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the Empathy List #58: In or out?
The mysterious whims of Jesus.
Hey friend, Liz here.
I’ve been reading irreverent spiritual books lately. In fact, they are books that the authors would probably never even classify.
Take Patricia Lockwood’s book, Priestdaddy. It’s a hilarious and heretical memoir of an adult daughter moving back home and into her father’s rectory when she and her husband go broke.
(By the way, when some Christians say heretical, they mean someone cusses. When I say heretical, though, I mean downright profane, like a whole chapter on her mother’s fear of, um, sexual remains in the hotel bedsheets… which is snort-out-loud funny. Psst, NO KIDS ALLOWED!!)
To me, her doubt is refreshing and human and lovable. She was hurt by my religion—her father’s Catholicism, particularly—and she expresses that by sprinting in the opposite direction.
Yet during her teenage years, she attended a Pentecostal youth group, where she experienced the intensity of belief (though it faded later on). She writes:
“To believe with that kind of wholeheartedness, I can describe only from a distance, as you might describe a city on fire.
It felt: like the axis of the earth exited through my feet. Like I had grown a steeple. Like getting stopped at the top of the Ferris wheel, alone in my seat and exhilarated, one sandal hanging off the tip of my toe.
…I was saved, set apart, snatched off the streets. The halo was a flaming hoop I had leaped through and I was on the other side.” [italics mine]
Many of us Christians still believe that the goal of our salvation, the whole point, is to arrive at the other side: I’ve stepped through the hoola hoop without catching fire, and I’ll be heading to heaven. That’s what Jesus came for.
But then, the question is who has stepped through the hoola hoop and who hasn’t? Who’s in and who’s out? And who decides? And how?
After years imbibing and believing this hoola hoop theology myself, I have come to understood it’s a training wheel hermeneutic. It’s not patently false, nor are the people who taught it to me childish, nor are they liars.
But to minimize the work of Christ as a simple “line to cross” is to miss the overarching gospel message. It’s the black-and-white rationalizing of modernism, which ignores the complexity of the scriptural narrative as a whole and condenses it to a few talking points. There is more to the story.
If getting the most souls over the demarcated line was the point, then why didn’t Jesus throw the largest house party in the near east after being reanimated by the all-powerful divine father who created the universe, in order to attract the largest platform he could? (Certain leaders of ours would certainly do so, a sort of middle finger to the doubters.)
Or at least, why didn’t he appear to the most trustworthy sources—to Roman government officials, say, or to the religious elites? Or even to his most devoted followers, a way of bolstering their devotion? Why bother appearing if you’re not strengthening the movement as efficiently as possible? (Didn’t Jesus also create the theory behind capitalism? ;-))
Instead, the scriptures document a series of head scratching, secretive appearances. (Where Jesus can now, apparently, walk through walls and vanish like Casper the ghost…? But somehow, he still has visible scars that verify his torture and death? I have so many questions…)
He first dazzles Mary, whose body had once possessed seven demons writhing beneath her skin(think “The Exorcist” for context. Would you trust such a witness?). Then Christ kicks up dirt beside two disciples whose names we’ve never heard of (who is Cleopas?), then his followers, then a few hundred more. But he’s picky, and he never darkens the door of the most famed religious figures of his day. (And he certainly doesn’t book any television appearances.)
I don’t mean to be trite about the gospel message, which is the definitive narrative of my own life. But I do want to resist the idea that we know who God has picked and why.
The whim of Christ is more mysterious than any apologetic lesson would have you believe. Which makes me wonder what we might miss about the suffering servant himself.
I have become convinced of the Greek orthodox Christian belief about salvation—that to join the family of God is not a one-time decision, like a tetanus shot for the soul. Rather, salvation is “a long obedience in the same direction,” as Eugene Peterson put it. Which means the primary tool for deciding who’s in or out is, in fact, the direction we’re already walking.
Fortunately, none of us get to (have to?) make the final call about who’s in or out. I don’t care how much weight you can deadlift, that’s way too much for any human to shoulder. What a relief that it’s out of our hands.
Thanks for reading. Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
P.S. Yep, I rebranded this list from the ENVY list to the EMPATHY list. You probably didn’t notice. But I figured empathy is probably more on brand for me?? Even if it is less catchy? Whatever. I’ve always been too earnest to be cool. ;-)
And if you like what I’m doing here, would you forward this email to a friend?
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