Doug Pagitt’s A Christianity Worth Believing (Live Occurrence)

When I was in fifth grade, I got kicked out of Sunday School class. It was a simple telling of the story of Noah’s ark. The flannel graph had a huge boat on it, several animals popping out of it. A smiling Noah under a now beaming sun; a tranquil boat ride scene, the ark drifting on calm waters. My teacher took issue with me adding floating bodies to the surface of the water.

The second time I was asked to be quiet at the church I was attending, it was because the church was having a debate on the issue of baptism. Not whether folks should be baptized, but whether they should be dipped one time or three (the conservatives, the three dippers, were defending the truth against those lackadaisical, anything goes liberal one dippers). I pointed out that while we were having this debate, I was hurting, I had questions, my life was spinning out of control; there were poor not being served and loved that were our neighbors to the west but because they didn’t look like the majority of the church and made them uncomfortable (coincidently, they looked a lot like me), the church didn’t reach out to them.

Apparently I derive from the same tribe of Doug Pagitt’s contrarians.

Full of questions, doubt, and conflict, we wonder if there’s room for us at church as it has largely lost its role as a safe place to ask questions. In a world more worried about production and attendance (“giving units”) and sermons and bottom lines, there’s little room for the eclectic, the square pegs for the round holes reserved for pew potatoes anxious to hear the latest bit of ear tickling, as we’re written off as trouble makers or drama bringers.

So we’re left struggling to make sense of Christianity in our cultural context, in our time. Looking for narrative not formula, as narrative transcends systematics; with theology being the adapter unit between the narrative and our time/culture, making sense of the story, not being the point of the story.

We need to participate in some narrative therapy.

Hearing the Good News that we are beautiful and wonder and made in the image of God. People of worth. That we’re not quite whole, our feelings, spirit, will, and mind not working in concert as they should, with sin disintegrating what’s normal and desired, unraveling our lives and goodness.

Jesus went to those caught up in sin, because sin was its own punishment. He offered a way of life to free us from sin and bring healing and wholeness. Reminding us that we are more than our misdeeds and struggles, we’re still healing and still becoming. But we can live up to who we are, our true humanity, the image of God. He says that the kingdom of God is at hand and we need to join in with what God is already doing as he restores His creation. And he brings the Good News that life will win over death, that God is active in our present reality. That we don’t know how everything will play out, but we live in a state of hope.

Thanks for the reminder, Doug.

The Journey Thus Far

“Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”

If a person can have a theme prayer for their life, that’s mine. It echoes the prayer of a man whose son had been possessed by demons. Jesus had just told him, promised him, that “everything is possible for him who believes,” and the only thing the man had to offer up was his honest assessment: “Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.” That’s where I am. That’s where I’ve always been with my faith.

Some of you might have heard me tell my story as a part of the first sermon that I ever gave. For those that haven’t heard it, my part in my spiritual journey began when I was a child when my parents insisted that we (the kids) went to church … even if they didn’t. When I was in fourth grade, we moved to Indianapolis, Indiana and I started attending this fundamentalist church because that’s where our neighbors went and my folks sent us with them. My Sunday School teacher took an immediate liking to me. You have to understand, the class was full of a bunch of pastor’s kids (PKs), and they were bad. I, at least, paid attention (plus, I liked comic books and he was a big fan).

So one day while hanging out with him, he gives me the Christian sales pitch by leading me down the “Romans Road.” [For those who don’t know what this is, it is a series of verses in Romans that outlines the condition of man, the consequences of his conditions, and what he can do about getting reconciled back to God. The short version is Romans 3:23, 6:23, 10:9-10]. I prayed the “sinners prayer”, I became “saved”, and lived happily ever after.

One, anyone who has been a Christian longer than five minutes knows the often bumpy journey that you set out on. Two, I will spare you a rant on how we go about evangelizing children. Though I will say, right now I could get my kids to parrot a prayer. They’re my kids, they want to please me. They aren’t stupid and can tell when I want them to do something, even if I’m not explicitly telling them to do so. They also could look around at church and see how much attention other kids get when they profess faith and get baptized. It’s not a big stretch to imagine them thinking “yeah, I want a slice of that.” Just like it shouldn’t take rocket science to tie together our early evangelism of children with why our teens fall from the faith right around high school/college, when they aren’t about pleasing their parents anymore.

Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me state emphatically that I liked the church that I attended. I grew up there and respect the people a lot. I think it was the right place for me to be at that time in my faith. If there’s one thing a fundamentalist church can do, it’s instill discipline about your walk and the importance of Bible memorization. However, I was one of maybe three black people that attended the church. Unfortunately, that was compounded by the fact that when we first moved to our neighborhood, we were the only black family. On top of that, after my fourth grade year, I was yanked out of the mainstream program at school and placed in the “advanced” program.

The powers that be decided that there were only two black students that fit their criteria so for rest of my public school career, our group moved as a cohort through the system. I know I’m not telling anyone anything new, but it’s hard when you’re the only one (of anything), you’re a teenager, and you’re just trying to fit in with everyone else, to maintain a sense of cultural identity. The black kids shun you cause they think you’re trying to “act white.” The white kids, the ones your trying to fit in with since that’s your constant peer group, shun you because you’re not one of them or worse, adopt you as some sort of mascot. Which you happily accept because you convince yourself that at least it was a form of acceptance. It’s not a time I look back on too fondly.

(My wife didn’t fully appreciate this part of my story until I took her to our family reunion in Jamaica. When she was there, especially being new to the family and wanting to just fit in, she ate what we ate, did what we did, listened to what we listened to. When we went out, and you’re talking 200 of us strong, she was the only white person. When she turned on the television, she saw only black faces. When she went shopping or to the bank, it was only black faces there to help her. It was a wake up experience for her, and that was just one week.)

Well, then came 1989. Here’s where the story gets interesting.

By then, I was in college, still at my old church. This was a watershed year for me, probably the second most important year in my life after my salvation – all because of the movie Do the Right Thing. At its most basic level, the movie was about life in a black neighborhood, an injustice occurs, and the people have to make a choice about what the proper course of action should be. I don’t have the words to convey to you just how hard this movie hit me. By the end, I was left stunned, emotionally drained. It was like this voice was woken up in me that started whispering to me: “You’ve been brainwashed into thinking you’re one of them. You ain’t like them. They ain’t ever going to accept you as one of them. You’re always going to be an other. An outsider. You have to stick to your own.”

So I embarked on this new journey, where I’m trying to figure out who I am. And let me tell you, it was black. EVERY THING. And if you were white, it wasn’t easy to hang out with me. Even the music I listened to wasn’t just black, it was militant. My two favorite albums were It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet. The classes I took? Black history. Black literature. Black music. The sociological process that I was undergoing was what some people call the Negro-to-Black Conversion experience.

All of this happened while I was having trouble in my walk with Christ. I was experiencing this kind of disconnect. I had all this head knowledge, but no heart action. The nagging question that haunted me was “what does saving faith look like?” I was worried about whether or not an intellectual assent to a set of facts was all there was to faith. And I was having issues with my church. Like I said, it was the right church for the right time in my walk, but you know when you are starting to outgrow a place. The church was no longer speaking to me with their seemingly narrow minds and meaningless rules. I thought that there had to be more to being spiritual than a lot of theological head knowledge mixed with a bunch of rules to live by. What was worse was that the church had become irrelevant in my life because I wasn’t seeing the love they talked about being lived out. They would always talk about being a neighborhood church, but would only reach out to the neighborhoods north, south and west of it. Two blocks east of it was a budding black neighborhood. So I was left wondering “Is this what God had in mind?” When a person is subjected to folks who confuse religion with God, it can cause that person to walk away from them both. So I left.

I did brief tours of other religions, staying long enough to ask “what would a saving faith look like?” not getting any sort of answer that made sense or felt right to me. Eventually, I fell in with the Nation of Islam. I wanted a religion that spoke to me, both culturally a
nd spiritually, but you have to know that the Nation of Islam is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity. Of course, this also gives you an indication of where my head was at around this time. Even I didn’t know how much built up resentment I had in me. The Nation truly spoke to me.

“Black man” (yeah?) “You come from a proud race and you need to reclaim your pride.”
“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to learn your culture, your history.”
“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to pursue education and become self-sufficient.”

So how did I end up where I am now, on a path that led to me helping lead at The Dwelling Place? I’d like to say I had this great spiritual revelation, a rekindling of my love of the Gospel truth. And I did, it just took a different form than one you might expect. You see, the Nation of Islam kept talking.

“Black man” (yeah?) “You need to take care of your body, to become strong. And how do you start?

Don’t eat pork.”

Again, allow me to quote from one of my other favorite movies, Pulp Fiction. “Pork tastes good.” That was when I had one of the single greatest spiritual epiphanies of my life: “You know what, Jesus wasn’t trying to keep me from eating bacon.” That was the beginning of me re-thinking the spiritual path that I was on. I ended up at yet another crossroads in my journey.

I wanted to focus on my walk. I knew I couldn’t go back to my old church. Fair or not, I had equated their brand of Christianity with a pursuit of appearances. How much of what we do is about appearances, looking good–spiritually and otherwise–to those around us? It’s no wonder that the Bible ends up saying of religious Pharisees “They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Faith doesn’t look like duty. No one wants duty. If I give a gift to my wife, I can’t tell her it’s “ because I’m supposed to. I’m your husband and it’s my duty.” My wife wants my heart, my love freely given; so my words and actions don’t mean a thing unless I’m doing it for the right reason. Faith has to mean something or else I’m just going through the spiritual motions.

Religious activity without heart is empty rituals.

What I needed, and continue to need, is a safe place to work out my answers. A place that would allow me and my faith to have these sort of questions and, more importantly, my doubts. You see the point of my faith isn’t Christianity; it’s knowing, following, and becoming more like Christ. Nor is the point to have unwavering faith. More often than not, our belief is mixed with our unbelief and not the perfect, unquestioning thing some people have made it out to be. That’s why that prayer sums up the story of my journey of faith in a nutshell.

“Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”

How I’m a Christian Horror Writer

As the “sinister minister,” one of the first things that I get asked is how can I be a horror writer and call myself a Christian. I actually get asked this by “both sides”: this is one of the primary questions of my horror brethren, probably because they sympathize with the assumed grief that I get from my fellow Christians (though I’ve been invited to speak on “Horror as a Genre” at a Christian convention).

This isn’t a “once and for all” type post, but I think it’s a question worth exploring at length.

From the Christian side of the question, part of the underlying issue lies with misconceptions about the genre. When churched folk typically think “horror” they think blood, guts, and the demonic. One time, our extended family sat around the dinner table (after a church service where we symbolically drank the blood and ate the flesh of our Savior). Discussion turned to my web site having both Christian and horror content, at which point I was accused of being”lukewarm” (you have to love epithets that you have to look up in the Bible to get: lukewarm refers to those whom Jesus would spit out as being neither spiritually hot nor cold) because I write horror. “That’s demons and witchcraft” and “I’m only doing the devil’s work” are especially ironic accusations, since it’s their side of the family that has the practicing obeah people.

Sometimes I remind people like this about the Bible they are using to condemn me. We could object to the individual elements of the Bible, like the occultic parts involving sorcerers/witches, mediums, and the demons/demon-possessed. We could skip the blood and guts of people being dashed against rocks, their entrails eaten by dogs, mothers eating their own afterbirth, and tent pegs being thrust through people’s heads. We could ignore the bad language (though, we play down the stuff that would be translated piss and shit today); just like we tend to gloss over the sex scenes and the rapes. Or we could realize that the overarching point of the book, the meta-narrative, is the story of redemption.

The other thing I remind these well-intentioned folk of is that the language of the genre is the language of Christianity. What do horror stories–like the ones they had to read in high school (like the stories of Edgar Allen Poe or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”) or movies you know they have watched like “The Sixth Sense”–wrestle with? The total depravity of man (if you want a Calvinistic loaded phrase), the nature of good and evil, the mystery of the afterlife, unseen spiritual forces (like angels or demons), or the meditation on mortality/our fear of death. Even the most “atheistic” horror writers, at the very least, are moralists; using writing as therapy, wrestling with what they see in the world around them.

So the question becomes “how could I not write horror?”

On the flip side, many in my horror circles have misconceptions about Christianity, much of it stemming from a distrust of the institutional church. Let’s face it, many of their stories begin “I was raised (fill-in-the-blank denomination), until …” the church failed them in some way. Many religious people have a narrow definition of what construes true or “saving” spirituality and arguments aren’t going to convince them otherwise. They believe what they believe and they know what God has to say on the topic. Put simply, horror is not for everyone. According to my faith, in Christ we have been given tremendous freedom, not a list of dos and don’ts as many people interpret spirituality. However, we also have been given wisdom to draw our own lines for what constitutes what we can handle and what constitutes sinning against our conscience. Where this freedom becomes abused is when, for example, I assume that my line is the universal demarcation that all Christians should follow.

Look, my faith informs my writing. As writers, our worldviews–from nihilistic to religious–are a part of us and thus a part of our writing. What we believe, why we believe, it’s all in there. Are there topics that I won’t touch? I don’t know. I do know that my primary concern is “can I write my stories well?”

Admittedly, there is a distrust of art within the Protestant church in particular. It’s like we have come to believe that you can’t have art for art’s sake, that the only thing that makes art redeemable is if it’s a set up for our sales pitch (for example, if at some point the victim in my vampire story might turn to her pursuer and explain how said vampire can know Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior). Is that the sole definition of a Christian work? No, that’s propaganda, not art. It’s okay if we pursue art for art’s sake. Creating beauty is its own pursuit of truth and all truth points to God. For that matter, since I believe in God as the ultimate Creator, as a writer, I’m joining in his creative work. And I firmly believe that when you are doing what you were created to do, you are doing God’s work.

So the question becomes, “how could I not be a Christian writer?”

[See also A Theology of Horror Part I, Part II, and Part III.]