Smells Like Spirit
Is faith hiding in the closet?
By Christian Piatt
(Originally published in PULP)

For a long time in American history, it’s been relatively taboo to admit you’re an atheist, or even an agnostic. In some ways, the bias favoring people of faith still holds. Imagine an atheist candidate for president trying to get nominated, much less elected, and the storm of controversy that would surround it.

Though some positions of political power may be out of reach for those who claim no faith, it has become more acceptable in recent years to admit agnosticism or even atheism. In fact, there’s even a bit of counter-culture hipness to confessing it.

While the relaxation of social strictures that allow people to speak freely about their faith – or lack of it – has opened up public dialogue in arguably healthy ways, the pendulum also has swung the other way, at least a bit. In a recent article on Salon.com, Ada Calhoun writes about an experience where a friend of hers caught her dressed up on the street on a Sunday morning, joking with her that she must be headed to church. She laughed it off and sheepishly continued on her way to Catholic Mass, too embarrassed to admit it to her friend.

“I’m not cheating on my husband, committing crimes or doing drugs,” says Calhoun. “But those are battles my cosmopolitan, progressive friends would understand. To them, my situation is far more sinister: I am the bane of their youth, the boogeyman of their politics, the very thing they left their small towns to escape. I am a Christian.”

Part of this is likely a normal social cycle, back and forth along the spectrum of the sacred and secular. However, Christianity in particular carries sufficient weight for the embarrassment these reticent faithful exhibit.

“Who wants to be lumped in with all the other Christians,” asks Calhoun, “especially the ones you see on TV protesting gay marriage, giving money to charlatans, and letting priests molest children? Andy Warhol went to Mass every Sunday, but not even his closest friends knew he was a devout Catholic until his death. I get that.”

So do I. As one who is seen both in our local community and in larger literary circles as a figurehead for postmodern Christianity, I spend as much time and energy responding to these negative connotations attached to my faith as I do speaking positively about what a community of faithful, committed to causes of service, compassion and social justice, can do to make the world a better place.

It’s important to understand how far and wide this disaffection for organized religion runs. There are huge groups of people who, though they study and practice the teachings of Jesus, choose not to call themselves Christians because of the baggage attached to the term. Instead, they prefer the term “Christ followers,” both because it is less encumbered with negativity, and also because it speaks of what they do, rather than define what group to which they belong.

There are lots of books on the subject too, such as “un-Christian,” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, or “They Like Jesus but Not the Church,” by Dan Kimball. One common sentiment throughout these texts is that the image of God, or more specifically, Jesus, should not suffer because of the crap that humans do in their name.

Not surprisingly, there’s a healthy amount of blowback from the institution of church as well. While some faith communities see the writing on the wall and seek to learn from history’s lessons, others are building defenses still higher, lobbing verbal salvos from the other side.

Authors like Peter Rollins, who wrote “The Orthodox Heretic “and “How (Not) to Speak of God,” among others, have been labeled as brazen heretics, masquerading as Christ followers simply to further the mythical goal of reducing church to rubble.

Meanwhile, people like Ada Calhoun skulk in the shadows to practice their faith, worried that being associated with those with whom she strongly disagrees will be a social albatross around her neck. Though it will take much time and no small amount of effort, it’s my hope that Christians once again earn the respect and appreciation of the public, and that Calhoun and her peers can come out of the closet and be proud to openly call themselves “Christian.”

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