Archives For Discipleship

“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

There is no question learning about God involves coming face-to-face with mystery. A Bible in your hand and questions in your head don’t guarantee all the answers you seek will come to light. Indeed, this is the Supreme Being of whom Romans 11:33 declares, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” This probably means, among many things, some of the answers we are seeking from God about God may remain a mystery in this life. I know I’ve bumped up against the mystery of God in my own journey. How does it work with Jesus being fully God and fully man? How does God’s sovereignty work with man’s responsibility in salvation? Why did God allow Bro-country into the world? Mysteries one and all.

However, and this is important to get if you’re serious about matters of faith, you don’t get points for saying something is a mystery in the Scriptures if those Scriptures are clear about that something. Too often I hear people refer to something about God or Christianity as a mystery when the Bible is clear in its answer. Parroting that response is disingenuous to real seekers of truth. It’s as cheap as debating an issue where you’ve only cut-and-paste content from a Google search while acting like you researched the subject thoroughly. Neither is honest or helpful.

Frankly, saying something’s a mystery (when it’s not) could simply be a backhanded way of rebelling against God’s Word because we don’t want to have to deal with the straightforward teaching of Scripture – that it’s either too demanding of us, too against what popular culture embraces, or makes us too different than we’d prefer. That’s no way to seek after God. It only gives the illusion of seriousness when the truth is we don’t want to know or accept the truth.

Let’s be clear for seekers and believers both, don’t be dishonest in searching for answers about God, man, and everything else in the Scripture. You will face mysteries and you will face things that aren’t. So, it’s only mystery when it’s a mystery. If it’s not, then it’s a truth to be embraced.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed
belong to us and to our children forever…

– Deuteronomy 29:29

My last post shared that I recently read Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, which tells the story of a young man’s attempt to convince others why they don’t need Christ as their Savior. The novel is rich in many ways, not the least of which is how O’Connor presciently exposes the modern-day consumer approach to Christianity we find today in America.[ref]Wise Blood was published more than 60 years ago (1952).[/ref] In the story a man named Hoover Shoats, a huckster peddling himself as Onnie Jay Holy, preaches to the public about a brand new kind of Christianity he believes people will want to buy into…literally.[ref]$1 according to Shoats. “Not too much to pay to unlock that little rose of sweetness inside you!” (O’Connor, Wise Blood, 86-87)[/ref] Shoats, in his homespun Southern drawl, gives three reasons why the masses “can trust this [new kind of] church“:

#1: It’s a church where there’s no mystery
and you have everything figured out.

 “…you don’t have to believe nothing you don’t understand and approve of. If you don’t understand it, it ain’t true, and that’s all there is to it. No jokers in the deck, friends.”[ref]Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works, ‘Wise Blood’, 86.[/ref]

#2: It’s a church where you get to interpret
the Bible however you feel.

“…It’s based on your own personal interpritation of the Bible, friends. You can sit at home and interprit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interprited. That’s right, just the way Jesus would have done it.”[ref]Ibid, 86-87.[/ref]

#3: It’s a church where you are the expert
and no one knows better than you.

“…This church is up-to-date! When you’re in this church you can know that there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you, nobody knows nothing you don’t know, all that cards are on the table, friends, and that’s a fack!”[ref]Ibid, 87.[/ref]

The desire for Shoats’ new brand of Christianity is alive and well today. I hear it from people every so often, if not with their words, at least in spirit:

  • I want a Christianity where I can figure it all out and nothing troubles me about following Jesus.
  • I want a Christianity that agrees with my moral sensibilities and endorses the things I endorse.
  • I want a Christianity that keeps me where I am spiritually and protects me from others telling me what I should believe or practice.

Fortunately, Shoats has just the church for them. He calls it “the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.”

Did you catch that? It’s pretty straight-forward.

O’Connor wants readers to understand that not only is this type of Christianity one which finds great appeal to our modern, consumerist, Western sensibilities but, more importantly, that it isn’t Christianity. In other words, if this is the kind of Christianity you want, then you don’t really want Christianity. Why? Because Shoats’ brand of faith appeals to people who, ultimately, want what Jesus offers but don’t want Jesus…really. They like the Savior part of who Jesus is but pass on the whole “Lord” thing because it would demand they submit to Christ, link arms with his community (the local church), and willing be led by others (e.g., pastors/shepherds/elders/etc.). But to do this one would have to choose Jesus over his love for individualism, consumerism, and isolationism. He would have to choose the way of repentance and obedience. He would have to embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord. Simply put, he would have to embrace Jesus as Jesus.

If he doesn’t want to do that.

  • If he wants to never struggle with the demands of following Jesus…
  • If he wants to embrace certain parts of the Bible because it reinforces his worldview while rejecting (or reinterpreting) the parts of the Scripture that contradict it…
  • If he wants to be free from a community where people can speak into his life, character, and conduct for the sake of personal holiness; or the idea of anyone telling him what to do, period…

…he can go to church, it just won’t be the one where Jesus is.

It will be the church of Christ without Christ.