A few days ago, I read a bit of doggerel someone clipped and posted on Facebook. It was the typical polemic one might expect to hear from a conservative preacher lambasting his congregants with condemnation for their milk-toast commitment to their faith. “Why do Christians read the newspaper more frequently than the bible? Why do they sleep during church, but stay wide awake during a three-hour movie…” You get the idea. These types of questions are asked rhetorically to shame people into preferred behaviors of greater piety. However, I think the question is worth asking for verities sake. There is a truth worth uncovering that conservative preachers dare not approach. I will happily go where they, and their angels, fear to tread.
I will let you know up front; I believe there are three good answers to the question. As a result of that, and the fact that I can’t seem to write for long periods of time, these days, this will be a three-parter.
This post will cover the easiest of the three answers on offer. It is probably the most contentious of the three. Understand, sometimes, I mean to be contentious. This time, it is just a byproduct of the answer. It is the nature of this particular beast. There is no diplomatic way of puting it. First and for most, the reason the typical church goer is not more pious is because they have very little “real” conviction in their faith claims. It doesn’t get any more basic than that, but I will try to make it more basic, anyway. 🙂
It is impossible to live out a greater amount of faith than that which one legitimately possesses. This formula is as unshakable as any mathematical equation. The reason people read the newspaper and not the bible is because they find more relevance in the newspaper than they do in some story from 2 Kings. The reason a movie is more captivating than a sermon is because they get something valuable out of the movie. The sermon, not so much. The reason people spend more money dining out than tithing is they feel dining out gives them a better return on investment. The reason they spend more time watching TV than worshiping is that they feel the TV time is time better spent.
The apostle Paul was wrong with his analysis. People do not do what they do not want to do, nor do they fail to do what they want to do. Remember, Paul’s notion was based on the idea of external forces such as evil and righteousness being at war in a literal, but unseen realm. This is simply not the reality of how the world works. In truth, we do exactly what we want to do, and avoid doing what we don’t want to do. The devil does not make us do it, or keep us from doing it. Only we have that power. We study the Harry Potter universe because we enjoy it. We avoid studying the finer points of scripture because we don’t. Seldom do we put our money where our mouth is, but we always put it where our true conviction lies.
Speaking of lies, we can only tell them to ourselves and others for so long before the truth of who we are takes over. Priests and Nuns and monks without the conviction of their vows do not stay celibate or silent for very long. There have always been overflowing orphanages that attest to that simple truth. Protestant preachers, both petty and powerful, are among the ranks of legendary philanderers, embezzlers, and outright con artists. Piety cannot be faked very well for very long. True conviction defeats false piety every time.
I will close with a familiar example. People who believe they have had a close encounter of the third kind, are ardent evangelists for their particular view of the world. Their certainty in what they saw or experienced cannot be shaken. No amount of proof or logic can sway them from their cause. We might be tempted to call them crazy. They, however, would rightfully identify themselves as changed. They are the truest of true believers. They have had an experience powerful enough to change the way they live their lives. Why does every statistic show that the lives of Christians are not substantively different from their non-Christian counterparts? Because they have not had an experience powerful enough to change their lives.
This observation leads me to my second answer.
To be continued…