Stuff Christians Hate

The other day I was thinking about the stuff Christians hate. In particular, I was thinking about the people Christians like to hate. Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say, the people that Christians like to dislike. Or maybe, the people that Christians like to deplore. I was reviewing an article for a conservative publication which included a quote from a noted theologian whose views have sparked controversy in the past. I wondered if I should mention it to the editor. There was nothing wrong with the quote. But you know how these things go. Sometimes the mere mention of a name is enough to spark outrage among Christians. It’s not what is said that prompts the reaction. It’s the person who said it. We often don’t even understand the nature of the controversy. We just know that someone told us that the author said something somewhere else that was bad.

Concerns about what people have said or written are reasonable, especially when it comes to the faith. It’s not so surprising that we don’t understand finer details of such matters. Most of us rely upon the opinion of others to help discern good teaching from bad. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Bible says that it is the duty of the church’s leaders to warn God’s people about false doctrine. Even theologians depend upon other theologians for their opinions.

I’ve noticed that our tastes in these matters also tend to be cyclical. That was the question I wrestled with when it came to the quote. We hated this guy five years ago. But do we still hate him today? Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say that he made us uncomfortable. We didn’t doubt that he was a Christian. As far as I know, his Christian walk is exemplary.  But people in my theological tribe disagreed with his position, some of them strongly. But after a while, something changes. We feel differently. Maybe we decide this issue that separated us wasn’t that important after all. Perhaps we are tired of controversy and decide to overlook it. Or more likely, some new person or issue captures our attention and pushes our discomfort with the other guy to the margins.

If we wait long enough our old enemy might even become a new favorite. It’s like furniture. The ugly furniture my parents used to decorate our house in the 1950s is now hip. Theology is like that too. Some of the people we used to decry are now merely thought to have been misunderstood. When I was in seminary, my conservative teachers considered Karl Barth to be a liberal. Today he is insightful.

This doesn’t just happen with people. When I started to follow Jesus, I smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. I liked smoking. Well, all except for the cancer part. But in general, I like the smell and the way I felt when I smoked. I thought it made me look intellectual. Then an older believer I respected told me that serious Christians don’t smoke cigarettes, so I quit. It wasn’t easy for me. It took me a while. It took the grace of God.

These days, such a warning would be considered legalistic. Christians don’t hate smoking anymore. Indeed, I know some Christian leaders who are proud of the fact that they smoke. Of course, it has to be the right kind of smoke. Cigarettes are still considered gauche among conservatives, but not cigars and pipes. They are a common accessory with a certain brand of pastor. He is usually Reformed, young, and bearded. The nagging issue of cancer is still there. But we won’t think about that today. We can think about that tomorrow when the doctor calls with our test results.

The same leaders who don’t hate smoking don’t hate drinking anymore either. They have cast aside the old misgivings some Christians used to have about the consumption of alcohol. They consider abstinence to be an outdated vestige of the sort of legalism that once claimed: “real Christians don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do.” Jesus drank, they point out. He changed water into wine. Paul advised Timothy to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Tim. 5:23). Not only does this new order of Christian leader like to drink, but they like to post selfies of themselves drinking on social media. This practice seems to be a kind of manifesto, a testimony to Christian liberty.

However, just like smoking, to be truly acceptable, it must be the right kind of drinking. It has to be craft beer or at least wine. One can hardly imagine Jesus tipping a can of Bud. In the interest of fairness, I must confess that I am not a neutral observer on this issue. Both my parents were addicted to alcohol. I also recognize that, although the Bible does condemn drunkenness, it doesn’t condemn the consumption of wine outright. I understand that not everyone who drinks is a drunk. But I also know that ten percent of drinkers consume sixty percent of all the alcohol that is sold. Maybe alcohol isn’t as hip as we thought.

The list of things we used to hate is growing, but that doesn’t mean we hate fewer things, it just means we have exchanged the items on the old list for new things. There is still plenty of stuff for Christians to hate. For example, we hate to sit down while singing in church. We hate to go to church on Sunday night. We hate to go to church on Sunday. Some of us hate to go to church, period. We hate one another’s politics. We hate the music in church if it’s not ours. Sometimes we even hate each other.

It’s a challenge to hate the right things. We often fail to get it right. Some of us don’t want to hate anything. Others hate everything. We seem to have a penchant foolish alliances, like Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. I sometimes wonder if the prophet would say to us what he said to him: “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord?” In the end, our real problem it isn’t about what we hate at all. It’s about what we love.

The Geography of Somewhere

The landscape of my childhood was a subdivision in Roseville, Michigan. My parents moved there from their apartment in Detroit in the 1950’s. Roseville was the kind of suburban space that sociologists would later contemptuously describe as “the geography of nowhere.” For them, suburbia’s monotonous uniformity and non-descript architecture epitomize the cultural decline of the United States. Although our neighborhood was not nearly as uniform as Levittown, the prototype for all American suburbs, it was similar enough. Most of the homes were small and built in ranch style. They had screen doors, a milk chute, and a basement. Sidewalks ran up and down each side of the street and the blocks were laid out in a criss-cross pattern, running north and south or east and west.

Still, there was enough difference between the houses on our block to at least differentiate them from each other. One might have awnings and another a garage. Some had trees planted on the parkway near the road. It is true they sat in a uniform row but there was relatively little danger that you might walk into someone else’s house by accident. What is more, each block had its own kind of flavor. Belleair, the block behind us, always seemed to be a little more upscale to me. Perhaps it was because it had been developed after ours. Or maybe it was because of its pretentious sounding name. Some blocks were older, others poorer.

One of the most significant landmarks in our neighborhood was the field to the west of our street, a swath of undeveloped land that we always referred to using the definite article. It was not “a” field but “the” field. We spoke of it as if it were the primeval field of the world, the garden where God planted His first tree. In actual fact, there weren’t many trees in that field. Yet to my childhood imagination it was a wilderness, as mysterious as it was wild. We spent hours there, exploring its boundaries, hunting crayfish or frogs and hiding from bullies among its weeds. It was dotted with wildflowers, a few strawberry patches, and smelled of milkweed and uncut grass.

The field was bordered on its east end by a farmhouse, which stood across the street and kitty-corner from our brick ranch. An old two-story home, I always believed that it was the first house in our neighborhood. I wondered if we were living on the remains of someone else’s farm. In my memory, that old house was green and inviting when it was inhabited and dark and mysterious when it was not. I visited it only once or twice, entering by the back door into the kitchen. I remember a red plaid tablecloth. After while it stood empty, and we were certain it was haunted. It was eventually torn down and replaced by three new, brick ranches which fit the look of the rest of the neighborhood better. I was sorry to see it go.

Mr. Wooten lived in one of the new houses. Our neighbors whispered that he was shell-shocked. Something had happened during the war, but nobody knew what it was. On some nights we could hear him shouting at his wife in their home across the street. They argued loudly until he finally stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him. In the early morning hours, he reappeared on our doorstep, hammering at the screen door and ringing the doorbell. At first, I thought he had mistaken our house for his own. But with a mumbled apology, he explained that he had forgotten his keys and needed to call his wife to let him in. When she seemed unwilling to do so, he slammed the phone down and with another mumbled apology wandered off into the darkness. I was never sure whether she let him in or not.

On the field’s northern border was a small party store that my father used to call “the great facility.” He got the title from the owner, who told him when it first opened that he planned to provide the neighborhood with “a great facility” that would sell them cigarettes, beer, and bread. But my brother, sister, and I always called it “the little store,” once again employing the definite article in a way that seemed to suggest that there was no other. My father bought his vodka there, while we purchased penny candy by the fistful.

The western border of the field was marked by another old house. We viewed its inhabitants with some suspicion because the children who lived there had a reputation of being unruly. How could they not be wild, living on the border of civilization as they did? Our homes rested on neatly measured property lines and along a paved street, while they lived on a gravel road that went past the little store. Who knew where their property began or ended? To the rest of us, they seemed like mountain people living deep in some Appalachian holler, strange and exotic with customs that were foreign to our own way of life. Our suspicions seemed confirmed when some years later the father of one of our friends abandoned his wife and ran off with the woman who lived there. We did not usually venture that far into the field. If we had drawn a map, we might have etched the warning “Here be Dragons” in that spot.

On its southern border, the field was hemmed in by Church Street, the block where the Baptist and Catholic churches were located. Those two landmarks made a deep impression on the landscape of my soul. It was where I first sensed the fear of the Lord and became God-haunted. It was in that space that I first heard the gospel.

The emotional memory of much of my childhood is contained within these boundaries. On the one hand, there was the teeming life of the block with its orderly row of homes, each one a cultural universe of its own. The overall topography of the block may have seemed the same but the smells, customs and values of my Polish and Italian neighbors seemed quite strange to me. What is more, every house was a center of drama. Each one the site of its own daily morality play, where husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, loved and fought, defended or betrayed one another.

Then there was the other world that lay in the direction of the horizon and the setting sun. This expanse, although it was really only a few blocks square, seemed to my child’s mind to be almost infinite in scope. I thought I could spend my whole life exploring there. The wild beauty I saw in its weedy shambles lit the spark that granted me my first vision of the undiscovered country. It shaped some of my earliest images of what heaven might be like.

Sometimes, I go back to the neighborhood where I grew up. The streets seem the same but my friends are all gone. I drive past their houses and remember what it was like to stand on the porch on a summer’s day and call them out to play in singsong chant. I imagine them appearing at the door and tumbling out into the yard. The field is gone too, having given way to more developed land and nondescript office buildings. The few trees that once grew there have been cut down. The old houses that marked its borders have disappeared. The little store is still there but it is no longer as little as it used to be. You can still get your beer and bread there but you can no longer buy a fistful of candy for a penny. As I turn the car toward the expressway, I drive past the place where the gravel road used to be and recollect the scent of milkweed and uncut grass. In my mind’s eye the old boundaries of my childhood reappear. Once again I see the familiar geography of somewhere.