By Derek Penwell
I used to have a recurring nightmare about presenting a paper at a conference. In the dream I would conclude my presentation in front of my colleagues, and then I would do the requisite “Question and Answer.”
Invariably, a bespectacled man in a camel hair sport coat and blue jeans would stand up and ask, “So what?”
Panicked, I would stammer, “What do you mean, ‘So what?'”
“Well, I guess what you say is sort of interesting, but what turns on it? Why should I think your work is important? In other words, I hear what you’re saying, but the first thing I think is, ‘So what?'”
The fastest growing religious designation in America over the past five years, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is “None.” While atheism and agnosticism have risen slightly over that time, the biggest increase is among those who, when asked about institutional religion, respond, “Meh.”
It strikes me that much of what drives this unenthusiastic response to religion, at least in the case of Christianity, centers on the apparent (at least to observers) unwillingness of Christians to live like Jesus. The “Nones” have heard endlessly about Christianity and how everybody would be better off if the world would just believe the stuff Christians believe:
They’ve gotten the message, for instance, that being Christian means you believe being gay is a sin — and not just any sin, but sin in a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad way. The express-lane-to-Hell kind of sin. Then they read the Gospels about a Jesus who reserves his most stinging indictments not for the folks everybody else has already given up on, but for the stalwarts at the top of the religious and political food chain, the ones who join Rotary, drive Buicks and wear sensible shoes.
They hear the smugness of Christian reproaches against a society that would presume to remove God from public schools (because, you know, God is used to getting kicked around by effete liberals). But we shouldn’t be surprised how the “Nones” fail to square the fairly straightforwardly pacifist Jesus of the Gospels with the Libertarian Jesus of some Christians, a Jesus who apparently doesn’t have a problem with the idea that school safety can be secured with “God and a loaded gun.”
Christians claim to believe in a Jesus, who spent a great deal of time reaching out to, speaking out for, advocating on behalf of “the least of these”; but then some segments of Christianity align themselves with a brand of politics that seems interested in advancing only the interests of the wealthiest among us — at theexpense of the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the outcast — which is to say, at the expense of the least of these. What are outsiders to think?
So, here’s the thing: Christians can’t just believe stuff. People want an answer to the question: “So what?” They want to know what turns on these much-discussed beliefs, what difference these beliefs make in our lives. Do they help us care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked or welcome the outcast? Or do these beliefs merely represent a golden barrier that offer protection against blame?
In short, people who’ve lost interest in Christianity might just like to see Christians for whom believing “this stuff” is merely the first step to actually living it out.
And just so we’re clear: The call not just to believe in Jesus, but to live like Jesus can’t be merely another ploy to attract converts, to roust the “Nones” and get them to think Christianity is “neat”; it has to be a call to do the right thing. People who follow Jesus care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome the outcast, because that’s what Jesus said to do, and they don’t know any other way to be. So, if doing the right thing is only an ecclesiastical marketing strategy, people will be justified in continuing to ask, “So what?”
Think about this for a minute, though: What if part of the reason the “Nones” are so underwhelmed by organized religion isn’t because they don’t find Jesus interesting, but because it appears to them that Christians don’t find him sufficiently interesting enough to take seriously?
That’s what ought to give Christians nightmares.