On Faith, Good Stories and Freedom
Occasionally I get asked something to the effect of how building and living in a cabin out in the middle of nowhere has changed who I am as a person. In other words, how has stepping away from a lot of modern culture affected my view of the world? Mostly, I’m not exactly sure. It’s not really about having some sort of definitive change and really more akin with seeing the world through a lens of a different color. When you take a step back away from things you start to notice the weirdness of them and after a time it can become difficult to relate to people. For example, back when I stopped watching television I started to notice how I was having a harder time relating to people because I couldn’t talk about TV shows. I have a hard time having conversations with some guys because I don’t watch sports. It becomes strange to watch people obsess over things that they have zero influence over while at the same time noticing how little they pay attention to the things they do have influence. And a year and a half ago when I stopped attending church, my perspective on ‘church’ began to shift.
But, if I could put a finger on one major effect of taking a step back, it’s that my ability to spot bullshit has become increasingly enhanced.
I don’t mind telling you that I have some pretty severe anger issues when it comes to the modern American church. Mostly that’s my personal baggage that comes with years of working inside of ‘church.’ I have no desire to inflict it upon you. But, I used to be in deep. I studied theology. I worked for the church. I lived and breathed it. Part of my job was traveling around the country teaching workshops for church people on how to do better outreach and how to get involved in the community and how to be more welcoming.
But then one day reality set in. The vast majority of the people who came to those workshops only wanted to know how get people to come to their church. And if you pressed them it was ultimately because they wanted to boost their attendance and get more money in the bank. Period. I was working for an institution that was built to serve a noble purpose, but over time the focus turned away from bringing something great to people and instead toward supporting the institution. And after the final straw we left. We decided to take a break and regroup.
But then something rather peculiar happened. I didn’t miss it at all. Nor did I take some downward tumble away from faith. What I found was that I was free from all the church obligations and more free to focus on faith itself. I began to actually feel better about myself.
I started to realize that I was fed a lot of bullshit and so were a lot of other people.
One of the things I do now is teach college students how to tell good stories. Within storytelling there are rules to what makes a good story and one of those rules is what makes up the difference between the hero of a story and the villain. As it turns out there is really only one thing that separates the two and it isn’t actually behavior, but rather attitude. The one thing a hero of a story cannot do and remain the hero is think of themselves as better than others. The moment that happens the hero becomes the villain. Heroes serve. Villains make others serve them.
One of the other things that has to happen in a good story is that the hero of the story has to want something great and be willing to go through all kinds of conflict to make it a reality.
And now that I’ve stepped back away from the church world it’s becoming very obvious that there are a lot of churches out there that are either telling very poor stories by doing nothing or have, in fact, become villains. And the sad part is that they don’t even realize it.
Jesus told a lot of people to stop marginalizing other folks and start doing things and take big risks that would make life (on earth) better for others because that’s what a hero does. They’re for something great and they don’t think they’re better than everyone else and are willing to risk their own wellbeing to make sure others experience it. He often referred to this by saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like….a man who helps a hurt stranger…a man who welcomes his wayward son home… a guy who paid people more than they deserved…a poor old woman who gave everything she had… a shepherd who sought out a lost sheep.”
Time after time He told stories about people who took risks to make the lives of other people better.
Yet, that’s not the dominant message told today. Too often the modern American church is more defined by what they stand against rather than what they’re for. It’s easy to be against things because it doesn’t take any effort to not do them. This is followed generally by a list of obligations on how one needs to act, speak and sometimes look. And this issue is compounded by an outright attitude of superiority of everyone who doesn’t fall in line. Which line? Depends on which flavor of church we’re talking about. But far too often to question equates to heresy. Add to that expectations of obligations, attendance, busyness with things that far too often go to support the infrastructure and not the soul.
The end result is that instead of working to make people and communities whole, the church takes an active role in marginalizing them… because Jesus told them to?
So you end up with a faith that makes people doubt their self worth, because something they said, did or thought doesn’t line up with the mission statement. The church serves the function to make people feel worse about themselves.
To make matters even worse, over the past twenty years there has been an active campaign to put some of these same people in political power who then use the authority of the government to marginalize people as an expansion of their church doctrine. It doesn’t matter that they’re marginalizing people outside their church. Those people are wrong. The line between faith and politics becomes blurred. The notion of serving the marginalized is lost.
All men are created equal… except you. You don’t act like me. You don’t believe the same thing as me. You’re different. You’re poor, you must be defective. You accept evolution, you don’t believe in God.
That’s not faith talking. That’s a gospel of fear.
The problem is that not enough people are taking a step back and asking themselves if they’re still on the right track. They’re so embedded in their own church culture that they don’t have the ability or perspective to call “bullshit.” Those that do are almost immediately attacked for “questioning the word of God” when in fact they’re questioning the interpretation.
There aren’t enough communities of faith telling good stories with their collective lives to illuminate the absurdity that’s passing for Christianity in modern America. I know they’re out there, but their voices are getting lost in the noise.
I don’t simply blame the church and I know these aren’t new problems. There is really a larger issue seeping through our culture. There’s a disconnect where people don’t see how bad they’re hurting themselves. Taking a step back has caused me to realize how often people of faith are being handed a cultural worldview disguised as religion.
But, I believe in the kind of faith Jesus talked about. I believe in the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe in freedom. Real freedom, not just the illusion of it. I believe in taking a step back. I believe your faith can’t be judged based on how often you go to church. I believe that thinking for myself inherits the responsibility of educating myself. I believe people should be allowed to live their lives. I believe the only person who can tell you how to spend your day is you. I believe in being skeptical of people who seek power. I believe people should be able to say what they want even if I disagree with them. I believe in questioning authority. I believe I don’t need your approval. I believe people who use religion to beat down others are among the worst types of humans. I believe that I should discount anything that insults my soul. I believe in civil disobedience. I believe people should help each other, especially those who can’t return the favor. I believe love is something we do. And I believe I’m as guilty as anyone for being the villain and I’m not ok with that.
In the meantime… live well…laugh often…love always.