A Moment in Time: Reflections on Revisiting Theology
When I was a pre-teen, I started to develop a great interest in God and the Divine, even though I was never raised in church. My parents, having been out of church for years, took me to my grandmother’s Baptist church, a megachurch in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Nashville. I consider Brentwood Baptist to be the first real church I ever went to, though I do have fond memories of my other grandparent’s kindly Methodist church, which I would later join in high school.
To be completely honest, I ended up having a horrible experience at this Baptist church. The year was 2003. America had just gone to war with Afghanistan, I was figuring out that I liked girls, and I had just fallen in love with punk rock music. Yet, here I was– a lower-middle-class gay liberal with existential questions, fire, rage, and angst plopped in the middle of a very straight, very rich, and very conservative Baptist megachurch. It would be an understatement to say I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like a black sheep in a very homogenous ocean of people who condemned the poor and gays and celebrated the war. I decided quickly that if this is what Christians were like, I didn’t want anything to do with them; and if Christians were supposed to be representative of Christ, I didn’t want anything to do with Jesus; and if Jesus was God, I guess God wasn’t as interesting as I thought.
Later on, I grew up a lot and discovered that kind United Methodist Church of my other grandparents and ended up loving it. I was amazed to meet Christians that were kind and who were actually talking about Jesus’ compassionate teachings and about justice. They weren’t condemning my sexuality– at least, not yet. Here I found a way to channel my thirst for the Divine, but in the back of my head I was still comparing everything to my experience at Brentwood Baptist. I labeled the Baptists those people, those mean people, those people who can cause me nothing but harm. “Those rich Christians” cannot be trusted.
It turned out I wasn’t too far removed from them. I grew out of my evangelical youth group at the Methodist church as leadership changed, and I found myself spiritually homeless. The only place I knew to turn was the Baptist church. In recent years, they had begun having a college-age worship service called Kairos. I started attending, desperate for spiritual support. However, I still was distrustful of the people, opting to sit in the front row by myself speaking to no one. I came looking for God and nobody else. I continued to be spiritually isolated and got through the last year of high school off of the concert-style worship services and generic, evangelical preaching.
I stopped going to Kairos as soon as I went to college. I was plugged into my campus ministry and began taking classes on comparative theology and historical-critical approaches to Scripture. Soon, while I knew that not everybody at Kairos was as awful as I was making them out to be in my head, I now began to brand them as “those people with bad theology.” I began to shirk evangelicalism in exchange for liberation theology views which were much more in sync with my budding calling to spend my life with those living lives on streets and in prisons.
Recently, I’ve been wanted to go visit Kairos again–just to see what it’s like now that I am unrecognizable from my eighteen-year-old self. I now understand the value of community as being an fundamental component of church. I have a better grasp on cognitive psychology and how dark, loud, smoke-filled worship halls are perfect and rather manipulative breeding grounds for religious experiences. I have a better grasp on theology and can think through implications of seemingly-harmless statements on God and Scripture. So, how would I perceive Kairos now?
I visited last Tuesday, and didn’t get what I expected. I had enshrined exaggerated memories of sermons drenched in the atoning blood of Jesus, of singing loudly about how my soul was saved because of a canceled legal transaction, and how God was a ruling king of vicious armies of angels. But honestly, that’s not was this Baptist church was in reality. Instead, I found song lyrics like this and scriptures like this. Had this church embraced loving the poor? Proclaiming liberty for the oppressed? Liberation?!
No. What I discovered was that this church was not awfully hateful of the poor but wasn’t championing for them either–they simply read scripture differently than I do. When I read “If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need but closes his eyes to his need—how can God’s love reside in him,” I remember my friends in homeless encampments. The people of Kairos–or at least their pastor–remembers their friend struggling with a divorce. When I hear “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom/ Every chain is broken through You, Jesus,” I think of my friends on death row. The people of Kairos may remember struggling to repress sexual urges or remember their regret in personal relationships. My natural gut reaction is to call them selfish, to believe they’re reading scripture wrong, and to believe that their reading of scripture only serves their personal interests. After they sing, “You came to set the captives free, You came to bring us liberty,” it always seems to follow a personal statement: “My sin and my rejection met your blood and my acceptance.” My gut reaction is to be angry at these rich white people sitting in a luxury church in the richest part of town–singing about their brokenness! They haven’t seen brokenness, my mind mutters.
But through the course of the evening, my anger subsided with the careful fascination that they just read scripture differently than I do. Are there implications to how they read scripture? Definitely. But the way they read scripture, even if I see it is a selfish reading, means something to them. Here I was, sitting in stadium seats with about 800 strangers. Why were they all here? Was it emotional manipulation? Or do they have needs that need meeting in similar or different ways than my friends on streets and in prisons? I guess so, or else they wouldn’t be here. Even though the worship service may be incredibly artificial and manufactured and self-serving in my eyes, it’s still meaningful to people. It’s still helping people get through incredibly tough times. Hell, it got me through incredibly tough times as a teenager.
The sermon at Kairos that evening was about transformation of brokenness through loving relationships. Now, it’s important to note that their operative definitions of what transformation is and what a loving relationship are are completely different than mine. For these evangelicals, transformation seems bound up with changing personal conduct, insecurities, and senses of self-loathing. There was a general sense that they needed freedom from the burden of being human. Even in the rich white megachurches, there is a sense of ennui and cognitive dissonance. They still need to be affirmed that they are special and worthy of love.
When we read a scripture saying, “You life the poor and needy from the ash heap,” a song followed it with the opening line, “You lifted us from the ash heap.” It’s easy for me to scoff, and in many ways I will continue to scoff, at the idea that the people of Kairos believe they are the poor and needy. I think it’s a mishandling of the Scripture and the political implications therein. But I believe it’s important to recognize that yes, there are many different ways to read scripture that reveal what is important to us ABOUT scripture. I think we do run into trouble when we get caught up in the idea that there is only one way to read scripture–a practice I’ve heard people in liberationist circles espouse just as much as the people of Brentwood Baptist and similarly conservative circles. It’s dreadfully important for us to realize what the original authors and audiences meant and would hear with the Scriptures, and it’s also crucial that we understand that most Christians throughout history have never read the Scriptures the same way the authors did. While Restorationist movements and even my fellow Christian anarchists often see this as a tragedy, it need not be so. Scripture’s meaning changes with what meaning we impart into it with our spiritual thirsts and social problems. God always meets us where we are.
Kairos ended that night with a testimony from a missionary to South Africa, who described that Brentwood Baptist was funding their non-profit. Their organization created jobs in the area to provide economic uplift. However, they described that the job creation was “…a vehicle to bring them to knowledge of Jesus.” This did and still does make my skin crawl a bit (what if job creation IS the gospel they need?) The pastor stated, “You see, the wealthiest people in Brentwood and the poorest people of South Africa have the exact same brokenness. We all need Jesus.” I think that is an entirely dangerous statement to assume that people starving and wasting away in the savannah and people driving BMWs and living in McMansions have the same brokenness and the same needs. Physically, that’s just entirely not true and if the gospel does not address physical needs, it is no good news to the poor or to anybody else. Spiritually or psychologically, I believe that it’s an interesting comparison. What does it mean to experience or witness brokenness? What does “freedom” look like? What does it mean to “break every chain” of the person in Brentwood and the person sitting on death row? These are important questions for the church to consider today and every day.
I did learn something from visiting Kairos–there are many ways to read scripture. The fact that Scripture is flexible is just as much dangerous as it is beautiful. What is most helpful is a reading of Scripture that treats physical poverty and brokenness first before it handles spiritual poverty and brokenness (just ask Abraham Maslow.) What we do not need to forget is that everyone does experience brokenness in different ways and that advocating with the poor does not mean we in turn hate the rich or believe they do not also have needs. It’s also important to call out privilege in the church, especially the American churches.
There is something fascinating to me that at one moment in time, Kairos was fulfilling and spiritually helpful to me, and that at this moment in time, it is not. There is something revealing about a room full of rich people singing about their brokenness while sometimes ignoring the poverty around them, or at least not giving it much thought without accompanied ideas of proselytizing. While I come from very different viewpoints and understandings of matters of faith and scripture, it is crucial to have understandings about where other Christians are coming from so that we can meet all personal needs and be empowered to remedy societal structures of brokenness. We need to understand each other in order to work together.