There are times I am embarrassed to call myself Christian. Not because I am ashamed of Jesus. Not at all. He makes sense. But the picture of Christianity the world gets has become so antithetical to everything I stand for that I don’t want to be associated with it. So much internet real estate and so much media airtime seems to have been devoted to the ravings of what I call (possibly less affectionately than I should, given my vociferous campaigning for treating one another in love) the Lunatic Christian Fringe. By the way, I use the label “fringe” to position them on the outside of sound theology, not because of their numbers; in terms of sheer numbers, they comprise – it would seem – the bulk of Western Christians. I am not talking about the prosperity movement of Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn and company – I don’t consider them Christian at all. They are merely opportunists exploiting human desperation and religion for profit. I will unapologetically label them thieves and liars. No, I am talking about the misguided seekers of truth who have inundated popular culture with passionate tirades against Harry Potter. I am referring to those who devote disturbingly large amounts of time to blustery histrionics warning fellow believers against the evils of celebrating Christmas or Easter or their birthdays, because such festivities are rooted in pagan traditions. I am talking about those who would find the devil in a toasted cheese sandwich if consuming the said luncheon snack even vaguely seemed to contravene some obscure law from Leviticus. I am sure that there is much to be said for their efforts to live a life holy and pleasing to God. I am not sure I would say most of it in polite company.
One of my favourite films of all time is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. I am sure the LCF would be horrified, and would certainly have a lot to say about that. Probably without ever having watched it. Still, I like the film because it speaks powerfully (and I think very sensitively) against the dangers of a puritanical mindset. After spending their lives trying to run away from the heartache and sorrow resulting from sin, the village elders come to realise that running away is futile because heartache and sorrow are an unavoidable part of life. Evil, Shyamalan masterfully suggests, resides latently in every human heart. It is not an external force that can be avoided or repulsed, but an unshakable part of who we are. Rigid rituals and well-intentioned forms of abstinence can neither quell its power nor negate its influence.
Another reason I like the film is because it is clear that this tendency towards depravity is only a part of who we are. We are not, as Calvinist tradition would paint us, miserable worms and wholly evil. The character of Noah Percy (Adrian Brody is an extraordinary actor – if this performance doesn’t convince you of that, then there is no hope for you) makes a profound comment on our spiritual nature: we are simultaneously innocent and childlike, and irrevocably vicious. Noah’s most reprehensible and calculated actions stem from his purest and most admirable attribute: his love for Ivy. I think Shyamalan meant us to identify something of ourselves in him. Because we are made in the image of God, we have at our core His virtues and nobility. Where sin manifests in us, it does so through a perversion of what is good. Our natures are not comprised of two diametrically opposed forces. The evil is the good, but in a twisted form. That is why we cannot remove it or run from it, why it will always find expression. That is why a commitment to a set of rules for holy living can never suffice. Fighting sin requires a transformation, not an excision. That is why we need God. We are powerless to do that for ourselves. That is the message of the gospels.
Where I think the LCF gets it wrong is that they cleanly divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘evil’. They persist in the belief that if we don’t look at ‘evil’ and cling to what is ‘good’, we will remain pure and safe. Like the elders in the Village, they want to escape evil by running from it. They take a verse like Philippians 4 verse 8: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” And they turn it into a dogma. It is interpreted to mean that if we should only elect to see what is pleasant, we would find God’s favour. Despite the fact that in the previous chapter, Paul warns against dogmatic legalism. In fact, the book of Philippians, written during one of Paul’s (many) periods of imprisonment, is meant to be an encouragement to one of his favourite churches to persevere despite hardship. When you put the verse into its context, Paul’s message is that once cannot escape this world unscathed, but one can face the trials of life in such a way that one is a shining light in the midst of unspeakable darkness. In other words, verse 8 (and any Pauline discourse, for that matter) should be seen as promoting a certain attitude to be adopted while remaining in a sinful world, not as a behavioural path for escaping it.
If you belong to the LCF, and you are still reading this, put aside your outrage and indignation for a moment. Look again at Philippians 4 verse 8 and ask yourself this: what does my theology ask me to think about? Are you so busy focusing on ‘evil’ (and any theology that centres on how to avoid it is actually focusing on it) that you have neglected the far more important command to love others? For, after all, what is more noble, right, pure, lovely or admirable than that? Your self-created bubbles that keep Harry Potter and birthdays and toasted cheese sandwiches out will not keep virtue in. Have faith that God will alter your spiritual DNA by reversing the mutations embedded there by sin. Your good deeds are powerless to do that. Focus first on being and not on doing, on cultivating a loving heart rather than on virtuous action. The actions will follow.
Consider what Jesus said in Mark 7:14-23:
Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Any reading of the fundamental teachings of Jesus will emphasise that we are all thus defiled. Jesus is not trying to provide guidelines for distinguishing ‘good’ people from ‘bad’ people. He is trying to emphasise that point that we are all both. He wants to compel us to stop running and confront the truth (repent). And the truth is that we are powerless to combat sin: it is a part of who we are, much more than what we do. We are incapable of separating in our very natures that which is ignoble from that which is godly. We need to trust God to do so for us. Hopefully you will come to the most liberating insight that the gospel has to offer: being ‘good’ was never God’s final goal for us; being whole is. You are not diminished by sin because you are made unworthy by it; you are diminished because you are broken by it. But to attempt to eradicate sex or celebrations or art because sin invariably taints them is to pull out the crops with the weeds. And it only diminishes you more. Stop running. Enjoy your toasted cheese sandwich and just have faith.