Monday, July 12, 2010

The Dichotomy of Christianity

I am frustrated. I am frustrated with two sides of the church and of “Christianity” being lived out today.

Firstly, I am frustrated with the way in which many Christians try so hard to completely separate themselves from culture, catering to other Christians and condemning everything labeled or called “secular.” We should instead come to the realization that we are a part of culture—not some separate entity. Culture influences us and we have the ability to influence culture. I am frustrated with many aspects of the church and of Christianity that I’m just now seeing as I’m gaining a new perspective on the things I’ve grown up with. I’m realizing aspects of “Christian culture” that have little to do with Jesus and his teachings and more to do with a man-made idea of how Christians should live and act. And it’s caused me to feel weirdly separated and distant from friends who did not attend weekend youth group retreats that left me with “spiritual highs” (wasn’t it mostly an emotional high?), who didn’t listen to the Newsboys and Relient K, who didn’t read books by Donald Miller, who watched R-rated movies, etc. I have felt this discomfort for much of my life, yet I haven’t questioned it. I have felt like I must live a certain way because it was the good Christian thing to do and I was setting an example, being a light, yet I kind of hated it. I hated it because I didn’t quite understand why I was living the way I was living for some time. I hated it because I think I was afraid to dig deeper, to converse with friends, to tell people what was important to me and what I was experiencing on the inside, and to question the lifestyle in which I was living. I hated feeling separate from the world, even though it was drilled into me that I needed to be. I often compromised and I was hypocritical because I felt I was in a tug of war match between Christianity and the world and I didn’t see how they intersected.

Now, much more mature in my faith and understanding, with more wisdom which I attribute to the Holy Spirit working in me, I realize this life has little to do with following doctrines and it has everything to do with following Jesus. I feel I am not living a certain way because of a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that stem from any sort of creation of man or the church, but I live a certain way because God has called me to it. Because through a crazy miracle that I don’t understand, God has given me a spirit that guides me into light and truth and life, convicts me of sin and things not of God, and steers me on the path I am supposed to walk on. I choose to live my life the way I do because my purpose is to do everything for his glory. Because I have read stories from Jesus’ life on Earth where he engages with the culture around him and chooses to love the unloved and calls us to have the faith of a child. THAT is where my heart lies. And if that is what Jesus is about, then sign me up. I do not want to be associated with a church that condemns homosexuals; that says you can only listen to Christian music and read Christian books; that says you shouldn’t question your faith; that keeps building bigger buildings and making dumb Christian bumper stickers; that holds to a certain political standpoint. I want to be associated with a church that loves and welcomes homosexuals into its doors; that recognizes the beauty and truth that come from artists and singers and writers and poets that don’t proclaim to be Christian or become part of a Christian industry; that says let’s have a class to explore other religions; that accepts those who doubt or have questions; that meets in an abandoned building because they want to give any money and resources they have to doing ministry; that says I don’t give a damn if you love or hate Obama and the direction this country is moving.

But I am also equally frustrated with people who call themselves Christians yet their lifestyle doesn’t bear good fruit, doesn’t show that they seek to live in a way that is glorifying to God. Yes, sin can still entangle us and we have forgiveness and grace if we mess up, but in Christ we are no longer a slave to sin. I didn’t swear or drink or party or have sex back in middle school and high school mainly because I was taught that it was bad for Christians to do and I was trying to maintain an image, a reputation as a Christian, not quite really knowing why, and always being a little curious and frustrated that I couldn’t experience things that the world offered me. Now, after some years of maturing in my understanding of what being a Christian means and exploring the why’s of this religion I’ve adopted, the things I choose to do and say do not stem from a legalistic religion I follow, but from who I am. I am a new creation in Christ. But I am human. I fail. I am not perfect. However, the way I live my life flows out of a desire to honor God, because in this, I find the most truth and freedom and beauty and love and peace. Jesus overcame the law. We have been redeemed. Some Christians and churches set in place remind me a lot of the Pharisees in the Bible, and I hate that. Yet, we shouldn’t dismiss all legalism just because we have been redeemed from it. For example, I had a pre-conceived notion that it was terrible to swear and that non-Christians swore and Christians don’t. Now, I see things a little differently and things aren’t so black and white. But I see why that was taught to me originally—because God’s word tells us to tame our tongue. That our tongue is the sharpest sword. That we can either bring life or death through our speech. That we can bring light or darkness to a person’s life. Now, nowhere does it say don’t use the word “shit.” That’s the Christian culture I’ve come from, not from the Bible. Paul even says in Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish (or the Greek word skubala, which best translated means “shit”), in order that I may gain Christ.” But by throwing the word around meaninglessly or by cursing God and others through my language, I am definitely not bringing about truth and life and goodness. And I believe it can make others stumble or corrupt my own thoughts. Words have power. Words are attached with the witness of a Christian life. Words flow out from what you inwardly think and feel and want to express and proclaim to the world.

Another example: God condemns drunkenness. Thus, the church at large (for the most part), condemns drunkenness. (Clarification--not people who are drunks, or who occasionally get drunk, but drunkenness.) This is not some rule that the church made up like you can only listen to Christian music. It is written in the Bible, many times, among passages of Jesus’ teachings and parables and miracles. It is something that was written for us for our own sake. God’s teachings are wise and bring life to us, rather than destruction and confusion. I think this passage (Galatians 5:16-21) most clearly states what I’m trying to get at:

“16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

And this last part, frankly, upon first read, I hate. Taken out of the context of the entire Bible, it seems that those people who do these things will never inherit the kingdom of God. Yet, we know that God’s grace covers all sin if we choose to accept it, so why would this be in the Bible? It seems like there is no grace. But notice verse 18 says, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” It’s this crazy, awesome, confusing paradox in a way. Jesus was not about legalism and we don’t need to live by all the laws that are stated in the old testament books because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, yet because the Spirit indwells in us and fills us, we are led inwardly to follow the law that Jesus proclaimed and to stay away from sin that can entangle us and lead us astray. We will not inherit the kingdom of God—which exists both here and in heaven—if we choose to engage in those sins rather than accept God’s generous gift to us—His Spirit, which leads us into life. I think a synonymous last sentence of verse 21 could be “I warn you, as I warned you before, if you don’t accept the life that my Spirit is able to give to you, you will be lead into misery and death. So accept this blessing!” That’s what I look at the Spirit and its leading into righteousness as—a magnificent blessing.

While I hate the separatism that happens between Christians and the culture we are surrounded by, I also hate when Christians go the other direction and succumb to the largely corrupted culture that we live in rather than try to create, as God did when he created the world, truth and beauty and purity and goodness, and to wear on our sleeve the fruits of the spirit. I think either we try to completely get away from culture, from the world, and then lose our ability to witness and minister and co-exist with people of different backgrounds and beliefs and personalities and socio-economic levels, or we completely get away from the Christian subculture and then slowly drift away from the teachings of Christianity and into the lifestyles and pressures of the world because we hate too much to be different or look different or think there's no way we can have an influence on culture.

This is the dichotomy of Christianity. This will no doubt frustrate me the rest of my life. But I’m so glad I have gained so much clarity this summer, and I am so glad I was able to write out a lot of what has been stirring within me.

Thanks for reading.