Bunkers and Promontories

22 10 2012

G.K. Chesterton once quipped that atheists need to be careful what they read, lest they run across the truth, a truth that can blind us, that is “too bright for our infirm Delight,” as Emily Dickenson puts it. Well, I haven’t had the luxury of being too careful. I’m stuck reading what I must to get my dissertation done, which means I’ve been on a steady diet of Flannery O’Connor for going on three years now, and I can tell you, it’s like having a sift of brandy before every meal, breakfast included. And Chesterton certainly doesn’t help, nor does Simone Weil, or Rainer Maria Rilke, or, for that matter, the Bible. These are not thinkers to be trifled with, and yet there I go, day in and day out, trifling with them, regarding them, digesting them into my soul.

And what do these modern day prophets have to tell us? The same thing the prophets of old had to say (Isaiah 53:6): That we, like sheep, have gone astray, each has turned to his own way. And not “we” the world, but “we” the people of God. On Friday morning I was driving on the 210 to my office at school when I got stuck behind an infernally slow driver in the left lane. (Is that not the single most irritating thing in the modern world?) So get this. She had on her license plate, “AM BLESD.” At the first opportunity I got, I drove around her and glared at her as I passed, and do you know what she was doing? Looking straight ahead with a little Jesus-is-my-Savior-induced grin on her face, blissfully unaware of the phalanx of cars piling up behind her. And I thought to myself, there, right there, is everything that is wrong with the Church today. (Mind you, there is much that is right. Most of the relief provided for the poor comes from Christian churches and organizations, and that work cannot be overlooked. It is the Church at its best. And there are local churches that are committed to working out of the gospel in tangible ways.)

But there’s also much that is wrong with the Church universal today, and this unaware driver in the left lane was it in a nutshell: much of the Church has largely been reduced to Providential Theism wrapped up in pious language and has, as a result, become myopic and complacent. What do I mean by this?

I mean that we’ve reduced the principal criteria of membership to the state of a person’s salvation, and the best barometer we’ve come up with for determining this state is whether someone has a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, we’re just as interested in making money and living comfortably as the next guy, just as divided politically as the surrounding culture is, and we drive the same cars and live in the same houses and belong to the same clubs and watch the same movies as everyone else. Nothing really, in any substantive way, differentiates us from the surrounding culture except, perhaps, where we end up on Sunday mornings, but then only 17% of us do that on a regular basis in this country, the most “Christianized” country in the West. Meanwhile, we’re driving slowly along in the left lane, blissfully unaware of the phalanx of truths bearing down on us that wished we’d either speed up or just get the hell out of the way.

The Church is either a bunker where we who believe go to hide away, or it’s a promontory from which we are pushed off every Sunday in order to suffer and die with the world, clinging tenaciously to hope, looking through Jesus to the world. It’s one or the other – it cannot be both. If it’s the first, then it’s time to pull to the shoulder, turn off the car, and wait for help. If, however, it’s the second, then I hope you don’t mind heights.

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