One of my favorite novels is Wendell Berry’s book, Jayber Crow. The story of this Kentucky barber moves me deeply every time I read it. I was reminded of old Jayber when I read Jonathan Merritt’s fine book, A Faith of Our Own. He too must love Jayber because he quotes him when he says, “I wasn’t just asking questions; I was being changed by them” (99). If you’ve ever struggled with your faith, I mean really and honestly struggled, then you understand how questions change you. Something you thought unlikely, or out of the blue, happens and you are brought low and feel like a little child. These “faith moments” transform you through the question they pose. I’ve had a number of these moments but some of the more powerful ones came in India in the 1980s. I knew I would never be the same person because of what I saw and experienced. Life could not go back to the old comfortable set of solutions I had so readily accepted.
Merritt describes a moment in his life where he faced the same kind of questions and had his eyes opened to the world around him. Jonathan describes a friend, named Tony, a former Presbyterian minister from Tennessee. He says, about Tony, “He and his wife were typical evangelicals who loved Jesus, football, and Ronald Reagan; the evangelical holy trinity. A few years ago, they decided to adopt a physically handicapped child from overseas” (103). Seeing special-needs children in Guatemala was more than they could easily handle. When Tony saw the harsh and despicable conditions of the orphanage he wrote: “That was the single moment in my life where everything came crashing down. It was like a television show where the white light flashes and the actor sees their life sweep before their eyes in a microsecond.” Then Tony said, “As a minister, I saw a flash of church budgets and building projects and all the wasted money. I thought to myself, ‘Am I a liberal now?’” (104).
Like so many evangelicals Tony thought that evangelism was his real mission and giving out a cup of real water was the work of liberals. But something changed for Tony that fateful day in Latin America. His story, which Merritt uses alongside similar stories, reveals what is actually happening to more and more Christian millennials who are discovering the full-orbed message of the kingdom of God.
The same lesson was learned by Merritt when he was invited to a party by a gay friend. When the people discovered that he was a Christian the whole tone and tenor was transformed. He writes, “Christians–myself included–have allowed our leaders to spew hatred at a community of people who are no more sinful and no less precious than the most pious. In the past, we remained silent as many prominent Christian leaders declared that AIDS was God’s final judgment on homosexuals. We turned a blind eye to so-called Christian counselors who performed extreme and abusive fix-a-gay therapies that included techniques like electrical shock and masturbatory reconditioning in attempts to make gay people straight. Christians have often spoken of gays and lesbians as if they have some sort of medical disease that has been diagnosed and can be cured with a simple biblical prescription” (111).
Culture warrior Albert Mohler, who sees the failure of this approach says, “We’ve practiced what can only be described as a form of homophobia. We’ve used the ‘choice’ language when it is clear that homosexual orientation is a deep inner struggle and not merely a matter of choice” (112). While we speak about hating the sin and loving the sinner Merritt is right when he says a simple search of the Internet will reveal a long history of hating sin and little about love. He cites notable evangelical writers and champions who have spoken disparagingly and spitefully about homosexuals and then provides illustrative quotations to back up this point from Jimmy Swaggart, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson, Judge Roy Moore, E. Calvin Beisner, Tony Perkins and David Barton (cf. pages 112-13). These statements make me cringe and cry out, “Please forgive us for such disinformation and hatred!” Merritt opines, “Ive heard more sermons on the sinfulness of homosexuality than I can recall, but I can’t remember one quibble from a Christian friend or pastor over any of these statements” 114). We all agree we should love gays but few know the first thing about how to do this love in action. We are thus seen as mostly talk and no action by both gays and most non-churched young adults.
There is a “sea change within a generation” that has already begun and older Christians like myself are almost unaware of what this will mean. 52% of young, conservative Protestant Christians already support some form of same-sex union. Merritt adds, and I profoundly agree, “If [this date’ is right, this debate as we know it is over. . . . Its demise can be attributed–at least partially–to Christians’ transformative experiences among their gay friends” (117). But this does not mean all younger Christians are willing to erase the biblical lines on sexuality. What most are exploring is “new ways to show love for gay and lesbian neighbors–even in the public square” (118).
I could not agree more. What we must explore, and what this means for our mission together, is how we can do a much better job showing and telling the love of Jesus for this messed-up world. We need to sit with our neighbors and truly love them. They no longer care what you and I believe since they do not think we care. We need more than “talking points.” (118). We need a fresh way to work faith out in this culture in which we actually live. Merritt will open your eyes to this critical question.