Volume 30 - Issue 1

Why I Have Decided to Stop Beating up My Grandmother

By Carl Trueman

Ever get tired of the soap opera clichés about Christians? They tend to fall into one of two types: on the one hand we have the grinning vacuous people with inane fixed grins on their faces, wearing ‘Jesus Loves You’ tee-shirts, banging tambourines and generally patronising everyone they meet with their all-knowing-yet-hopelessly-clueless demeanours. Usually such people find their faith destroyed the moment they come across something which doesn’t fit into their Pollyanna view of the world; or their faith becomes increasingly absurd as they wreak emotional and social havoc on those around them while yet thinking they are doing the Lord’s work. On the other hand, we have the whited sepulchres—those who keep up a front of public righteousness, maintained usually with a supercilious and hypercritical sneer—but who privately indulge in all the vices they criticise in others, from gossip to granny bashing (of which more later). I suspect there are examples of both types in the church but, frankly, they are not in my experience as common as the writers of our soap operas seem to think they are. And, in a world of plenty where the affluent eat and drink to their hearts’ content while every day millions still die of starvation and lack of basic health care, there is a nasty irony to the way in which the wealthy and powerful purveyors of vacuous yet costly ‘entertainment’ seem to think that Christian double-standards on gossip and the Lottery are the pressing moral issues of our day.

Of course, such popular clichés are easy to build up and then knock down. Yet we must be careful that we ourselves do not buy into equally damaging, simplistic and insidious clichés as regards the Christian life. One of the great beauties of the Bible is its tremendous honesty, an honesty that is utterly destructive of all the clichés which we may choose to construct. The Bible is, after all, not a two-dimensional, flat book, but a collection of diverse literary genres which are all placed there by God to do different, yet important, tasks. As God’s book, the Bible is not simply a narrative of God’s dealings with his ancient people; nor is it just a collection of doctrinal statements about God. Yes, it contains both of these elements as it lays out the history of the fall, redemption and consummation, and as it explicates these historical events. But there is so much more to the Bible than this: God’s word is reflective of his character; it is realistic; it graciously and mercifully deals with human life as it really is; in short, it gives us a language not only to express the joys and the clarity of faith, but also to give voice to the perplexities, frustrations and contradictions of life lived under the cross of Christ, when ultimate victory over sin is already assured, but not yet grasped.

Such sections of Scripture as the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs are first-rate reminders that God is not some kind of distant despot who has simply dumped us on this earth as automata or slave-labourers to carry out his every whim with no thought of our well-being or sanity. God in his grace has provided us with biblical material that, in a sense, sanctifies our deepest pain and gives us a legitimate means of expressing it to him. We are not like downtrodden workers in some totalitarian state where, whatever our sufferings, we cannot afford to show our real feelings lest we be punished. No, In the Psalms, in Job, in Ecclesiastes we find that God has given us language to express all of the perplexities, frustrations and pains of life lived out in this fallen world. I well remember the moment when, as a typical, self-obsessed teenager some twenty years ago, I discovered the Book of Ecclesiastes. Up until then, even as a Christian I had tended to think of certain non-Christian books, such as Nausea by Sartre, or the lyrics of certain rock bands such as The Police (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of either of them—like the phrase ‘Tory Government’, I suspect they are unfamiliar to most younger readers) as being more honest about life than much of the popular Christian literature and music being pushed my way by well-meaning people in the church. But in Ecclesiastes, I found all that these secular sources could give me—the anger, the frustration, the hopelessness, the sarcasm, the realism of meeting life head-on—and more: a sound, theological context in which these most human of feelings could be acknowledged and expressed. Then, running through Job, the Psalms, through Proverbs, through the Prophets, I found more of the same, and the scales fell from my eyes: God knows how I feel as a redeemed creature who is as yet living by faith and not by sight, a pilgrim in a dry and barren land, and he has given me a language and a framework within which I can express those feelings without necessarily falling into sin as I do so. Now I realised that it was all right to experience the Christian life as one of seemingly endless moral and intellectual struggle because that is precisely how God himself has revealed it to be in his Scripture, and he has even provided resources to help me bear such with honesty and integrity. The move was revolutionary—I no longer went to the Bible simply to find out what I should and should not believe, to find, if you like, the answers; I also went there to hear the questions that should be asked, to feel the pain of the inspired writers themselves, to identify with it, and then to see, with them, beyond that to the glorious hope of the resurrection. This honesty would seem to me to be a crucial aspect of Scripture which we, as Christians, need to grasp, particularly in the current day and age. It allows us to understand ourselves more fully; and it magnifies and enhances our vision of God as a gracious God who cares about real people.

One might perhaps inject a preliminary caveat at this point lest we reduce all Christian theology to experience, or appear to legitimise all Christian experience: Job, the Preacher, the Psalmists, the writer of Proverbs, they all had faith, and faith is not a contentless leap in the dark. Faith grasps God and understands who God is. Faith knows God is trustworthy, that he loves and cares for his saints; that sin and evil have already been mortally wounded on the cross; that the answer to evil is not to be found by looking backwards to the Garden but by looking to Calvary, the empty tomb and the hope of the general resurrection to come. Thus, the cries of pain, despair and perplexity come not from not knowing who God is, but from living in a fallen world, seeing how experience and empirical observation do not yet appear to square with the certain promises of faith. They are, if you like, the groans of a creation longing for, and not yet receiving the full consummation which is to come at the end of time. And the good news is: our God understands that; he has given us a Bible which acknowledges that and which leads us to expect pain—moral, physical, intellectual, emotional—as part and parcel of our lives upon earth; but, in that same Bible, he has also provided us with a beautiful language to express that in our lives, our theology, our relationships, and our worship, individual and corporate.

So what are we to do in the light of this? First, let’s not be intimidated by the soap opera clichés about Christians. Frankly, there is nothing that the media can teach us about religious hypocrisy, even the hypocrisy of true believers, that Scripture doesn’t teach us better. The Bible is, after all, an honest book, even with regard to the failings of its greatest heroes. The lives of Gideon, David, and Peter, to name but three, all exhibit periods of the most crass and evil behaviour, and the Bible pulls no punches in its portrayal of these. The pompous attempts by the media at portentous displays of Christian misbehaviour have all been pre-empted by the sacred book itself. That Christians can be hypocrites is not news—the Bible nailed that one two thousand years ago, and in greater depth: many biblical passages, especially in the Wisdom literature and the Prophets, probe the psychology of such wickedness in a way which puts to shame the cardboard cut-outs of the soap characters or the simplistic pap of the telly-shrinks and life-coaches on daytime programmes. In our witnessing to the world, let us make sure we are as honest about life under the cross, and about Christians and Christianity, as the Bible is itself.

Second, go out and wage war against conformity to sub-biblical stereotypes and clichés in our own Christian lives and churches. Why is it, for example, that Bob Dylan’s worst lyrics were written in his Christian phase? Probably because he felt he needed to conform to the clichés of the wider evangelical Christian culture into which he wanted to fit: everything neatly packaged and laid out, with no loose ends, no struggle, no agony, no anger, no pain. That’s about as far removed from the portrait of the Christian life in the Bible as possible. There are as many different clichéd views of Christianity as there are churches- from the sombre, dark suited version on finds in some settings, where the mere cracking of a smile on a Sunday is considered the moral equivalent of beating up your grandmother (and as for being friendly to visitors- what are you, some kind of maniac?), to the irritating shiny-penny cheerfulness of the church where one can safely assume that, if you’re not cartwheeling down the aisle while simultaneously playing the tambourine during the sermon, you probably only came into the building to ask directions to the local undertakers. The Bible bursts through all such clichés by dealing with life, in all its varieties and nuances, in an honest and frank way. Christianity is about joy and assurance of God’s love; but it is also about struggle and despair, and all points in between; yes, it involves a firm and sure confidence in whom we have believed; but it also involves living by faith in a world of contradiction and suffering. We should give careful thought to how we can teach people to realise this through the passages which are reed on Sundays, what we sing, and how we instruct people to think about the Bible and its application to their lives.

The world tames Christianity by presenting it in terms of stereotypes, whether of the pharisaical or the Pollyanna variety. We need to meet these head on, and we can do so because the Bible offers more searing criticism of religious hypocrisy and incompetence than any soap opera. As an ecumenical type, I guess I embody all the clichés and so, in light of this, I think I’m going to crack the odd smile on a Sunday, great the odd visitor, stop beating up my grandmother, put away my tambourine for a while, cut back on my Sunday cartwheel sessions, and spend more time meditating on those passages of the Bible mentioned above. I’m also going to tell other people in church about this material, particularly those who feel the need to conform to the clichés. Frankly, it’s gold dust, and offers words of life to those who find themselves even in the darkest of places. Indeed, God is a realist, and his Bible offers the words of life to us in all the circumstances in which we may find ourselves. Take such words into your own heart, and then offer them to others; and remind yourself again and again, ‘How great is our God’.

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.