Jesus Died So I Might Tell You How to Live

[Note: This post has attracted a surprising amount of interest, which caused me to reread it and discover, to my chagrin, that it was full of typos and grammatical errors. This is a slightly revised and edited version, reposted on 10/18/06.]

Evangelicals Fear the Loss of Their Teenagers is a story in today’s New York Times.

Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.

At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement.

Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.

While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.

According to the article, most of the evangelical leaders blame the temptations of the liberal, secular culture.

I suspect, though, that the (supposedly) easy sex and drugs out there are not the main reason evangelical churches aren’t holding on to their teens. Most evangelicals churches I’ve attended, and the ones I watch from time to time on television, focus on what might be called “what God can do for me.” Accept Jesus as your savior, and your emotional problems will be healed, your physical ailments may be cured, and, most importantly, you’ll make more money! God favors “His people.” The ones who have become registered (so to speak) born-again-Christians at a public altar call—those are “God’s people.” Everyone else—well, they’re just not God’s people.

And then there’s the demonizing of gay and lesbian people and other sexual minorities. If there’s one thing being a teacher and a parent has taught me, it’s that teenagers, while lacking the maturity that making mistakes brings, are also much less encumbered by prejudices and stereotypes. Teens being brought up in evangelical churches are meeting more and more openly gay and lesbian friends and teachers and parents of friends, and they see that on the whole we are kind and loving and good people.

These teens see their churches practice a sort of selective fundamentalism: a small handful of out-of-context passages used to condemn gays, while explicit prohibitions against divorce, for example, are rationalized away with a “these things sometimes happen, sadly” shrug. They see the complete and dangerous folly of abstinence-only sex education.

They see, just as those outside the evangelical/fundamentalist culture do, the hypocrisy of self-righteous moral champions who have had divorces, affairs, who are emotionally abusive to their spouses and children, who suffocate their kids with impossible-to-live-up-to rules and regulations, etc. One of the great tragedies in my town is a conservative pastor’s son who has a severe drinking and drug problem widely discussed by his friends, yet evidently ignored by his parents (how would it look if the pastor’s son was acknowledged to have a drinking/drug problem?), and which, judging from his father’s bizarrely angry behavior at soccer games, in all likelihood stems from a home environment if not emotionally abusive at a minimum emotionally oppressive.

Virtually evangelical adult I know, and there are many I know and like and even love in many ways, has a “Christians are better than other people” vibe; one that’s often smug. If your family is “Christ centered,” your kids won’t get into drugs and drinking and sex. And so if they do . . . deny it. I can understand why a conservative pastor would go into denial about his son’s problems; it would seem to undermine everything he’s been preaching about Jesus the cure-all, Jesus the problem-solver, Jesus the ultimate “fixer” for “His people.”

I had a conversation today in which an evangelical acquaintance explained to me that her sister-in-law (whom I know), who has bipolar disorder and anxiety/panic attacks, and is recovering from growing up in an emotionally abusive alcoholic household, simply needs to stop taking her medications, turn her life over to Jesus, and all will be well. It reminded me of my evangelical uncle who once sent a letter to the entire family explaining that my drug-addicted, mentally ill cousin should accept Jesus and he would be healed.

As far as I can tell, what the historical Jesus taught was honesty, love, forgiveness, and justice. I was at one time a “born-again” Christian and in many ways still consider myself one, although my theology has become so progressive and interfaith that I’m not always comfortable calling myself Christian.

But one thing keeps me thinking of myself as a Christian. The message of forgiveness, and the call to be kind to each other. Jesus understood that we are all fucked up. We all “sin.” We all do less than we could. We get angry and jealous and petty and we cheat and steal and do things we are ashamed of. Most of all, and worse of all, we are almost continually and inescapably unloving to others, often to those whom we love and who love us the most. And yet God–whoever or whatever God is–forgives us and loves us anyway, and calls us to forgive and love each other. Anyway.

In my limited experience of other religious traditions, I haven’t found this expressed in the same way; I haven’t found to be the core message. But this simple, profound truth, that we all screw up, and the only answer is forgiveness and unconditional love, rings so true, proves itself over and over in my life, that if there is any tradition I can identify with, it’s the Christian one.

Being a Christian, as I understand it, is not about being or becoming better than other people. It’s about accepting that I can’t be better or superior. And that I don’t have to, or need to, try. I’m flawed. I’m weak. I’m human. To be a Christian, in this sense, is about being able to be honest about my flaws and weaknesses and the bad things I do, and to be able to admit my errors to others, and apologize when necessary, and to do what I can to make up for damage I cause. Because somehow I am loved and forgiven anyway. That experience is so profound, so joy-giving, that it makes me want to extend that love to others. And as my life becomes more about forgiving and loving, I find I’m a more positive presence more often.

There’s a smug-sounding bumper sticker I see occasionally: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven!” And the implied, “and non-Christians are not forgiven, so I, a Christian, are better off than you,” comes through loud and clear.

There are Evangelicals who are not on a God-loves-me-more-than-other-people ego trip. There are Evangelicals who understand that they are as screwed-up and sinful (I word I’m not entirely comfortable with but since it’s part of Christian vocabulary I use it for this discussion) as everyone else. And who get that having had a born-again experience doesn’t give them license to judge everyone else.

But they seem to be in a distinct minority. The overwhelming number of evangelicals seem to take the attitude, “Jesus died so I can tell you how to live.” Jesus died for my sins. I’m forgiven and going to heaven. And guess what? All your problems? Just accept Jesus as your personal savior and poof! your problems will vanish. Bipolar disorder? Gone. Drug addiction? Gone. Not going to accept Jesus? How dare you! Well, we the members of “God’s people” will tell you how to live. And as the “God’s person” with whom you are interacting, I will tell you how to live.

Well, having as much admiration for teenagers as I do, I’m not surprised that so many of them are turned off by evangelicalism as it is so widely practiced today.

One of the great tragedies of our society is that there’s not much of an alternative. The mainline, moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches with which I’m acquainted tend to have services as stultifyingly boring as evangelical services can be emotionally overwrought and manipulative. Mainline Protestants tend to be as hypocritical as anyone else, talking about conservative evangelicals–as people–with disdain.

Which may be what I’m doing here myself. The disdain, the contempt, that can creep into my being—that I’m sorry for. I’m no better, and no worse, than my “I’m-part-of-God’s-people-and-you’re-not” friends and neighbors. Life can be impossible to deal with, and what seems to me to be an evangelical fantasy is an attractive refuge.

But fantasies are fantasies. And teenagers are pretty good at spotting bullshit, no matter how well-intentioned and genuinely convinced the bullshitters are. And so the fact that teens raised in evangelical churches aren’t buying isn’t a surprise to me, and is a source of optimism for the future.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Jesus Died So I Might Tell You How to Live

  1. Seven Star Hand

    Hello Eric,

    Very good article! Keep their feet to the fire until the blind and deaf Republican thralls finally open their eyes to the truth and understand the true extent of their strong delusion and great folly!

    Want to better understand some of the desperation among Christian politicos? Follow the links and read about who I am and what I have to say. Notice my last name?

    If Christian political leaders are going to go around attacking others for not living up to their professed values, it’s a damn good idea to be truthful and actually walk the walk. Logs and motes in the eye, camels through the eye of a needle, glass houses, kettles and pots, and what goes around comes around, et al. Karma’s a bitch when She finally decides enough is enough! This wouldn’t have been so bad on Republicans if they hadn’t been such arrogant hypocrites in order to corner the so-called values voters! Now the Two Candlesticks and Two Witnesses (Truth and Justice) are “breathing fire” and “raining hailstones!”

    Christian Political Leadership, Hypocrisy, Duplicity, and Purposeful Evil

    The current scandal involving Congressman Foley is merely the latest in an amazingly long list of blatant deception and duplicity by Republicans and the Christian Right in recent years. While bedeviling us all with their holier-than-thou pretenses, they consistently support and/or perform blatant greed and abominable evil. Never forget the extent of their arrogance over the last two decades and especially the last 6 years. It is beyond amazing that Christians continue to blindly support such obviously blatant scoundrels, even as they are repeatedly exposed going against the most basic of human values. The level of hypocrisy and duplicity boggles the mind. There is no longer any doubt, whatsoever, that Christianity is little more than a purposeful deception used by political and religious leaders to dupe, manipulate, and coerce entire populations into giving them wealth and power, which they always use for greed, injustice, and abominable evils.

    The actions of Foley and those who covered up for him directly parallel the actions of scores of priests that have raped innocent children, preyed upon others for centuries, and had their actions hidden and abetted by the Vatican. Now, in eerie repetition of Vatican history, we have a power hungry Christian Emperor (GW) working closely with the Vatican and Judeo-Christian aristocrats to lead crusades in the so-called Holy Land. Furthermore, to leave little doubt about the reality of this assessment, the USA, as the new Holy Roman Empire, is about to legalize the torture it has perpetrated in recent years while steadily reversing many of the democratic and civil freedoms that people gained when the Vatican and royalty lost control of their European empire at the turn of the nineteenth century. Now we see them following the same old path of evil as they strive to cement the status of the USA as the latest proxy Vatican empire. Make no mistake about it, the new dark ages are looming on the horizon unless we do something proactive to prevent it.

    Remember that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it!

    Read More:
    Here is Wisdom !!

    Peace…

  2. Terry

    Yep, I just despise that bumber sticker! Smug is the right word for it.

  3. PinkFluffySlippers

    Eric, you rock.

  4. Paulsthorn

    Hey, Eric, I’m a Christian and I’d like to say that the War of Armageddon Bush and his Evangelicals are trying to get going over there in the Middle East will never have my approval.

    I’ve taken a vow of non-violence and will never kill anyone in the name of Jesus, or for any other reason for that matter.

    I believe the true Christians are headed along a different path than the false Christians, and you will find the true Christians in the prisons of this world, as Christ prophesied.

    Here’s my blog …

    http://christianprisoners.blogspot.com/

    It’s not for everyone, and I’ve been accused of being bitter and full of hatred, etc. Well, you don’t see me with a collection of nuclear weapons, and aiming them around the world at whatever moves.

    Christians will know who the true enemy is, when they see the whites of their eyes and the swords in their hands.

    NO RAPTURE FOR THE EVANGELICALS — NO ESCAPE FOR THOSE WHO BEGAN THE GREAT TRIBULATION — NO ACCEPTANCE OF THE MARK OF THE BEAST.

  5. Paulsthorn

    Don’t want to leave it on that bad a note. It’s not entirely a bad thing that the Fundies are losing their youth in droves. They are so extremist and controlling that their teenagers have to kiss their girlfriends in secret or risk being exposed. You have to sneak kisses arounds corners and in the dark while the Fundie leaders prowl around wondering what’s going on. Very few people like living under that kind of stress and want to be free of it, rather than embrace it. I remember hearing about a sect that placed Bibles between two teenagers so their thighs would not touch as they sat in the pews. Now really, will they get pregnant by some kind of osmosis? People have to be free to make their mistakes, how else are they going to learn? Very few people learn to keep away from sin by hearing a Bible story. Here’s an example of a Pretentious Fundie Tale of Holiness …

    The Queen of a country asks three of her best charioteers to meet her by a road on the edge of a cliff. She asks them each how close they could get to the edge of that cliff without falling off. The first charioteer says, “I can get this close to that cliff without going over!” The second charioteer says, “I can get even closer than that without going over!” The last charioteer says, “Are you crazy? I’m not going anywhere near that edge!” The Queen says to the third charioteer, “You’re hired!”

    It’s an example of the kinds of things the Fundies will tell their congregation in order to convince them it’s better not to sin: drink, have sex, do drugs, steal, etc. But does it work? Uh, yes, if you’re someone who has no desire to experiment and test the limits of what might be great fun, or are the kind of Christian that’s so intent on pleasing the Lord that it would not enter his mind to break the holy code of conduct. The rest of us say, “You gotta be kidding me! Do I have any chance of surviving the fall? Do I get to carry a parachute? When do we start the game, I’m bored!”

    I would say that ninety-nine percent of people in this world WANT THE THRILL-RIDE instead of just playing it safe. Yeah, the rest of us have to learn our lessons from having too many broken bones, and even then we still keep on doing stupid things like the dudes in the jackass movies. I’m sorry, but, people who have learned their lessons and move away from the edge of the cliff are people who’ve fallen over that cliff way too many times and know what it’s like to break their bones.

    All the wisdom is there in the Bible if you want it. It’s there in Proverbs and in the Parables of Christ and in the Wisdom of the Apostle Paul. You could live a straight arrow life if you read closely and follow the rules, and you’ll rarely if ever run into great trouble. Fact is, most of us go the way of the Book of Ecclesiastes by King Solomon and ruin our lives and then maybe perhaps return to the Lord afterwards with humility and say, “You were right, I should have stayed away from the edge of that cliff. Boy, were you right, I learned my lesson, Lord.”

    So, what the church needs to understand is that its people will go off and do the most stupid and horrible things, and that the church must pray and be patient and wait for these people to come back and say, “I’ve had enough of doing it my way, please, tell me how the Lord would do it.” So the church tries to control people who do not want to be controlled and the church loses them forever.

    “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

    Wait, that’s not the Bible, but, it’s the same idea.

    “Train the child in the way that he should go and when he grows up he will not depart from that way of life.” At some time, the child has to be free to do his own thing, he can’t be controlled forever. He will break free eventually.

    As for myself, I was one of those stay away from the edge kind of kids, but, I still got into trouble anyway.

    Trouble is inevitable, even if you’re a good kid. Trouble will find you wherever you are, it doesn’t matter where you are. You can be doing something really good, and trouble will still find you!

    Jonah 2:1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying, “I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. 3 For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. 4 Then I said, ‘I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’ 5 The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. 7 When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. 8 Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. 9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!” 10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

    Christians must learn to see that sometimes it’s from the belly of the whale that we say our best prayers. It’s in the belly of the whale where we obtain wisdom. But riding the edge is not always the best thing to do either. You can get killed doing it and then where will you be? Heroin, ecstasy, robbing banks, how far does it all go, how long can you keep it up before you get shot to death, how long before it becomes the last ride close to that edge you love so much?

    You” be lucky if the Lord rescues you from your folly. Be thankful. And get some wisdom. It might not be a good thing to return to the Fundies, they have too many unrealistic viewpoints that can turn you off yet again. Try a different Christian Denomination, look for one that is ultra-aware people make mistakes. I won’t recommend any denominations here. Pray to the Lord that he will lead you.

    “The mind of a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”

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