At a recent screening of the documentary film Hellbound, I had a question for the director. I raised my hand and, nervous of the crowd around me, identified myself as an Evangelical Christian. “But I’m a Democrat who lives in San Francisco,” I was quick to add. In other words: “I’m not like them! I’m not like the crazy people who picket funerals or believe the earth was created in six 24-hour days.”
And while all that is true–in terms of where my beliefs line up–I found myself cringing at my own response afterwards.
About a year ago, I wrote a piece for Her.meneutics responding to a popular video in which a young Christian poet claimed to “hate religion but love Jesus.” And while I understood what he meant, I argued that this was a false dichotomy. The organization of Jesus’ people under the authority of the church (“religion”) is a really good thing. And it has also done tragic and brutal damage in the name of Christ. But holding the bad in tension with the good is part of the call of the Christian life. (Even when the bad appears to be from God–as Job reminds us.) And what I wrote then remains true today:
“We do not get to separate ourselves from the Church, as Christians. We do not get to claim non-religiosity simply to fit in, or to feel better about ourselves. As a friend of mine put it, to say that you love Jesus but hate religion is akin to saying you love your best friend but hate his wife. That relationship will not last.”
So, why was I so quick to throw caveat after caveat at my identification as an Evangelical Christian? I think the answer is fairly simple: In that moment, I cared as much about what the group of San Francisco moviegoers thought of me as I did about identifying with my rich, messy, sometimes shameful theological community. I’m not sure whether it was the right thing to do, though I had reason to believe that identifying as an Evangelical Christian in that community was unpopular. First of all, Evangelicals in America have a pretty bad reputation, not undeservedly so. We have become more known for what we are against—gay marriage, abortion, fun—that what we are for has been drowned out. This group of people so concerned about opening up the possibility of a personal relationship with a good God has often been its own worst enemy, and I do not want to put myself outside of this group simply because it has done some things I disagree with. Secondly, by many accounts San Francisco is the least Christian city in the country.
Some people laughed in the theater when I gave my introductory caveat, and I appreciated the knowing smiles and nods that came my way. It is a messy business, being part of any tradition, because someone, somewhere along the way, has screwed up or said something I disagree with. It’s like that other odd institution, the family, in which we have little influence on the actions of those closest to us, but we still love them, we still share the same name. And then there are my own mistakes; the things I say and do that don’t represent the rest of my tradition in the best possible way. At those times, I hope for grace and forgiveness and people who will move forward with me.
I care a good deal about what other people think of me. It isn’t all bad, but that desire to be thought well of too often leads me down roads of disassociation that aren’t where I really want to go. I want to stand with my brothers and sisters throughout the entirety of the Christian tradition, mistakes and kindnesses blended together, so that we might be truthful people who can move into God’s kingdom together. No stones cast, those days, only peace. Only unity.