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“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”

That statement has been haunting me lately. It’s attributed to one of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor. I’m not positive she actually said this but it wouldn’t surprise me if so, since this kind of quote is right in her Southern Gothic wheelhouse. Nevertheless, it’s arrested me ever since I came across it over my sabbatical this summer.

Because I think it’s true.

It’s a riff on Jesus’ words in John 8:31-32, “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The idea is that following Jesus not only brings us into a life of truth but a truth that leads into real freedom. Of course, I agree with Jesus. I can do no less. But O’Connor1 takes Jesus’ words about the life of a disciple in another direction. And not an opposite one I might add. She argues following Jesus will also “make you odd.”

Indeed, it might be truer today in our post-Christian world than the 1950’s America in which O’Connor lived where Christianity (for right or wrong) had a more esteemed place in the culture. In our age, Christians are increasingly seen in a more negative light than the past. In the eyes of post-moderns, followers of Jesus are a pretty weird bunch.

  • They believe Jesus (who still rates as a good guy to most everyone) is God’s Son. He was born of a virgin, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and (get this!) is supposed to return one day with the fullness of the kingdom of God. And even crazier, they think he’s the one way to salvation! Can you say non-inclusive?!?!
  • Christians also think God exists in three distinct persons but somehow is one God. What gives? Can’t these people do simple math?
  • These people affirm that the Bible, something rapper Macklemore famously said is just “a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago,” is the actual Word of God. Like it’s really a book inspired from start to finish by the God of the Universe? Please!
  • Consequently, these Christians believe the Bible is to guide them in their conduct. Like, it’s THE authority in their life. This is where they really look out of touch! For example, they think there are gender roles in the church and home. How regressive! The fact that they still believe gender is static and not dynamic is crazy in itself. They also think sexual ethics revolve around the sanctity of marriage whereby they use outdated old world ideas like “virginity” for the unmarried and permanence of the bonds in marriage. Don’t even get us started on what they think of same-sex relationships!
  • These people gather each week to sing old songs, pray prayers to their invisible god, give (read: throw) away their money, get people wet in some weird ceremony called baptism, and to top it off, they eat bread and drink wine thinking somehow Jesus is magically with them in the event. They do this all in “church” as one big exclusive family (err, cult).

The list could go on, but suffice to say the schism between authentic Christian expression and the spirit of the age has widened over the years and will only continue to do so. Biblical Christianity in the West will increasingly be less appealing (and more appalling) to the world around it. Simply put, we’ll appear odder and odder as time goes on. And no one likes odd.

This is where the pressure comes for the Jesus follower. Part of taking up your cross and following Jesus will likely mean how well you can handle being seen as odd – to being the different person, the one unlike your non-Christian peers.

What to do? Frankly, some Christians/churches/denominations capitulate. They have decided that being accepted by the culture is more important than being faithful to Jesus and the Scripture. You open them up and they say the same things the fallen world says (and ironically what the Bible explicitly teaches against, justifying their interpretations with weak if not bizarre rationales). This reminded me of some insightful comments from a secular article discussing New Atheism where a couple of commenters shared what they believed to be the reason why it hasn’t taken root in culture.

Commenter one: There are many people who identify with a religion, but don’t at all live up to it in practice–gay Catholics, for example, or the entire Episcopalian denomination. It is probably more tactful for progressivism to say that it “embraces all religions”–while in reality, of course, this means that it “embraces all people who call themselves religious, but are willing to accept progressive orthodoxy.” Lapsed believers who can’t bring themselves to change how they identify, comfortable sinners who don’t mind shirking the commands of their faith, and the vast spiritualist hordes will flock to them. New/militant atheism alienates all those people, and there are many of them.

I would also suspect that this is a far more effective way to undermine religion. Let people call themselves believers, but gradually erode the traditional meaning of what it is to believe, until there’s nothing problematic left. It’s probably what the New Atheists should have done, would have done if they were more devious and organized.

Commenter Two: This is my sense as well. Establishment progressivism is too invested in hollowing out Mainline Christianity and wearing it as a skin suit.

What’s the win as they describe the “progressive” church? There isn’t one. Even atheists realize that churches who abandon the “oddity” of their orthodox, historic faith are actually seen as something less than the Christians they claim to be. This kind of Christianity-as-mere-skin suit doesn’t even fool atheists. They clearly see that some who profess faith in Jesus have jettisoned (or “hollowed out”) enough biblical Christian orthodoxy that they don’t even speak anymore for the faith they say they represent. This isn’t a win for progressive thought in the church but the glorious failure of it, and one of the chief reasons why mainline denominations have been losing folk at alarming rates for generations.

I’d argue faithful Christianity needs to embrace the oddity of their Christian-ness. It will be part and parcel of Jesus’ call for his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow him. (cf., Lk. 9:23) We’ll look differently, speak differently, live differently than the world around us. I don’t mean this in some fundamentalist way that is weird for all the wrong reasons (e.g., anti-intellectual, anti-arts, etc.) but a difference that is evidenced simply because our allegiance is to a king and a kingdom not of this world. Believe me, that alone will make us stand out. It will make us odd.

I get a taste of this every time I talk with someone who, later in the conversation, finds out I’m a pastor. Immediately, the topics change, the tone adjusts, and the body language shifts. To them, I’m not a regular guy anymore. I’m different. I’m odd. Among my uncomfortable oddities is that I must believe things (like really strongly) that probably are in conflict with their values, decisions, and lifestyle. So, instead of just having a regular conversation like a real person, it’s easy-stepping around the pastor-dude until an exit strategy from the conversation is found.

I’ve got some advice for you if you’re a Christian really trying to follow Jesus today. Get used to it. What I experience will at some point mirror what you experience as your faith bubbles out of your everyday life. You’ll more and more be the odd one. At least you should be.

But don’t let it scare you. Embrace it! That’s right. Embrace your oddness! In a world where people are looking for hope, it won’t be found in the carbon copies of worldly similitude. Those dead-end answers are being regurgitated everyday by culture and it’s pretty clear they’re found lacking. But the church – and the historic, orthodox gospel it both proclaims and demonstrates – can be a life-giving alternative in the cultural wasteland. As we live out the mission of Jesus and his gospel in winsome, loving ways we demonstrate a different city that lives by a different story for a different purpose contrasting the myriad of soul-shrinking narratives the world runs after.

It’s not the oddness of living out of our faith that hurts us, on the contrary, it’s the fear of being odd that holds us back. Indeed, our difference may be the best weapon we have in showing the world who Jesus is and the kingdom he brings.

You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. – 1 Peter 2:9-12

One of the more dominant themes I see in society (increasingly in younger generations though it can be evidenced in some form or fashion in all) is the complete comfort of asserting to be a Christian while being well at-odds with the clear ethics of Scripture. I don’t mean coming to different conclusions because of honest exegetical work. That kind of sincere dissonance is par for the course in the church and witnessed throughout her history. I’m talking about individuals or groups who consider themselves part of the historic, orthodox Christian faith but reject the historic, orthodox teachings of Scripture (e.g., sexual ethics) and have no substantive answer to the challenge of their positions outside of the regularly subjective speak-your-own-truth retort – which is packed with terminology and phrases from culture but absent of Scripture in any substantive sense.

This came to mind while reading a selection from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, which is a systematic theology of the Christian faith. Writing about the Holy Spirit and the Bible, Bavinck notes,

And the testimony of the Holy Spirit with respect to Scripture as Scripture consists in the fact—not that believers receive an immediate heavenly vision of the divinity of Scripture, nor that they immediately infer its divinity from the marks and criteria of Scripture, or, even less, that on the basis of the experience of the power that is unleashed by it they conclude that it is divine, but – that they freely and spontaneously recognize the authority with which Scripture everywhere asserts itself and which it repeatedly expressly claims for itself. In this connection it is not the authenticity, nor the canonicity, nor even the inspiration, but the divinity of Scripture, its divine authority, which is the true object of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. He causes believers to submit to Scripture and binds them to it in the same measure and intensity as to the person of Christ himself. 1

Bavinck asserts that the Spirit of God not only testifies to the authority of the Word of God for Christians but “causes [them] to submit” to it as he does them to Jesus himself. One implication of such thinking is that a frank unwillingness to submit to the clear ethics of Scripture, and even more so an outright rejection of them, might less indicate a Christian’s hardness of heart as much as a lack of authentic faith to begin with.

This seems to be the same line of reasoning Scripture itself takes. For example, 1 John 5:3 says, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments…” Recognizing and submitting to the authority of Scripture is a mark of a person’s love of God in Christ – a characteristic of genuine faith. This isn’t some kind of slavish or forced submission for the Spirit recalibrates our hearts to obey our new king in Christ. This is why the rest of v.3 says, “And his commandments are not burdensome.” This doesn’t mean followers of Jesus won’t struggle to obey or need to grow in their obedience. They most assuredly will. But that is far different than someone who professes to be a Christian yet refuses to recognize, much less submit to, Scriptural authority.2 That type of “Christian” is like a unicorn: non-existent.3 No wonder Jesus himself said in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

It’s because of the clear biblical teaching about authority, the Bible, and faith, that I so deeply resound with this thought from Bavinck:

…far from gradually outgrowing this authority, Christian believers rather progressively learn to believe God at his word and to renounce all their own wisdom. On earth believers never move beyond the viewpoint of faith and authority. To the degree that they increase in faith, they cling all the more firmly to the authority of God in his word.4

Recognition of and submission to biblical authority may be seen as optional for many who claim to be followers of Jesus but for those who have been genuinely converted, a growing submission to the Word of God isn’t just part of their initial step in the faith, but of every one afterwards. Bavinck reminds us this is so because the Spirit has promised to work in us for these things. And it is also why you can’t claim Jesus if you won’t submit to the Scriptures that proclaim him.

Robert Penn Warren, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book All The King’s Men, writes about Jack Burden, one of his main characters, who, in dismissing some older men he meets at the courthouse in Mason City as political simpletons, continues to reflect on how certain folk, as they age over the years, grow into losing themselves. While a longer selection, I think Burden’s words prove a powerful reflection for those of us who find ourselves getting into midlife and beyond.

They ain’t real, I thought as I walked down the hall, nary one. But I knew they were. You come into a strange place, into a strange town like Mason City, and they don’t seem real, but you know they are. You know they went wading in the creek when they were kids, and when they were bigger they used to go out about sunset and lean on the back fence and look across the country at the sky and not know what was happening inside them or whether they were happy or sad, and when they got grown they slept with their wives and tickled their babies to make them laugh and went to work in the morning and didn’t know what they wanted but had their reasons for doing things and wanted to do good things, because they always gave good reasons for the things they did, and then when they got old they lost their reasons for doing anything and sat on the bench in front of the harness shop and had words for the reasons other people had but had forgotten what the reasons were. And then they will lie in bed some morning just before day and look up at the ceiling they can scarcely see because the lamp is shaded with a pinned-on newspaper and they don’t recognize the faces around the bed anymore because the room is full of smoke, or fog, and it makes their eyes burn and gets in the throat. Oh, they are real, all right, and it may be the reason they don’t seem real to you is that you aren’t very real yourself.

Though pertaining the political realm, I feel Warren’s selection could apply to many of us who begin their post-college years as idealistic and hopeful only to succumb to the soul-shrinking powers of consumerism and the quest for the American Dream where it’s less about who we are and more about what we have. As the years pass, our interior lives fade and lesser appetites take control. We pursue ephemeral and meaningless things like the acquisition of stuff, building a social media portfolio that portrays less of who we are than who we wished we were, and running down the lemming-esque path the masses have trod on their way to “making it” in suburbia without really knowing who they are or who they need to be. Like those Burden critiques, we have “lost [our] reasons for doing anything” as we “had words for the reasons other people had but had forgotten what the reasons were.” Simply put, somewhere we lost ourselves. And even more damning, is the idea that if we can’t recognize it in others may very well be because we’re blind to it in ourselves, as Burden hauntingly concludes, “Oh, [these kind of people] are real, all right, and it may be the reason they don’t seem real to you is that you aren’t very real yourself.”

I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” There are some pursuits that, no matter what is promised in them, aren’t worth it when all is said and done. I see so much of that false allure in the neck of the woods I live. The challenge as a follower of Jesus is not to be seduced by the fool’s gold of just living life, securing ease, and following along with everyone else in the cul-de-sac of triviality and thinness, but to cultivate a heart that has depth and yearns to be real – in who I am, in what I love, and how I live – for God’s glory and my good. It’s a life that has conviction, that knows what it believes and why it believes it. That’s full not only of pathos and passion but has those grounded in the reality of who God is and what he’s done.

I pray that if I’m not as real as I need to be, I’ll run from what is false while strengthening that which is true, and trusting God’s grace in the middle of it all.

When you look inside, how real are you?