legalism

Exit 251. An unfortunate tendency to worship fads.

Sorry for the hiatus.  Life got really busy, and I knew this next post would be a big one, and I needed time to process.  I was also writing stories for my other blog during that time.

Former pastor Joshua Harris recently made an announcement that he and his wife of almost 20 years were divorcing, and that he no longer considered himself a Christian.  While I would be sad in any case of someone renouncing the faith, this one hit me a bit more personally.

As any long-time reader of this blog knows, or as can easily be discerned from searching the archives of this blog, I have some rather strong opinions about Mr. Harris’ teaching, particularly concerning his 1997 book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  This book, and others he wrote later, make the point that dating is un-Biblical and prepares people for breakup and divorce. Instead of spending time alone and giving into temptation and being fake with each other, Christian singles should spend time together on “group dates,” getting to know people in groups to see who they really are.  Then, eventually, through a mechanism I never understood, two of them will choose to prepare for marriage.

I became a Christian (or at least started taking what I believed seriously) about a year before this book was published.  No one ever taught me in childhood or my teen years how dating and relationships worked. I didn’t really see my parents doing coupley things very often; their relationship isn’t really like that, at least not in front of me (which is ok, there’s nothing wrong with that, everyone is different).  So after hearing a few talks at Intervarsity about not rushing into relationships and waiting until one is ready, and then learning about Harris-ism shortly after, I just assumed this was how all Christians lived. I didn’t know any better. So I really didn’t go on dates in college or my young adult years (except for a couple of awkward experiences which I thought were dates and the girl didn’t, but that’s another story for another time).

Mr. Harris’ books seem to be written for an audience of people who date frequently and even promiscuously, with selfish and un-Biblical intentions, but have now found Jesus.  (I should give the disclaimer that I never finished IKDG because I could tell about 100 pages in that it was crap, and I didn’t read any of Mr. Harris’ other works.) The main idea of IKDG seems geared toward explaining what is wrong with that aforementioned lifestyle, and replacing it with something at the other extreme that avoids the temptations therein altogether.  It seems to not even allow the possibility of the existence of someone like me, someone who wants to go on dates without having those selfish intentions.

If I followed Harrisism exactly as written, given who I was at that age, it would have looked like this: I’d meet a girl and eventually realize, for whatever reason, that I was into her and wanted to get to know her better.  I wouldn’t say anything, because Christians don’t date and that would be inappropriate. I’d hang out when our groups of mutual friends were doing things, but I wouldn’t be able to talk to her, because I’m an introvert, and I can’t just jump into a conversation without it being awkward.  I don’t read nonverbal communication well, so I would never get to know her, so the intended effect of hanging out in groups would never happen. She would end up together with someone else, because she would never know that I was interested in her. And I would never really get to know her, because I’d never have time alone with her where I really see people for who they are, and they see me for who I am.  According to Mr. Harris, this would cause us to be selfish and not real with each other, but my personality is just the opposite. I don’t look to be selfish when I’m alone with a woman, not at all. I’m just me.

Now if you followed Harris-ism and found a spouse and you’re still together, good for you.  I’m glad it worked for you. It worked better for you than it did for Mr. Harris himself, after all.  But not everyone is like you. Not everyone relates to people in the same way. And the Bible says nothing about the process of dating itself, so you have no right to judge people who don’t approach the world of dating that way.

Also, by the way, I predicted this in 2002.  In one of my other creative projects, I shared a story in which the character really likes a girl, but she read this book that is clearly supposed to be IKDG, and won’t date because of it.  The character later gets a chance to meet the author of the book, who goes on to explain how he followed his own advice and never dated his wife before he asked her to marry him. The character asks how that works, and the author and his wife end up in a huge argument when they realize that they don’t know each other at all, because they never dated.  They divorce.

A few years ago, Mr. Harris himself renounced his writing and apologized, saying that he never intended his writing to become a set of rules, the kind of legalism that has always infected the church to some extent.  And there have even been entire communities built around recovering from Harris-ism, and a documentary made on the subject. That’s a first step. At least he is aware of how his writing affected an entire generation negatively.  But I still feel cheated out of opportunities because of this artificially created fear and restriction. The satire news site The Babylon Bee did a great article on this, about people demanding reparations for all the dates they missed out on because of Mr. Harris.  I have never felt a satire article so deeply in my soul. Granted, I wasn’t good at dating to begin with, but I feel like I missed my chance to even try because of the way so many around me were brainwashed with Mr. Harris’ teaching.

I also don’t fit in with the communities of people who have vocally rejected Harris-ism, in terms of the kind of dating they look for now.  My views fall somewhere in between theirs and pure Harris-ism, opening myself up to rejections from both sides. Many single Christians today who have rejected Harris-ism now have views at what I would call the other extreme.  They would say that Harris-ism and purity culture in general don’t value women and treat them as objects. Women should be free to explore their sexuality, because society judges women more harshly than men on these matters. The Bible doesn’t really mean what it says.  One shouldn’t idolize virginity, and everyone sins and Jesus forgives so sex isn’t really that big of a deal. I don’t believe any of that. The Bible certainly does mean what it says. Purity culture doesn’t treat women as objects, it teaches that our bodies aren’t our own because we belong to God.  Women are precious children of God, as are men. Society shouldn’t give women a free pass to be promiscuous; it should also be unacceptable, at least in Christianity, for men to be promiscuous as well (but being judgmental and gossipy isn’t ok for anyone either, of course). And the Apostle Paul specifically writes against using divine grace as a license to live a life of sin (Romans 6:1).

The biggest problem here is that Christians have an unfortunate tendency to worship fads, rather than the Almighty God Himself.  Some new Christian book, musician, celebrity pastor, whatever will come along, and all of a sudden all the churches wanting to be cool and relevant latch on to whatever this is, without even considering whether this new fad shows an appropriate level of spiritual maturity around which to build one’s life.  It should be pointed out that Mr. Harris was 22 when IKDG was published.  Fads come and go, and a few years later these people will latch on to something else. But I’ve seen many examples of former Christian celebrities renouncing their faith.

There was an episode of South Park that explored this topic, where some of the boys formed a Christian band because they thought it would be easier to get a big following as a Christian band than as a secular band.  It’s been years since I’ve seen this, but there was one scene where someone told them they needed to play a big Christian music festival. Someone said, “Just tell Christians what music to like, and they’ll buy it!” After hearing that line, I said, “That would be highly offensive if it weren’t so true.”  Christian music is full of flashes in the pan that disappear after one or two big albums.  I heard it pointed out somewhere that there are no Christian oldies or classic rock.  It’s not that uncommon to see kids born after 2000 wearing Beatles, AC/DC, or Nirvana shirts, but you never see Christian kids born after 2000 wearing Petra, Stryper, or Jars of Clay shirts, because everyone who listens to Christian music has moved on to something else (except me, occasionally; I still have a ton of Jars-of-Clay-era Christian music in my collection) (and, case in point, I still have never heard Petra or Stryper because the Christian world had already moved on from 1980s Christian music by the time I started listening to Christian music in 1996).

If Christianity is going to stay culturally relevant, we’re going to have to move away from this mentality of fad-following and start following Jesus instead.  It sounds simple, but one would be surprised. We’re also going to have to get away from this mentality of legalism. Sure, there are some absolutes in the Bible, but putting too many narrow rules on exactly what one should and shouldn’t do to honor God draws one’s eyes away from God and toward the pride in oneself for following the rules, as well as idolizing those who follow the rules.  And as for Mr. Harris saying he isn’t a Christian anymore, that’s between him and God. We should be praying for him.

So is it too late for me?  By the time I realized that Harris-ism was not the only way to honor God with one’s relationships and sexuality, it felt like I was in a place where there were no single Christians left my age.  So I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve been through some stuff since then, and I don’t even know for sure what I’m looking for anymore. But being angry and demanding reparations, as the Babylon Bee article said, isn’t going to help at all.  

Exit 207. I thought about the situation from many different angles.

I bought a new car last week.

I’ve mentioned it to a few people close to me, and some of those have actually seen it and ridden in it.  And, in fact, while I was waiting for the paperwork to be ready for me, I was thinking about how I would announce it on Facebook and Instagram, what I would say about it, how much I would divulge about the decision process… and I eventually made a bold decision.

I decided I wouldn’t announce it at all.

A few reasons.

(1) It is possible to live your life and not announce everything on social media.  That’s what we all did until about 2007.  Gender reveal parties, cute little professional photos asking someone to be your prom date or bridesmaid, selfies every thirteen seconds, none of that existed until very recently.  Shocking, I know.

(2) More importantly, it’s really not anyone’s business, especially not people who are going to criticize my decision.  I just didn’t feel like opening myself up to that kind of criticism.

I know some people who are fierce devotees of the kind of financial experts who make a living telling people how to get out of debt and save money.  Dave Ramsey in particular comes to mind, although I’m sure there are other financial experts who do this as well.  Before I continue, I should say that if you are reading this, and you are a follower of Mr. Ramsey or any other well-known financial expert, good for you.  I haven’t studied his works, so I might be mischaracterizing some of what I say here.  I’m sure he and others in his business give a lot of good advice, and if that works for you, if you are making progress toward getting out of debt and getting your finances in order, that’s great.

But I am not you.  Everyone’s situation is different, and while some things are just generally good advice, not everyone can, or should, or will follow all of the same principles exactly.  Some time ago, the church I was attending was hosting Financial Peace University, a Christian-based class on finances using curriculum developed by Dave Ramsey.  I remember someone was telling me how I should sign up, it’ll be really good for my future financial planning, there’s a lot I’ll learn, and it’s only $100.  My first thought was, thanks but no thanks, I’m doing okay financially right now.  And I certainly didn’t get where I am by blowing $100 to learn things that everyone learns about in math class… or at least they would if they didn’t waste so much time hating math class.

Now, that is an oversimplification, of course.  There are other subjects covered in the Financial Peace curriculum, and I’m sure I would have some things to learn.  But most of the people I knew who had taken this class were talking about paying off their credit card debt.  I have no credit card debt.  I don’t run up a balance big enough that I can’t pay it off when the next monthly bill comes.  I don’t have that mentality that if I have money in the bank, I have to spend it, or the mentality that I can keep sliding the card and not worry about it until later.  And that right there is already the most important step in getting one’s finances under control, the way I see it.

I have my reasons for buying a new car instead of buying a less expensive gently used car.  And I have my reasons for financing the majority of it rather than paying it off all at once, a big part of which included the fact that it was a holiday week and they were offering 0% financing.  I sat down and thought about the situation from many different angles before I made my decision.  And that, really, is how one should approach major decisions.  This is how learning and thinking works, rather than regurgitating something that an expert said that may be totally out of context for the particular decision at hand.

If you know me personally and have questions, thoughts, or comments, I might be willing to discuss this a little more specifically.

And again, for those of you who are applying Dave Ramsey’s principles to your own lives, like I said, good for you.  But please, use those to think about situations from multiple angles and make a decision, rather than just assuming that he’s right all the time.

Exit 95. God is not sitting on a cloud with a stopwatch.

Recently I was talking on Facebook with a friend whom I’ll call Enif.  I’ve only met Enif a few times in person, through swing dancing, but we know quite a few of the same people.  I had asked her about something that she had written about, something personal going on in her life that I thought may have had some similarities to some thoughts that had been on my mind.  She explained more of what had happened with her recently, including some things she had been praying about and gotten a clear message from God in response.  I explained what was on my mind, and I added that I need to spend more time praying in general.

Twenty years ago, when I was a student at UC Davis and a brand new Christian, one thing I heard frequently from those around me, leaders and friends at church and in my college group, was the importance of spending time in prayer and reading Scripture.  Many students would share testimonies of how they would spend every morning, or every evening, reading the Bible and praying, because that is how one truly knows God.  One wouldn’t have a friendship without spending time with the friend in question, so how is a relationship with Jesus Christ any different?  I tried for a while waking up extra early and finding a quiet spot at home to start every morning with God, but my concentration that early in the morning wasn’t what it could be.  I eventually started using time between classes for prayer and Scripture.  Typically, my schedules would end up so that I had an hour or two between classes mid-morning.  The UC Davis campus has a creek running through it, along the south end of the core campus area; along both sides of the creek runs the UC Davis Arboretum, featuring plants from all over the world.  During my break between classes, I would walk to the Arboretum, sit on a bench, read a few chapters of Scripture, and pray for a while.  It worked for me, but I still felt a little guilty that I only did this four or five times a week, not every day.  As an adult, my prayer times have been even fewer and farther between, as the hectic stresses of life take over.

Enif’s reply to my statement about needing to spend more time praying surprised me.  She said that I don’t necessarily need to be praying more, and that making such a statement sounds more like the kind of works-based belief system that Jesus saves us from.  I should be doing things because I want to do them for God, not because I feel pressured that I need to, and that in living a Christian life, I am praying throughout the day.

I stand by my statement that spending more time in prayer and Scripture would be good for me.  Yet I think Enif is right.

Probably the greatest misconception about Christianity, particularly because it is still held by many who consider themselves Christians, is that we are saved by good works.  This position incorrectly views God as a sort of omnipotent Santa Claus, rewarding the good little boys and girls and punishing the bad ones.  That is exactly what the Bible does not say.  Jesus Christ shed his blood on the cross to save us from our sins, and nothing we can do can earn salvation from our sins.  Our acceptance of Jesus’ salvation shows through a changed life, with Jesus Christ as Lord, and it is out of this changed life that the good works happen, not out of obligation.

I forget sometimes that some of the other Christians I knew when I was in college may not have been very mature in their faith at the time.  Many people who call themselves Christians are really just looking for rules to follow to feel self-righteous, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.  Just because someone I knew in the ’90s self-righteously pointed out that they spent two hours every day reading Scripture and praying doesn’t make them a better Christian than I am.  God is not sitting on a cloud with a stopwatch, checking to see who spends the most time in prayer every day.

But, on the other hand, if my life has really been transformed by the saving power of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t I want to pray, to read his word, to listen to his guidance in my life?  I should.  And that can happen when I sit in a quiet place and open the Bible.  But it can happen in so many other ways too.  God is bigger than our human routines and rituals.  The important thing here is that I am not letting the worries of this life choke out spiritual matters.

Exit 50. There’s something in the water, but it isn’t Jesus.

The other day, I was in the car listening to the radio.  For you young kids, that’s this thing that old people use to hear music for free; it’s kind of like satellite radio, except it’s free.  Anyway, I was flipping around channels, and I heard this song on a Christian station.

Except then I realized it wasn’t that song.  It was this song.

I don’t have a problem in general with cover songs.  The problem I have here is that this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened.  A popular artist records and releases a song with a strong Christian influence in the lyrics, and it gets ignored by Christian media; then, just a few months later, a “Christian artist” covers the exact same song, it gets played heavily on Christian radio, and Christian music fans talk about how great it is.  The problem isn’t stealing; Ms. Underwood was properly credited on Point of Grace’s recording, and I’m sure the necessary royalties were paid.  The message being sent here is that the Christian music world is telling Carrie, “Hi, sorry, your song is great, but you’re a secular artist, and playing your song might send the wrong message because you have other songs that don’t glorify God.  So we’re going to have one of our more Godly people re-record the exact same song.”  Does this sound like nonsense to anyone else?  Has the body of Christ really gotten so crazy and so arrogant?  There’s something in the water, but it isn’t Jesus.

And this is not the first time this has happened.  Remember this one-hit wonder from 2004?

Somehow this is inappropriate for Christians, but again, the same song is just fine when covered by a “Christian artist.”

Same song, same music, same lyrics.  The only difference is who is singing it.  If we are judging whether or not music is “Christian” solely based on the past career of the artist, we’re completely missing the point and descending into dangerously closed-minded legalism.  This music is acceptable or not acceptable based on some arbitrary label that is depends on other things besides the content of the music.  That doesn’t make sense.

But I think all of this misses an even bigger point.  I’ve known people who have actually come out and said that Christians shouldn’t listen to secular music.  I feel sorry for those people, honestly.  They don’t have any music to express emotions like anger, sadness, and betrayal, which they all feel too.  I hate to say it, but part of the reason I don’t listen to Christian music as much as I used to is because it all started sounding the same eventually.  Can’t the Christian music industry do better?  These people who take pride in only listening to Christian music, instead of opening themselves up to the wide range of cultures and beliefs out there in the world, shut themselves in a Christian bubble and make rigid rules about what is and is not okay, then self-righteously spend their time talking down to other Christians who don’t agree with their rules.  Maybe they should spend their time on something else, like feeding the poor or telling those outside the church about the life-changing message of Jesus… you know, the things Jesus told them to do.

I used to be one of those people, to some extent.  After I became a Christian, I started listening to Christian music, and I didn’t buy any secular music for about three years.  I used to pride myself on listening to different music from people around me, although I didn’t seal myself off from secular music completely.  I still listened to secular radio, and my TV and movie watching habits didn’t really change.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with choosing not to watch certain movies or listen to certain kinds of music.  After all, I have made a choice not to watch Fifty Shades of Grey or listen to Justin Bieber.   But it is not your place to say what someone else can and can’t listen to, especially when it is based on a semi-arbitrary label of what is “Christian” and what isn’t.  And that line can be fuzzy sometimes, as I’ve written about before here.  Can’t we just let music and art be music and art, and make decisions about individual works rather than grouping things into labels and genres?  I’ve often said that the best music defies labels and genres (to which a musician friend once replied that great music creates genres, but that’s another topic).

And one final thought: Those of you who know me in person know that I have this uncanny ability to hear randomly chosen songs at the most hilariously and ironically appropriate times.  Some time, maybe next week, I should make my entire post be stories of times when this kind of thing has happened.  Anyway, so here I am, sitting here, with my music on shuffle, typing an article about legalism in Christian music, and people’s opinions on what Christians should and shouldn’t be listening to, and what should come on?  A song that was condemned by the Catholic Church and other Christian groups, of course.  I’ll leave you with that.

Exit 44. I like to follow rules.

In all my reflections about opposite-sex interactions and dating, I’ve recently discovered something interesting and slightly unsettling: I like to follow rules.

That shouldn’t be surprising, given my logical mind.  Rules make things happen in an orderly fashion, leading to predictable outcomes.  I did well in school because I followed the rules.  I did my homework, I studied for tests, and I never showed up to class drunk or smoked pot in the bathroom between classes.  I got my college applications in on time, and I got an academic scholarship to study at UC Davis, one of the top public universities in the nation.  When I got to college, I attended class every day, except maybe two or three times when I was sick, plus one class I missed to see the Return of the Jedi Special Edition on the first day (midnight showings weren’t really a thing in 1997, so the first shows were around 11am) and two whole days of classes I missed for a church trip.  I graduated with honors in four years.

I became a Christian in college, and I learned promptly that Christianity isn’t about following rules.  The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus did not come to Earth to give us a bunch of new rules to follow (see, for example, Romans 3:19-26), and some of Jesus’ harshest words during his lifetime were directed at those who have an unhealthy preoccupation with following the rules (see, for example, all of Matthew 23).  I didn’t realize at the time that this was happening, but it’s funny that sometimes the churches who preach the loudest about how Jesus freed his people from living a life of following rules have some of the harshest rules to follow.  I didn’t realize at the time that they were rules; I just thought that those were just things that all Christians agreed on, since all those around me certainly did.  Don’t use the F word.  Don’t get drunk.  And of course, there were all sorts of rules about interacting with the opposite sex.  Don’t be in a serious relationship without marriage being the goal.  Don’t date a non-Christian.  Don’t have opposite-sex roommates.  Don’t stay overnight at your significant other’s house.  And the writings of Joshua Harris were very popular at that time, in the late 1990s, where he essentially says that dating is inherently un-Biblical and unhealthy.

After I left Davis, I found myself at Church I with the Problems, where I discovered much more that not all Christians believe exactly the same thing about everything.  This group was even more legalistic than anything I had experienced before.  One example that came up a lot in conversation was that that church taught strict young earth creationism.  (I have written about this issue previously.)  They had even more rules for how their members should behave, like not watching R-rated movies and not dating people who serve in the same ministry as you and not voting for candidates who aren’t 100% anti-abortion and anti-homosexual rights.  Next, at Church II with the Problems, I saw that some of the old rules didn’t apply there.  There were Christians who swore and smoked and drank and had tattoos.  I had other more serious problems there not related to legalism, but that is a topic for another time.

Some of these rules don’t work anymore, and some of them never did.  Life has changed, and the world has changed.  I wish I could throw my fear in the sea of no cares and just not worry about all this.  But the few occasions on which I did something approaching this didn’t work out so well.  I’ve written before about Mimosa, a much younger girl who I had a brief fling with in 2010.  A lot of things that happened that week broke the aforementioned rules, and that led to a lot of hurt, in the form of miscommunications and misunderstandings, creating a tension that seemed to overshadow our remaining friendship for some time afterward (although we are friends now).  Ultimately, the main issue was that we were at different points in our lives, and I blamed much of the misunderstanding on the age difference (13 years, 4 months).  I settled that by making a new rule for myself, which I called “Simpsons Rule” as an homage to the similarly-named theorem from numerical analysis.  The rule was this: If she wasn’t born yet on the day that the TV series “The Simpsons” first aired*, then she’s too young for me.  I chose this date somewhat arbitrarily in order to give my rule a clever name (although I don’t think I ever shared this with anyone), but also because one of the first things I noticed about Mimosa was that her date of birth is very close to the day that The Simpsons first aired.  (She falls just barely on the too-young side of that date.)

(*”The Simpsons” first aired on December 17, 1989)

But sometimes these rules I make for myself become arbitrary and pointless, and even counterproductive.  A couple years back, I saw a Facebook comment by a friend from college who I’ll call “Kallichore.”  We were still in touch for a while after I was done with college, I have one of those weird distinct memories of something she said to me that would have happened around 2001 or ’02, but we lost touch through natural causes shortly after that.  Anyway, I saw something that Kallichore posted to one of our mutual friends who I have stayed in touch with, and I thought about adding her because she was always a good friend who was nice to me.  I decided not to, though, because of an awkward incident that happened in 1997 involving a failed attempt by me to ask her out.  If she happened to notice me on Facebook and send me a friend request, then wonderful, it’d be great to hear from her, but I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to initiate anything.  A couple years pass, and just recently I saw something she said on Facebook to the same mutual friend.  I replied directly to what she said… and then I got to thinking.  Yes, I had a failed attempt to ask her out in 1997.  But that was more than seventeen years ago.  Furthermore, we were still friends long after that, and I even remember a conversation we had years later in which the 1997 incident came up, and she cleared the air about what really was going on in her mind at the time and why she turned me down.  So why would there be any lingering awkwardness so many years later?  I was over that by 2001-02ish, I’m over it now, and ignoring her after I specifically replied to something she wrote on Facebook just seemed rude at this point.  So I threw that rule out the window, sent her a friend request, we got to catch up over Facebook, and it’s been good hearing from her again, as well as reading funny stories she posts about her kids.  (Kallichore, if you happen to read this and recognize yourself in the story, I hope I didn’t make things weird by bringing up things from the past.  When I friended you on Facebook, I had no intentions beyond that you were always a good friend and I wanted to hear what you were up to now.)

So why not just throw the rules out and live free?  There were certainly other times I’ve thrown out the rules.  When I was dating Vega the Nice Ex in 2006, she lived 100 miles away, and sometimes I’d stay on her couch on a Saturday night and drive home Sunday morning, despite the fact that some legalistic Christians believe that such an action gives off the appearance of sexual immorality to the outside world.  During that same time period, I had a female roommate, despite that fact that legalists say the same thing about that.  There was never any sexual tension between that roommate and me, and for that matter, we kept to ourselves most of the time.  I was in my room grading papers and chatting online with babes, and she was in her room studying and playing World of Warcraft.

The problem is knowing which rules I should keep and which I shouldn’t.  Some of them kind of fall into Biblical gray areas.  Don’t get drunk, good rule, but do I really need to abstain from all alcohol?  I know plenty of Christians who occasionally drink enough that they could qualify as drunk; does that make them bad Christians?  I don’t think so.  Don’t kiss on the first date, that’s probably a good idea for me personally, since the one time I did break that rule (Mimosa), that made the heartbreak a lot more intense, but does that mean I should be afraid to, say, hold hands with someone I’ve been out with a few times?  Maybe is it even time to throw out Simpsons Rule, if I meet someone that young who I seem to click with?  Age differences become less significant over time, and a lot of women young enough to fall on the too-young side of Simpsons Rule (they could be as old as 25 now) can be pretty mature.  I don’t know.  Life is complicated, and the rules don’t always apply the same way in every situation.  How do I know which principles I should hold on to in every situation, and how do I know which ones don’t always apply?  There is no easy answer other than to keep seeking God’s wisdom.