Thursday, April 18, 2013

Growing Up: Other Mentors

Continued from the previous installment:

I was a wary and skittish reader in those days, fearful of teachers who would lead me further astray. But I felt safe with Phillips. Who could be more heavily invested in the truth of the scriptures than a Bible translator who had wrestled personally with its meaning and essence?

In Your God Is Too Small, J.B. Phillips gave me "permission" to grow up spiritually, as it were. To make sure my faith and my perception of God kept up with my adult mind and my adult responsibilities. I was startled by the first page:
"It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child... unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life."
Obviously? The concept of adulthood, or maturing as a process, had not been emphasized in our home. Adolescence as a stage was patently denied within IBLP. We were praised for our "maturity" and wise choices, which were more often based on ignorance and behavioral conditioning. Children were early expected to shoulder adult responsibility, but without adult motivation or evaluation of risk. I never felt that I "became", or was treated as, an adult.

Faith was based on truth, which was either-or, good-bad, true-false, black-white. A child could learn these distinctions, and ought to. For the most part, anything unfit for children was inappropriate for adults as well. Learning to drive was a rare exception; a milestone that meant one was authorized by the state to operate a vehicle. Similarly, through marriage God authorized two individuals to have sex with each other. Before a wedding, sex was bad. After, it was good.

Now Phillips was telling me it was healthy to be dissatisfied with my childish understanding of God. That I needed a God who could command my respect and cooperation. Who was bigger than my expanding knowledge of science and humanity. As Phillips expressed it in 1961, my need was "not for the God of the ancient Hebrews, nor the God of the early Church, nor the God of Victorian England, but the God of the Atomic Age--the God of Energy and Wisdom and Love". This quest was getting more exciting.


I love libraries. Always have, from the time I could barely pronounce, "Lai-bur-dee-dee". Whenever I visit someone's home, or a new church, I like to pause to check out the bookshelves. Book collections give me a feel for the family or group's history, interests, and "slant", sometimes going back generations. I've found some unlikely treasures this way. And after I chanced upon Soul Survivor: How 13 Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church in my church's library, Philip Yancey was my new favorite author.

Like Elisabeth Elliot, Yancey introduced me to dozens of other authors, expanding my theological and literary horizons. But most of all, Philip Yancey gave me permission to ask tough questions, and to not put up with ineffectual answers. I devoured What's So Amazing About Grace? and Disappointment with God. I got The Jesus I Never Knew on audio cassettes for my husbandI pondered Rumors of Another World (now retitled The Skeptic's Guide to Faith) for a long time. I bought Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? for a women's church study group in 2009, but by then my questions were stronger and my doubt was growing. I got frustrated with his defense of prayer halfway through the book and never finished it.

I respect Yancey's courage and honesty and open-mindedness in the face of criticism from other Christians. He can even impress me with dreadful stories about the close-minded church of his childhood. I love his perception of irony; while he does not exploit it, you can't miss it where it exists. (And he introduced me to Flannery O'Connor, who must be the queen of irony.) Yancey writes like a journalist: always observing, making connections, telling the stories of how ideas affect real people. I learned so much from Philip Yancey. Which made it all the more strange when I felt I'd outpaced my mentor. Strange, and a little frightening.


In 2006, I flew to Philadelphia to visit my grandmother and introduce her to my newest baby girl. On the way home, my return flight left without me and I was stranded at the Minneapolis airport for six hours. When I stopped crying, I found a bookstore and promptly lost myself in a riveting book entitled Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, by a journalist named Michelle Goldberg. It occupied my thoughts while Baby napped, and piqued my curiosity. How did this female outsider know so much about America's religious right?

Goldberg offered a perspective I'd never been exposed to before. It was as if we'd attended the same conferences, but her experience of the identical event was the utter reverse of mine. Inside was out, back was front, up was down, cold was hot, clothed was nude, red was blue, white was black. Her book reminded me of reading The Screwtape Letters; the angle made me mentally dizzy. The cultural and political movements I had grown up supporting genuinely disturbed her. The men I admired freaked her out. Goldberg was probably the first to describe Patriarchy to me as a negative thing.

When I finally made it home, I hesitatingly told my husband about the reading material I had chanced upon. I remember feeling sheepish and a little guilty, but I just had to read the rest. I looked up the book at the public library and the world didn't fit into the same box afterward. I couldn't say that Goldberg was right, but I knew that, like Elisabeth Elliot, she was being  truthful about what she saw.


My grandmother, an avid reader, had a book sitting by her bed when I visited: What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills. This interested me since I didn't think of her as particularly religious. I found that book at the library, too, and immediately admired the author's expansive knowledge of the Bible (rarely did I encounter a Bible scholar whose grasp of the scriptures exceeded my own) as he used his research to describe the historical context of each of the Gospels. A committed Catholic with criticisms of the Church, Wills had stuck on many of the same points of the Jesus biographies that I had (What is this "kingdom of heaven"? What about Judas?) and I loved reading the conclusions he'd reached. Like Yancey, he asked tough questions boldly.

Like Phillips, Wills did his own translations from the Greek texts. When I read What Paul Meant, a similar treatment of the Epistles, I was struck by how the vocabulary has evolved since we began reading these letters. The word we translate "church", what exactly did Paul mean by it? There were no church buildings, no denominations, no history. How can we fairly examine the Bible without the clutter of centuries of religious practices? Is it even possible to cut through thousands of layers of religious grime?

But for Garry Wills, I probably would never have watched The Last Temptation of Christ. Remembering the scandal of the 1980's, I felt sneaky and apostate bringing it home on VHS. The film, low-budget but incredibly artistic, is based on a novel written by a Greek Christian. The author focuses on the doctrine that Jesus was fully human, as well as divine, and has Jesus experience the same conflicts all humans do. We found it extremely moving, Willem Dafoe's Great Lakes accent notwithstanding. In fact, we watched it again that same week. Perhaps we weren't so far off, after all. Perhaps we just didn't fit the American evangelical mold anymore. Perhaps our God didn't.

1 comment:

  1. I'm fascinated by the mentor stepping stones in your life. :-) Different than mine, but equally compelling and obviously leading in the same direction. I'm so thankful for writers. They have NO idea how powerful their words are to help searchers.