Lenten Meditation 28 March 2012
“Threat and fear is not transformation.” (Page 173)
|The Harrowing of Hell, Netherlandish,, Nasher Museum of Art|
When I arrived to register as a student at Nashotah House in August 1971, Sheila and I and our son Trey had obtained an apartment in nearby Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, as there was no housing available on campus for additional married students. However, married students, both those who lived off campus and those who lived in the “flats,” were assigned a study room in the Cloister which had been originally designed for single students. My study room was in a suite in “B House” on the back side facing the lake. The suite was three rooms, two small bedrooms and a common room with toilet facilities adjacent to the suite. When I arrived to arrange my room, I discovered that there were two other students with whom I would share the suite. Because I arrived first I chose one of the bedrooms believing that the common room would be busier with comings and goings, and my supposition later proved to be correct.
In my study room were a bed, a small book shelf, and a desk and chair; to say the room was full would be an understatement. I immediately noticed a poster on the wall that had been left by a student who had previously used “my” room. When I first saw the poster, I stood and stared at it for some time, and decided it had to remain. The poster said: “Because you have shouted someone into silence doesn’t mean you have converted them!” I do not remember if there was an attribution or citation for the quotation, but I knew that that was to be my theme for theological study. In the fall of the next year, one of my roommates and I decided to stay together but requested that we move to the “front” side B House, and we were granted our request. As I made the move, taking my accumulated books and other student “stuff”, I took the poster and taped it to the wall in my new “digs” where it stayed for the next two years. I left the poster for a successor student, never knowing where it had come from originally or whether he would either keep or dispose of it. (Nashotah was almost totally male in those days.)
Having grown up in Oklahoma, “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” (I know other parts of the Old South claim that attribution also) I was aware of the evangelistic methods of fear and threat. I never understood why anyone would be drawn to a religion that constantly berated its members with threats of eternal condemnation for any minuscule misdeed. The God of Love that I was hearing about at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Chickasha did not sound like the same wrathful, angry God that my friends who attended some of the other churches in town were telling me about from their faith perspective. The Rev. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was alive and well and being preached in paraphrase weekly in the 1950s and 60s in Chickasha, Oklahoma.
What amazed me even more than an image of an angry God was the way in which my classmates professed this God but acted like the rest of us 99% of the time. Dancing for many of my classmates was a dreadful sin with dire consequences; the jaws of Hell were gaping wide to devour sinners who danced or went parking or stayed out late. But I believe almost everybody in my class was present for Friday night “sock hops” in the high school gym. I had a long conversation with a friend from one of those churches that preached fear and threat, and I asked him about the incongruity of belief and action. Neither he nor others with whom I has similar conversations could give me an answer except to say that this was a way to try to keep people “in line.”
Years after I graduated from high school I began to speak of fear and threat evangelism as “spiritual fire insurance.” Over the centuries, Christians took the images of Heaven and Hell, union with God and separation from God and gave them geographical locations. The deliciousness of torment—for others, of course—reached its pinnacle in Dante’s Inferno. Few read beyond Inferno to find Purgatorio truly cleansing and fewer to discover in Paradiso the culmination of Christian unity with God. Some writers and preachers have even attempted to locate within earthly parameters the sites of both Heaven and Hell. Christian Scripture describes hell using Gehenna, Jerusalem’s burning garbage dump, as its primary image. Heaven is always “above” as would have been understood by our predecessors who thought of creation in a three tier universe.
For me, the most unfortunate aspect of a theology of fear and threat is that the work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is horribly skewed. That perspective makes Jesus the appeaser of an angry God who desires – no, demands - human sacrifice. The only difference between that understanding and that of a multitude of other ancient religions is that Jesus is the only sacrifice, whereas the others required periodical, sometimes frequent offerings of human blood, sometimes enemies, sometimes their own children. The basic understanding, however, is the same: God’s ravenous anger must be fed with human blood. It is little wonder that many in our post-Christian era have no interest for themselves in a God who demands human sacrifice, even the sacrifice of Jesus.
Tomorrow and for the rest of the week, I am going to focus my essays on what is called Atonement theories, or what the Cross is all about. If you want to read ahead, Chapter Nine of Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality is all about Atonement. We Western Christians have a particular doctrine of Atonement which I believe feeds into the threat and fear theology. How can that understanding be changed? Tune in tomorrow; same time, same station.