Monday, April 12, 2010

Loneliness, transparency, and deep-fried locusts

I'm relatively certain if I could walk up to 100 random strangers, attach them to a fool-proof lie detector, and asked them what their No. 1 fear is, 99 of them would answer loneliness.

I say 99 and not 100 because there's always one guy, like me, who fears boredom more, but loneliness would still rate highly.

Fear of loneliness is what drives consumerism. We are buying things to be a part of a community. That's why we dress the same, have the same haircuts. It's also why misfits are so drawn to the opposite. They don't fit in here, so they create their own community where they do fit in and revel in their bitterness towards the yuppies.

I have a theory, and it's rather urbane, but I'm fairly certain fear of loneliness is the prison that ensures our loneliness, because we are willing to set the bar low for community -- like bare existence -- so not to risk embarrassment, faux pas, annoyance of the clan leaders or whatever that would risk total exclusion from community. We'd rather live in some pain, and some in considerable pain, than to possibly suffer emotional death from exclusion by daring to suggest (and attempt) something obviously better.

It's why I think people like Glenn Beck are terrified of churches that preach social justice, because transparency, graceful accountability, and real community are at the foundation of churches like that, and if people started to get real community in their churches, it probably would unravel the very core of our financial system. They would stop needing to buy stuff to feel like they're part of something greater.

I'm not rooting for financial collapse, by the way. I like having a job and I enjoy many aspects of our American excess, some of them without shame. Seriously, I cannot imagine a world without In-and-Out Burger. I'm just saying I understand that fear and I think, if Glenn Beck were honest, he'd admit he's willing to manipulate people and violate his own conscience to prevent such a thing from happening.

I've repeated this in my head so many times, I guess I just believe it to be true, though I can't be sure. This is how I see the world, like that Sting song "Message in Bottle," where he casts out his bottle from his lonely island hoping someone finds it, and he wakes up the next morning and finds 100 million bottles from 100 million people all in the same dire situation of despair.

I'd like to say Christians have an answer to this, but we don't. We don't do community very well. I take that back. We do community, we just like to keep it exclusive. And I don't say that in broad judgment from high atop my mountain top of moral superiority. I'm the chief offender, like Paul. I'm the worst of them all. So many times I've proclaimed Christ's love for the world, then alienated myself from sinners (and other Christians!), not because I feared their influence over me, but because the didn't share my world view.

I call it the Peter Syndrome, but that's another blog post. Let's just say Christians tend to read Galatians like they're the one holding the sword handle pointing it at hypocrites. I'm the Galatian. I'm the hypocrite. Paul was writing to me, the so-called grace-filled Christian. I deserve the sharp end of that sword.

I've looked in the Bible where Jesus criticized the world for behaving like the world. You'll just have to trust me. It's not there. You have to go all Gnostic to find that kind of lie.

Why do we do this? We have this great theology of original sin and being born into an immediate need for salvation. No human escapes this. But we go to church and interact with each other as if we stopped sinning the day we said the Sinner's Prayer and, to boot, God not only absolved us of our sin but he's put us in charge of making sure it's hard to walk in the door of the church and even harder to stay in the church.

We shake our heads at how the world is going to hell in the hand basket. Our politicians? Pffft. They couldn't know Jesus. You can't know Jesus if you ever had the kind of megalomaniacal ambition to pursue high office. You're not just suspect. We've already written you off. And we voted for you.

Kids and their rap music. Men and their internet porn. Women and their Oprah worship.


It's all so ... messy. Christians don't like messy. We like tidy, even if it means sweeping some of that dirt under the refrigerator. Just, you know, don't ever move the refrigerator.

Jesus loves you, but, at best, we're withholding judgment until we can affirm your politics.

None of this is Christianity to me. It's American Christian culture, and I long ago started ditching it piece by piece. Most recently to go was politics, and I recently made this ridiculously bold statement to my great friend, Cristen, that I never want anyone to know me by my politics. I don't think she was impressed, but I'm trying to start a Christian revolution here, not win cheap points with my friends.

It sounds great when I say it. Shoot, it FEELS great. Liberating. I just don't know exactly how that plays out when I have to actually go vote and I haven't been paying attention because I'm boycotting the political process. Voting for Mickey Mouse again seems a little childish and irresponsible.

But it gets me back to where I'm most comfortable, and that's truly transparent. Not translucent -- I do want to be about something -- but transparent. I want to be about Jesus. I want to be about Jesus and the Gospel. I want to be about the ministry of Jesus. I want to walk so narrowly in Jesus' path that I am obscured from view and Jesus is all anyone can see.

This is a problem, though. I'm not real good at dealing with poverty and, truth be told, I'm not even sure I could eat a locust if it were breaded and deep fried and served with fancy ketchup. So I resolve to work. I make this concession. A man, in this political and cultural environment, should be gainfully employed. And he should have a car and maybe some land. And a wife who can home-school the children to keep them away from the dangers of *gasp* public school.

And you can see where Jesus is the one who actually starts to become obscured again. I'm still working on this, so bear with me. I mean, be inspired, but give me time to iron out all the details.

I've had this kind of worldview so long, I never realized how transparent I had let myself become until recently, when I started dating, and I realized being transparent from the beginning is so radical that it's off-putting. It's startling. It's frightening. It's not nearly the revolution I imagined it to be when I set out to let the world see me for all my flaws and all of God's perfection when I started this blog back in 2005.

I've been texting with my friend Becky, who is nuclear-charged full of the life of the Kingdom and shares my view of the world that transparency is the only way to sleep with a clean conscience at night. No lies. No deceptions. No worries about having to remember the lies and deceptions. No delusions. Total contentment that God is so in control that we don't even have to hide our sins or transgressions.

Like me, Becky is a bit frustrated with other Christians who don't see the benefit of this. I'm a bit older and she's somewhat new at this, so I don't want to crush her spirit, but being transparent is an open invitation to being alienated from the community. First, people will actually have the nerve to find good reasons not to like you. I hadn't considered this pitfall until I allowed people the liberty to tell me, without condemnation, what the problem was. Second, it challenges that whole community/consumer comfort zone by bringing attention to oneself, and public ostracization has been known to claim innocent victims who had simply stopped to gawk at someone so boldly, radically different.

I'm starting to figure out that transparency, by itself, is not Christ-like. It can be full of pride just like being sold out on consumerism can be. "Hey, look at me, I'm emotionally naked and not ashamed! You should feel totally comfortable around me! Look at all my flaws and celebrate my weaknesses with me! I'm a better Christian than those other Christians that shunned you!"

To my surprise, this approach is no more appealing to the world than fundamentalism.

I've been re-reading much of the New Testament since downloading the ESV onto my smartphone, because no Christian bohemian is complete without a smartphone and at least eight searchable translations. The forceful, elegant ESV does not beat around the bush with this Jesus fellow. He not only walked on water, he walked on air, and by that I mean the grace allowed him to literally walk above it all. My notes to date show Jesus:

- Never had to tell anyone he was transparent. He just was.
- Saved his anger for the self-righteous only when the self-righteous attacked him or took advantage of his people. He certainly didn't go looking for a fight and he was careful not to trip into one with a stray sarcastic parable.
- Always met those God was calling to him at their specific location, meeting their specific need, at the specific time of need, and wherever they were at emotionally. Even while he was hanging from the cross. (!!!!)
- Based his ministry on some pretty mundane stuff, namely holistic sacrifice and service to the lowest of the low. None of the apostles had iPods, which was alarming to me. I didn't notice that at first in the NIV.

In my quest to unpack all the burdensome, self-righteous Christian culture I had acquired in my 20s, I suppose I have packed a whole new bag of burdensome, self-righteous judgment of those who have somehow maintained a functional relationship with Christ while listening to the mind-dulling positive, encouraging tones of CCM and soul-robbing venom of talk radio.

I'm working on it, though. And I'm submitting it to Christ. That, I hope, is a transparency that leads to redemption. I'll even try locusts. Once. If I have to.


Domesticated Lady said...

Good stuff!! Rap on brother, rap on!!

Johnboy said...

Thought provoking post, Matt. I believe I mentioned to you awhile back that I'd repented of contemporary Christianity in my early thirties. And, I think I see the dilemma here. It's kind of like saying, "I'm so humble", knowing the very statement itself is rooted in the opposite. "I've jettisoned both contemporary Christianity AND politically superfluous stuff" creates a bit of a chasm... the end of which, in man's hands alone, could end up with the creation of two denominations... namely the "The Second Church of the Non-Contemporaries Because We Don't Want to be First", and "The Very Green, Very First Church of Rockin' for Jesus Believers Who Drive Saturn Automobiles". A sad state that would be!

Seems best to me to have one's politics rooted in Proverbs 21:1, "The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord;
he turns it wherever he will." And yes, that's ESV.

The problem is, how much pride did it take to write this response? I'll never tell.

As to Locusts, have you tried Locust Bisque? It is, pun intended, heavenly.

Matthew Self said...


The denominational thing, that's already happened. That's what the Emerging Church is about. That's where they've missed it. Instead of being missional within their own congregations, they've splintered off and created exactly what you've described. And in doing so, many of them have allowed themselves to jettison some of the foundational truths of Christianity in the process.

I almost joined them once! But it was community I had already shared that kept me from that, that helped me walk through the theological stuff.

In the Vineyard, we have an agenda: The 'Quest for the Radical Middle.' That's what I'm shooting for, anyway.

Johnboy said...


This reminds me of a Calvary Chapel saying, "The Baptists think we're Pentecostals, the Pentecostals think we're Baptists".

There is definitely something to be said about *balance*... AND... balance becomes subjective as well, not absolute, often depending not upon the core message of the Gospel, but more depending upon the *group* one identifies with. For example I, as a younger believer, became very biased against formal, higher education for Christians. This position was widely held among my peers. If it became known to me that someone had been in seminary, or had earned a MDiv, etc., they were immediately suspect. Yet, while it's true that many schools have long-since departed from sound teaching, and knowledge puffs up while love builds up - where would we be without great minds, theologians who have spent their lives delving into the depths of our faith, or pastors sold out for Jesus that invested the time and effort required to get an education? I ended up moderating my view, believing that one may get all the education that one wants, yet to not solely rely upon it, but God.

I agree, some in the Emerging Church have, in the quest to *cure* much of that which, from their perspective, ails the Church in general, strayed into forbidden territory by dumping foundational truths - basic tenets - of Christianity. Not a good thing - at all. I refer more to the distinctions which define one's views in a more sectarian sense - and frankly see much of that as a function of our lower nature... an "I am of Apollos, I am of Paul" sort of thing. I see this clearly in the Calvin vs. Arminius camps. Jesus refers to us as "The salt of the earth", not "The salt of the Church"... thus Paul's rhetorical questions, "What is the source of quarrels among you?" And, "Why do you bite and devour one another?"

At the end of the day, hopefully we aspire to let those differences drop into the shadows, and walk in the untarnished, simple light, and truth, and beauty - of the Gospel. After all, one can only carry out the missional aspects of the Church, via the great commission, AFTER one has walked in the quiet, unassuming simplicity of love as outlined in the great commandment. I often remind myself of this, and will sing (usually not in the company of others) Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so.........

dle said...


Great post. Good to see you back in full form!

We can't have true community without true humility. And humility seems to be the one trait most lacking in Americans circa 2010. Our sense of self-importance will, by nature, doom any attempts at community, even within the Church. Without an ability to admit our wrongs and still function in spite of them, genuine community will always be a pipe dream.

The NY Times had an op-ed on this that I enjoyed:

Anonymous said...


Lots of good stuff there. Couple quick comments on the intersection of religion and politix. IMO, the problem with advocates of so-called "Social Justice" is that in practice it results in transferring our responsibility for caring for the "least of these" to the state. It convinces people that the act of voting for a particular candidate absolves them of their responsibilities. The problems with this are two-fold: 1) the conditions of those in need get worse and trend towards permanence and away from temporary conditions; and, 2) the individuals with the capacity to help believe that, having done their part by voting, they have no further responsibility. The practical effect of (2) is the elimination of charity and replacing it with entitlements.

I also have a problem with "Social Justice" in that it targets populations, rather than economic strata, and eliminates the aspect of personal responsibility by casting populations as "victims" vs. "oppressors".

Definitely relate to your comments on (I believe) Contemporary Christian Music (CCM?) and talk radio.

Best, NED

Matthew Self said...

Actually, I believe the effect is just the opposite. I believe if the church put more emphasis on "caring for the least of these," there would be little need for the state to do so. I believe the burden put on the state is the direct by-product of (1) the Church shirking its responsibility and (2) Christians voting to remove the guilt of shirking their responsibility.

Social justice isn't a political position. It's a spiritual one. Social justice is about individual and corporate responsibility. It has nothing to do with the way one votes.

Anonymous said...

I do agree with you in at least one respect; the church in America does not do all that it could in America. Enormous amounts of support go to foreign countries where the people are truly destitute; impoverished, without access to clean water or a regular supply of food. It is a judgment call. The church my wife grew up in sponsors Chernobyl kids, so every year they fly in kids that need surgery and cancer treatments and host them, and the medical treatments are provided at cost (Dr.s donate their time), with additional sponsorship. The church I grew up in did some local outreach - they still run a homeless shelter, and they have a skate club where local kids can come skate in the church parking lot - but a lot of money and mission sponsorships were sent to Africa, India and the Philippines.

Perhaps it is a bit of the chix and the egg argument. The more in touch we became with foreign poverty, the less attention we paid to poverty here. One problem with that is that whereas in foreign countries the problem of poverty is an economic one, here, again IMO, poverty is a moral problem; and that is a much more intractable problem. Perhaps that is what leads to people deciding that the state should manage that problem; if the state manages it, there is no need to make judgments about behaviors that keep people in poverty.

re: Social Justice, in the contexts I've seen it used, it is political. These contexts include passing laws that seek social justice aims or provide funding based on social justice issues - if it is a law or funding a program through taxation then it is inherently political. If the only context of social justice were my responsibility to do my part for others and the church's responsibility as a corporate entity, then I would be in complete agreement with you.

Best, NED

Matthew Self said...

Jim Wallis co-opted the term social justice in the 70s. Not anything I can do about that.

But traditionally, social justice has been a phrase used at the heart of the OT prophets, and in the fulfillment of Jesus' ministry.

I would agree with you that many Americans have a skewed view of poverty. Yet, there are people in my church that have gone spells without food, their children hungry. Part of the problem was their own pride, being afraid to ask for help. Help is there now if they ask.

On the other hand, I find Christians who think there's a political answer to the problem -- maybe particularly Christians who demonize those on welfare above and beyond looking at it as a macro problem -- as not at all Christ-like.

I can only say there is no political answer presented in the ministry of Jesus. It is what it is. To say God is doing something else is to blaspheme God. He's still doing the ministry of Jesus. The result of the ministry of Jesus is true social justice. Both conservatives and liberals that try to spin ministry into something that is politically expedient have entered into a Pharisaical realm that Jesus not only opposed, they were for who Jesus reserved his harshest words.