I’ve seen it a lot over the years as a pastor (and sadly, even played the game myself.) You do something stupid and get caught for it. Your first reaction is contrition and a resolve to learn your lessons. You say, “My fault. It’s all on me. I gotta do better.”
But then a few days go by, and my Ego’s attorneys pay a visit to my brain, and present the case that, truth-be-told, it really isn’t my bad after all. “Sure, I got caught looking at porn, but if only my wife was more attentive to my needs…”; “Sure, I was speeding, but you should’ve seen the guy that blew by me…”. “Sure I might have practiced harder, but those stinkin’ refs…”. And before long, we’re right back where we started from: full of ourselves.
It’s funny seeing this same thing now happen with the political Left. After the stunning loss of the November election, mea culpas were being mixed in the drinks of thousands of liberal pundits. One of the larger lessons that was advanced early on was the confession of religious illiteracy. You heard it said, “We just need to do a better job listening, especially to people of faith. We don’t understand how they think and feel.”
But now here it comes. The inevitable about-face. Vox recently published an article “Americans – Not Just Liberals – Have A Religious Literacy Problem” by Alan Levonovitz, a professor of religion at James Madison University. While conceding that the Left could certainly do better when it comes to understanding religious people, particularly Evangelicals who spoke up loudly in this election, truth-be-told it’s people on the Right, and particularly those Christians who are far more ignorant than anyone else. (!)
“…the evidence shows that agnostics and atheists (followed closely by Jews and Mormons), as well as those who self-identify as liberal, are more religiously literate than their Christian and conservative counterparts,” says Levonovitz.
Okee-dokee then. Get ready for eight years of Donald Trump.
Levonovitz, professor that he is, largely thinks of religious literacy as knowledge about religious doctrine. It’s a brain-thing. My students are shocked to learn that Jesus and Mary are both in the Koran, he says. My Protestant students don’t know who Martin Luther is.
There’s no question that if that’s what religious literacy means, then secular Americans are in sorry shape, and evangelical Protestantism (my tribe) is little better off. After 25 years of being a pastor, I happen to agree with Levonovitz that Bible-believing followers of Christ are largely Bible-ignorant followers of Christ. It’s something I have devoted the bulk of my teaching and preaching to trying to correct.
However the type of religious illiteracy which impacted this election is not what the good professor thinks it is. It’s not a failure of understanding what the gun-clinging Christians out there in red-America think. It’s a failure to understand what they believe. For a Christian’s faith in Christ is a heart thing, before it’s a brain thing.
If there’s one Christian doctrine worth knowing, it’s the biblical teaching that a person is brought into a saving relationship with God through faith, not works. You don’t have to pass a theology exam to “get in”, and so the intelligent don’t have an advantage over the unintelligent. The powerful can’t force their way in and the wealthy can’t buy their way in, so the weak and poor have every bit the opportunity as they do. The holy and good aren’t given a Fast-Pass ticket ahead of every one else, so the guilty and shame-filled wretch has no less a chance than they.
Becoming right with God so that admittance into eternity is assured comes down to a simple decision of the heart. We believe, then we receive. It’s how Christianity has always worked. Christ’s death on the cross for us levels the moral playing field of humanity. We have all broken God’s laws and broken his heart. This nullifies the possibility of anyone securing heaven on their own merit or goodness or intelligence. God does not grade on a curve, he grades on a cross. It’s what the song “Amazing Grace” is all about, a song everybody “knows”, but few understand.
Simple, sincere, even childlike belief in Christ is what brings a person to God, where they then find forgiveness, hope, moral direction, purpose, community, and countless other benefits too numerous to tally.
It’s this simple, childlike belief that unleashes most of the power of the Church. It causes this one to start a soup kitchen, this one to let go of a life-long grudge, this one to recover from a devastating loss, this one to break free of an addiction, this one to be more generous with their money than they’ve ever been, this one to say, “Abortion ends a life” and this one to say, “It’s because I love the LGBT around me that I won’t go along with everything culture is saying about it.”
None of this is lived out perfectly. Not by a long shot. The church has more than its share of knuckleheads. You have to catch fish before you clean them, and that’s what God does with us. We enter his family broken, then we grow in virtue. We enter his kingdom ignorant, then we grow in wisdom. At any given moment when one peeks in at any given church, one will find the oddest collection of folks worshiping together. But what ties them together is a passionate and real belief in a Savior whose teaching directs them, whose death rescues them, and whose resurrection inspires them to keep working for what is good.
“Trust in the Lord and do good,” says Psalm 37:3. The trust, the belief, comes first. The rest then follows.
So yes, Mr. Levonovitz, you won’t necessarily find the brightest bulbs in Christian pews. But you will find the biggest hearts. It was true in the first century of Christianity. Paul the Apostle describes a typical congregation this way: “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27)
And so it is true today. And the wise and powerful still do not grasp it.
P.S. It’s not as if this vast country called “Christianity” is without a rational foundation. Christianity is as rock-ribbed as a religion can be when it comes to its ability to defend its truthfulness. A believer is called to love God with his or her heart, soul, mind and strength. “Come let us reason together,” God invites the world through Isaiah the prophet. A believer is expected to grow over time in moral integrity and intellectual vigor. But these things aren’t required on the front end. And that’s good news for each and every one of us.