Early on a Saturday morning not long ago, I was the guest of a friend at his golf club. It was a beautiful, chilly day that started with polite introductions to the two other golfers assigned to our foursome. As is typical, on the first tee the obligatory question of vocations arose. When I replied that I had taught religion and philosophy at a university I caught a glimpse of one in our group rolling his eyes and cursing under his breath after hearing the word “religion.” I sympathize. His reaction told me I would need to be careful about what subjects we covered during our time together.
The round started pleasantly enough. A few good swings and par putts made our conversations light and easy. When playing the fourth hole I began to hear strange echoing sounds rolling over the fairways and between the trees—sounds not characteristically encountered on a golf course. By the time we arrived at the approach to the fifth hole the source of the distraction became obvious. There we came upon a very large, expensive, three story home whose yard abutted the back of the fifth green. There, in the well manicured backyard, one could see large outdoor speakers pointed toward the course…blaring Christian talk radio. “Hey professor, how do you like our resident radio preacher? The guy who lives there plays his favorite Christian radio station all day, every day, trying to convert us ‘sinners.’”
“The guy is obnoxious.” said another. “On Sundays he plays it twice as loud and throws in hymns every once in a while. Ridiculous!”
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say.
The round continued without any further disruptions and from all accounts everyone involved seemed to enjoy themselves. We all agreed to meet in the clubhouse after our game for a bite to eat. As the other members of our group stowed their golf bag and shoes, visited the locker room and returned phone calls, I sat alone for a moment at a table in the grill. I was soon joined by the “eye-roller” and he began right where we left off on the fifth green.
“Don’t get me wrong.” He began. “I really don’t have a problem with religion per se.”
The tone of his voice was polite but intense. It was obvious he had been thinking about this for the last three hours and wanted to get it off his chest before the others in the group joined us.
“What I have a problem with” he continued, “is that it doesn’t work. It simply doesn’t work.”
“What doesn’t work?” I asked.
“Religion!” He replied just a little too loudly for either of our comfort. “Religion! It just doesn’t work!”
Luckily the football game was playing at full volume on three screens scattered around the clubhouse grill and was camouflaging what I feared might become an unpleasantly difficult conversation. I took a couple of deep breaths.
Trying to deescalate the situation I asked him a genuine question. “What do you think religions are trying to accomplish?”
“Well...that’s part of the problem.” He started circumspectly. “I think most religions are far too focused on the afterlife. Muslim terrorists are motivated by getting Allah to reward them with seventy virgins in the afterlife. Christians play around with this fantasy of eternal living in an adult version of Disneyland. I think religions should focus far more on what is required for becoming a good person. And that, is clearly not what Mohamed, or Christian talk radio, or televangelists, or the pedophilic priests that have been protected by the Catholic Church, or the abusive pastors who sexually intimidate and harass women in their congregations are trying to do.”
He caught his breath and dove back in.
“Or....explain this to me…. how can Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell’s sons, with straight faces...and with no negative consequences...be two of the most ardent supporters of one of the most unapologetically unchristian, dishonest, narcissistic, womanizing leaders in modern history?”
He was now on a roll. After a brief sip of his drink he launched back into the conversation, this time delivering his knockout blow.
“Am I wrong? You seem like a smart guy. So tell me please....how can you honestly defend the institution of Christian religion? How can you defend an institution when the leaders of that same institution perpetuate values and objectives which resemble almost none of the objectives on which the institution of Christianity was formed? How can anyone continue to defend or support something that has become this twisted? How can anyone defend a belief system that somehow assumes the junk they play on Christian talk radio is actually an honest effort to help people? And how can Christians not realize that none of that nonsense we heard today has actually made the world a better place?”
Thankfully the waitress came by and set down a basket of popcorn for the table. It stopped the conversation long enough for both of us to catch our breath and organize our thoughts. The intensity was high. So were the stakes.
The moment she was out of earshot he continued. This time in a half whisper. “Look…. I have to say, all in all, I think we are worse off in America today than we were before the evangelical right got so deep into politics. And I’m a died in the wool republican! I voted for Trump and I’d vote for him again.” He said with a laugh.
“I know that evangelicals helped elect him and both the Bush presidents. But I’m telling you that today the Republican Party and the country as a whole is less moral, less gracious, less tolerant of outsiders, less generous, less truthful, less faithful to conservative family values, less civil in our discourse, and as a result we are less powerful as a party and therefore we are less successful as a country. I don’t care what people say. It’s not all about the economy and jobs! The truth is we are not better, as a people, then we were before conservative Christians got in bed with politics. I’m not saying this because I feel like we need to protect the separation between church and state. I’m saying that…in sum... Christians as a group are not good people!” There was a short pause.
“There. I’ve said it.”
He leaned back in his chair, took a long drink, and let out a sigh. There was no vindictiveness in his expression. All I could sense was sadness and confusion.
“I understand.” I replied. “More than you know.”
This sparked his interest. He leaned back in.
“So how…..in God’s good name, can you defend Christianity?”
His gaze never left me. He expected an answer. And I felt he deserved one.
With as much solemnity as I could muster, I said, “Based solely on your arguments, I can’t. And I shouldn’t.” He seemed both momentarily satisfied and somewhat surprised by my response.
The rest of our lunch was pleasant. We relived good holes and bad swings. We watched some of the football game and shared some laughs about our failing eyesight and aging backs. When I got up to leave, we all shook hands and promised to contact each other in the future for another round…and I began a long thoughtful drive home.
Our interaction left me profoundly discouraged, but not because of the nature of the statements, the questions, or the aggressive nature of the conversation. As I drove, I began to rewind our conversation in my mind. Initially I wondered if my friend’s views could be easily altered if I could just introduce him to some deeply committed disciples of Christ. But, after deeper consideration, I’m not sure that strategy would work because my credibility and theirs has already been deeply discounted simply by our “guilt of association.” This leads to the larger frustration. Despite my education and a lifetime of experience in these matters, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for anyone anywhere to assume the credibility or authority which is necessary to adequately address the realities underlying the deeper problems he had unearthed. We are now a society that is increasingly incapable of hearing any view or perspective that doesn’t offer full-throated support of our own passionately stated opinion. This is also increasingly true of Christian and non-Christian alike. Identity politics and tribal warfare is at epidemic levels with widespread negative consequences. One of which is a loss of devotion to the truth. We don’t listen for the truth but instead tend to listen only for affirmation of what we already believe is true. Tragically, this method of discourse primarily leads us toward systemic, circular increases in ignorance, not wisdom.
But the longer I drove I began to unearth the deeper cause of my discouragement. My friend had presented me a well thought out, well articulated set of rationalizations for why he considered Christianity a fraud, yet he never mentioned, nor even considered who Jesus is, what he did, or what he taught. In my friend’s mind, and based on his experience, Jesus, Christianity, and individual Christians have become totally unrelated subjects of both thought and practice. One has no logical relation to the others. This fact is predominantly what it means to live in a post-Christian world; a world which has also become inundated with a form of Christendom that is no longer dependent on Christ as King. And that is not just an issue between my friend and me. This is the problem we are facing across Western society. Put simply Jesus is no longer the primary focus, nor the objective standard for guiding and directing much of contemporary Christian faith. It’s not just our society that is post-Christian. Most of our “Christian” churches and institutions are now post-Christian as well.
We need to think about this reality, how it came about and what we can do to wisely inform our neighbors that the brand or label “Christian” may or may not have anything to do with Jesus.
I failed at my chance to successfully engage on this level with my friend. What follows are some ideas of what I would have said to him if I could have mustered the courage, and if he was interested in listening.
I think my friend is right that the western cultural form of Christian religion he has come to understand and witness in action is largely, and increasingly, a failure. Sadly though, what he, like so many others like him don’t know and may never realize, is that there is a distinct difference between the teachings and life of Jesus and the earthly manifestations of Christendom. We both abhor the idolatry of cultural Christendom, yet, what he was railing against, very appropriately, is in fact not what I understand Christianity to be. I can’t and won’t defend the abuses of Christendom because they are indefensible. Secondly, my friend sees this paradox primarily through a political lens. I don’t. For me, this dilemma is not a discussion about political parties or presidents. It is much more important than that. Separating the two is crucial. If followers of Jesus don’t make such a distinction no one else will.
In hindsight I should have admitted to him that we both lament, for different reasons, that Christianity as a western cultural phenomenon looks almost nothing like its namesake. I should have also mentioned that I think he is accurately witnessing the consequences of the rapid loss of biblical Christianity’s credibility in our culture. Cultural forms of Christianity today may even be approaching the level of ineffectiveness last witnesses just prior to the Protestant Reformation. As a result, contemporary forms of cultural Christianity (Christendom) are now effectively inoculating increasing numbers of people from even considering the reliability of an authentic form of Christian faith. Early in the 20th century G.K Chesterton famously noted that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting but rather Christianity has been found difficult and therefore left untried. Maybe that is still the case in part. But that is not my friend’s biggest critique. In his experience cultural Christianity, and the disciples it produces, have been found sorely wanting. As far as he can tell, Christianity simply doesn’t produce what it claims. There is no “proof in the pudding” as it were. And this fact seems obvious to everyone except for those advocating loudest for their particular brand of Christian cultural influence who also stand to lose the most should they slip further into obscurity.
What he doesn’t know, but I do, is that it may be worse than he realizes. If I could I would also tell my friend that, sadly, I don’t believe he is alone in his lack of awareness as to the nature and purpose of authentic Christian faith. Many if not most of the “Christian” leaders I know and have experience with, even those in the largest most influential parts of our “Christian” institutions, don’t appear to know the difference either. Similar to the experiences of Martin Luther (imperfect as he was) I too have arrived at the ignominious realization that where cultural Christianity is practiced most, in the hearts of its institutions, one tends to find little evidence of moral goodness and courageous leadership. Instead, we tend to find systemic defenses of incompetence, consistent refusals to accept fiduciary responsibility and little to no accountability. As a result, it is understandable why he and so many others, find it increasingly difficult to understand the verifiable good cultural Christianity and its followers provide to our society.
I would also tell my friend that in my view, Christians today have an alarming lack of concern about the degree to which goodness, in all its forms, is, has been, and must remain, a verifiable byproduct of the Good News. Moral goodness much be present in our personal lives, our relationships, our families and in our workplaces. If goodness, righteousness, and humility do not remain crucial, discernable, measurable results of “a life lived from above,” then whatever is being practiced, by definition, is most certainly not a form of Christianity Jesus would recognize or endorse. Authentic Christianity does not produce perfect people, but it has always produced good people where the teachings of Jesus are learned and followed with authentic diligence and dependent grace.
I just hope that still matters.
If it does matter, then we must choose to change. Winning a political battle or culture war and losing souls in the process is not a good bargain. Arrogantly blaring our ideas and perspectives over loudspeakers or social media platforms like Pharisees praying loudly on a street corner is not the answer. I suggest Christians have simply lost the social capital to influence our culture in these ways. Therefore, it is essential for us to reconsider what is required to be a follower of Jesus, to be Salt and Light, to be “blessed to be a blessing” in our current context. We need to focus much more of our attention on how we can be humbly obedient and devoted to the truth in this very divisive and oppositional time in our history. We must be more prudent about which public stands are necessary and which are tangential. And we need to find and support prophetic leaders, those like Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. who call out what is and what is not Christlike behavior, Christlike leadership, and the application of transparent biblical moral standards within our institutions.
Finally, the great “silent majority” of quiet, humble devoted followers of Jesus must come out of the shadows and into the public light. We have come to the point where letting our actions speak in place of our words has allowed the cacophony of mixed agendas, competing gospels and biased sound bites to drown out the original message of Jesus and its effects. Distinguishing and articulating an authentic, uber-political faith in the life and teachings of Jesus as an intrinsically oppositional message to our current stains of cultural religion is essential at this point. This must be done with wisdom, grace, and the courage necessary to face the push back that will most certainly follow.
Reformation should be a last resort. Such radical actions often result in decades of pain and loss. Repentance and revival are much more reliable and constructive means of transformation. Neither should be engaged lightly and without a deep devotion to prayer and obedience to the leading of the Spirit of God. However, if we don’t take meaningful steps, and soon, I fear we are coming dangerously close to never being listened to again, in part, because we will have less and less to bear witness to.
I deeply respect the fact that without knowing it, my friend, apparently a profound skeptic, was prophetically challenging me, and my religion, to either live up to our stated objectives or shut up and let him play golf. “Effect the world for the good, do your job and do it well” he was saying, “or go away and leave the rest of us in peace!” Who can argue with such a common sense, simple request? Sounds eerily similar to the call of Jesus.