It strikes me as a work whose message can be exhaustively summed up in something like the following paragraph:
People who aren’t Christians usually see Christians in a negative light, calling us names like “antigay,” “antichoice,” and “hypocritical,” and this problem is exacerbated by those who claim to be Christian and yet intentionally do things they know are opposite of what Jesus taught. To add to this, it makes us sad that people outside the Church don’t like us, and if we are more compassionate and refrain from calling things like homosexual behavior and abortion si…Ahh, if we refrain from saying bad things about these, people will like us more.
One of the most obvious problems with the book is that the authors seem to be oblivious to the fact that the very essence of Christ and of Christians is to have a polarizing effect on other people: "For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” (2 Cor. 2:15-16) One of the chief evidences that we are preaching and living the gospel is that some will love us and some will hate us. Moral and theological truth always polarizes. If all we get is a benign nod from our hipster neighbors, something is probably wrong.
Of course hypocrisy is a huge problem among Christians. And of course we should lament the negative impression made by those with a superficial and self-serving faith. But every honest adult knows that no group should be defined by its worst examples; all Muslims are not terrorists. All cops are not racists. And all Christians are not the country music kind who do shots on the tailgate on Saturday night and go to church with Mama on Sunday to make thangs right.
In any case, maybe the most inadvertently valuable thing about the book is that it puts in clear light what I fear has become a defining characteristic of American evangelical Christianity: sappy sentimentalism. Sentimentality is all about feelings, and for many, so is Christianity. As Todd Brenneman says in Homespun Gospel, “Too often scholars have paid attention to the mind of evangelicalism, not recognizing that most evangelicals have abandoned the life of the mind in favor of a religious life of emotion.”
If you doubt this, consider the following excerpt from UnChristian where the author sympathetically quotes from a young woman’s account of an awkward conversation about abortion with some Christian ladies at a Bible study:
“We were talking about sex, intimacy, and pregnancy, stuff like that. I told them about a friend of mine who was considering an abortion. I told them her entire situation, a twenty-year-old, boyfriend left her. She’s feeling really alone. I made some comment about really empathizing with my friend, that I could understand that abortion might make sense. I guess that shocked them. I know the women there are pro-life and all—I don’t know what I am, pro-life or pro-choice or just myself. But the conversation shifted at that point in a really weird way. Instead of having a dialogue, I was put on the defensive. They were nice enough about it, but the ladies just kept talking at me, trying to fix my attitude about abortion.”
I value dialogue over rhetorical grenade tossing as much as anyone, but it’s hard to engage in mild-mannered dialogue when a baby’s life is at stake. As for the disproportionate concern for feelings, does it trouble anyone else that the woman’s concern for her friend's lonely feelings eclipses her concern for the baby who’s in danger of being killed? The woman in the story goes on to explain that she too had an abortion in the past—a point which is supposed to make the ladies’ judgmentalism all the more egregious. The implicit idea is that the emotions she dealt with through the abortion are more worthy of our attention and our sympathy than the baby who was killed. The fact that we or the person we’re talking with committed some horrible sin in the past doesn’t make the sin any less horrible.
Forgiveness is available to all no matter what we’ve done. But forgiveness for sin and sympathy for the feelings that lead us to sin are two different things. The guilt felt by a woman who has had an abortion should lead her to immense gratitude for the grace of God that makes her as if she had not sinned. The guilt should not lead her to believe that the sin was something too complex or ambiguous to warrant any conclusions, as if contemplating the morality of abortion on demand is akin to considering the pros and cons of some convoluted economic theory.
In a separate passage, the author recounts a conversation with another young lady who laments the negative feelings evoked by the tension between her love for a friend who’s announced that he’s gay and biblical teaching on homosexual behavior: "My best friend for the last eight years just told me that he is gay. I was shocked and really pretty upset about it. I know what the Bible says, but I also know what I feel about this guy. I have a hard time looking down on him for being gay. But I don’t know what to think."
The tension between the moral teachings in the Bible and our feelings about our and others’ struggle to live up to them is something all Christians should feel, but when our feelings about a particular sin (or about loved ones who practice the sin) come into conflict with what we know is taught in the Bible, there should be no question as to which is a more legitimate authority.
I’m curious how those who are so aghast that Christians have strong moral convictions about sexuality and the preciousness of unborn babies would react if some other, not-so-fashionable sin was put in place of the other two—as in, "I made some comment about really empathizing with my friend who was thinking about stabbing her premature daughter to death in the NICU, that I could understand that getting rid of her might make sense. I guess that shocked them. I know the women I was speaking with are pro-life and all—but the conversation shifted at that point in a really weird way.” Or, “I know what the Bible says about incest, but I also know what I feel about my friend and his sister-wife. I have a hard time looking down on him for being in an incestuous relationship. I don’t know what to think.”
The problem is that for many people, important moral issues aren’t about thinking at all but only about feeling. This makes sense of why there is such a dramatic difference in the emotional response to killing an unborn baby versus killing a premature baby in the NICU. There is no moral difference in the two acts, but the simple visual and audible experience of the baby in the NICU evokes emotions that don’t often come when we think about an unseen baby in a womb.
Moral reality is to our feelings what a mountain is to snow. Though they are often together, there is no question which is more solid.
To be continued…