I have a theory about which kids ‘stay Christian’. It’s a theory based only on observation, and it’s quite simple. The kids most likely to stay Christian in evangelical churches are the ones who fit into evangelical culture best.
(Perhaps I should refine that: the ones who stay are those who find an evangelical culture to fit into. There are a number of flavours of evangelical Christianity to choose from.)
‘Being a Christian’ is just as much about fitting into a particular subculture as having a deep experience of God. The extent to which that subculture will resemble the gospel varies – but it’s often about a lot of other things like:
- Finding evangelical pop music bearable.
- Not being too alternative or rebellious in your tastes.
- Not hanging out too much with the druggie kids or the party animals.
It’s not wrong that Christianity is a subculture. It’s inevitable. But evangelical subculture is built too much on inoffensiveness, kitschiness, bland mainstream but Christianised tastes. (I guess this applies to adults just as much as kids.) We have to be a subculture, but we should be a subculture distinctive for hospitality, generosity, humility, discipleship instead (and it sometimes we are).
I’m not being clear enough. I’ve got in my mind the devout parents of young adults who didn’t turn out Christian. They really beat themselves up about it. They wonder what they did wrong, when the other parents in their church have a higher conversion/retention rate amongst their kids. I’m certain evangelical parents rank themselves like this – what percentage of offspring stayed in the church? 100% – excellent; 50% or 66% – good; 33% – unfortunate; 0% – disastrous.
Anyway, what I wish I could say to those parents, if they don’t already realise it, is that it’s a lot more complicated than the stories evangelicals tell themselves. Maybe you taught your children to be free-thinking loners and they didn’t fit into the church you took them to. Maybe the other kids at youth group were cliquey. Do you know how horrible and unchristian youth groups can be? The parents whose kids stayed Christian, they’re not necessarily better Christians than you.
(Part of why I’m writing this is my own distaste for most of evangelicalism, my own negative experience of church as a kid, despite having great Christian parents. I feel like those who are comfortable in church – whether teens or adults - are rarely deep thinkers, misfits, rebels, poets… the sort of people I like.)
I read Hauerwas’s autobiography, Hannah’s Child (Eerdmans 2010), a couple of months ago. It’s an interesting portrait of what life is like being a theologian (the politics and career of it), a memoir of a troubled marriage and scattered with some great insights into faith, like the three quotes below. As well as the fullest account yet of What Yoder Really Did to get himself in trouble for sexual misconduct.
Most people do not have to become a theologian to become a Christian, but I probably did. Of course, being a theologian can be a liability for being a Christian. You cannot help but be tempted to be a “professional believer” because you get paid for believing in God. As a result, you cannot afford to call into question what you say you believe.
For me, learning to be a Christian has meant learning to live without answers. Indeed, to learn to live in this way is what makes being a Christian so wonderful. Faith is but a name for learning how to go on without knowing the answers.
Accordingly, Christians should understand marriage as an insitution for resolving conflict, and marriage should be structured toward that end. In the memo, Yoder observed that “the commitment to hanging together, i.e., lifelong fidelity, is a prerequisite for taking conflict resolution seriously: otherwise every conflict becomes an occasion for fantasies of escape.”
Philip Noyce’s 1989 Dead Calm is a classic thriller set-up superbly executed, without achieving anything beyond its genre confines. In the initial scenes, a young mother, Rae (Nicole Kidman), crashes her car, killing her toddler. Her husband John (Sam Neill), an experienced naval officer, takes her on a yacht off the Great Barrier Reef to recover.
Into their idyllic holiday comes the lone survivor from a sinking ship, Hughie (Billy Zane). Hughie is a manic, charming and strong man. Suspicious of his story that the rest of the crew died of food poisoning, John rows over to the foundering ship, leaving the sleeping Hughie with Rae. John discovers the rest of the crew murdered and frantically tries to return to Rae, but Hughie has already taken control of the yacht. For the rest of the film, Rae negotiates with Hughie while John pursues them in the sinking ship.
The question raised for me from a Christian perspective is one of hospitality and neighbourliness. Bearing in mind the film is not meant to be typical of life, it still reinforces an anxiety that lurks in the collective mind: the stranger in need of help may actually be a dangerous psychopath. Even in a Christian family regularly telling Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, I was brought up with this fear. ‘Be careful who you help’; ‘there’s certain people you just can’t risk stopping to help’.
It would have been good if Jesus had prepared us more thoroughly for this anxiety – or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Was one of the men hurrying past the injured traveller actually scared he might attack him if he helped? Would Jesus stop to help anyone he saw in need of help? He probably would have, even today. Yet again, the question brings home to me the cost of discipleship, the call to a life I fall short of.
But perhaps John in the film actually has the right response – he offers Hughie hospitality, but he’s not stupid; he checks out the story. He even takes precautions, locking Hughie in the cabin. It’s just not enough when you are facing a murderous psychopath. On the other hand, perhaps John’s response to Hughie in the final scene, when he shoots him through the head with a flare gun, falls short of Jesus’s call to nonviolence.