Wednesday, May 8, 2013
In The Ward, But Not Of It
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
-- Tennyson, Idylls of the King, Ch. XII
A friend of mine was recently regaling me with starry-eyed tales about a recent visit to the mystical fairyland called South Carolina. I've never been there. In fact, I kind of doubt it really exists. Or if it does, it's probably only accessible through a magic wardrobe. Or maybe a spaceship. But according to the story books, it's a wondrous paradise of evangelical Christianity. A gentle, pleasant landscape of green hills dotted with tidy, white steeples attached to beautiful churches full of warm, friendly people...keepers of wholesome, biblical values and just desperate to envelop you into the sweet embrace of genteel southern hospitality, dripping like honey from golden biscuits.
And bacon. Lots and lots of bacon.
I think it was my Utah-native friend's first experience in what we would call a Christian culture. Where people take it for granted that you identify with a Christian church...or at least where Christian values are no stranger to the day-to-day workings of life. The peaceful hegemony of spiritual homogeneity. (Hey. I worked a long time on that alliteration. And I didn't use a thesaurus.)
I'm not quite sure which impresses me more about these fanciful tales of South Carolina...the contrast with Utah...or the similarity.
The contrast part is easy to see, if you spend much time here. Utah's population of traditional Christians--both in numbers and percentages--is less than that of many nations designated as "unreached" by missiologists. There are dozens of cities in this state with no Christian church or significant Christian influence. Despite the rhetoric of tolerance and ecumenism emanating from the Mormon public relations machine, the day-to-day reality that many Christians experience here in Utah is a peculiar sort of passive aggression (and occasional overt hostility) from their Latter-day Saint neighbors. No, not from all of them. But from enough to remind us on a pretty consistent basis that we don't "belong" here. That we are "in the ward, but not of it." (A ward, by the way, refers not only to a Mormon church building or congregation, but to the area of a town--delineated with geopolitical precision--where its members must come from.)
Time out. Okay, I realize that I am making an unqualified distinction between "Mormons" and "Christians." I'm not going to belabor the question of whether Mormonism, as a religious system, is even a little bit Christian. It isn't. It just isn't. And I've got reasons to be confident in that statement which I'm not going to go into here. And please understand, I'm not making a value judgment or even stating an opinion. This is simple taxonomy. Words mean things. An apple is not even a little bit an orange. And to make that statement is not to cast dispersion on apples or oranges. (The difference is, there's no well-organized and moderately successful multimillion-dollar public relations campaign designed to convince the world that apples are oranges, too.)
Anyway, so what are we to do in the face of the relentless current of the Mormon culture? The Christian response in Utah generally falls into two categories. The first response, and by far the most common one, is to keep your head down, don't rock the boat, stay cloistered in your little Christian social group, and do everything in your power not to engage with the prevalent culture on anything more than a superficial level.
The second response is the exact opposite. It takes a more belligerent stance. It defies the culture, ridicules it, rattles the sabers, and answers aggression with aggression, anger with anger, and hostility with hostility. Us and them. We and they.
The church and ministry I've been a part of for going on ten years now has been accused of taking the latter approach. I do beg to differ, however. Yes, we've been known, from time to time, to rock the boat, take a bolder approach with matters of truth, and draw some angry responses. But I submit that this is the result of following a third option...a narrower, windier, and more misunderstood pathway. It's a pathway of authentic--but often misinterpreted--love. A path that strives for gentleness and kindness, but cannot shirk from truth. (And speaking truth, even kindly, can still land you in hot water.) It is characterized by a love that demands that we risk losing a friend today in the hope of gaining a brother tomorrow.
Now...I'll confess that as much as I believe in and cherish this path, I've hardly walked it perfectly. I've fallen off both on the left and right. I've kept silent for the sake of "peace" and have sacrificed truth on the altar of politeness. I have also let frustration get the better of me at times. I've sometimes let self-righteous indignation, instead of compassion, rule my behavior and season my words.
I'm not proud of those failures. That is not who I want to be.
Which leads me to the flip-side of this cultural epiphany--the similarity with Utah. Utah's spiritual homogeneity provides a kind of Novocaine effect on the population here. It's generally assumed that we shall all follow the Prophet and that we must all obey the brethren in all things. And so that has the unintended effect of leaving us few straggling "outsiders" way outside the loop, feeling unwelcome, unrepresented, and shaking our heads at the profoundly myopic mindset. Concepts like "separation of church and state" are meaningless here.
And I gotta wonder...is the cultural blindness really any different in the Christian realm? After all, I've talked with Mormons who used to live in the Bible Belt, and their experiences echo mine. They feel like outsiders, eyed with suspicion. Polite smiles to their faces, and cutting words when their backs are turned. Mormon kids in Alabama and Georgia are lonely because Christian parents are afraid to let their kids play with them, for fear they'll "get converted." You are not one of us. It's almost a mirror image of what happens to us here in Utah.
In the course of my work, I've often had conversations with Christians who live in a very homogenous Christian environment, and I've had to adjust my vocabulary somewhat so that I can be understood. I remember one exchange I had with a guy who was complaining because our church website didn't show all of our programs. What do you mean? He rattled off a list of foreign-sounding terms. Look, I said, we are a small congregation of maybe 50 or 60 people. That makes us, easily, the largest Christian congregation in a town that is about 95% Mormon. We don't have a bus to pick up the senior citizens. Community dinners? We have a sink, a microwave, and an Amana Range older than I am, with only half the elements working. I'm glad you can take your 95 high schoolers to Burkina Faso on a mission trip, but our youth group consists of a handful of children under eight. We have no gym to open to the community youth.
It was like trying to explain what it was like to live in a mud hut with no electricity or running water.
Here, the Mormon Church has those great programs. They are extremely well-organized. They have the vans for the senior citizens and the gyms for the youth. They come equipped with commercial kitchens. And let's not even talk about sending their youth around the world on mission trips. They got us beat there, too. And yet it is so, so empty of Jesus. But likewise, I couldn't pick up on Jesus in this exchange with this fellow who was a staff member at a mid-sized church in east Texas. For him, the church was programs. Church is what we do. Church is the center of our lives. It's our security blanket, our social network, what we give to, what we take from. It's not so much where we worship...it becomes what we worship.
Hold on, now, don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-church! I'm not anti-programs, anti-community-dinner, anti-gyms, anti-mission trips, or anti-church van. (We actually have one of those now. Long story.) And I'm not suggesting for a moment that east Texas is filled with soulless churches. But I am anti-anything that gets in the way of a life-giving connection with Jesus...I'm against anything that steals His thunder or tries to usurp our enthusiasm for Him.
The realization I came to is that the toxicity of religious culture does not necessarily spring from bad doctrine. While I will continue to affirm that Mormonism's doctrines are completely antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ and detrimental to one's spiritual health, it is ill-advised to point an accusing finger at the Mormon culture without striving to remove our own cultural blinders. After all, what good is Truth if I don't really ingest it? What does it accomplish if I acknowledge it with my lips but it doesn't engage in a vigorous wrestle with my wayward heart and wandering mind?
Much is made, both in Mormon circles and conservative Christian circles, about not getting contaminated by "the world." That's certainly biblical, so I can't argue with that. But...the world doesn't always look like the glitz of the Vegas strip or the brothels and opium dens of Amsterdam. Sometimes it looks like tidy, tree-lined streets with cheerful cafes and white picket fences and well-kept lawns. The "world" is, after all, anything that isn't God.
We are undeniably in the world, but God forbid we be of it. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, we are too often like the child playing in dirt of the slums because we can't imagine what it means to be offered a holiday at the sea. Why would we be content with making mud pies if we could catch a glimpse of the gourmet feast prepared for us? We seem hell-bent on becoming children of a lesser god. We are, as Lewis says, far too easily pleased.
One of the ongoing frustrations for me is the difficulty in relating to Mormons on that level. The hunger and thirst for something more, for something greater...it just doesn't seem to be a part of their thinking. For so many of them, their number one goal is to live a good life, pursue some variation of the American Dream, chase after happiness where they can find it, and expect that the life to come will be an amplified and tidier version of what we experience today, but not really much different in substance.
I keep wanting to appeal to them, put down your mud pies, and come feast at this table. Let's come away from the slums and go play by the ocean! But there's no avoiding my hypocrisy. I've got my own puddles that I'm far too fond of. And off in the distance, I can hear Jesus calling out the same thing to me.
God, oh, God, let that appeal ring so loudly in my ears that I have no choice but to follow it.