I have two colleagues who constantly irritate me but have taught me volumes about how to speak about faith. I seek them out, no matter how easily I could avoid them. I dare say they rarely hang out with each other – or maybe they do and just don’t invite me.
One is yelling radio preacher guy. When I am just past Charlottesville, Virginia, driving south on 29, when the mountains are just behind me and Liberty University comes into view, when I am alone so that my backtalk won’t upset the children, I tune in. Over the radio, I hear the unmistakable voice of the radio preacher. There he (always a he) goes, talking about seeyun and Jahezus. He repeats his phrases so I don’t forget the key points. There are always three points. I welcome this twangy Falwellian voice, the one who calls me ‘friend’ over and over again, though none of my friends speak that way. I open myself to the possibility that I will be surprised and actually agree with some of what he might say. I surrender to the possibility that I might be horrified with what he might say. Sometimes it’s both.
What strikes me is how little the radio preacher cares about being cool. He claims he still uses a flip phone. Even his jokes about his smokin’ hot wife whom he repeatedly annoys might be funny, but he is on such a roll that he allows no pause for comic relief. He seems instead to gasp for breaths in between points. Beneath his anecdotes and heaps of Biblical quotes, there is certainty. He knows he is on the narrow path, and there are few with him. He says, “Make no mistake: most of you who think you are Christians are not.” And there is anger: anger that Christianity no longer holds the sway it once did, anger about the way our government is being run, anger that the Beast is on the loose and the End of Days are near, anger that other Christians could care less. There is fear too: fear of liberal contamination of the Gospel, fear of persecution, fear of spending eternity without those who he knows are lost. God is on his side, or at least he thinks so.
Enter my other colleague, Internet atheist guy. He posts bumper sticker style updates on Facebook like “Atheism is a religion like off is a television channel.” “No evidence = No Belief.” He equates Christianity with stupidity and hypocrisy. Unlike radio preacher guy, he is very cool. He’s a wiz with technology. He has photoshopped Walt from the mini-series Breaking Bad into a demonical Jesus under the words “Breaking Bread.” He has Zombie eye-bleeding Jesus and a quote from Revelation under the words “The Living Dead.” He has taken agnostics and secular humanists under his wing, though they aren’t sure they want to be there. I am always agitated and sad when I read his posts, but I keep doing it.
Beneath all his snarky posts, there is anger. Anger at the privileged place Christianity still holds, with its holidays and 10 Commandments carved in stone as if it were the law of the land. Anger at how much hurt has been done in the name of religion and how much it holds back progress. Anger at how religion has been used to manipulate people while other sinister powers pull the strings. Anger at abusive priests and thieving pastors and prayers around flagpoles and his aunt Phyllis who still insists on “praying for him.” There is fear too, that the Christian Right might hijack the country, that the US might become a theocracy, or that the world might come to an end, not because of Christ’s return but because of climate-change deniers or those who might just invoke another Holy War.
Despite the way these two get under my skin, stir up in me paranoia and frustration, I can’t imagine an honest faith conversation without them. They keep me open. They keep me humble. They remind me that Jesus ate his meals with folks that made mainstream religious people squirm. Through them, I better understand my own congregation, which at any given point has in its pews those who identify with one or the other of my strident conversation partners. Through them, I come to understand my own family better, which on any given holiday brings together fervent believers and non-believers in a mix that can be as tasty as a good casserole or as awkward as a reality show. Through them, I come to understand my own soul better… my own churning from bright light to darkness, from cross to empty tomb, from good Friday to Easter Sunday, a dizzying, staggering walk of faith. I understand the Apostle Paul who could say in one sentence, “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief.” Hearing them both out, the fundy and the atheist, makes me study the Bible with fresh intensity and marvel at miracles that scientists are unearthing every day.
And at some point, when the radio signal fades or the computer shuts down, I feel as though I have stared into the empty tomb and the creating God of the universe has stared back. My blood pressure has gone up. My gray matter has fired on all cylinders. My own identity as Christian of the Presbyterian tradition is bolstered, where such paradoxes are welcomed. And, I raise a toast to my companions with gratitude for being willing to talk about what matters most, to press the issue, to push the conversation to its farthest implications. Cheers. Wine, grape juice, microbrew, take your pick.
Becca Messman is the associate pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Virginia. She leads “Lunch for the Soul” – a ministry with Hispanic day laborers. Her other passions are preaching and offering pastoral prayers, leading retreats, energizing church leaders to serve the community around them, youth and young adult ministry, and cultivating the “fear and trembling” holy journey of parenting. She lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband Dave, her two young children, and her dog Luna.