Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Living by the Book

Thanks to DS
To explain every facet of why I hate religion is going to take a long, long time. I have gotten my feet wet in that discussion a few times in this space, including my thoughts on Anne Rice leaving the church, Christian bookstores and how Gandhi viewed Christians, among other examples.

The sticking point in all these posts is common between them: people trying to act Christian rather than like Christ are creating problems rather than solutions, and doing it all in the name of a God who is likely ashamed of their actions (I would never presume to know exactly what the reactions of God are, but I am willing to lend an educated guess). The motives of churchy people trying to "be" Christian are likely good and real, consistent with what they think truth is. The problem is not the initial motives of Christians, but rather the way Jesus has been institutionalized, prepackaged and made into a formula and set of rules that must be upheld or else.

The title of this post - living by the book - comes from something a high school teacher of mine passed along during class my senior year. He said to us, "you can live by the book, but it's slavery." This simple statement is one of the most profound and important things I have learned thus far in life, but I do think it requires a measure of explanation before I continue.

Living by the book can have two distinct meanings in this context, one that I believe to be beneficial and one that I believe to be harmful. First, the beneficial way of approaching the phrase: as Christians we are called to live a lifestyle consistant with that of Jesus. This means treating people like Jesus did, loving people without conditions, judging no one and seeking to help everyone. If the Bible is taken as the Word of God, its words should be revered and its message followed. And without question, the message of the Bible and of Jesus is love. Love God, love your neighbor. In this sense, living by the book is the greatest thing we can do as people and as followers of Christ, and I believe that we are all called to do so. But I hesitate to call that "living by the book", so instead I will refer to this idea as following the message of Jesus.

Unfortunately, the second way the phrase can be taken is much less positive. Today, the phrase living by the book means following the rules, being a "good" person, or something to that extent. This is the sense in which my teacher meant the phrase, as I am sure you immediately understood upon reading his quote. Within the context of Christ followers, 'the book' can again refer to Scripture, but not in such a positive light. Rather than considering the message of Jesus (love), this way of approaching Scripture means turning the Bible into a rule book. A rule book that must be followed at all costs, as if God expects perfection from his imperfect creation. A rule book that allows us to judge people who are different than we are, one that we can tailor to cast ourselves in the best light. This is what I am referring to when I say "living by the book" from now on.

This second version of living by the book had a grip on my life for many, many years. Being raised in a Christian household, going to church every week and attending a Christian school meant that I was constantly surrounded by people telling me what I could and could not do within the context of making Jesus happy. I was constantly being shown (almost exclusively at school) that this Lamb of God was spending his every waking moment spying on me, hoping to catch me slip up. Hoping to see me fail. Perhaps not always explicitly, but it was certainly implied and pounded into my mind. I was raised to fear sin and sinners (and to ignore the fact that Christ followers are sinners just like everyone else). I was told that dancing is dangerous (it leads to sex...gasp), that drinking alcohol makes you a bad person, that Democrats are evil. I was molded into believing that once a person commits a "big" sin, I have to label them as whatever their sin was: druggie, alchie, slut, liberal, Catholic (yeah, I know, ridiculous, but no joke). I grew up in a context that made me a slave to the book. A slave to the rules. I was afraid to slip up: for fear of being labeled as one of those naughty sinners, for fear of Jesus seeing me and shouting "gotcha!", for fear of people losing respect for me. If I did slip up, the guilt train came hurtling into the station and ran me over every time. There was no escaping it. Turn on the television and you will find televangelists preaching fire and brimstone and fear. "God is out to get you unless you follow the rules." I believed that if I sinned, Jesus would disown me. That lie is something I have had a difficult time overcoming, and is something I struggle with to this day.

Thankfully, there are people like Brennan Manning who are determined to speak truth against the lie of living by the book. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Manning wrote:
"Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat denial of the gospel of grace."
Grace means that the rules carry no weight any more. It means that there is no value in living by the book. The value comes from following the message of Jesus, from living a life focused on love rather than keeping score.

My teacher was spot on when he said that living by the book is slavery. No good comes from following the rules for the sake of the rules. Instead, it creates cynicism, sows dischord and pushes people away from the message of Jesus. I believe that living by the book and following the message of Jesus are two mutually exclusive things. If I am following the message of Jesus, I have no concern for whatever mistakes a person made in their past, no desire to judge or label them. Rather, my sole concern is to show them love. I am drawn to accept them for who they are and to approach them with no pretenses or hangups. In contrast, a person mired in living by the book will likely be so concerned with following the perceived rules themselves that they become covered in guilt from the times they make a mistake. And often they will begin watching to see if everyone else is following those rules as well. And if the people they watch are slipping up (or just ignoring the rules altogether), there is a more than small chance that judgment and contempt will soon follow - two things that have no place within the message of Jesus.

I refuse to be a slave to the book any longer. Consequences be damned means living my life free from fears and worries. If I make a mistake, so be it. I will clean that mess up when I come to it. The message and actions of Jesus mean that I do not need to fear failing or screwing up because he paid for my mistakes already. To live explicitly by the book is to deny the message of Jesus, the gospel of grace and love. Sure, many of the rules have merit. But to follow them for the sake of following them is unhealthy and (dare I say it) wrong. Instead, I choose to live my life focused on loving people. I have found that if I live my life focused on love first, I find myself following most of the "rules" anyway, without even thinking about it. Funny how that happens.

And so on...

1 comment:

  1. "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit." Romans 8:1-4.
    And obviously, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith..." Eph. 2:8
    "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men." Romans 14:18