we love them for God’s sake, and the love of God is patient and kind. However, the love of God is also the love of truth, and truth does not change, does not bend over backwards or break. It is fierce and unwavering, like the judgment.

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