We Could Use a Little Fire and Brimstone
Christianity is serious about life, but Christian preachers aren't always serious enough about Christianity.
The adults were sitting round the table, comparing their religion classes from childhood. The oldest man at the table recalled how on the first day of class his senior year at his Catholic high school, the teacher handed out thin paperbacks printed on cheap paper. They’d had a real textbook the year before. A younger man remembered studying doctrine one year and coloring pictures the next. And the youngest at the table, a new father in his late twenties, said that all he’d known in his religion classes was the lite version.
My companions at dinner were all victims of a revolution in the teaching of the Faith that ran through both Catholic and Protestant religious life in America during the sixties and seventies and hasn’t stopped running. What most struck me as they talked was that the teaching they described was so thin and sappy. It sounded frivolous. The teachers may have loved the Church and the Faith, but they taught Catholicism as if it were a subject they didn’t really care about and didn’t expect their students to care about either.
The materials and methods made the Catholic Church look like one of those companies that makes products no one wants anymore and keep lowering the price in the hope that people will buy their stuff anyway. Even the salesmen feel the hope is vain. The people who wrote the new books sounded like they’d taken seriously Mary Poppins’ advice that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, and decided to keep reducing the medicine and increasing the sugar.
It was fundamentally un-serious. The oldest man remembered that even then he noticed the symbolism of the big heavy hardbound book he carried to biology class and the small floppy paperback. Biology was an important subject to be mastered with effort, Catholicism wasn’t.
My Protestant friends tell similar stories. The teaching they get in their churches has gotten lighter and lighter. They got to sing a lot in their churches and play games but no one tries to teach them anything deep. Their children who go to Christian schools bring home touchy-feely exercises instead of Scripture studies, and Christian education is taught in such a way that it doesn’t affect the “real” curriculum (science, math, English, etc.).
One pastor I know said that the officials in his denomination don’t think people need to know all that Bible and doctrine and history stuff. They treat everything they produce as a chance to give a self-help lesson. They want it to be entertaining and relevant, and their idea of relevance is “People can use this right away.” Their Bible lessons just skim the top of the story and usually turn it into a lesson about being kind to others.
When I looked at Christianity as a fairly secular teenager, I was looking for something serious, something dramatic, something that mattered. What Christianity’s critics saw as faults, especially all that teaching and all those moral rules, I saw as signs that Christians knew life was a game to be played for keeps. In a world that could be so frivolous about so much, Christianity insisted that the way we live means something ultimate. I didn’t buy it all right away, but I knew that if it were true, it wasn’t something that would need to be sugar coated or discounted.
I wish normal Christian life were more overtly serious in this sense. I would find it a great help in not sinking into the complacency that seems to be our, or at least my, natural mode of spiritual life. I don’t think I’m unusual in this.
Let me take an unpopular example. We ought to hear a lot more about sin and the broad road to Hell than we do. We don’t get a sense from most Catholic preaching and writing that our choices actually matter for eternity. (This seems to be true for most Protestant preaching and writing as well.)
According to most preaching, we move in only one direction, and that’s up. God is infinitely indulgent. He’s always ready to let us back in without our having to repent, as long as we feel regretful. God’s kind of an easy-going uncle that winks when you do something wrong and slips you some cash.
In this preaching, sins don’t leave a mark on you. You feel a little bad about doing something wrong, God says don’t worry about it, and that’s that. At worst, whatever you did just becomes “a growth experience.” This teaches you to think that giving in to temptation doesn’t really matter all that much.
In all the homilies on the Parable of the Prodigal Son I’ve heard, the priest emphasized the father’s welcome, and sometimes touched on the older brother’s resentment. It is indeed a story about God’s never-ending love for us, but it is also the story of the prodigal son’s long walk home, and that I’ve never heard spoken of.
The son had to journey a long way as a starving man with no money to get to his father. He had travelled to a far-off land. It was a long way back and getting home cost him. And when he finally got home, he had to tell his father he was sorry even after his father embraced him.
Sins do leave a mark on you. Returning home didn’t make his life as it had been before. Whatever he did in that far-off land, it left its marks on him. Although his father forgave him for rebelling, he’d thrown away his inheritance and done things he couldn’t un-do.
That’s a Drama
That’s a drama. It’s a story of sin and redemption that could have ended without the redemption. It’s a story of choices that mattered and mattered both in this life and the next. The prodigal son could have died in that far-off land. He could have been too proud or too invested in his sins to return home. The Parable of the Prodigal Son tells us that life is a serious thing, and that reconciliation costs us, but that’s not the way it’s usually preached.
How often do we hear anything remotely like C. S. Lewis’s words in Mere Christianity about the ultimate importance of every choice we make? “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before,” he wrote.
And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.
That also describes a drama. It’s also a warning to stay alert at all times and a promise of a great reward if we do. It’s a reminder that life is a serious affair. Your choices matter. To me, that’s really good news.
The Soft Versions of Christianity
I can guess why the softer versions of Christianity appeal to so many. It wasn’t just the sixties, liberalism, compromising clerics and the usual human desire to want God’s love without his judgment. Older friends have told me stories of growing up with a harsh, cold version of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant. They’d heard the gospel as bad news. They needed to hear it as good news. They need to know they can come home. Priests have told me of the number of people they see who are paralyzed by guilt and the feeling God can’t possibly love them. They need to hear about the Father who runs to embrace them.
Still, some of us need a lot more seriousness than we get. We need all the help we can find to seek first the Kingdom of God, because we’d really like to feel that we were already sitting comfortably in the Kingdom. We need someone to tell us not to keep shuffling along expecting everything to turn out all right anyway. We need someone to pick up the bullhorn and tell us to start walking home from that far-off land.