The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
--Psalm 24;1 NRSV
Most teenagers rebel against their parents by rejecting their parents’ values. Kids of liberal parents try on free market libertarianism. Kids with NRA members for parents sign petitions for gun control. You get the point. I was a weird kid. My form of teenage rebellion was to take my parents’ religion and become so hardcore about it that they worried about me. Let me tell you, when your father is a Southern Baptist minister, you’ve got to take things to extremes to outdo him when it comes to religion. I sought to out-Christian my Christian parents. I would have had a lot more fun, I think, if I had gone the other way.
I feel the need to offer a disclaimer here that as Southern Baptists go, my parents weren’t so extreme. No, they didn’t drink alcohol and yes, they went to church all the time, but they didn’t hold to fundamentalist beliefs about God. My parents usually voted Democratic and they supported women’s rights and racial equality. They were by no means radicals, but they were pretty much mainstream for middle class white people.
Nonetheless, I fell in with friends in high school who were involved with Youth for Christ, a parachurch organization based in Kansas City. Think Young Life but with a whole lot of sexual shaming, talk about the Second Coming and a strict dualism which didn’t offer middle ground on anything. It was the last thing, the dualism, dividing things up between sacred and secular, Christian and pagan, good and evil that for some reason really appealed to me. In the decades since, therapists have pointed out to me that I tend to fall into the trap of either/or thinking or looking only at extremes. In the short term, such thinking is a handy way to make sense of the world, but in the long run it causes a lot of psychological trouble, because life rarely is so simple.
So, I jumped in with both feet into the job of dividing the world into sacred and profane. Secular rock-n-roll was evil, but if they were a part of so-called “Contemporary Christian Music” then it was good. I can remember being really confused by the Irish rock band U2, because three out of the four band members were Christian and so were a lot of their lyrics, but they were on a secular record label. Plus, one year the members of U2 showed up drunk for the Grammys and were a bad Christian witness to my mind. Only later would I come to learn that Christians in Ireland didn’t share the views of teetotaling American evangelicals. Today, U2 remains my favorite band ever (I’ve seen them in concert eight times!), but when I was a teen they confounded my categories of good and evil.
I hung out in Christian bookstores devouring the blossoming genre of Christian fiction and lingered over the chotchkes made in China with a Bible verse stamped on them. In my mind, the presence of scripture transformed a crappy bit of plastic into a priceless treasure. The same principle applied to politics, celebrities and even ordinary people. If they quoted a Bible verse or thanked Jesus for helping them win a Super Bowl, that made them good, but if they failed to publicly acknowledge Christ they must be bad.
Years later I watched an episode of the animated TV show King of the Hill that addressed my teenage thinking. In it, the central character in the show Hank Hill deals with his son who has begun attending a hipster youth group. When the teens attend a Christian rock concert, Hank tells their youth minister, “Can’t you see you’re not making Christianity better, you’re just making rock n’ roll worse.” So much of what I had labelled Christian and therefore good was merely a bad knock off of secular fads and marketing. Sort of like the cheap crap in the Christian book store, just because somebody or something mentioned Jesus or a Bible verse didn’t make it holy.
Perhaps the worst part of the dualistic thinking I held was how very limited I unknowingly understood God to be. By understanding God was present only in the products of the evangelical subculture, I missed out on seeing God everywhere else. My God was very small and utterly predictable. That’s a far cry from the God revealed in scripture who tends to show up in exactly the last place religious people expect (think a manger in Bethlehem or a cross in Jerusalem).
When we allow God to be God, there is no telling where and how God might reveal the Divine to us. Things religious people might consider evil, secular or profane might turn out to be messengers of God. If Psalm 24:1 is correct, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;” then God can show up anywhere and everywhere. There are folks in our culture gaining power and making money telling believers what is Christian and what is not. Their God looks more like Uncle Sam or a tech billionaire than Jesus of Nazareth. The real question, I guess, is whether or not we are open to seeing God wherever God shows up or if we have closed our minds off to a God who is larger than our preconceived notions.
Frederick Buechner has this to say about religious books:
There are poetry books and poetic books—the first a book with poems in it, the second a book that may or may not have poems in it, but that is in some sense a poem itself. In much the same way there are religion books and religious books. A religion book is a book with religion in it in the everyday sense of religious ideas, symbols, attitudes, and—if it takes the form of fiction—with characters and settings that have overtly religious associations and implications. There are good religion books like The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne or Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor, and there are miserable ones like most of what is called "Christian" fiction. A religion book is a canvas. A religious book is a transparency. With a religious book it is less what we see in it than what we see through it that matters.
I’d expand Buechner’s idea beyond books into pretty much everything in creation. If something acts as a “transparency” and allows us to “see through it” to God’s love, peace and justice, then it is “religious.” A book, film, YouTube video, meme, TedTalk, sunset, laughing child, the sound of waves on the beach, a crackling fire, the noises a loved one makes arriving home, birdsong in the morning and so much more allow us to “see through them” and to glimpse the Divine gazing back at us with love. If we waste our time deciding between Christian and non-Christian, sacred and secular, we will miss out on much of what God wishes us to experience.
Grace and Peace,
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