“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings…But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
– C.S. Lewis
Like lots of other late twenty-something white, male, evangelical Christian ministry professionals, I started 2016 thinking about how to declare my love for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as the best album of 2015 in a way that was inoffensive yet also suggested that I got it but also didn’t get it in all the ways I am supposed to get it and not get it.
I tried to remember why it was that this album felt so moving to me when it came out. I thought back to a specific morning from the first week of April 2015. I was sitting at our mechanic’s shop getting who knows what done to our car (2015 was not kind to the Uzzles’ vehicle incidentals budget). The TV in the waiting area was broadcasting network news that morning and the anchors were discussing the tension surrounding Indiana’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). I had not heard much about the act so I pulled out my phone, popped in my headphones, and began researching it, as Spotify shuffled between Kendrick and another brilliant March 2015 album, Sufjan Steven’s Carrie and Lowell.
The act essentially created a legal defense platform for Christian business owners in the event that a lawsuit was provoked by their desire to deny services for religious reasons. Everyone from celebrity theologians to local pastors to college students I work with had an opinion to post on social media, some in defense of Indiana’s need for the act and some in vehement opposition and fear regarding its implications, particularly for the already marginalized LGBT community in the state. I read lots of articles and posts about how people were feeling that day; but all I felt was sadness.
My wife will sometimes differentiate between faith leaders that she has sat under as either making Christianity seem big or small. While she was in grad school, she read the C.S. Lewis classic, Mere Christianity. We were in a difficult season in our marriage and faith community and Lewis made Christianity seem like something that could handle anything the world threw at it. It felt like a lighthouse standing tall, guiding us home as the then stormy waters of our lives ebbed and flowed.
As I sat in my mechanic’s shop that day, reading article after article, Christianity began to feel very, very small. Instead of the Jesus I had come to know and love as the all-powerful Reconciler of all things, the God-man who gave his life and triumphed over death in his resurrection to literally save the world, the Jesus of the internet felt more like a neurotic tabloid reporter, obsessing over where a wedding cake was made and the drama that ensued. This Jesus seemed determined to make sure that everyone knew exactly where he stood on the great moral issues of our day and he drew clear lines between himself and everyone else. He didn’t seem to care about civil rights or commercial obligation so much as he wanted you to know if he thought you were right or left wrong. As I closed Facebook and turned away from the TV in the shop, I became aware again of the music in my headphones.
“How Much a Dollar Cost” started up and I became curious about Kendrick’s faith – I remembered hearing that he had gotten baptized recently and I found a brilliant article on his story of growing up in Compton and his expression of Christianity. As Spotify shuffled back to Carrie & Lowell, I Googled Sufjan and read an article about his own journey with God. What was their Jesus like? Was it more like the big Jesus of Lewis or the small OCD jesus of the Christian blogosphere? Why did I find myself relating so much more to these men than to the writers of the articles I had spent the last half hour reading, many of whom share much more in common with me?
That’s when the Lewis quote from above came like a word from the Lord (perhaps it was) to set me free that morning. Lewis, writing on the power of stories to sneak past our intellectual guard and engage our capacity for faith on the level of the soul and passions, gave me a language to precisely describe what I was feeling. The story the internet wanted to tell me about Jesus had been eaten alive by my own watchful dragons.
Simply put, though we share much in common, I could not relate to most of what the celebrity pastors and theo-bloggers told me about cake-baking and personal freedom. I couldn’t summon the outrage they told me we were all supposed to feel toward our mysterious enemy, shrouded in obscurity as “The Secular Left,” like a lidless eye in the distance. A Jesus who cares so deeply about whether Hobby Lobby is a person with the capacity for faith or if our president is eroding our Second Amendment right to buy a surface-to-air missile launcher with a valid library card and a six hour waiting period, but not at all about the stories of those affected negatively by the desired legislation, has never resonated with the Jesus of the Bible to me.
However, when I hear Kendrick rap about resisting the temptation to believe he betrayed his hometown or Sufjan sing about the grief of losing a parent, I see my own story in their story. Mine is different, of course, but, like all good art, their music allows me to import my own perspective without losing touch with the author’s intended message. As Buechner said, “the story of each one of us is, in some measure, the story of us all.” Stories allow us to see through the eyes of another and, in so doing, remove the shards of petty prejudices and personal insecurities that everyday life and our own brokenness has embedded in our souls.
I still don’t know if a Christian photographer should be able to legally deny services for a wedding that offends her moral sensibilities. More importantly, I don’t know if the Jesus of the Bible would have her do that. But I do know that as our political and faith leaders endlessly polarize over these important questions, we must find a space in our culture to hear the stories of those who see the world differently than we do and not merely the commentary of those who do not. These stories sneak past our watchful dragons of doctrinal allegiance and preferred political philosophy and allow us to hear and walk alongside even those who may reject and scorn us. What could be more like Jesus than that?