Myself (or someone like me) v. 2

R.E.M. starts off their song "New Test Leper" with this verse: I can't say that I love Jesus. That would be a hollow claim. He did make some observations And I'm quoting them today. "Judge not lest ye be judged." What a beautiful refrain. The studio audience disagrees. Have his lambs all gone astray? When I first heard this song, I was in college. One of my friends, also a U2 fanatic, played it for me one weekend and I was instantly insulted. "It's got to be one of the best songs this year," he exclaimed. I retorted, without thinking, "Yeah, if you're bi like Stipe." My friend, who was a reserved, mellow guy normally and the leader of the worship team at our InterVarsity chapter just looked me dead in the eye and said, "Yeah, I think he's singing about exactly that." I apologized, though I was confused about what had just happened or why I came out of the conversation looking like an arse. He wasn't bi. Neither of us knew anyone who was. Why would he act personally insulted or something? I thought I was nailing a social problem on its spiritual head: people who want to live "alternative" lifestyles are offended when they're confonted with biblical, Christian truth. They confuse truth-telling with intolerance. Then they hang the tag "intolerant" onto any concept of religion, any doctrine, any informal statement that doesn't suit their own self-indulgent libratarianism. Yeah, that's likely what I thought at the time. Less than a month later I found out that two of my friends had decided they were gay or bi; one of whom I was close with--someone who I would have considered a life-long friend. He, too, was on our InterVarsity leadership team. He wanted to be a pastor. And he was much "holier" than I was--he went out of his way to help people, donated food, furniture, and what little money he had to help other students who had less, held the door open for people even if he was carrying too many things himself. You know, one of those genuinely kind, honest people who have nothing to gain from being kind, no ulterior motives. I wasn't sure what to believe. (As an aside here, this post is not going to turn out to be one of those ABC After School Specials where E learns that homosexuality is just another kind of diversity, that it's okay to be gay, or that E had been painfully intolerant his whole life and was moved to accept homosexuality as an unproblematic lifestyle for Christians. I find those endings a little on the superficial side, even if they're well intended. And in this case, at least, I'd be lying if I said that's the way things turned out for me.) Matters went from confusing to a bit troubling when a group of Christian women--these also stereotype-defying, aggressive, gothy, artistic types--began to meet to pray that our gay/bi Christian friend would "turn back" from a lifestyle of sin. As he hadn't fully commited to being gay yet, this seemed not only innocent (to them) but somehow commanded in scripture. And then, as inevitably people began to polarize into "grace" camps and "truth" camps, matters got worse. Somehow I got selected as the "go between": the guy that could pray with those concerned for my friend's soul and then go lend a listening ear to him. I hadn't left my friend's confidence, as far as I knew, but I feared that by being involved with the "truth" women, I would soon become, in his eyes, a spy. So I did what any people-pleaser in my shoes would do. Nothing. I acted like nothing was wrong and waited until the semester had run its course and we were out of class. But unlike all other semesters, this was the end of the road--it was the spring of senior year. The fall would bring no elation at the sight of clusters of familiar voices and faces and architechture and routines, no clean slate on which to evaluate the past year, no hope that any satisfactory resolution--no matter how cobbled together--would be forthcoming. Just as our individual trajectories were being reoriented around these issues of homosexuality and faith and love and truth, it was all over. What is the profound lesson here, I wonder. Is it that Michael Stipe was right, that Jesus' gospel is one of individual interpretation? Hardly. Is it that the community of believers is essentially an exclusive club of plain, intellectually simple, and at times reactionary people? Is it that homosexuals cannot be embraced by true Christians until they repent of their "lifestyle of abomination before God," as I've heard bi-ness called? Is the "real problem" dogmatism in any form--are we all better off if we're relativists?


Blogger Andy Whitman said...

Good questions, Erik. Here's my take on "the problem."

We will always live with the tension between grace and truth. They cannot always be magically reconciled. But, IMO, the evangelical world almost always leans toward "truth," even when they couch it in terms of hating the sin but loving the sinner, etc. Unfortunately, we really haven't done a very good job of loving the sinner (and I include myself in that sweeping generalization).

And I would rather lean toward "love." Much of the evangelical world would probably see that as theolgical weakness, conformity to the world, the adoption of a relativistic worldview, etc. I don't care. I would rather lean toward love. I simply haven't done a good enough job of loving others, walking in their shoes, entering in to their stories and their pain, etc. And I want to do that better.

No, we're not better off as relativists. Sin really is sin. But the sin that I am responsible for is my sin, and I've done a poor job of managing that, let alone the sins of others. And it is only in the context of love -- the real deal, not the nebulous concept that we often don't even approach -- that truth can be heard rightly. I've got Truth out the wazoo, and can parse it in English, Greek, Latin, and Hebrew if need be. And I'm glad to know it. But I need to love better. This isn't intended to be a universal prescription, but I'm spending less time in theological books these days, and more time praying for the grace and strength to be a better husband, father, and friend.

12/16/2005 3:52 PM  
Anonymous Ray Grieselhuber said...

Thanks for writing about this, Erik.

Andy, you took the words out of my -- so to speak -- mouth (not easy to do), only you said it much better than I would have (probably easy to do).

Any discussion that focuses on one specific sin as being worse than any of the others we so easily ignore is missing the point.

I've spent enough of my life judging others, and not nearly enough loving them. I'm doing my best to reverse that these days. Maybe that pulls me too far in the direction of mercy in this tension we're talking about, but it's also the way I'd want God, or anyone else, to deal with me.

12/16/2005 4:56 PM  
Blogger John McCollum said...

How would our response look if we didn't see truth and love as opposite ends of some spectrum? False alternatives never produce true solutions.

I love Psalm 119; it's such a wonderful meditation on the goodness, not just the truth of God's ways.

I have some more to say, I think I'll weigh in after I've gotten some sleep. Peace.

12/16/2005 10:39 PM  
Anonymous Ray Grieselhuber said...

Looking forward to it, John. You make a good point, but I often doubt our ability to balance both at the same time.

12/17/2005 12:04 AM  
Blogger John McCollum said...

I certainly don't have all of the answers, but I'm almost sure it's not an issue of balancing. Perhaps it's just a matter of semantics, but balancing seems to imply that love and truth are somehow opposites. I think that as Christians, we need to reconcile these to concepts, understanding them to be absolutely inseparable.

Recently, I had a conversation with a Christian friend who struggles with homosexual desire. He said, "So, do you think it's possible to change sexual orientations?"

I said, "God, I hope so. I need to have my sexual orientation changed."

Puzzled look.

"I mean, I am sometimes attracted to women who aren't my wife. God's plan for me is to only desire one woman -- my wife -- for the rest of my life. My sexual orientation needs changing. So does yours. If God can't change sexual orientations, we're all screwed."

"Furthermore" I said, "My economic orientation needs changing. I'm greedy and materialistic. And my emotional orientation needs changing. I'm prone to anger and selfishness. I am fully trusting God to change all of my ungodly, unhealthy, unproductive orientations. If he's not powerful enough to change my sexual brokenness, why should I begin to trust him to change the rest? And if he's strong enough to change my economic orientation (an area in which he's demonstrated His ability to help me begin to overcome my innate greed), then why shouldn't he be able to help me overcome my sexual brokenness?"

While it's true that Paul says sexual sins are different from some of the others, I think that conservative christians often look at homosexuality as something so foreign, so beyond-the-pale that they can't imagine anything so abominable and unnatural. In fact, they often argue that homosexual desires are somehow chosen, and other sinful desires aren't.

The Fall screwed up ALL of our desires -- sexual, emotional, economic, vocational -- and bent us at the root. Events in our childhood have left us twisted and scarred. The effects of our own bad choices have created and nurtured a whole host of yearnings and inclinations that war against our souls, and prevent us from being able to follow God's plan for our lives. We are ALL slaves to sin.

My message to my gay friends (and my greedy friends, my angry friends, my sullen and resentful friends, and those afflicted with ungodly heterosexual desires) is one of both love AND truth: "Join with me as I limp and whimper toward the cross. I'll encourage you and help you as you let Jesus do the hard and painful work of untwisting the root, of changing your orientations. Please, oh please, be there to encourage me as God does his work fixing ME."

12/17/2005 9:27 AM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

John, this is all true, and I like the way you've stated it.

But maybe it would be better to approach this question in terms of "where do you start?" I agree that love and truth are not opposite concepts, and that we need to hold on to both. But I see far too much evidence that many evangelical Christians start with truth, and get around to love, if at all, whenever they get around to it.

And I have those same tendencies. I don't think I need much encouragement to hold to truth. Unfortunately, that often looks a lot like judgment in my case. And why should any non-Christian pay attention to me when I start with such an attitude? It's the old, "Hear the good news of the gospel; you're going to hell" approach. Whee.

But if I start with love, and approach it not as some religious exercise, but as the basis for relationship, then I may have a chance to speak truth in to someone's life. Put another way, almost all deep conversion emerges out of relationships, patient dialogue, and unconditional caring. It's costly. And I suspect that most of us don't want to pay the cost. It's easier to claim the moral high ground, bemoan the general godlessness around us, and never get around to actually relating to and befriending "sinners."

So I don't think it's a matter of balancing, either. Both love and truth are fully needed. But I do think it's a matter of priority, of puttting first things first. And I think we have to start with love.

12/17/2005 10:59 AM  
Blogger Scott Sloan said...

E, going on a rabbit trail, I see that you are reading two books on Archaeology. Email me a brief abstract of both of those books at s_sloan@integrity.com if you have time.

Regarding the above, I agree with everyone. I think that when it comes to ecclesiastical authority, separation of church, mosque, or synogogue from state that is where the main debate lies. Who do you allow to be married, be in leadership and other things? I think this is what the main question lies with most religious conservatives.

12/19/2005 10:29 AM  

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