Tuesday, July 10, 2012

10 Clichés Christians Should Never Use: A Response to Christian Piatt

I recently read an article on Mennonite Weekly Review's website that I felt I must respond to via blog format. The article can be found here. That said, here we go.

1) “Everything happens for a reason.”
I halfway agree with the author's criticism of this deterministic standby, largely because I criticized this notion for the same reasons. However, over time I've developed a distinction between "Everything happens for a reason" and "God redeems injustice." (Here I am using "injustice" as a catch-all word instead of the other catch-all "sin", which is loaded and fraught with misunderstandings). Saying that God has a plan for everything and everyone can sound pretty awful to a rape victim, as the author casually notes. However, the story of God's people as revealed in Scripture indicates that God is able to redeem goodness out of injustice (take, for example, the story of Joseph, who was beaten and sold into slavery before ascending to prominence). A view that promotes the "God's Plan" theology would likely try to downplay the actual gravity of injustice; a redemptive view would recognize the gravity of the injustice and still look toward the hope of redemption out of it. 

2) “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend the rest of eternity?”
I mostly agree with the author here, holding just short of the antagonistic remarks that close this paragraph. First, Scripture presents an ambiguous view of the afterlife (this should not shock us). In OT theology, those who die go to Sheol, which is an alternate plane of existence in which the dead simply fade into nothingness. This is not purgatory; this is not a joyous or joyless place. It's just a place and everyone goes there. If we're using the Bible to provide the foundation of our beliefs on the afterlife, then how can we account for this alternative view of the fate of the dead that we (largely) disregard today? Appeals to Scripture need to be tended to very lightly. Second, this ambiguity should reveal to us that our certainty of the afterlife is, after all, merely speculative. Only one human would have knowledge of the afterlife and that's Jesus, so we can't really say with any certainty what the afterlife is even like. 

3) “He/she is in a better place.”
I disagree with the author almost wholeheartedly. First, if someone has died then we can suppose that their life was difficult for them prior to their departure from it. Whether they are murdered or their body has slowly broken down over time, we can guess that they've seen better days. To say they're in a place (or a state of being) where they no longer feel pain is not incorrect and thus we can assume that they are in a better place (we could, of course, have a conversation about whether the afterlife is bodily or not). Second, this view does not minimize the grief of those still living. It can provide comfort to those in times of grieving. That's exactly what it did for me at my grandmother's passing.

4) “Can I share a little bit about my faith with you?”
I half-agree with the author. This phrase is problematic not because it is presumptuous, but because it conceives of Christianity as something to be "had." Christianity is not a thing to acquire, possess, share, trade, and lose through any set of economically-based metaphors. Christianity is not a currency, it is a lifestyle. The Christian life is an ethic of ritual and belief that habituates one toward a particular way of living. No one can "have" more Christianity than someone else (Incidentally, no Christian can be "more" or "less" Christian than any other because Christianity is not measured in quantities).

5) “You should come to church with me on Sunday.”
I don't know how I feel about this point. It seems like the author is trying to disguise Christian opportunism under the facade of genuine human interaction. Jesus walked with his band of misfits and prostitutes all over Galilee and all the way into Jerusalem. Was he just faking his love for them in order to "save" them? No. So neither should you. This, moreso than #4, is presumptuous, because it presupposes that going to church is going to automatically make you a better person. It won't. Being genuinely loved in an honest community, however, can accomplish that.

6) “Have you asked Jesus into your heart?”
It seems like the author was either scrambling for critiques or running short on time at this point, because his analysis of this is much less detailed and thought out than the others. The author accurately notes the emotional draw of this phrase, however. As nice and neat as this can sound on The 700 Club, it only promotes an individualistic view of one's Christian lifestyle in which we are accountable only to God and ourselves, not to each other. If this teaches us anything, it's that the image of the "lifelong discipline to orient their lives toward Christlike compassion, love and mercy" is not simply distorted but altered when it is broadcast on television and the radio, which promotes quick and memorable (and therefore shallow) information.Like the author, I argue that this presentation of Christianity is not "the same thing said differently" but is at least a type of Christianity that short-sells a lot of what Christian life has come to mean both in belief and practice.

7) “Do you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and savior?”
Here I disagree with the author. First, he says this is not "in the Bible", but I question what he means by it being "in the Bible." Does he mean explicitly? Does he mean that Paul never said it to anyone? Surely, this is a theme that runs throughout the New Testament. Calling Jesus "Lord" is a subversion of the Roman Emperor, who had that title before Christ. By saying Jesus is "Lord", we are saying that the authority of this world is subject to the authority of the one who witnessed to God's Kingdom.We are not ruled by the Caesar anymore for we are ruled by God. All this said, the terms "Lord" and "savior" here are usually conflated, which seems erroneous given the context because "Lord" connotes the physical/spiritual ruling position of the Caesar while "savior" connotes an eschatological/spiritual redemption.

8) “This could be the end of days.”
Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes. First, what we mean by "apocalypse" is not necessarily what the biblical writers meant by "apocalypse." Second, the apocalyptic "end of days" most Christians look toward is the one that they read about in Revelation (not Revelations) to John and for this reason it is problematic. Yet, that is one of a variety of apocalyptic discourses and presentations of the end of days found in apocalyptic literature in and around the Christian canon. For instance, the Book of Daniel is apocalyptic and the book of Ezekiel contains apocalyptic sections. Is this what we mean by apocalypse? Apocalyptic discourse is one of many worldviews found in the Bible and it doesn't necessarily fit neatly with some aspects of Christian thought (notice how the concept of choice is messy in a deterministic [read: apocalyptic] worldview).

I've often found that expressing belief in the imminence of the end of days to be a narcissistic theology that would somehow make the Christians who lived through it "extra special" in the eyes of God, because they held fast during the degradation of all humanity (anyone who is even remotely familiar with rapture fiction should notice this theme). This goes back to thinking of Christianity quantitatively rather than as a life-commitment. But that's just the catch. If the end of days begins tomorrow, it doesn't make you any more special than those who died before you. It just makes everyone else around you worse. If you claim to be bringing about the Kingdom of God on Earth, then what would that say about those Christians for whom the end of days became concrete?

9) “Jesus died for your sins.”
I agree and disagree with certain aspects of this critique. The author doesn't critique substitution atonement; he critiques its usage as an icebreaker in evangelism. That's all well and good, especially since substitution atonement is the normative view of the plan of salvation enacted in Christ. Of course, as a student at Bluffton University, I know enough about the legendary theologian J. Denny Weaver to know that he criticized this view and advocated a nonviolent atonement. I don't know the details, but it seems to me that the conversations I have seen begin with "Jesus died for your sins" do not make the person feel uncomfortable because of the implications it might have for their life (as if they didn't know about substitution atonement before) but because the idea itself seems silly to those outside the Christian faith? "Really? You believe that some guy who got hung a tree two thousand years ago did that for you? You weren't even alive? How silly."

Now that I've done my Bill Maher impression, I want to extend the author's critique of this in evangelistic practice further (we can have a conversation about the finer points of evangelism, particularly the ethics of evangelism, at a different time). If people are concerned about turning people off to Christianity, then maybe they should steer clear of the crazier elements of the faith. Here's the catch: that's all of it. Some have rejected the idea that our faith doesn't make sense and instead have diluted the Christian tradition into some "tangible" things that only make sense to those inclined to think they make sense to begin with. Yet, if we truly care about expressing our beliefs in order to welcome the outsiders and aliens, we do them no good by giving them a fraudulent picture of what Christian belief really is. Incidentally, probing at the way to remedy this would begin by taking up where my response to #5 left off.

10) “Will all our visitors please stand?”
I don't really have a strong opinion on this, so I'll just say for a moment that I agree. Despite this agreement, I want to note that divorcing this statement from any context accomplishes nothing. In welcoming settings, having the visitors stand could be just one part in introducing them and beginning their integration into the community. In another setting, it could be used to alienate and isolate the visitor (think, for instance, if the visitor stands up and everyone claps because there's an outsider among them. Motivations for applause could and would be varied). I want to bring attention to one silly point the author makes, however, which is that the word "newcomer" is somehow less loaded than "visitor" or "guest." All of them connote some type of Other-ness, so why even do it at all? It seems better to object to the practice on principle rather than debate the particulars.

Briefly, I want to mention that I am grateful that this article provoked my thoughts enough to respond in thoughtful ways. I also want to make a quick note about reading texts, such as the Bible, in line with the hermeneutic (interpretation) view I have developed through education and independent reading. The Bible, being a text, does not self-impose any meaning on anyone. Through reading the same passage, two persons could come up with wildly divergent meanings based on their own interpretive methods and life experiences. This does not mean that all interpretations are legitimate, but instead means that the community of readers with which one reads determines which interpretations are valid or not. Thus, when we say things aren't "in the Bible" or ask "what the Bible says", we are in the first case asking a question of interpretation and in the second case inquiring into the impossible, for the Bible doesn't talk. The Bible does not generate, produce, or store meaning, and thus the validity of our interpretations is not determined by the text we read but the community with which we read it.