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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Turns Out I Only Speak the American Dialect of Christianese

Image description: a bunch of speech bubbles with Christianese phrases: "do life together", "felt led", "backsliding", "traveling mercies", "transparent", "praying a hedge of protection around one another", "we just want to love up on these kids", "God just laid it on my heart", "safe for the whole family", "been working on my testimony", "just not seeing much fruit", "brought the Word", "intentional", "fellowship", "Jesus agapes you", "not enough meat", "in the world, not of it." Image source.

Hey so you know that church group that I'm totally quitting? Well I haven't quit yet. (And it's NOT because it gives me such good material to blog about. That is an added bonus!) I'm working on it.

Anyway, the topic last week was "witnessing." After a bit of (very familiar) discussion about how it's bad to try to "force" people to believe in Jesus, and we should do it "out of love" instead, I asked this question to the group: "So, I want to check if we're all using the same definition here. When you guys use the word 'witnessing', do you mean that you believe people would all be better off if they became Christians, because if they're non-Christians, their lives will suck and they'll go to hell?"

I asked because this group is part of an international church here in Shanghai, and we have people from all over the world. It's the most diverse church group I've ever been in, and as a result, it's impossible for me to get a feel for the general culture of this group, what sorts of opinions I could share and everyone would be like "oh my dear goodness that is the most blasphemous and un-Christian thing I've ever heard" and which ones would be "yeah that's pretty normal."

It has such a strange feel, and I can't figure out exactly why. It's definitely different from the American evangelical bible study groups I've been in, but I can't figure out what exactly is different.

Anyway, very often I suspect that, because we have such different backgrounds, people in this group have very different understandings of what Christianity is about. We use words like "faith", "sin", and "temptation"- we all use the same words, but do we actually mean the same things? (Like, in my experience, "temptation" is most often a euphemism for "thinking about sex" or - gasp! - perhaps doing more than just thinking. Does a German Christian also think of "temptation" in this way?)

So I asked them about the assumptions behind the word "witnessing." Because if you believe non-Christians go to hell, I believe it is impossible to "witness" in a way that's actually loving. At the most basic level, you're trying to tell people you know what's best for their lives, and they'd better believe you or else they'll go to hell. It doesn't matter how polite you are or how you try to dress it up with language about "we need to do this out of love, not fear-based, not treating people like a number in our conversion stats." You're being disrespectful and unloving. I know you may genuinely feel love towards these people, and your actions are done "out of love", but your nasty, unloving theology ruins it.

But if you don't believe non-Christians go to hell, that it's perfectly fine for people to choose not to believe in Jesus, then does "witnessing" matter? What would "witnessing" even mean in this case? Now that is a question I would really really like to discuss.

So anyway, I asked the group this question, and nobody gave me a straight answer. Just some stuff about "we don't have to agree about that" like it was just some unrelated side topic, and we could go on talking about how best to "witness" without any kind of answer to this.

I interpreted this to mean "you've just said something so incredibly blasphemous, we don't even know what to say" or maybe "you're so wrong but we are too polite to tell you." (And that relates to another concern I have with this group: I'm beginning to suspect that they just want to be "welcoming" to everyone so they'll let you share whatever opinions you have, answer by saying "you made some good points", and secretly think you're wrong about everything. That's a waste of my time. I don't want a group where I'm allowed to say whatever I want and people are nice to me. I want a group where people actually understand me.)

So at that point, I was really discouraged about this group. But then later I had a conversation with this one guy in the group, from Australia, let's call him Clark. And he used the line about "we don't have to agree about all these things" and I said "I don't understand what you mean when you say we don't have to agree. Do you mean that some Christians would say 'yes' to the question of 'would everyone be better off if they became Christians?', some Christians would say 'no', and various shades of nuance between those two positions, and that's totally fine, we're all Christians and we shouldn't judge each other. OR do you mean 'obviously the right answer is yes but I don't want to say it so directly'?"

And he said, the first one. Definitely the first one.

And I was shocked.

And he said "actually my own beliefs have changed several times."

And, wow.

This is totally new, you guys.

Because every single time I've heard a Christian say "we don't have to agree about XYZ", I took it to mean "I don't want to argue about XYZ right now." Not "it is totally legitimate for Christians to have different views about XYZ."

And I interpreted it that way because on every single issue, I was taught "this is what the bible says about XYZ" and "here is God's way to do XYZ." People who teach those things always have bible verses to back it up. And they say that the people who disagree don't know or care what the bible says. (For those keeping score at home, this breaks 2 of the 10 commandments: "Do not misuse the name of the Lord" and "Do not bear false witness.")

Maybe there were times, in bible study groups in the US, when I heard someone present a view which disagreed with what I had been taught "God says" about some issue. But of course I dismissed what they said without a second thought, because I had been taught that people who said things like that were either fake Christians who just wanted to follow the world instead of what God said, or maybe new Christians who hadn't been taught the right answer yet.

Sometimes people ask me if everyone in the church where I grew up held those same "extreme views" that I did. Or they try to tell me I misunderstood what the church was teaching, because look, most people in your church didn't believe that. And yes, OF COURSE I knew that most people in my church were less "extreme" than I was. But I never took that to be a sign that I might be doing something wrong. Ha, of course not- because the church taught me not to. The church taught me to "stand up for what's right, even if you're the only one." The church taught me that there are a lot of people who go to church but they're not real Christians. So OF COURSE if I ever discovered another Christian believed something different than I did (about issues where I had been taught "this is what the bible says") I judged them to be less Christian than I was.

(There's a blog post in here somewhere about Asperger's and how I've always been pretty clueless about social interaction, preferring rigid rules instead, and how the church taught me to just follow Jesus and ignore what anybody else thinks. Yeah. That is an unhealthy intersection there.)

And in this context, the only thing that "we don't have to agree" could possibly mean is "I don't think it would be helpful to try and convince you about this right now."

(Yeah I was taught to be a sneaky and dishonest Christian. Well, you pretty much have to be, if you feel love toward people but also believe the most nasty offensive things about them.)

So anyway, about the international church group. The weird thing is, if I was a Real True Christian like I was 5 years ago, I could attend this group and never even notice that other people perhaps believed differently than I did. (And, wait a second, maybe this ACTUALLY HAPPENED at some of the groups I've been in in the US.) Because all the language they use is more or less within the range of language that the American evangelical brand of Real True Christians uses. And if anything came up that was different, I would of course judge them to be less Christian than I was. I could attend this group without having any of my beliefs challenged.

People use the same language, but mean it in very different ways. And my attempts to quantify this phenomenon have been met with resistance because "we don't have to agree."

I'm quitting this group. I'm totally quitting this group. But maybe I'll at least stick around long enough to figure out what Europeans think Christianity is. Or, if it's not good for my mental health, maybe not.

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