Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Special Kind Of Hypocrite

(NOTE: This is infuriatingly long. It's also not funny. If you come here to try and learn our amazing dance moves, or laugh at my stupid jokes and rude puns then this isn't one of those things. It's a rambling thing that goes on and on. And just to make it even more irritating it's about me and my Christianity. Which I happen to know some of you don't want to hear about. I'd love it if you read it. But you know....)

Let's crunch the main points of this down very quickly. Yes I am a Christian. And yes - I'm a massive hypocrite.

Yesterday evening I told my daughter to go pick a book to read at bedtime. We'd been reading the same three books repeatedly so I anticipated one of those. One is a very poorly written Halloween book. The other two are The Foot Book and The Cat In The Hat Came Back. Then - much to my surprise - she asked me if I'd seen the book that "looks like my quilt." I had no idea what she meant. But she has a beautiful homemade quilt made from hundreds of patches. I couldn't think of any book that looked like it. So I tried to just read something else. But she resisted and said that she wanted to read that book. After a little while she shocked me by saying, "the one about God." She means this one. It was a Christmas gift from her Godparents a little while ago. We had read it for awhile back when she got it but haven't for a long, long time. More importantly it was currently sat in a pile of other Christian books in my bedroom under a pile of old shoes and an old curtain. Which is the first enormously hypocritical thing I'll point out. I'll get to the rest. That is after explaining the point of this long, boring and yes - Christian entry.

Over a year ago on this silly little blog I wrote a rambling almost stream-of-consciousness thing about faith and how I was terrified to teach my kids about it. It's here. The main points of which were -:

a) How I spent a majority of my life ridiculing people of faith as gullible idiots.
b) How I - much to my great surprise - became one of those "gullible idiots". It was rather recently in 2007. I was baptised in Christ Church in Bristol on March 2nd, 2008.
c) How I had faith and belief but I struggled with how and how much to tell my kids about it. You don't make Christians (sorry New Atheists - but that's just how it is). You couldn't have made me one if you tried to.
d) It's a hard subject for adults let alone kids. I wanted my kids to understand a very complex thing and discover it all on their own terms.

One of the reasons I had trouble writing that then was that - as someone who wasn't always a Christian - I perfectly understand why atheists and agnostics don't like hearing about it. It sounds both preachy and wishy-washy. People have very strong feelings about faith on both sides. Frankly I didn't want people to come here and then quickly leave without giving it a chance. Add - in spite of how proudly big and brash some are with their faith - it's pretty implicit early on in the New Testament how your faith should be a private thing. Lastly a lot of people just didn't know I was a Christian. People make massive assumptions. If you mention something about being a Christian all kinds of things are assumed. Surely it means he's a homophobe who rails about abortion, the need for creationism in science classes and blocks his ears when sensible people like Richard Dawkins speak. I bet he doesn't even read Dawkins, Hitchens and Erhman because his whole house of cards will obviously crumble. He swallowed it all wholesale. He certainly doesn't know what the Socratic Method is. I bet he's a mental Republican as well. Uncaring prick. And may I say - he certainly doesn't behave like a Christian.

Mention that you have faith and it really changes how people view you.  Especially in the context of a statement that says "I'm trying to figure out how and what to teach my kids about God, Christianity, unbelief and some other massive eschatological concepts." Cheesy peasy obviously.

Well - since then I left a church I had felt a strong compunction to help grow. My son was baptised in that church. People there helped us in serious times of trial. And even though it was 13 miles from my home I felt a duty to attend that specific church. I still care about many of the people there. But a combination of circumstance, laziness and creeping doubt led me to drift away. My family briefly tried - with not much commitment - a local church. Then we made an empty promise to keep looking for somewhere. At least when we had a weekend free. For me personally a fervor to study turned into concentrating solely on doubts. I read less and my interest waned. I didn't help or volunteer at all anymore. I became a bad Christian in that sense. The kind that bothered the crap out of me. The hypocrisy is noted. More than that I became cynical, mean and rude. After almost a year I returned to the old church. It was part selfish (I needed fellowship and it's easier to go somewhere familiar) and part to get back on board with the whole thing. Civic and Christian duty and all that. That lasted five weeks. I was frustrated that I deeply needed brutally frank conversations about faith and doubt and was met with - for whatever reason - a lack of curiousness. At the end of which I lost an argument with myself after missing three weekends in a row of church for various reasons. I said I'd go that fourth weekend no matter what. Instead - and amazingly - I got really angry with God and told my wife I wasn't going to do any of it anymore. I wasn't going to try and jive the big problem I had with how I could know that the God I had a personal relationship with (no really...) was the same one that I learned constantly about biblically. And how perplexing it is that so many people can believe the "right" things but not carry that out and how that hurts my head. Too hard to do and I was giving up. So I weirdly felt relieved to declare that I just don't believe it anymore. What my wife believes is her business so I won't go into that.

What followed was pretty odd. I felt like I could release a lot of things. I wanted to tell people that I didn't believe. And that I felt stupid to have done so. And that - even though I felt things and knew things that I'm recanting it. So ironically I did the reverse of the private faith thing mentioned above and took the liberty of telling people that I felt that if it were true then God is a callous bully and I won't put up with it. I told people in an almost confessional sense. Some people that I loved. Some that I felt I owed it to. And some people _ I can admit - that I wanted to think more of me by hearing it. Then I started behaving like a bit of a dick. I made fun of people. Joked about terrible things because it made me laugh. Spent a lot of time online just making random insensitive comments about anything that came to mind because why not? I "acquired" a ton of digital music. I refused to forgive people. I was angry an awful lot and enjoyed the freedom to be so. I became selfish with my time and aspects of how I conducted myself. And all because now I told myself I could and should. I was the ex-smoker who won't shut up about smoking.

In a song about losing faith that I like very much called In Stitches there's a line, "the crew have killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice." In which the musician (a progressive Christian who loathed how the right-wing evangelical movement had seized Christianity and desired political power and wealth above anything else) is saying he'd done the same as I - declared that he'd given it all up but God is still there in the background. By the way - if you ever want to hear a breaking-up-with-God song as sung in the style of a guy who dickishly lies to an ex-girlfriend that he never liked her anyway then this is it. As much as I ignored it that was true for me also. I boasted to others of how I had come to see it was all nonsense and tried my best to ignore all the complex things going on in my head and my heart. Really I was infuriated with the religion part of it and confused about a lot of the theology that is genuinely difficult to understand. So instead of trying to figure out why sometimes I felt like God was a callous bully I just chucked it all in. Which was really liberating.

In short though it's all well and good deciding as a person that I don't believe in something, but it's much more difficult to commit to that unbelief when you feel also feel deeply that you're wrong. Because I could still hear his voice - quiet as it was. Fast forward a short while to a few months back when we decided to replace the old dining room floor. I had to move everything out. On a book shelf were all the books about God, faith and parts of the whole thing that I used to read a lot. There were Bibles, study books, a few odd novels and whatnot. I was being pretty ruthless at this point and throwing out a lot of stuff we weren't really keeping. Some decent furniture, art work and some other stuff went out on the street for people to have for free. Other books and things we just didn't really use went in a donation box in the back of my car. Anything not up to snuff got binned. But this pile of "christian books" I couldn't part with. It just felt wrong. I reasoned that if I - when a committed Christian - had made the point to read The God Delusion and God Is Not Great then surely as a lapsed person of faith I could keep these. But oddly I separated them from all the other books. Then - for a reason I cannot explain - I grabbed all the other books in the house that were Bibles, kid books or whatever about faith from all the rooms they were in - and put them with that pile. Then I put some shoes and an old curtain over them. You know - just in case.

I thought about that simple act for days. Because it meant I was confessing that I valued those books as symbols and that I valued what they said. Then I took my own Bible - given to me by my Bible study group I attended in Bristol as a baptism gift - back downstairs and put it on the shelf in the living room. Between the H.L.Mencken book about the American language and a Durant book about Greek antiquity. Books I love. Every now and then I'd think of something random and look at it. A few weeks later I was listening to a Bible study on my Mp3 player that I hadn't finished. I told myself I was just sort of doing housekeeping because it'd be a shame not to have completed it. And again - I told myself that if I could read New Atheist books before then I could read the Bible now. After awhile I started sneaking (yes it felt like that) Christian songs I liked on to my Mp3 player as well. I started checking back in with people from my old church. Saying hello and reaching out. At the same time I was still being a bit of a dick. Still writing asinine pish about nonsense. Still making silly jokes. Still being angry, contrite and rude. But now instead of feeling guilty and angry I felt genuine love. In both directions as well. Which confuses things. So I tried to stop (oh woe is you, you poor little lamb!) being as silly. I felt the longing for fellowship again. I secretly got myself a free Bible for my Kindle and read it instead of the stuff I was slowly plodding through (Frankenstein and Bleak House). I started listening to a lot of lectures and music again. I talked to a few wonderful people about faith, doubt and whatnot. And then about a month ago - like I did years ago before I became a Christian - I stuck an N. T. Wright conference lecture on my Mp3 player and went for a run. And everything changed.

I'll say it again - no-one makes you a Christian. Yes I'm aware that some people are impressionable. But most of the people I've met and known didn't pick from a bunch ideas which one they figured they'd plump for. That's not how it works. It's incredibly hard to explain what happens and frankly sounds unreasonable. On that run I had a divergence of things people had been telling me all make sense and come together. I understood that my problems were with religion. A lot of what I was trying to do was distance myself from people I disagreed with. More than that though - I was mostly afraid of what people would think of me. Christians are stuffy and dull aren't they? They're judgmental and callous? And they're liars and hypocrites. They're certainly gullible and only using the whole thing as a charade to justify poor behavior. That's pretty much the response I'd get from some anyway. Also I'm a Grade A pillock. Some people would tell me - Christians and non-Christians - that a rude, obnoxious idiot like me certainly doesn't seem like one. That was my problem. Terrified of what people thought of me. As if I that is what it's all about. Which is odd because in pretty much every other arena of life I don't care at all about that. Not giving a toss how people view me (but in a non-aggressive way) is fantastically liberating. It's why I could be absurd and silly, nerdy and serious and sincere about certain things and not worry about perception. And I thought it was a great example to give my kids. Be proud of what you are and believe.

This was about a fortnight ago. Since then I feel like a new Christian again. Curious, excited, eager and all that. And I feel Love. I realized that I've been lying to myself about who I am and what I believe. And I'd been using unbelief as the excuse to be a ruder, more offensive version of myself. Sheepishly I came back like the prodigal son knowing that I don't just believe in God, but that I know I am a Christian. I did what I needed to do personally between me and God. And I'm taking gentle steps around other people about it. Because I'm aware that it can seem a little drama-queen to be an  energetic Christian, renounce your faith and then come back a little while later and say you were wrong. But - for what it's worth - that's where I am. I'm a Christian and it's complex, odd and strange and wonderful all at the same time. I'm aware people who think Christians are stupid, mean or bad in some way will have an opinion on that. And I'm equally aware that Christians who have known me a while will have varying emotions too. But for the first time in a long time I'm very happy with where I am.

But just as I was before - I'm aware that there is a very fine balance in what and how to teach my kids about it all. So when my daughter asked to read that book I thought it was weird. Not a sign or evidence or anything else unusual like that. Just weird because I'd hidden it like a weirdo and it's a big, complex thing that I'm afraid to get wrong. So we got it out - read a chapter in it - and I reminded her that this is part of what some people believe. But some people don't. And that I hope she is open-minded in every direction and learns about it all. I felt a warmth and confidence in it this time. I told her that I believe it but there have been times that I didn't. Then I looked at her in that way that indicates that this is important. Then she helpfully said, "Tell me a story about the time you were a little bumcheek Daddy."

And I did.

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