For The Someday Book

Archive for September 2010

UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … And Why It Matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Baker Books, 2007, 255 pp.

This book is the product of the Barna Group, which is like the Gallup of the evangelical Christian world. Barna conducts widespread research on the state of evangelical Christianity and Christianity in general, using mass survey techniques along with in-depth interviews, focus groups and more. UnChristian looks at research about the perceptions young people have about Christianity, particularly young people outside the church. The research contained in the book was fascinating, but I disagreed with many of the perspectives, conclusions, interpretations and proposed solutions given to it.

This book made a big splash when it was first published in 2007, because it revealed such negative perceptions about Christianity from young people. When young people ages 16-29 were asked about what came to mind when you say, “Christian,” they gave these terms: anti-homosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, too involved in politics, out-of-touch with reality, old-fashioned and insensitive to others. The only two favorable images that ranked higher than these were “teaches the same basic ideas as other religions,” and “has good values and principles.” (28)

The evangelical community reacted to this news with shock and horror. When I shared it in a sermon after I first bought the book three years ago, older members of my congregation reacted the same way. However, people my age and younger (I’m in my mid-30s) seemed to respond, “well, DUH!” We know this reality because it is ours. When we meet people and they find out we are Christian, or attend church, or even serve as a pastor, they immediately believe we are all those things. This is especially frustrating for those of us in the progressive Christian community who desperately try to practice and publicize a Christianity that welcomes and supports GLBT people just as they are, invites conversation without conversion from interfaith partners and puts love, social justice and service to the poor and to the earth ahead of judgments about who is going to hell. UnChristian gave numbers, facts and statistics to our generalized anecdotal experience of Christianity’s unfavorable reputation among our peers.

Kinnaman (as the lead author) writes the truth in bold numbers and alarming quotations from interviews. He tells the stories of young people shunned, shamed, embarrassed and neglected by Christians he rightly calls unChristian. I believe that this act of truth-telling makes this book valuable reading for anyone interested in a reality-check about perceptions of the church and of Christians. That kind of accurate perception will be key to righting our behavior and our witness in Jesus’ name.

The reason it took me three years to go back and finish reading the book (even though I have used it for reference on several occasions) is that Kinnaman’s perspective on our appropriate response is all wrong. My fundamental disagreements run right to the heart of their limited definition of Christianity that limits “true” Christians to those evangelicals who agree with them. The authors defined “true” Christianity in a way that excludes me and millions of other Christians because we do not meet their strict criteria. They have three divisions of Christians: born-again non-evangelical, evangelical and “notional” Christians. Because I do not subscribe to the belief in heaven, as they define it, I am a “notional” Christian–someone who thinks I am a Christian, but really isn’t. You can understand that this immediately makes me angry. (To see if the Barna Group thinks you are a Christian or not, look here.)

It’s this compulsion to draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, to define Christianity not by those who are seeking to live it but by some arbitrary theological premises, and the arrogance of telling millions of faithful people that they are not really Christians that leads to all the descriptions of Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, insensitive to the needs of others, and out of touch with reality. For all its attempts to listen to what non-Christians are saying, UnChristian maintains all the judgmentalism and arrogance that non-Christians (and this kind of Christian) are complaining about.

The pinnacle example comes in the chapter about Christians being “anti-homosexual,” which I place in quotes because members of the GLBT community do not use the term “homosexual” about themselves, and the term itself comes with prejudice. The chapter names all the ways that GLBT people, their families and friends have been judged harshly and excluded by the church—then concludes that Christians should continue to pass the same judgments, but be more polite about it. You know, stop yelling and carrying signs, and sit down over dinner and tell someone they are a sinner instead.

You can tell by my tone why it took me so long to make it through the book. The statistics and the insights they provide made it worth slogging through the crappy theology to get there, but I had to keep putting it down and walking away in frustration. No one else is conducting this kind of research beyond anecdotal conversations. However, the book left me angrier and more disappointed than ever, as evangelical Christians took a good hard look at the evidence against them and still could not muster any true compassion or willingness to examine the flaws in their own theology. I am coming to believe that theological certainty and rigidity are the primary culprits that lead one to becoming uncompassionate and unChristian.

Christianity is in crisis, as the statistics in UnChristian document. In order to recover, we need to stop deciding who really counts as a Christian and get on with loving people in Jesus’ name, without caring what they think or belief in the meantime.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

B has started saying this all the time. Usually it follows something he does wrong, or something I warn him against doing. It can be anything from spilling his Goldfish crackers to playing too rough to forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. He sometimes says it in response to a reprimand, but sometimes even when no reprimand has been issued or needed. He says it whether I have given a firm warning or a mild caution.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

His tone has a mixture of breeziness (like “no big deal”), and neediness (like “you’re not mad at me are you?”). It’s this blend that I find perplexing, troubling and annoying.

The breeziness is annoying. No, it’s not alright that you spilled, or that you were careless, or that you didn’t listen to me the first time, or that you did something I told you not to do. It is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. that you did it or that you can do it again.

The neediness is perplexing and troubling. What is he worried about? Have I given some indication that my love for him is contingent upon his good behavior?  B is an easy-going child that rarely provokes my temper, and I am not a yeller by nature. We use time-outs sparingly, because a cautionary word is usually sufficient. Does he think I might get angry at him for some minor infraction? Does he think I’ll stop loving him or caring for him because he’s still learning how to be a responsible member of the household? He’s three years old, and raised in a loving home. How could he be so fragile?

“But it’s O.K., right?”

I don’t know what is behind this strange new phrase. It’s probably a mix of all of the above, but I struggled mightily to find an appropriate response. Finally, one morning as we shared the job of cleaning up some spilled Cheerios, he said it again. I stopped and pulled him close to give him a deeper answer. “B,” I said, “it’s not O.K. to be careless and spill Cheerios everywhere. You have to pay attention. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do spill them. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you spill things. We’ll just clean them up and try to be more careful next time.”

As I said these words, I realized that this is God’s message to us all the time. No, it’s not O.K. that you sinned again, and again, and again. Yes, it does matter, and you need to try harder, do better, be more loving, be more compassionate, follow Christ more fully. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do sin. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you screw up the big things, not just some spilled Cheerios. I’ll forgive you, love you, help you clean up your mess and encourage you to be more careful next time.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

No, it isn’t. And yes, of course it is. If it’s true of my love for my child, how much more true is it of God’s love for us?

One of my favorite photos of B sleeping, taken over a year ago.

B begins his day curled up in bed with us. Some days, he creeps in before dawn and we snooze awhile together. Other days, he comes in ready to wake up and we cajole him into bed for a few minutes while we peel our eyes open. Almost always, the first words he utters in the morning come in the form of a question. Not the same question. Not just an ordinary question. Not, “can we get up now?”, “what are we having for breakfast today?”, or “what are we doing today?” B begins the day with some of the most random and most specific questions he asks all day. (And he averages several hundred questions a day.)

Here are the questions from this week. Remember, these are the first words he utters in the morning. All begin with the prefix, “Mommy?”

  • Have astronauts ever met an alien in space?
  • Do some rock stars like Corvettes?
  • Do you know what “fascinating” means?
  • What do you call this bone I can feel in my hand? I can see it in my skin–do you call it a skin bone?
  • Do elephants live in the jungle? What about alligators?
  • Does our watermelon have seeds? (The CSA one awaiting us on the kitchen table.)
  • If something is alive, does that mean it has eyes?

I love his inquisitiveness, even if I find it overwhelmingly intense at 0-dark-thirty. These are always the first in a long line of questions that pour out of him in the pre-dawn hours. I wish I had thought to remember more of them, but I confess that my first thought as they pummel my sleeping brain like a shot of BBs is to just make it stop.

My second thought, however, is always: where is this question coming from? At that hour of the morning, I can only assume that each morning’s line of questioning emerges from somewhere in his dreams. And this, to use the newest word in his lexicon, fascinates me. I don’t know about you, but I am totally infatuated with the idea of peering into his dreams, his subconscious, to learn how his mind works and what worries him and what excites him and what puzzles him. These questions are a small window into his young mind.

Apparently, it is a very random and inquisitive place. I’m going to try to suppress my desire to outfit him with a snooze button and pay better attention to the questions themselves.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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