Thursday, January 24, 2013

American Horror Story, Doubt, and Why I've Abandoned "Absolute Truth" in Favor of Love.

This may be the most important thing I've ever written. I understand that it’s a bold statement to make, especially given that this blog only has five previous posts and that I’m still young and (hopefully) have much more life ahead of me. I ask that you take the time to read this all the way through before commenting, but I welcome any comments or thoughts you may have (so long as they are presented in an appropriate manner).

With that being said, last night was a very important night for me and my faith. I debated internally for a long time whether I had the guts to publish this post or not, but lack of sleep and hours of deep thinking, not to mention the television season finale of American Horry Story I watched that initially sent me down this path of thinking, eventually led me to write and publish this.  

I anticipate some concerned messages from people that know me (if you take the time to read all the way through this). I anticipate this may not be well received by some. But let me assure you from the start, my intention is NOT at all to anger anyone, and it’s certainly not to call into question anyone’s faith in God. This is about my own faith. And my own faith has been struggling, has been called into question, has been teetering between what I’ve always grown up believing and the serious doubts that have been introduced in the past couple of years.

Let me first explain why last night was important for me and my faith. One of my all time favorite television shows is American Horror Story. If you’ve ever seen it, you can argue all day that it’s horrifying and disgusting, or that it graphically depicts sin in a way that Christians shouldn’t be exposed to. Or maybe you just think it’s downright stupid and unrealistic (which is the only argument I would even entertain J). It has its moments, for sure, walking the line of brilliance and stupidity.  

This season, subtitled Asylum, has been exploring the depths of mental illness and how our society (at least from the 60’s onward) has responded to the horrors of such illnesses and how it’s been medically treated. Without giving away plot lines for anyone who is interested in watching, what this season (and the finale) did for me is depict a number of characters facing many the horrors of this world—mental illness, wrongful imprisonment, unthinkable suffering—and how they dealt with it. It showed characters that were essentially blameless throughout, not deserving the suffering they were put through. It showed characters that were essentially evil throughout, absolutely deserving the final punishment they received in the end. It showed characters that were caught in limbo between good and evil—as much of us are today. These characters were thrown into the depths of evil (in this case, an asylum), sometimes responding in good ways, sometimes responding in evil ways. And some of those characters were exonerated in the end, and some of those characters were condemned for their actions.

What does this have to do with anything? Where could I possibly be going with this? you may be asking. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how the reflection of this television show could possibly lead me to where I eventually ended up, but I’ll try to explain as best as I possibly can how I got there. In all the cases I’ve (albeit ambiguously) described above, these characters were somehow marked by sin and evil—deserved or not—in the asylum. But they all responded differently. Some gave up and allowed the asylum to devour them. Some allowed the asylum to lead them to commit unspeakably evil acts against others. Some initially gave in, but were redeemed in the end. Some never allowed the asylum to undermine the good of their hearts. And still some never fully gave into the horrors of the asylum, but they carried deep scars nonetheless and never fully recovered.

I found this to be a beautifully profound description of how evil affects each of us. I don’t mean for this post to be some kind of  “new theological doctrine” about the problems of evil—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Reflecting on these characters caused me to reflect upon myself and my own faith, and exactly what kind of scars I carry from sin and evil. And what I found, not only today, but what I’ve been finding daily throughout my short adult life, is that I carry a lot of scars and deep hurt from sin and evil, but I don’t know where my faith that used to make me feel better about the pain and suffering is grounded anymore. And that scares the **** out of me. Let me begin with this quote I discovered from author Lauren Winner to preface the rest of my thoughts:
“The enthusiasms of my conversion have worn off. For whole stretches since the dream, since the baptism, my belief has faltered, my sense of God’s closeness has grown strained, my efforts at living in accord with what I take to be the call of the gospel have come undone [...] And yet in those same moments of strained belief, of not knowing where or if God is, it has also seemed that the Christian story keeps explaining who and where I am, better than any other story I know. On the days when I think I have a fighting chance at redemption, at change, I understand it to be these words and these rituals and these people who will change me. Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith. And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone. I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander. And yet glimmers of hope keep interrupting my gaze.” 1 
I’m not sure I can better describe where my faith is at this point in my life than how she describes it above. My whole life has been based upon a system of beliefs that was pumped into me from a very early age through my church, my society, my culture. And I’ve been seriously questioning that foundation for some time now. I’ve been taught that it’s wrong to believe in anything other than the Genesis account of creation. That scientists are telling lies when they speak of evolution—that men are being deceived by their own selfish desires when they put their faith in science rather than putting their faith in a centuries-old document. I’ve been taught that our modern sense of morality is evil—that Jesus would never approve of homosexuality, that those who live such lifestyles are offensive to God, and they should burn in hell for their actions.

Those are just two brief examples, neither of which I'm interested in debating about in this post, but they have both weighed on my faith for years. For years I was taught that I must be absolutely certain about what I believe, and that absolute certainty was found in the words of the Bible. In my particular religious system, questioning God and our belief system was met with deep, sorrowful prayers to come back to the truth. But in recent years, I’ve studied the evidence regarding human origins and how differently science has theorized it from the Genesis account of Creation that has been ingrained in my head for years. I reflect on LGBT people I personally know who have struggled to come to grips with their attractions that Christians say are evil and wonder how that can be so (side note: I’ve even been accused of being gay myself by some Christians for even advocating that Christians treat the LGBT community with love and understanding). Through all my research I’ve discovered numerous contradictions present throughout biblical texts. I’ve learned that the Bible as we have it now in fact DID NOT come as a leather-bound volume of 66 perfectly aligned books on a fluffy cloud from heaven, but that its current form was voted upon by a council of men several centuries after the death of Jesus. This, along with how I’ve seen the modern Church respond to their “less moral” neighbors of the world, has led me experience extreme doubt in my faith as I used to know it.

But I’m so thankful that I’ve experienced this doubt, because it’s allowed me to go on the greatest journey I’ve ever been on before.

My doubt has caused me to no longer blindly accept what I’ve been taught my whole life. As author/blogger Rachel Held Evans put it, it’s caused me to, instead of knowing all the answers, learn how to ask the questions. 2 Instead of being terrified of doubt, I’ve learned to embrace the mystery of it. And this mystery has caused me to reevaluate all the certainty I was so sure I had in my faith. I now believe that the evidence for evolution is far too great to simply ignore. I am no longer 100 percent certain that God condemns homosexual relationships. And, perhaps most importantly, and what some will probably find most offensive, is that I’m not sure I believe in the concept of “Absolute Truth” anymore, at least not in the way it has been presented in modern American Christendom.

Let me explain what I mean. For centuries, “Absolute Truth” has been used as a weapon by Christians, and in the name of Christ has torn apart what I believe Jesus actually stood for. But before I go on, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying I don’t believe truth is out there, or that it cannot be found in the Bible. What I am saying is that I don’t believe in “Absolute Truth” the way that modern American Christendom and other historical cultures have portrayed it.  

In the name of “Absolute Truth,” entire groups of people—African Americans, women, the LGBT community—have been condemned and treated as second-class citizens. Christians justified slavery for centuries by quoting various Old and New Testament verses. Women were treated as virtual slaves to men, incapable of being educated and having zero rights in society. In modern-day culture, the LGBT community is oppressed in the name of love—“hate the sin, love the sinner,” Christians often say. More often than not, however, it ends up being “hate the sin, say you love the sinner, but continue to treat them like second-class citizens anyway.” It sickens me. It sickens me not only to see other Christians treat fellow men and women in such a way, but it sickens me to think that I’ve been guilty of the very same things.

At this point, it would be easy to write me off as an unbeliever, or worse yet, “one that has fallen away from truth.” I’m not there. I still massively struggle with my faith, and I’m not sure that’s ever going to change. But I can honestly say that I feel like I have a deeper sense of what it means to truly be Christian than I ever have before, even though I’m still greatly struggling to live up to that meaning. Through my doubt I’ve made it my mission to wade through the doctrines and the dogma that have been so ingrained in my worldview to this point and try and discover what it means to truly follow Christ. Folks, let me tell you something. I’m really really really far from it.
“You must love the Lord your God,” replied Jesus, “with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment, and it’s the only one that really matters. The second is similar, and it’s this: you must love your neighbor as yourself.” 3
I have doubts about the Bible as we have it today. It’s been translated hundreds of times by men; it’s lost some of its original meaning because we aren’t reading it in Greek; it was written in a vastly different cultural time period, in a completely different historical setting, complete with a totally foreign set of political and religious issues; it was written by men who had opinions, men who weren’t perfect, men who were undoubtedly influenced by their society, no matter how good their intentions were.

But despite all these doubts about just how “absolute” the words I read are when I open the Bible, I do not doubt the beautiful story I read about the failings and sufferings of men and women, living in an imperfect, sinful world, and that Jesus was the place where heaven and earth intersected, showing all men that love is the answer to evil. Jesus’s love for all men caused him to submit to terrible agony, suffering, and death. And the only “Absolute Truth” I can really believe in is this, direct from the mouth of Jesus:
“I am the way and the truth and the life! Nobody comes to the Father except through me.” 4
If Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, then Jesus conquered death, evil, sin. So what does that mean for me and my faith? The only timeless truth I’ve been able to clearly discern is love. Love. Love. Love. I cannot believe it has taken me so long to see this. Did the men that wrote the New Testament suddenly become perfect because Jesus died and was raised from the dead? Wasn't Paul still a man? Is it so ludicrous to believe that maybe he had opinions just like we do? Is it crazy to think that maybe ancient culture played a part in the words that Paul wrote to encourage and teach a group of people that lived 2000 years ago? Is it crazy to think that MAYBE we cannot assume that everything we read in the Bible is meant to be taken as literal “Absolute Truth” in the way that modern American Christendom believes it to be?

I don’t think it is crazy, and that’s OK. Maybe the 1st century wasn’t the right time for God to allow the New Testament writers to start a massive revolution against the culture of the world. After all, the proclamation that Jesus is Lord, the upside down logic of the cross, and the unconditional love for all men and women of all nations was probably enough of a revolution at the time. I don’t know. But what I do know is that men and women are imperfect, and that Jesus is perfect love. The love that Jesus embodied has never been destroyed, and has stood the test of time. Yes, we as Christians have distorted what that love is supposed to be, what it symbolizes, and what it does in the world today. But for all that is imperfect about the Bible and about the men who wrote it and about the men and women who read it today, we can see, or at least I’ve come to see, that the story of Jesus is perfect: the story of love for all mankind. Man or woman, slave or free, gay or straight, white or black, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor—Jesus loves everyone.

Now, how we respond to that love is entirely our decision. But if love isn’t the greatest reason to trust in Jesus, I don’t know what is. Being a Christian doesn't mean adhering to some set of “doctrinal truths” or believing in church of Christ, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Calvinist or WHATEVER version of “Absolute Truth” you’ve been subscribed to. Being a Christian means embodying Christ and loving like Jesus did. And I know for damned sure that loving like Christ doesn’t mean persecuting the LGBT community, the scientific community, the atheistic community, the Democratic party, or whatever community happens to be in discord with the 2013 version of modern American Christendom "Absolute Truth". And it damned sure doesn’t mean condemning another human soul in the name of  “love” because they are struggling with their faith in God.

One final note before I conclude. I don’t want anyone who has made it this far to think I am generalizing about all Christians today. I read stories everyday of the great love shown to the poor and marginalized, to the oppressed homosexual, or just simply to the child living next door. I see it in my community every day. Just yesterday I spent time with a man who has such great love and concern for the special needs adults of my community that he and his wife have created an organization that provides a safe place for such adults to interact and work in peace, and is in the process of building a community where they can be loved and cared for once their parents or guardians pass on. I see Jesus in men like this. There are many millions of men and women in the world today who quietly love like Jesus did. Thank God for these people. But unfortunately, the percentage of modern American Christendom who has forgotten the love of Jesus is incredibly vocal and that’s what many of the world hear. You’ve been guilty of this, I’ve been guilty of this, we’ve all been guilty of this at some point in our lives. We've, in effect, been guilty of fostering our own religious American Horror Story, inflicting deep pain and leaving scars that don't easily go away.

God forgive me of ever doing this in my life. I pray that from here on out, I never judge or condemn someone, because in all likelihood I’ve been in the same place myself. I pray that my life be filled with grace and love for all men and women, and that I will have no semblance of condemnation for my neighbors who, by all accounts, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God no more than I have. I pray that the scars of sin and evil be healed not by some absolute certainty we’ve subscribed to, but by the love of Jesus. Thank God for love. What else is there?
“As the father loved me, so I loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commands and remain in his love. I’ve said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and so that your joy may be full. This is my command: love one another, in the same way that I loved you. No one has a love greater than this, to lay down your life for your friends. You are my friends, if you do what I tell you. I’m not calling you ‘servants’ any longer; servants don't know what their master is doing. But I’ve called you ‘friends,’ because I’ve let you know everything I heard from my father. You didn’t choose me. I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Then the father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command to you: love one another.” 5

1 Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis
2 Rachel Held Evans, Evolving in Monkey Town (
3 Matthew 22:37-39
4 John 14:6
5 John 15:9-17 [emphasis added]

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