Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Hope of a Jesus Freak

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. (Brennan Manning)

In a fit of nostalgia, I’ve recently been listening to some of the CDs I loved back in Junior High. One of them is Jesus Freak by dc Talk (the above quote appears as a voicover on the fourth song), which I fondly remember belting out at the top of my lungs. Such reminiscences, however, have got me thinking about how my faith has changed since then. I’d like to think that I’m more mature now than I was, but I wonder what that means, and whether it’s really a good thing or not. I know a lot more now – about God, and life, and how the two interact – and in some ways my faith is stronger for having weathered a few storms, but it is also more cautious and understated. There was a time when I was proud to call myself a “Jesus freak,” when I couldn’t imagine any other future than being a missionary; today I’d rather fit in than stand out, and I’ve long since embraced the middle-class lifestyle. I may have been naïve before, but I was passionate, and it’s a shame to have lost that.

I often write about hope and sacrifice (e.g. here, here and here) because I think these are the two primary poles around which human nature turns: Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning, what gives us direction and urges us forward. Sacrifice is necessary when the road inevitably grows rough. Perhaps that’s why new converts seem so alive, why my younger self could belt out Jesus Freak without embarrassment – they’re filled with indescribable hope, and they’re willing to make almost any sacrifice for its sake (the hysteria surrounding Obama is an ironic reflection of this principle, which isn’t restricted to Christianity). In time, the cares of life crowd that enthusiasm out; we’re less willing to sacrifice, and so we in turn grow a little less hopeful, which makes us still less willing to give up what good we currently have in hope of something better. Pretty soon we’ve become those “Christians” that make the unbelieving world wonder what good our faith is, anyway.

Perhaps that’s why my favorite books and movies are always those that celebrate hope in the midst of despair, stories of ultimate sacrifice and resurrection. I read about Jean Valjean in Les Misérables or watch William Wallace in Braveheart and they remind me what it means to hope; they make me more willing to sacrifice. But sometimes I think those stories are too big for me. I’ve never faced death or imprisonment; I’ve never had to choose between my integrity and my life. I enjoy those stories, but I don’t often live differently because of them. It’s easy to dream of a grand sacrifice that I’m unlikely to ever face, but it’s also easy to ignore the countless smaller sacrifices I face on a daily basis: Turn off the TV and do something nice for my wife, skip that new CD and send the money to those who really need it, give up a Friday evening to help at a soup kitchen. If I’m not even willing to make those sacrifices, what makes me think I’d truly give my life to save another, even if faced with the need?

What’s the good of being a “Jesus freak,” unless you’re actually living your life for others?


Timothy Mills said...

I don't agree with Brennan Manning. Most of us atheists simply find the Christian message (and any other religious claim we come across) unbelievable, or unsupported.

But I understand the sentiment. I think some of the greatest enemies of sensible religious folk are unthinking and hypocritical religious folk. Similarly, some of the greatest enemies of sensible non-religious humanists are unthinking and hypocritical humanists.

For what it's worth, Ken, the face you give to Christianity is not off-putting to me - in fact, yours is (currently) one of only two Christian blogs I am subscribed to.

Ken Brown said...

You are very kind, Timothy. I think it’s a tragedy that so many of the people who take the time to present Christianity to the world seem so liable to disrespect and hypocrisy. Sometimes I wonder where all these people come from; I certainly don’t see (many) such people in the churches I’ve attended. All I can do is try and remember that the same is true of most groups I am not a part of as well: the outspoken advocates are rarely representative of the whole.

As for Manning's quote, I'll take your word for it not applying to thoughtful atheists, who will of course have many other reasons to reject Christianity (which is why I added the qualifier). But when it comes to the average person (who, sadly, isn't likely to read my blog ;), a great many do, at least initially, reject Christianity because of the hypocrisy they see in Christians. Such was certainly true of the guys I worked with when I was in construction. They did not concern themselves with philosophical or historical arguments, they judged (and rejected) Christianity on what they saw of Christians.

Ken Brown said...

Weird, I just noticed that these comments appear on the old version of this post (from February), not the version I reposted last week (which is here). It was the newer version in which I added the line: "I don't know whether Brennan Manning is right".

I guess we were thinking along the same lines.

Timothy Mills said...

Yes, I noticed you had almost the same post in two places. I got a bit confused about the etiquette - do I comment on the recent one, or the old one? I suppose perhaps I ought to have gone with the recent one.

Anyway, you may be right about motivations for atheism. I suppose we may have been exposed to different subsets of the atheist community. (Though I certainly know people who do let the most vocal fools stand for the whole group - and that goes for many different groups or labels out there.)

You are certainly right that we were thinking along the same lines. I am lucky in that, while I am an "atheist", the term "humanist" more completely describes the heart of my worldview - so I can sidestep the associations with the vocal, thoughtless side of atheism without losing a useful label. You don't have that luxury, I suppose, because "Christian" is the best word to describe this important part of your identity - but it is also the word that has been hijacked by many who give it bad associations.

Which reminds me - have you seen this old post from Dale McGowan's excellent humanist blog, "The Meming of Life"? Although I don't know you personally, Ken, I tend to think of you as a Russ to me. (Read the post if that sounds creepy - I assure you it's a very uncreepy compliment.)

Ken Brown said...

I think it was I who subverted etiquette by reposting this, so don’t worry about it! I’m happy to be unconventional if it gives us a chance to revisit and revise (as here, recognizing the problems with Manning's claim more clearly than I did the first time).

As for McGowen's excellent post, that is quite a compliment, and I must say that you have become one such "Russ" for me as well. I suspect that if I am more open-minded than some, it is largely because I have been blessed to know quite a few "Russes" over the years.