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Fear and the American Church

Barbara Brown Taylor
Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Piedmont College

Adjunct Professor of Christian Spirituality, Columbia Theological Seminary

Clarkesville, Georgia

I find myself so helped and heartened by Scott Bader-Saye’s article on keeping faith in a fearful world that my response will seek to apply his wisdom to my own context.  In short, that context is the rural South—northeast , to be exact—where I teach religion at a private, four year liberal arts college dually affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches.  While the student body includes a handful of international students as well as a few from other states, most students come from towns so nearby that they drive home on the weekends.  The majority of them were raised in Southern Baptist households, and a number have been home-schooled for religious reasons.

Like me, they live in a part of the country where the church is easily as scary as the culture.  Fresh hand-lettered signs in blood red paint still appear on the trunks of pine trees by the roadside.  “Jesus is coming.  Are you ready?”  “Repent before it is too late.”  These messages are repeated live at funerals in these parts, where country preachers take seriously their responsibility to frighten unbelieving mourners into the arms of Christ.

Even those of us who minimize our visits to such churches cannot avoid the threats on their billboards.  “Give Satan an inch and he will become your Ruler.”  “If you think it’s hot now, just wait.”  The longest one I have ever read, which required so many plastic letters that some backwards 3’s served as E’s, was “God is good.  It’s a shame so many will perish in the lake of everlasting fire.”

This semester I am teaching a special topics course in apocalyptic literature.  Fourteen undergraduates have joined me, becoming mini-experts in 20th and 21st century millennial groups as well as in the genre of biblical literature that includes both Daniel and Revelation.  The three required texts for the class are Apocalyptic Literature by Stephen Cook; Rapture, Revelation and the End Times by Forbes and Kilde; and the Oxford College Edition of the NRSV Bible.  This last has proven especially valuable, as we have all discovered what the Bible really says about the end of the world (which is considerably less than most of us thought it did).

Since one student is writing her senior paper on the phenomenon of hell houses, she invited her classmates to visit one in nearby Dawsonville.  I was spared the experience thanks to a weekend trip out of town, but the students who went were happy to fill me in on the details when I returned.

For readers who may not be familiar with hell houses (or judgment houses, as they are sometimes called), they appear in local churches every fall a couple of weeks before Halloween.  A variation on haunted houses, they generally involve a guided tour past various gory scenarios in which people are doing things guaranteed to land them in hell—including but not limited to abortion, drunk driving, suicide, and homosexual liaisons.  The scenarios make use of a great deal of fake blood, and are accompanied by deafening soundtracks of wailing, moaning, pleading human voices.

The penultimate room is hell itself, presided over by a Satan found nowhere in the gospels.  The room is dark, loud, and putrid-smelling, with various damned souls writhing in the shadows.  Once hell house visitors have gotten enough of this room to turn their stomachs, they are shown into a light, quiet, and sweet-smelling room where they are invited to give their lives to Christ.

When my students sorted through their experience later in class, they all confessed to being stunned by the bloody violence of this church-sponsored attraction.  They also questioned the value of any conversion to Christ so motivated by fear.  And yet the hell house had been so crowded that they had to wait an hour for their turn.  Relating this to the popularity of the Left Behind series of movies and books, they wondered out loud why millions of Christians are so attracted to end-time scenarios, especially when those scenarios are violent.

Some students thought that too many Christians had allowed Hollywood to capture their imaginations.  Others admitted that their own wish for answers about the end time was so strong that they found themselves drawn to anyone who professed to know those answers.  All of them recognized the strong desire to belong to the winning side, which they also recognized in the apocalyptic groups that they studied for class.

One characteristic of such groups is their cosmic dualism, with clear boundaries drawn between good and evil.  A second characteristic of such groups is their certainty that they are on the side of good—and that this excuses them from anything they may say or do to those who are on the other side.  Thanks to Walter Wink, I have learned to recognize this as the myth of redemptive violence: the myth that violence can bring an end to violence, when the good rise up against the evil.  Unfortunately, few of my undergraduates see anything wrong with this story.  As far as many of them are concerned, the cheek-turning Jesus of the gospels is just biding his time until he can come back as the sword-wielding warrior of the apocalypse.

In light of all this, I would add an appendix to Bader-Saye’s article, in which the church itself is a major player in the North American culture of fear.  Or perhaps I should say “the churches,” since I have never been more aware that there are as many Christianities as there are Christians in the .   Given the historical dominance of Protestant Christianity in this country, the popularity of civil religion, and the wedding of apocalyptic vision with national goals under the present administration, it seems to me that “a counter-cultural people of hope” may find themselves in the peculiar position of countering their own local church cultures.

Bader-Saye’s strategies remain sturdy ones, in my view.  In our own churches, we may still resist the twin temptations of contracting or attacking.  We may question allocations of our financial and human resources that focus on strengthening our own positions in our communities instead of staying focused on the needs of our neighbors.  We may challenge ways of reading scripture or doing theology that assure us of our own privilege instead of helping us to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  We may decline to identify ourselves by identifying our enemies, striving instead to articulate our reasons for the hope that is in us.

In terms of learning to “fear rightly,” we can learn to fear our own shrinkage—not in terms of numbers but in terms of the spaciousness of our own souls.  We can learn to fear when there are too few strangers in church instead of too many, and when we teach our children how to behave around them, we can make sure they know that Jesus did talk to strangers, all the time.  We can learn to fear low numbers on our spiritual odometers, which tell us that we have stuck too close to our centers of safety.  We can fear spending more time in church than we do in the world we exist to serve, and we can even learn to fear dying with too much money in the bank instead of too little.

While I am grateful to Bader-Saye for resuscitating the notion of divine providence, which in its popular version too easily masks theological denial, I remain more interested in the present than in the future.  If divine providence rightly understood means that God will provide, does it not also mean that God provides right now?  As often as I have been helped by the passage of time, so that I can see the life that has come out of death, the greater challenge for me is to stay tuned to God’s providence in the present moment.

To be able to recognize the demolishing of idols that can take place during one night of physical pain seems as precious to me than the hope of getting well.  To acknowledge the cauterizing holiness of death as I sit by the bed of a loved one strikes me as at least as important as the hope of resurrection.  With the Holy Spirit on my shoulder, I pray not for hope in the future but for trust in the present.  That way I am never tempted to go to sleep for a hundred years and hope that everything is better when I wake up.

Maybe I am just perverse, but when I read the life of Jesus, I do not read hope as the opposite of fear.  Instead, I read kenosis as the opposite of fear: Jesus’ trembling but real willingness to empty himself of everything but love for love’s sake.  By my count, this included his family of origin, his home, his possessions, his hope of a wife and children, his inheritance, his religious respectability, and his political safety even before it included his life.  According to Luke, he sweated blood in the garden of Gethsemane, but that was the only blood on his hands.  When presented with the myth of redemptive violence—the chance to strike back at those who struck him–he said no thanks.  He took the violence into himself, where it finished the job of emptying him out, but not without failing to recruit him to its side.

As Bader-Saye says in his article, Jesus’ ability to live and die in this way may have hinged on his “trust that the future was ultimately in God’s hands.”  If so, then it was fed by his trust that the present was in God’s hands as well—no matter how it turned out.  My reason for making this distinction, slight as it may seem, is that I stay keenly aware of the way in which Christian hope can become an excuse for checking out of the present, especially when the fulfillment of that hope rests solely in God’s hands.

My Anglicanism may be showing here, but I do trust that God not only invites human participation in the healing of the world but also insists on it, to the point that God refuses to act alone.   Once, when a friend of mine was praying very hard for something to happen, the answer to his prayer sounded in his ear as clearly as a voice.  “Don’t ask me to do something you can do yourself,” the voice said.  Where keeping faith in a fearful world is concerned, I am grateful to Scott Bader-Saye for suggesting some very clear things that people of faith can do—not only for themselves but also for a sometimes-frightening church in the world that God so loves.

Questions for reflection:

1) Can you identify the myth of redemptive violence at work in the world right now?  How do Christian scripture and tradition support this myth?  How do Christian scripture and tradition refute this myth?

2) If you belong to a Christian community, then what do you wish your church feared more?  What do you wish your church feared less?

3) Recall a time when you experienced divine providence.  What characterized that time for you?  How did you know it was God who provided?