Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Plastic Jesus

I blew through a book this weekend.
Couldn't put it down.
Wanted to put it down in order to digest it.
Had to put it down.
Finished it.
Gonna read it again.

It's called: Plastic Jesus: Exposing the Hollowness of Comfortable Christianity. (Click on the title of this post to see the book.)

Here's what it says on the back cover:

A Perfect Lawn. A Perfect Spiritual Life.
Plasticity and suburbia go hand in hand. After all, without plastic
there are no garage door openers, no TiVo hard drives, remote controls, BlackBerries, plastic surgery, or any other idol we hold
so dearly. Sadly, if Jesus came in plastic, we just might find
him more to our liking.

This needs to change.

Suburbia might be a fine place to raise a family, but it's a
terrifying and dangerous environment for our spiritual well-being.
Many of us have exchanged the challenge and vitality of
Christ's plan for our lives for the ease of a plastic, soul-numbing,
comfort-first mentality.

And here are a few blurbs and questions that have stopped me in my tracks:

* According to sociological statistics, the average American watches over four hours of television per day. Since I'm a pretty average guy, that means by the time I turn 65, I will have spent nine years of my life marinating in the glow of the tube. Of course, many of us watch tv for the educational programming, right? Wrong. Much of the time, we're watching to distract our souls.

When we live in spiritual suburbia, we spend a lot of time distracting ourselves in order to keep from thinking about the things we don't want to think about, such as the annoying little gremlin called Doubt and the fast-growing beast known as Discouragement. Maybe our distraction is simply a form of denial. Maybe our pretending happens because we don't know or don't like who we really are. Regardless, we keep ourselves so busy, so preoccupied with things that don't really matter, that real growth and real life get stymied. Ironically, ignoring doubt and discouragement only feeds them, while facing them head-on crushes them and turns them into fertilizer for our faith.

* Suburbia gives us shame in our brokenness; Jesus gives us hope. The church often says, "How could you?" The Holy Spirit says, "I still love you." Our culture finds no value in broken things; God finds redemptive value in them.

* Suburbia says "You are what you do; you are what you have; you are what others say about you." Which of these do you find your identity bending toward the most?

* What is the next step you need to take toward wholeness? Surrender, honesty, or pursuit? What things are keeping you from moving towards God's best for you?

* A friend of the author's made this observation: That's one thing I don't understand. Christians talk so much about the abundant life, but it seems all your decisions are based on fear. It seems you Christians come to Christ because you are afraid of going to hell... You live a 'good' life so that God won't punish you or the church won't get mad at you... You don't share your faults because you are afraid of looking bad... fear, fear, fear. Fear of hell, fear of punishment, fear of displeasing God or others... honestly, that doesn't sound like abundance to me."

She is absolutely right. As a whole, as a group, (I have yet to understand why there seems to be a such a strong perceived need to band together and present One Voice with regard to our Christian faith - as though telling our individual stories, asking our own questions, and standing alone in our faith journey is some kind of Christian crime!), we do tend to speak about our faith as a series of avoidance techniques.

We stand against so many things and speak badly about so many people. For example, Oprah and Barack Obama are the two main choices of late for "the Evangelical Church" to criticize and spread fear about. There are some Christians who think we should boycott Starbucks because the new emblem shows the outline of the mermaid's breasts.

Why is it safer to declare ourselves to be alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts, food addicts, and paralyzed by fear in church basement 12-step meetings than in our sanctuaries with others who claim to believe what we believe?

Why are those of us who admit doubt and discouragement, those of us whose families are devastated by divorce and child-rearing challenges, and those of us whose financial obligations far exceed our income - why are those among our number who are willing to admit our humanness and brokenness often so afraid to tell the truth at church for fear of ostracism and rejection?

Why are we labeled "touchy-feely" and "new-agey" simply because we want to talk about the nitty-gritty stuff of life and share how we are finding strength outside of the prescribed responses instead of bottling it all up and pretending that, in fact, we are "fine"?

How different would our world be, how different would the world's perception of Christianity be if we chose to promote mercy and grace and peace and forgiveness as much as we promote criticism and ostracism and boycotting the stuff and the people we don't like or agree with?

This book has caused me to seriously reconsider my personal understanding of who I think Jesus is, what I think He stands for, and what I think He wants me to stand for.

This book pointed out just how much I need to uproot myself from my spiritual suburbia: this extremely comfortable place that wants me to measure myself by what I do, what I have, and who others say that I am. By how many hours I spend in the church building and not by how many hours I spend investing in the lives of people outside those four walls. By how often I can give pat answers to complicated questions - not by how often I am willing to say "I don't know, but I'm willing to talk it through with you. I'm willing to sit in the not-knowing until the answer comes, whenever that may be."

The author was asked by a man he met on a ferry: So how do you connect with God? Here's what he wrote later by way of response: I want to actually have a conversation with God. I want to explore how wide and deep and profound this Creator of the universe is. I want to experience how safe, how merciful, how tender this Almighty God can be. I want to find Him outside of the clean and tidy roads of systematic theology and inside the mysterious places beyond my understanding.

I think I've had enough of the plastic bobble-head Jesus that nods his head to all of my requests, that aligns himself with all of my beliefs, and that never requires me to be uncomfortable. I declare that I am ready to go deeper, to continue to ask the tough questions and wait in inner peace and silence for the answers. I am ready to stop making excuses for fear-based decisions and begin to live in and from abundance. But not the abundance of physical stuff, measurable spiritual activity, or from behind the facade of perfection.

I want to "explore the smoke, the mist, and the mystery of the presence of God" myself. Even though it feels really wierd to put those words into writing. Even though it scares me a little to throw away so many of my preconceived notions of faith, at least faith as it has been predefined by others.

And that's exactly the point of the book: Suburbia is safe and predictable and the rules are straight forward. Take care of the lawn. Drive good cars - none of which can be parked on the front lawn. Wear nice clothes. Be quiet. Keep the house painted and the bricks pointed. No deviation. No modification without pre-approved permission from the neighborhood board.

Enough is enough. It's time to break out of the mold, Gail. Explore new definitions of beauty and comfort and safety. Drop by and see the neighbors that don't spend much time outside. Dance in the rain. Sing out loud. Forego the latest fashions and fancy new car models and give more money to people who have no clothes at all. Forget keeping up with the Joneses; take them homemade cookies instead. Stay home from church every now and then and hang out with Steve and the kids. Tell your story. Tell the truth. Ask questions. Mess up again and again. Forget. Remember. Forgive others and yourself. And encourage everyone you know to do the same.

Things have got to change!


Amy said...

Oh, my gosh, Gail. I was planing to blog this week on the whole 'burb thing! I just finished reading "Death by Suburb." It's all about not letting the suburbs kill one's soul. It also addresses how we (and I've been there) run from this Bible study to that Bible study, doing all these "good" things, yet not truly contemplating our Maker and feeding our souls. What a great post. Thank you!

Lisa said...

I'm right there with you, dear Gail! You know I am trodding this path - exploring the messy way - for about 5 years now. I'm so glad to have you with me on the journey.

Amen. And Amen!

jmgb said...

you're the second person i know who has read this recently...
i am gonna have to get me one of them books:)
thanks, as always, for calling truth what truth is. blessings to you as you saturate in new revelation.