It seems I am commonly discovering brilliant maxims only to find they have all been discovered before. But I am slow to learn in this way: I do not understand a proverb, be it the most painfully obvious one in the world, until I have lived it.
One of my all-time favorite episodes of television is a particular Community episode entitled “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples.” It is hilarious and actually quite beautiful. I could rave about it for pages, but I won’t, I’ll just set the scene for you:
Shirley—baker, mother, Christian—decides she wants help making a YouTube video with a Christian message because “there’s no light there for the kids.” So she asks Abed—an aspiring film-maker who is implied to have Asperger’s—to help her make one. At first he declines: “As a Muslim, I’d be happy to. As a filmmaker? No way. I’m a storyteller, not a preacher.”
But later he comes back, looking very excited, and says he’ll do it. Why? He just read the whole New Testament in one night. I should remind you that this is a completely, 100% secular show, so it would be understandable to expect a swift lampooning of Christianity via cheap parody, and nothing more. But this is also a clever show, so it does better than that. Abed states that “Being raised on TV and movies I always thought that Jesus just walked on water and told people not to have abortions, but it’s so much cooler than that. He was like ET, Edward Scissorhands and Marty McFly combined!”
|This episode is SO GOOD.|
He could just as easily have said Neo or Batman in the Dark Knight or a hundred other characters, but that’s beside the point. What’s fascinating here is that Abed is seeing the story of Jesus for the first time. All he knows is a cultural caricature, but when he reads the original, it is fresh, new, bizarre, and enticing to him. Like when the book is better than the badly interpreted movie, or when you have heard about someone, but you finally meet them face-to-face and you are far more impressed with the truth than the rumor.
Abed, as a storyteller, decides that the story of Jesus is worth his artistic eye. He decides this as someone outside of and indifferent to the Christian faith.
I confess to feeling a faint, weird jealousy at this perspective. Abed, in this context, sees the gospel with the wide, hungry eyes of someone reading a thrilling novel. Never mind chapter and verse references, concordance checks, etc…Abed sees a story about an unlikely hero who speaks in riddles and whom everyone is trying to kill all the time because he threatens to upset the status quo. Meanwhile, he’s secretly a king who dies for his cause.
See, I always thought “become like little children” meant having childlike faith—believing easily and wholeheartedly—which I suppose it does. But now I am thinking there is a whole other facet to that. ‘Like a child’ means “encountering something for the very first time.” Fresh eyes. Curiosity. A willingness to be awed. A quieting of the mind and a heightening of enjoyment.
I experience this in small ways when reading a book of the Bible that I haven’t gotten to in a very long time. I’m surprised by something I didn’t remember or simply wasn’t paying attention to last go ‘round. But imagine not ever having heard the gospel, not ever having read the Bible, or—taking it a step further from Abed—not even having gleaned atmospheric or memetic ‘Christianity’ from the culture. What would that be like?
Also kids don’t just see things with fresh eyes. When they find something they love, they cannot get enough of it. My nieces and nephews would watch the same new movie a dozen times in two days (the rental period, obviously) if their parents let them. When I was a kid I could read the same beloved book over and over and over. Now my mind is jumpity, distractible, and a little skeptical. To my great shame, I find that I would often rather read a clever, critical, or sarcastic debunking of a book than give the book a chance to speak for itself, with fresh eyes and no preconceived notions. I’m especially prone to do this if I already suspect the book is full of things I don’t like/disagree with.
And this is what our society has done towards Christianity and the Bible. Delicious mockery and deft debunking, without really sitting down and viewing the source material with a clear and neutral eye. In Western society in particular, there are no neutral eyes towards the Bible. Everyone is approaching the faith neither as a child, with new wonder, nor as an adult, with mature and distant insight, but (forgive me, O youth) as teenagers, with bucking and rebellion against that which is familiar but not well understood.
In this way, those who approach Christianity and the Bible as wholly foreign objects are far likelier to see them for what they really are than disaffected evangelicals, shrugging agnostics, or those who really like the idea of having a faith, but keep walking a little further and further away from it for the sake of their comfort and preference, too afraid to let it go, too afraid to embrace the faith in all its holy fire. Lukewarm. They want to keep it in the corner of their eye while they inch away from it, because it makes them feel better. They daren’t walk far enough to see it from—shall we say—a non-reactionary distance. Indeed, steeped in Western culture, I don't think you can get that distance. Wherever we run, it will always be reactionary.
G.K. Chesterton puts it best in this (slightly condensed) quote from the intro to The Everlasting Man:
“There are two ways of getting home; and one of them is to stay there. The other is to walk round the whole world till we come back to the same place…the next best thing to being really inside Christendom is to be really outside it. And a particular point of it is that the popular critics of Christianity are not really outside it. They are on a debatable ground, in every sense of the term. They are doubtful in their very doubts.”
“It is well with the boy when he lives on his father's land; and well with him again when he is far enough from it to look back on it and see it as a whole. But these people have got into an intermediate state, have fallen into an intervening valley from which they can see neither the heights beyond them nor the heights behind. They cannot get out of the penumbra of Christian controversy. They cannot be Christians and they can not leave off being Anti-Christians. Their whole atmosphere is the atmosphere of a reaction: sulks, perversity, petty criticism. They still live in the shadow of the faith and have lost the light of the faith.”
“Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian.”
This is what troubles me with the current cultural milieu. So many of us are neither close enough to love, nor far away enough not to hate. So we end up with many people attempting to remodel Christianity, gutting it like a house not built quite to their taste, because they are under both the shadow of the faith (losing the light) and the shadow of secular disdain for the faith. This naturally comes with the territory of a piecemeal, yo-yo-ing journey away from faith. Those who depart try to make the faith into something that looks right in their own eyes from that doubtful middle distance, distorting it in many ways.
Then there are those who completely abandon the faith but are still like teenagers reacting against their parents in the way that they talk about God, the Bible, and Faith. Anger, frustration, and contempt.
And we have a culture that thinks that it knows what Christianity is, but doesn’t. They think they know who Jesus is, but most really don’t. That is something that takes daily effort, and all you have, and a willingness to give up anything that stands in the way of you going home again.
I do not think Chesterton was advising anyone to give up the faith and walk as far away as you can, just to come back around…but it may be better than sidestepping to that intervening valley he spoke of and losing the truth by inches—death by a thousand cuts—so that you don’t even notice it has happened, and you don’t even know where you are anymore, and you don’t even know how to get back because you have distorted the very meaning of home in your own mind.
Best that we stay home in Christ, but that we pray for the eyes of a child. To see him afresh as savior and King, story-teller and revolutionary, hero and martyr, truth and way, bread and wine, flesh and blood, light and fire, resurrection and life. A blazing, thrilling story, and an unconquerable fact.
I want to become like a little child, for my heart to be circumcised, and to be made new, so that I can rest in Christ, but still have the of giddy wonder of seeing every fiery truth for the very first time.