I’m reading PostChristian by Christian Piatt right now. Its subtitle is What’s left? Can we fix it? Do we care? and since it’s written for Christians, you can bet he’s already got some firm answers to all three questions. I’ve seen this author around the Christ-o-Sphere for a while now, so when I got a chance to buy this book on the cheap I took it. But once again, I discover that to a Christian, the solution to every problem is going to be to Jesus harder. It fits a very popular narrative that even one of Progressive Christianity’s biggest names can’t escape. Here’s why that approach is such a perennial favorite, and why it’s just going to keep failing.
Yanking Chains for Jesus.
Christian Piatt is the kind of super-edgy hipster Christian leader who talks a lot about rattling his peers’ chains and provoking them to get them to reconsider their opinions on various topics. And he succeeds at least in the first part of his mission, if the epic and hilarious pearl-clutching I saw over one of his public appearances–a church fellowship service where (GASP!) beer was served–is anything to go by.
I think I first mentioned him a few years ago. He’s probably most famous for writing a number of listicles over the years (which I touched on here) about various things Christians should stop doing or start doing. He’s got a blog on Patheos, as well, where I notice he’s still getting a lot of mileage out of those listicles.
Overall, I really wanted to like this book and its ideas, and some of it I do like. There’s a lot he gets right, a lot that his fellow Christians would do well to take on board. But there’s also a lot that he gets wrong because he is constrained by a worldview that is as untethered from reality as that of the evangelicals he criticizes so often.
A Universal “Hunger” That Only (the Right Kind of) Christianity Can Feed.
Right out of the gate, I audibly winced at Christian Piatt’s operational assumption about humanity: that we’re all “hungering” for something to fill the ache we all feel within us. It’s just more of that god-shaped hole nonsense that we’ve been hearing from fundagelical evangelists since forever. This kind of talk is simply the wind-up to a sales pitch.
That’s exactly what’s going on here, too. Christian Piatt goes on to declare that only in TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ can people truly find an answer to this deep internal ache. He writes (p. 23):
For decades, evangelists in our culture have sold Jesus as the solution to this hunger, and that by accepting him into our hearts, we will no longer experience such longing. But this is a false message. Truly, fully embracing the teaching and values of Jesus at the core of our lives causes us to be perpetually restless, discontent with things as they are.
Of course, you’ll search in vain in these first chapters for a short and sweet definition of how to do something so important. I’ll refer to this ultra-immersion as Jesus-ing harder, but please understand that just as my term might be maddeningly vague, so is this author’s description of exactly what he means.
Christian Piatt thinks that it is only through Jesus-ing harder that people can truly find answers for the needs that he thinks everyone has. In the reality-free zone that is Christianity generally, that’s not an uncommon idea–though it seems like every Christian who believes it has a very different idea of what proper Jesus-ing involves and requires.
He’s selling the idea of Jesus-ing harder to find meaning and joy in life as part of a narrative–but it is not one that serves its adherents very well.
A Narrative in Search of a Reality.
A narrative is a sort of story we tell ourselves that is built from the elements of things that happen to us or people around us. When we refer to a teen romance as being a Romeo and Juliet love story or cheer on a cancer survivor who is checking stuff off of their bucket list, we’re referring to narrative elements (and often transforming them in our minds to look totally different from whatever the source story was–such as in Romeo and Juliet, which people appear to forget has its titular young lovers committing suicide at the play’s end). Movies and TV shows rely on our affinity for narratives to instantly inform us of a character’s personality and motivations and to give shape to the story arc of those characters.
I’d reckon that just about everybody uses narratives to frame the events they see and experience. It’s not a bad thing to do that, either. Often that’s how we can make sense out of stuff that otherwise would be incomprehensible. We can quickly and easily categorize and respond to these events this way.
We run into trouble, however, when elements run counter to our narratives. When the cancer survivor just wants to lay in bed all day and eat gummy bears rather than date grunge-band drummers, run marathons, or visit Peru, it runs counter to the accepted narrative of the cancer survivor. If that teen romance turns out to contain domestic violence, neither the victim nor the couple’s close friends might recognize where that path is leading and seek help if need be. Or we might mistakenly think that the people in our social-media feed actually live the glamorous lives they’re curating so carefully for presentation, and feel envy at how much better they’re doing than we are.
Worse, when our allegiance lands firmly on the side of a narrative rather than to actual people, it can cause a lot of unnecessary grief and drama.
Christians are past masters of constructing narratives and then taking the side of those narratives over people’s actual lived experiences. That’s why we so often see them supporting absolute monsters because they’re doing so much good or they couldn’t possibly do something so terrible. That’s also why they tend to use good Christian as a shorthand to indicate someone’s vast moral superiority to other people. Oh yeah, Christians just love to see people in their tribe claiming to have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb and to have found through conversion the peace that surpasses all understanding–and they love these narratives so much that when it turns out that Jesus didn’t actually change those people or that they’re actually quite miserable, the tribe will just ignore or rationalize away those visible signs that the narrative isn’t true for that person.
That’s why, when I finally fled from my then-husband Biff, Christians who were fully aware that he’d emotionally abused and threatened me bought into his narrative of being the poor widdle grieving husband and tried to coax me into returning to him–and you can bet they saw me as the bad guy in the marriage for not giving him a second chance. (The way I saw it at the time, Biff had gotten and blown his second chance many years ago.) One guy I’d been friends with for years even cut friendship ties with me because he was so disgusted at what he saw as me rebuffing Biff’s increasingly forceful displays of love, devotion, repentance, and commitment. He preferred Biff’s proffered narrative to my terrifying reality of escalating partner abuse.
Christian Piatt would do well to remember that narratives must bow to people’s lived reality. He’s just as much a victim of the Christian love of narratives as fundagelicals are; his just look slightly different in their details.
The Narrative of the God-Shaped Hole.
Christian Piatt is working off of the idea that everybody has this ache to love and be loved, to be significant, to make a difference–again, not an unusual belief in Christianity. He’s gotten as far as realizing that most Christians are trying to fill that need with what he calls “a false antidote” (p.16):
We have been experts in identifying people’s longings, needs, brokenness, desires, and pain, but we have offered a false antidote. We have claimed that inviting Jesus as Lord and Savior into our hearts has an enduring, salvific effect that helps make the suffering and the longing go away. . . Our commoditization–and even monetization–of God as the solution to all of life’s problems has caused us to be seen as peddlers of a snake oil cure whose lack of efficacy has been found out.
I agree with him here. When he goes on to talk about how many Christians “still feel inner deficiency” like loneliness and “nagging emptiness,” that assertion, too, is completely true. We’ve talked many times about how Christianity, as a whole, doesn’t do much at all to actually improve adherents’ lives or bring them happiness or personal meaning–despite thousands of years of advertising to the contrary.
Nor do I think many folks would argue with him over the idea that many millions of Christians have created for themselves a daddy god who is mainly interested in making them happy and giving them presents. I would only gently submit that Christians from Catholicism to Pentecostalism have been saying for years exactly the same thing he says now about all the Christians who follow different flavors of the religion. All that differs is their idea of what the right flavor is. (Fundagelicals are totally convinced that the reason Progressives aren’t growing is because they’re not involved with the right flavor of Christianity, as just one example.)
Mr. Piatt is no different from the Christians he criticizes. He thinks people will never be truly happy in those wrong flavors, and they sure won’t be happy with no flavor at all. If they would only adopt the flavor he favors, they’d finally find some of what they’re looking for. This is the narrative of Know Jesus, know peace; No Jesus, no peace. (See it up-ended here.)
♫ And They Still Haven’t Found What They’re Looking For. ♫
Obviously Christian Piatt blames all the usual suspects for why people aren’t interested in his religion generally. Among other culprits, smartphones and social media get side-eyed for keeping people from recognizing their deep loneliness by disguising it with instant-but-cheap connections with people they barely know online, while Christians seek to quell their loneliness with the added false comfort of a sort of emotional prosperity gospel. Just imagine (and snerk over) what he’d think of Tinder, launched just a couple of years before his book was printed and was seeing over a billion “swipes” per day by 2014.
He considers these relationships shallow and inferior to his religious product and insists that they won’t fill the hunger inside everyone. And he concedes that his religion hasn’t helped a whole lot here, either, which has led to a population of people who “decline to recognize organized religion as critical to their lives” (p. 23).
And guys, that’s an astonishing and disrespectful way to characterize the growing rejection of his religion.
That phrase “decline to recognize” implies a certain amount of blame–like we were presented with this thing that is incredibly important, and we crossed our arms in response like childish brats and said NUH-UH! He makes our rejection of Christianity sound like a picky eater’s rejection of green vegetables.
If we could only accept how important Christianity is, he goes on to imply to his readers, we wouldn’t solve or cure our deep hunger, no–but we’d become consumed with the desire to bring about what he calls “this kingdom vision” of social justice, which would give us all the meaning, purpose, and companionship we could want as we worked tirelessly to make the world a better place since nobody supernatural appears to be magically making it happen.
Hooray Team Jesus!
What makes his assertions about the necessity of his flavor of Christianity so bizarre to me is that his introduction claims that he literally doesn’t care if someone’s a Christian or not, if they’re active church members or not, or whatever religious label someone uses for themselves. And then 20 pages or so later he’s telling us that everybody must “accept that God is the hunger” (p. 24) in order to “find God in the process” of liberating ourselves from the old ways of seeing Christianity. Christians seriously give me whiplash sometimes!
Here’s What’s Wrong With His Narrative.
A lot of folks find deep satisfaction from their connections online, and in fact for some of us it’s the only real connection we have when we live in the middle of a lot of Christian love. His judgment about the legitimacy or strength or value of any of our relationships isn’t necessary–or requested.
Further, we’re not rejecting Mr. Piatt’s religion because we “decline to recognize” its importance, but rather because it isn’t actually important to us. That’s a critical distinction, but one that he–as a salesperson for his religion–cannot recognize. In his narrative, his religion is always important to everyone, forever, everywhere; anyone who thinks otherwise is simply Jesus-ing wrong. I’m betting that as I continue to read, I’ll find that he places the blame for our low opinion of his religion on all those Christians who aren’t Jesus-ing correctly.
Moreover, nobody has to belong to a religion to do great things in the world. Religious-infused social justice is diluted to an extent that many folks find unacceptable. As just one example of that dilution, Christian charities know that their donors’ approval–and dollars–are closely tied to the charity’s Christian bona fides. Remember World Vision losing supporters over their decision to hire people in same-sex relationships? Remember how they ended up withdrawing that decision to try to regain some of those supporters? Christians will even punish starving children if they feel challenged. Even when donors aren’t going that far, Christian charities don’t tend to be nearly as efficient as secular charities.
Most damning, quite a few of the ills in our world that social justice seeks to remedy were themselves caused or exacerbated by religious overreach and abuse. Though (to his credit) Mr. Piatt appears to recognize the source of those ills, I’m not sure if it’s even possible to repair the damage caused by a broken system by a half-reformed arm of that same broken system.
Christian Piatt has a more humane-sounding product to sell than most of his peers do, but the truth is, it’s not necessary to our lives, nor is it really as compassionate and respectful of others as it seems. Maybe that’s why, in the three years since this book was published, Progressive Christians still haven’t gotten a lot of traction. No matter how nice his buggy-whip is, people just don’t want to buy buggy-whips these days. We don’t need them. We only want the people who still want to drive buggies to please stay in their own lane and not cause accidents or slowdowns for the rest of us. And the further they push their narrative about how their particular kind of buggy whip would make our lives immeasurably better if we’d only buy it and use it the way they suggest (which entails buying horses and buggies and all that jazz, of course!), the harder we’re going to keep rejecting them. It doesn’t matter how hard Christians Jesus at us; if we don’t want or need their product, we’re not going to buy it.
We’re going to talk next about the big problem with provocation–and about the rather narcissistic focus on apologies over action that marks so many Christians, and we’ll see if we can’t fit in a discussion about Jesus Auras and exactly what the root of much evil is–because Mr. Piatt is quite wrong about that as well. And we’ve got something coming after the holidays that is going to put quite a fine point on the Christian culture war against women’s rights. It’s going to be a busy few weeks! See you soon.
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