Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A culture of (dis)honesty

News first: Haggard's firing had no affect on the outcome of the defense of marriage and gay civil union rights ammendments in Colorado, as I predicted. The marriage amendment passed while the partner benefits amendment failed. My contention has been that voters would turn out more forcefully to vote because evangelicals would see Haggard's fall as related to the unrestrained activity of the gay community in Colorado. They would want to send a message that homosexuality was unwelcome in Colorado. After all, if the gay community didn't thrive in Denver, might Ted have had no opportunity to fall?

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One of the discussion points in the comments sections of the posts below has to do with what it means to cultivate a culture of honesty in church. I would like to propose that honesty has to go deeper than confessing sins. Often we associate lying with covering up shameful behaviors. We attempt to cultivate a culture of honesty through accountability, through preaching about the need to be honest, through offering prayer and compassion to those who are struggling with sin.

Still, what if Christians went on a truth diet in general? (I use the term Christian loosely... I am mostly talking about my experiences in evangelicalism...) What if we were honest about more than our sins, but also the experiences we were having (or not having) in church?

Christians are trained to pretend, which leads to lying.

Think of how many times you have pretended what was not true and called it faith?

Here's an example. You are hurting. Someone offers to pray. You feel nothing, you have no new insight, you don't feel relief. But the person offering the prayers seems sincerely pleased with the prayer time. Do you say: "I felt nothing. I still feel crappy"? Or are you more likely to be grateful, wonder if there is something wrong with you, and then profess that you are confident that God heard the prayer?

Too many times Christians tweak their true experiences to fit a template of faith that supports a belief system.

I can't tell you how many times I watched words of knowledge handled in just this way- a person would express a word of knowledge, the recipient would then start working to make the thing fit. One Sunday evening service when John Wimber (founder of the Vineyard and pastor of the church I attended for eight years) gave a word of knowledge to the congregation saying that eight people had a certain condition. Six came forward. Did he then say, "Well, I must have got that number wrong. Six then."

Nope.

He explained that the two who hadn't come forward were missing the opportunity for healing and he used shame tactics to try to get two more people to leave their seats. They never did. What interpretation were we to take from that event? That John Wimber is never wrong? That the two people were really there? That God made a mistake?

And what story would we craft from that experience about God and hearing God and healing?

Is there any chance someone would admit: I think John Wimber made the whole thing up?

These kinds of sticky wickets occur even in churches without a visible charismatic cast.

We learn to lie about how happy, healthy or successful we are, to give glory to God.

We learn to hide doubts in order to pretend faith.

Missionaries literally lie to governments to protect their missionary identities.... yet criticize their converts when those same converts lie to the missionaries to protect their jobs or families or embarrassments. (One is seen as justified lying while the other is seen as sin.)

We lie to protect the reputation of Christ by hiding failures, such as failure to pray or study the Bible. We are especially guilty of this kind of lying when talking with non-Christians and oversell the value of practices many of us don't actually do!

We lie about our anger calling it not trusting God.

We declare that God spoke to us... and then when that "spoken thing" doesn't occur, we just let that story disappear from our narrative and never admit that we got it wrong or that God didn't speak.

We lie about sickness calling it health to have faith that God has healed us.

We lie about faith, saying we have it when we don't.

We lie about belief, pretending we believe things we don't.

We say we've forgiven when we are still bitter.

We pray, get no answer, and then try to explain to ourselves and others that it's some failing in us, or some answer called "no" or some other story to keep the blame on me and away from God. This works for awhile, but if you've ever struggled in an ongoing way with weight loss or anger or depression or marriage, and you've sincerely tried to apply the principles of prayer, accountability, and self-discipline only to fail repeatedly, it is pretending to continually blame yourself.

One way to truth-check is to ask yourself: If a member of a cult told me that he had done all the steps his group had suggested for weight loss and none of it worked but he knew that he was just not doing it quite right, what would you say? Would you suggest he go back to those methods and try harder, or would you use that revelation as evidence that the methodology itself was insufficient?

The motivation to hide, pretend or lie is grounded in a desire to protect the reputation of Christianity among ourselves and to unbelievers. We want to create a Christian appearance that will draw others to Christ, we want to experience a victorious life in Christ. As long as witnessing and belonging is tied up in marketing God's power in our individual lives, we will be motivated to cover up weakness, unbelief, failure, inconsistency and depression... for the sake of the Gospel.

Our leaders, then, will be even more motivated.
Which is one reason so many have fallen.
And why there are many others still who have not yet been found out.

One pastor wrote to me yesterday and I loved his message:

Thanks for the excellent article in response to the most recent failure in Church leadership. It was thoughtful and helpful. I believe as you seem to that we promise too much on behalf of God and expect conversion to Christ to erase all sinful and addictive practices. I wish that it were so, but my experience of nearly 40 years in Christian leadership tells me that the Leader is still a sinner, and he/she has no way to be honest with his/her flock. Deception is the name of the game. Self-deception and group dishonesty.

Many of us entered the Christian community as sinners and have practiced the means of grace faithfully, only to find that we are still the same sinners we were when we entered the fellowship many years earlier....the only thing different is that we have learned how to not let it show too much to remain in fellowship.

My heart goes out to Pastor Haggard. He is as much a victim as he is a deceiver. I have a hunch that for the first time in years, he will begin to feel right about himself. He is in my prayers...along with his family, his masseus, his church and the 30 million Evangelicals that are faced with this dirty linen being washed in our secular press.

Your article put the right balance to the tale with a thoughtful nudge to reexamine our sales pitch for honesty in advertising.

12 comments:

SusansPlace said...

You hit the proverbial nail on the head, yet again.

I would say that this culture of dishonesty extends into the homeschool community, of which I've been a part for 17 years.

It certainly prevails in politics. ;-)

I would say that it extends into the family, even, in many homes.

It takes a maverick, to buck the dishonesty systems that run deep in our nation, our churches and our souls. Since we are discussing evangelical Christianity, I will say I've seen everything you wrote about in myself and others but what hits closest to home for me, is the lace of answer to prayer. And the cover up for the lack ofo answer to prayer.

Susan

jim said...

A good healthy immersion in the Psalms and Job along with a robust theology that takes doubt and suffering seriously would certainly go along way here...

julieunplugged said...

Jim, I think you're the man to do it! :)

Julie

Anonymous said...

Julie would you PLEASE stop making it sound like you are speaking for and about Christianity in general? I know you put in little disclaimers that your views are based on your experiences in evangelicalism or charismatic churches, but they just aren't loud enough. There is a whole world of Christianity out there that is getting lumped in with your generalizations that DOESN'T FIT YOUR GENERALIZATIONS. Your experience is extremely limited, and it would be considerate of you to say so more clearly. It would help those Christians of us who don't fit your generalizations to hear you better.

Thank you.
Rachel

Dave said...

Julie, that's quite an expose' you've put out in front of us. Kind of hard to digest... the more we reckon with the level of well-intentioned illusion and occasional outright deception that's been comfortably established and defended in the church for so long, the more unsettling the scenario becomes. I can see why, as you explore this insight further, your blog is beginning to get some more challenging or even testy comments. (Though I think we are all universally agreed that you are an excellent writer and an insightful perceiver.)

Rachel, I do admit that I'm coming from a perspective and a cultural milieu pretty similar to Julie's in many ways, but I think that she has an accurate bead on a very broad swath of what goes on in Christian churches all over the country and even the world. Maybe American protestantism has taken these tendencies to a whole 'nother level, but istm that the general pattern of affirming beliefs, speaking in pious phraseology and ritualistic behavior that disconnects from what we are genuinely thinking to ourselves is undeniably a cross-cultural phenomenon. And I think it happens outside of Christian religion as well.

What Julie's getting at is the truth that we often present ourselves in hypocritical ways and unfortunately, religion is a pervasive cause of the problem, not an asset that helps us get down to the bare bedrock of our souls. Let me clarify - religion CAN help us strip away the illusions, but it too often imposes a different set of illusions as a replacement that shields us from the resulting vulnerability of being over-exposed, to ourselves as well as others.

It's a tough thing to juggle, and I think Julie's point is that popular Christianity has settled for illusions over honesty and reality, and something drastic needs to be done about it! Or maybe it's my point... I'll let somebody else decide. :o)

mikeinpa said...

Read your article about Ted Haggard and appreciated the honesty. Have been an evangelical Xtian for 30 years and am starting to question many things about what I have been taught...not the least of which are you discussing, that is being honest about our faith...what it is and what it is not. I have had to ask myself recently "Am I just drinking the Kool-Aid?" and it seems like the more I listen to christian leaders the less convinced about my faith I become.

Seems to me that if we thought and acted like we were a real community of sinners (instead of acting like a divorcee pretending to be a virgin) that folks would actually be attracted to us and our beliefs.

May God have mercy on our souls!

Anonymous said...

Rachel, does it not go without saying that each of us is speaking for ourselves and our experiences only? No one of us can be the anointed representative for Christianity at large, but each of us can share our perspective. I don't see that any caveats are necessary for Julie -- although she can speak for herself on that :o).

Anonymous said...

I stopped calling myself an evangelical recently because of all the points you make. I've grown particularly cynical with those who are quick to throw out, "I'll pray for that...." at the drop of a hat. There's simply no way the average person could remember to pray for all the things they tell others they will "lift up in prayer." It really started bothering me when I found myself saying it!

Perhaps I'm more conscience of it because my wife and I just started attending an evangelical church three years ago.

At first, all the warmth and attention we received was refreshing. But it's become tiresome because I know good and well that very few of the prayers I'm promised are being made.

julieunplugged said...

Hi Rachel.

Anyone who's read my blog for any amount of time knows I write from my perspective as pretty much all bloggers do. My readership seems to identify with or relate to the Christianity I describe. Those who don't most likely move on.

American evangelicalism is a huge swath of vocal Christianity, not a limited experience of the few. Wheaton states that the number of American evangelicals is about 100 million or 30-35% of the population.

Still, please feel free to post links to other blogs that offer a perspective of Christianity that feels more congruent with how you see it.

Julie

PastorSkip said...

Like others I stumbled on to your blog while seeking news on Ted Haggard.

There may be some part of us "Evangelicals" that wants to keep the picture of Christianity perfect for the outside world. But I think for most survival in the tribe drives the need to pretend.

A big piece of the lie is the definition of "victorious living."

The Jesus of the NT does not match the American version of victorious living: no home, no job, no income, living off of others, hated by the establishment, misunderstood by his best friends, falsely accused and wrongfully executed.

Jesus' victorious life was found in facing all that- even the parts he didn't understand (why have you forsaken me?)- without giving up on the Father and walking away.

It's only after the suffering servant part is completed that the resurrection comes.

The modern Church wants the resurrection goodies NOW. So it has been prone to a more Capitalist, rags to riches success story version of the gospels.

No surprise then that we have to pretend to make it look good.

By the way Brennan Mannings "Abba's Child" speaks directly to the honesty issue. An excellent book in light of Ted Haggard's loss.

Peace,

Skip

Chuck said...

Great post as usual, Julie. I think a lot of denial goes hand in hand with the dishonesty.

I would also ammend your truth-check a bit. If a member of a "cult" told me that he had done all the steps his group had suggested for weight loss and they had worked, but his beliefs and practices disagreed with mine, what would I say? Would I invalidate his results, or would I use that experience as evidence that the methodology itself carries some universality that is independent from the beliefs and practices of a particular community?

Kansas Bob said...

I wonder why we have such high and lofty expectations about church and Christianity? I'm not sure but maybe, at a gut level, we need something to be right in the world. Maybe, because there is so much wrong with the world that we hold out a hope that something can be "right" in the world.

This is where Fundamentalism, a common theme in Charismatic churches (i.e. The Vineyard) gains power. Wanting to be a part of something "right" we breeze past the honesty stuff and play the game hoping that if we play it long enough we too will find "rightness".

I think that I once bought into that altered version of reality that you described in this post Julie. Over time I realized that it was more important to be righteous than right. It is a long road though ... I am still attracted to dogmatic versions of right and wrong ... old habits die hard.