Sunday, March 29, 2009

Chicken in Capernaum

Teenage boys are known for doing things that they think will look impressive but that everybody else agrees actually look stupid.

Chicken, the game where two drivers head straight for one another in the firm conviction that the other will veer off first, is one of them. Playing the game requires a lot of stupidity, a lot of alcohol, and an absolute certainty that you will emerge from the game unscathed.

Jesus plays this game all the time.

Look at John 6:22-66. When the passage starts out, crowds of people literally are chasing Jesus across the Sea of Galilee. He's just miraculously fed 5,000 people with a small boy's lunch, and the crowd is begging for more.

Now I'm not much of an evangelist, but when you have hundreds if not thousands of people canceling their plans, breaking off social engagements, and shuttering their business for an unannounced holiday, just to hear what you have to say, it seems to me that this would be a good time to share your message.

Come on, Jesus. This is a premade audience, ready to buy what you're selling. Talk to them plainly, tell them what you want, and you'll have a committed following doing what you're calling everyone to do.

That's not what Jesus does, though. What he does is to play a game of Chicken with them.

First he insults them. You can almost see the people flinch when he says that they've only come because they want something more to eat. He's climbed onto his motorcycle and put on his sunglasses, but everybody figures he doesn't really mean it. No one leaves. So Jesus revs up his bike so loud that the pine trees echo the roar, and he begins moving toward them.

In a moment, the crowd, which only that morning had been so eager to see Jesus that they begged, borrowed and bought their way aboard boats to get across the Sea of Galilee, is tensed up and a little anxious. He talks to them about the Bread from Heaven, and then they decide he isn't really going to run into them. It's just a test. “Give us this bread!” they say, thinking, “Surely that's the right answer! Isn't he going to back off now?”

But if there's one thing Jesus doesn't know how to do, it's to back off. Instead, he calls himself the bread of life, claiming that it's not just what he says and what he does that matter, but that he himself is important. He is coming on fast. His motorcycle is large and loud and intimidating, and everyone realizes there's going to be an awful wreck if someone doesn't veer off.

“This is the carpenter's son!” someone mutters. “Didn't his father fix Uncle Paul's chair when it needed mending? He isn't anybody special.” Jesus is still 30 or 40 feet away, but these people already have decided not to take any chances. They're getting out of his way, their arms twitching and their legs shaking with barely concealed agitation.

But a lot of other people still won't change course. They're close enough that they can see Jesus gripping the handlebars on his own motorcycle, and they can see the sunlight shining on his James Dean leather jacket. He's 25 feet away, and they know he's not really going to plow into them. It's just a test of their faith.

Except now he's taken a perfectly lovely day and he's ruined it by talking about cannibalism. Would-be followers of Jesus are hitting the brakes in disgust, and spinning out in the dust. Some of them are turning down other roads, looking for a messiah who makes more sense, one who doesn't talk and act so crazy.

And the worst part is that Jesus acts like it's their fault, like there's something wrong with them for chickening out. Following him was supposed to make things easier, and provide answers. Instead, he's throwing what answers they do have into doubt and he's making things harder.

“Does this offend you?” he asks. He's close enough that people can see the look on his face, and they're wondering what they ever saw in this uneducated crazy man from Nazareth. “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit, and they are life.”

When Jesus started his little game, there was a huge crowd. By this point, most of the people have scattered. The miracles were nice, and everyone loved the way he showed up the religious leaders and always seemed to make a place for the common people, but somehow they never realized he could be this difficult. A few people remain: his twelve disciples and a handful of others, but that's it. They know what's coming, but they're not going to get out of the way.

When no one backs down in a game of Chicken, there's a nasty collision when the motorcycles hit each other head-on. You fly off your bikes, you ram into one another, and you smear yourself down the road, scraping flesh, blood and bone across gravel and asphalt. Even with protective gear on, it's not unheard-of for players to be Life-Flighted to the hospital, where surgeons race the clock to save them from the fruits of their own stupidity.

It must have been something like that in Capernaum when Jesus got off his bike and looked around at the carnage. Bodies lying all around, limbs twisted at strange and painful angles, blood pouring from open wounds, because these people knew that Jesus wouldn't turn off and yet still wouldn't get out of his way.

“Are you going to leave too?” he asks them quietly.

It's Peter – broken, battered, bruised and badly beaten – who answers. “Where else can we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”

A statement of faith like that doesn't come easily. It's born in that soul-crashing tangle of faith and pain, that point when the questions you have can't be answered and the answers you do have just don't make sense anymore. It's born in that awful collision when what Jesus always has been, meets what you've always believed him to be. It's born in that awful moment when he tells you to let go, and you have to decide whether to do as he asks, or to hold on tighter and demand that he bless you first.

It's when we reach that point, that we finally can start to discover the purpose behind Jesus' love of Chicken. It's when we reach that point, that both we and he know beyond a doubt that we really do belong to him, and it's at that point that the real journey of faith begins.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Political changes in evangelicalism

Michael Spencer has an interesting article at Internet Monk on recent reports of the trend of younger evangelicals to self-identify as politically liberal. He makes several interesting points, one of which is that there have been progressive Christians around all the time, if people were willing to look for us.

He is correct — both voices have been there all along, for those who knew where to look. But following the victories of the Religious Left in the 1960s, the Religious Right rose to ascendancy in the 1970s by politics about “values” (usually morality) rather than about social justice. In my own experience at least, a concern with social ills often was dismissed in evangelical circles as following a “social gospel,” which somehow was less sacred or True than the spiritual gospel being pushed instead. The Religious Left didn’t disappear during all this, but it did fade, and as is often the case, the crowd of moderates gradually shifted toward the voices on the Right that were dominating.

It’s not entirely fair to say that “the media” anointed the leaders and speakers for evangelicals. Most were chosen by evangelicals who listened to their programs, distributed their material, and made the phone calls that they were asked to. It’s not reasonable to fault the media for noting who the political power-brokers were in Christian circles; the fault lies with us for ever elevating them to that level.

I am curious to see how the leftward shift plays itself out in terms of evangelicalism. It’s been made clear to me by a good number of evangelicals that the tent isn’t big enough for me because of my political viewpoints — even though my religious views fall squarely within orthodoxy. That sort of political bellicosity, combined with an eagerness to define evangelicalism along narrower and narrower doctrinal lines, led me several years ago to ditch the evangelical label. I’m happy now to be known as “post-evangelical” or, more simply, “not evangelical.”

From what I’ve read, my experience is hardly unique. Some people, like Gary Olson, are trying to reclaim the evangelical label for the inclusivity it once represented, but from what I can tell, that hasn’t been happening. If the strident voices on the Right politically continue to push away those who don’t toe the party line, how long will this new generation of politically liberal Christians be willing to identify themselves with a movement that’s become known for not wanting them?