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For the raving mad only! A response to the Hinge podcast

Slaying the illusions around you. OpEd

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The Prodigal Son by Albrecht Durer, c1496. Detail colorized by A Journey through NYC religions

 

When he becomes detached from family and friends, a man enters into a kind of twilight existence. Their world seems petty. Their old traditions, once believed, seem mirage-like. The man’s isolation intensifies. Then, one night, on a restless stroll, he sees a faded sign that reads, MAGIC THEATER: ENTRANCE NOT FOR EVERYBODY…MADMEN ONLY!

He pauses to grasp its attraction to him. He has a choice, will he dare to enter the theater, thereby recognizing that he is a madman, or will he just remain in the life that he has always known and deny that he is mad. Such a dilemma presented itself to the lead character in Steppenwolf, a novel written as Germany was falling apart in the 1920s.

The play button of the new podcast Hinge should be labeled with such a sign, FOR MADMEN ONLY!

Here’s the premise of the podcast, for anyone who thinks that an over-dramatic statement: two friends, Drew Sokol, a pastor of the Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the other Cory Markum, a writer for the successful blog Atheist Republic, team together to pursue to the furthest possible clarity the claims made by followers of Jesus Christ that he is God, died, and was resurrected. On that event hinges the veracity of the Christian faith; for “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” as one of Jesus’ followers observed.

 

Photo by Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

On the other hand, if it can be proved that Christ had been raised, the atheist may have to reconsider some of his basic assumptions. Whose world will fall apart?

That’s the mad terror of such a project: each partner was committed to the honesty of their interviews and conversations to the point of acknowledging that if either one found their beliefs unmistakably proven wrong, he would have to change what his entire career, and life, was based upon. “It would feel like the choice had been made for me,” said Sokol. To dive into an investigation so exhaustive and so profound that it might overturn one’s entire life, to open oneself up to such a risk for the sake of discovering truth, takes a bit of madness to commit to!  It also seems to involve a bit of desperation for such truth. And these days feel desperate.

This is not the first project of its kind to be published. The most popular might be the recounting of journalist and atheist Lee Strobel’s investigation into the historical Jesus. He was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who started researching his wife’s turn toward Christianity. Along the way, Strobel became a Christian himself and wrote the book The Case for Christ  as a testament to the facts that convinced him. Published in 1998, the book reflected a happier time of evangelical Christian resurgence. Now, a younger generation is searching for its own pathway.

Unlike other such projects that have been undertaken and published, Hinge’s podcast format required that the interviews and conversations between the partners be recorded extemporaneously, and shifts in the speakers’ tone or conviction captured in situ. So, there was no predetermined outcome to the podcast’s exploration. We are in the grasp of a faith or non-faith journey. Sokol did not decide to publish these interviews after he already convinced his atheist friend to become a Christian, or vice versa. Each episode feels authentic because the risk at the end is real.

I can’t speak for the atheist or skeptical half of listeners, but after a life of growing up in New York City churches, I resonated a lot with the opening episodes of the podcast.

 

 

My parents were on staff with Here’s Life Inner City, the urban branch of the national ministry Campus Crusade for Christ, now called Cru, so they had roots in congregations across the five boroughs. My earliest memories are of a Vineyard church in uptown Manhattan and of Trinity Assembly of God, a small Hispanic church on the Lower East Side. Both of these churches were on the charismatic end of the church spectrum, Trinity especially being open to expressions of the Spirit during their worship services.

My mother and father were involved in social outreach through Trinity, most notably in launching an educational afterschool initiative called Say YES! that was a safe space for children in the neighborhood whose parents might not be home or be able to help them with schoolwork. At Trinity, I saw the Church as an open hand to people who need help and a haven for those who have nowhere else to go.

When I was a little older, my parents started attending Brooklyn Tabernacle, a large, multicultural church that back then met in an old theater on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue. Brooklyn Tabernacle defined my first understanding of what a “church” is. The congregation reflected the multinationalism of the city. People from around the world were loud and jubilant in their worship. The music rose from the stage to the highest nosebleed seats (where my family inevitably sat every Sunday—we were not a punctual family) and seeped into the deepest crevices of my brain, the deep bass and the soaring voices a visceral feeling of the Spirit in my body. The music seemed to have a will of its own and one song could carry into a half hour.

My parents loved Brooklyn Tabernacle, but the size made it hard for my sister and I to sustain friendships. By the time I was in the sixth grade, we had started attending a church recommended by others at Here’s Life and that met in the auditorium of Hunter College on the Upper East Side: Redeemer Presbyterian Church. My parents had heard a lot about the preaching of Timothy Keller and decided to try it out.

I sometimes went to the youth group but more and more became interested in staying in the service and listening to the sermon. Then. I started taking meticulous notes in journals I bought specifically for that purpose. Keller’s preaching style lent itself to easy note taking, and these journals looked like pages of a college student’s exam papers. And the subjects were heady stuff. The New York Times has described Keller’s style as “cogent, literary,” and he is now widely acclaimed as one of the most intellectual Christian thinkers of our time. At an age where a lot of my peers were becoming suspicious of authority and citing the cynical philosophies of Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins for why religion is a lie, I was listening to sermons that used those same philosophies to make an argument for the veracity of the Bible.

Listening to him, I became convinced that the Church was intellectually superior to any other option in this world, and anyone who didn’t believe it just didn’t get it. The fools who think to question the existence of God because there’s evil in the world? Well, they should just listen to Keller’s series on the book of Job. Think science has all the answers? Keller proves that that’s just as much a faith claim as religion, and at least my beliefs come with a moral system, sucker.

 

The World [of the unbeliever] Topsy-Turvy, detail. By Juan Llorens, 1861.

Where a more mature person might listen to Keller and come away thinking that they had a lot to learn, I just got cocky. I felt like I—we—had the answer to everything.

Then, I went to college. A mixture of being away from home and getting a little older made me more aware of the people around me. One of my first roommates was from Haiti and had a huge desire to work for social justice for women and the LGBT community. I met friends whose lives were impacted by someone’s suicide, who asked, “If God is good, how can he let people get that desperate? And does he really condemn them to hell for taking their own lives?”

I met people who simply said, “I’m lonely and scared. I don’t want to think about an abstract God when I’m struggling with so much that’s right in front of me.”

At first I tried to shout answers at them, prove that I had the right ones. It took several years for me to learn that the answers I thought I had weren’t enough. They felt so trite in the face of death and social injustice. So then I started asking myself, “If God really cares about our immortal souls, why doesn’t he show up in a big way to prove to people that he’s real?” And, “If Christians have a better moral compass than people who aren’t Christians, why are so many of the works of compassion and outreach that I see done by nonbelievers?”

Where I found mounting questions, doubts, and confusions on one side, on the side of Christians I found staunch certainty and an unwillingness to dive into these painful, messy, scary topics. I found pat answers and the same condescension that I had started to develop when I began relying on intellect as my saving grace.

I began to crave, as Sokol talks about in the first episode of Hinge, an escape from the Christian “echo-chamber” that didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. I wanted some reassurance that Christianity was not what I had started to see it to be.

Reporting for A Journey through NYC Religions allowed for some relief in the midst of these questions. Our team has visited churches, as well as houses of all sorts of worship, who truly are the hands and feet of mercy on the streets of New York City, who aren’t afraid of the mess of figuring out life, and who say, “We don’t have all the answers, but you’re welcome to come along for the ride!”

 

Pauline Dolle at Steampunk gathering, Manhattan, New York. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

I listened to the first episode of the podcast sitting at a window-side table in a coffee shop where lots of students and writers go to camp out for the day. I put my earbuds in my ears and clicked play. Sokol shared about his moment of being onstage and realizing that he, a pastor, did not believe what he was preaching anymore. He said, “As a pastor, it was my job to have answers and in that moment I felt, I don’t, I don’t have answers.”

I heard that line and two things happened: 1) I immediately decided to listen to the rest of the episodes only in the privacy of my own home, because 2) my eyes welled up, my throat closed, and I began to cry.

I’m still not entirely sure what made me cry. Part of it was resonance with Drew’s story and his doubts. Part of it was the frustration of not being out of the woods yet and being fearful of coming out to find my faith completely gone.

Part of it was relief of hearing someone else voice my thoughts from the past several years and not try to discredit or avoid or mitigate them.

As the radio host Drew Marshall talks about in Hinge’s second episode, when a person embedded in a Christian community starts to voice doubts and “crisis of faith,” the response of the believers around them is so quickly to go on alert, and to go on the offensive. When I started making decisions that were outside the proper path for a Christian kid, I got a lot of advice and prayers and concern that I didn’t ask for and didn’t feel were warranted. My parents mournfully listed my name in prayer in their church small groups. My well-meaning high school youth leader handed me a post-it with Deuteronomy 30:15-20 cited on it, and the simple two words, “Choose life!” When I decided to marry a non-Christian, my aunts emailed me articles by Kathy Keller and John Piper about why it was not only unwise but unlawful for me to marry outside the fold. And the pressure felt so great that instead of talking with these people who care about me and hope they would help me wrestle through my thoughts and emotions and come to a place on the other side that made sense to me and was honest, I just wanted to bail.

 

Discouragement. Window at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church. Morris Park, Bronx, New York. Photo: Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions

 

Then there was another type of relief, the relief that the podcast was what it said it was from the beginning, that this partnership between a pastor and an atheist was actually equal and was actually an honest inquiry into questions that they disagreed on, that the ending wasn’t preconceived, that the journey wasn’t really just a contrived path to The Answer.

I’ve grown to hold my breath about Christian-promoted events to wait to see if they turn out to be bait and switches. I’ve invited enough friends to youth-group sponsored “hangouts” where they were ambushed with worship time and prayer before the snacks were put out. I’ve read enough “investigative” books where, surprise! The Christian was right all along! I’ve been invited to coffee with people who wanted to “discuss life,” and when I’ve gotten there found them with stacks of literature and a study guide. I’ve seen a surprising amount of deception for the sake of conversion in a faith that is supposed to be all about truth. There was an immense amount of relief to find Hinge be what it claimed to be.

I still love the church and still consider myself a Christian. But at the risk of sounding dramatic, here’s an analogy. In the HBO television series Game of Thrones, there is a character named Theon Greyjoy, who is prince of a small island but was taken away when he was a small boy and lived his entire life under the guardianship of a more sovereign lord. But he lives his entire life with this pride of being heir to the island, whenever he returns home. When he finally does return, he is captured by an enemy who tortures him to make him deny his identity. The tormentor alternately lures Theon into senses of security with freedom and adoration, and brutally dismembering him. By the end of the torture, Theon is frightened and confused, and does not know who he is. His tormentor has made him take a new name, one that he repeats to himself. But when he meets others who call him by his princely name, confusion flickers behind his eyes. He remembers who he used to be. He wants to return to that identity. But he no longer trusts the promise of that name after being disillusioned by traps.

I grew up believing that the Christian identity is good, compassionate, connected and intellectually sound. I still have love for the church and for the Scriptures, and feel truth and goodness when I read certain passages and hear a great sermon. I want the church to be the picture that I grew up believing that it was.

But I also see the self-righteous certainty of the church and the arrogance and belittling that is done in the name of Christianity. I hear what other people outside the church say about Christians. They see not a city on the hill, an example to be followed, but an example of exactly what NOT to do. I’ve seen firsthand the deception and defensiveness of a brand of evangelism that feels threatened -- and confusion flickers in my mind. Are these the people I love? Is this the church I defend? Is this my identity? Am I, are we, noble, pure, true, righteous? Or are we something else?

Even more, when Christians talk about having a bold faith, a fearless faith, a faith that’s willing to take risks, does it truly mean being fearless? Or does it mean being fearless within the confines of what we’ve already decided is true?

I began to cry, because I want a faith that isn’t scared to look into its questions. That doesn’t become defensive and clammed up at a hint of challenge. That lets itself be honest, and vulnerable, and open to learning. That hears other people when they say, “But…”

More than simply wanting, that’s what I believe what, at it’s core, Christianity is supposed to be. At the end of Steppenwolf, the main character plunges into the Magic Theater and after slaying the illusions that surround him, finds what is real and true in his life. I pray that anyone who comes across Hinge has the courage and humility to follow Sokol and Markum inside as well.

 

itunes Episode 1 It was my job to have answers.

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Hinge duo -- Cory Markum & Drew Sokol. Photo: Hinge.

 

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