Not the Religious Type
- 2008 3 Jul
I’m in the middle of the novel How to Be Good, by Nick Hornby, and I can’t say I’m enjoying it as much as I’d hoped to. It’s about a demoralized London doctor and her angry husband, who undergoes a strange conversion and becomes utterly good—selfless, concerned about the wider world, sacrificial. But rather than being comic, as Hornby customarily—and brilliantly—is, he strikes me here as grim. The world he paints offers two choices for our lives: guilt-ridden, culturally savvy liberalism or humorless, scarcity-obsessed goodness. It’s as if we can (a) write for the New Yorker or (b) lead the Bolshevik Revolution.
Not that this has an entirely unfamiliar feel to me. In my teen atheist years, my mom tried to convince me to go to church because it could offer me “a good thought for the week.” She’s a great lady, but this didn’t do it for me. Like all people, I was already sold on my goodness, if not my happiness. (Al Capone infamously saw himself as a selfless champion of the little people.)
Of the hundreds of people I’ve seen encounter God over the last few years, one thing nearly all of them have in common is that they never—never—saw themselves as the religious type. I live in the shadow of Harvard, where almost no one sees himself or herself as the religious type. (A 1995 survey—hard to pin down but widely quoted—found that only 2 percent of folks living in my city went to church on a given week, compared to 35 to 40 percent nationwide.) But my friends would, almost to a one, tell you that what’s happened to them has had very little to do with making them better people, as happy as that thought might be.
For instance, I asked some of them to take a minute and write down what has happened to them on a napkin-sized piece of paper. I got responses like this:
"Me before: No friends, into pornography, broken marriage, horribly burdened at work, couldn’t sleep at night, detached from my own emotions, complete lack of hope for the future, favorite saying (no joke): 'Every day is worse than the one before.'
"Me after: Great friends, incredible hope, sexually pure, conversations with my Creator, sleeping eight hours a night, improved relationship with my ex-wife, have seen my family find God, seeking God’s will in my life and knowing he will fulfill it."
"I prayed that I would be healed from anorexia and am now at a healthy weight and have rejoined the track and cross-country teams at my college."
"I found out that my aunt and uncle’s marriage was unraveling due to an affair. I fasted and prayed for them. After thirty-eight days, I was contacted by my uncle. He was about to sign a lease on an apartment to move in with his lover. Before he could sign, he felt an almost audible voice in his head say, “stop.” He went back to my aunt and started to see how their marriage could be saved. She found a way to forgive him. He was calling me to find out whether this voice was Jesus. It’s been about three years and my aunt and uncle are happily together (and my eleven-year-old cousin is doing great). They are both following God now and have since then encouraged me in faith."
When people find out where I live and the types of people I spend my days talking to, they assume that I have a lot of heady conversations about truth and proofs and theorems. But I really don’t have heady conversations very often (though I am trying to learn a little more about physics so I can nod at the right place in conversations).
What I do talk about again and again is one particularly depressing day I had as an atheist when I spun around to see if there was anything else out there—and seemed to slam straight into a God bent on giving me all sorts of incredible and unexpected things.
I recently was reminded about a Hebrew word—hesed—that, when applied to God, gets translated as “mercy” or “kindness” and tells us two things: (1) God will keep his end of the deal, and (2) God will blow us away with shocking acts of kindness, love, and power when we least expect them. My friends and I tell stories along these lines quite a bit.
I’ve got a lot of problems, trivial and otherwise, as I’ll talk about soon enough. So on the mundane side, I used to be thinner than I am now, which feels discouraging. And then there was the day when my baby daughter went from being this vibrant little girl to being—as I was told by the cardiologist who checked her in—maybe the sickest child in a hospital where people bring the sickest kids from all over the world.
And you’ve probably noticed that the world has a lot of problems. I’ve spent time in Lebanon, and I have a few friends there. As I write this, Lebanon is being bombed into rubble, and I’m getting e-mails each day about my friends’ harrowing attempts to get out of the country alive. You’ve noticed similarly wrenching items in your morning paper. In the face of problems like this, perhaps the only appropriate response would be a permanently furrowed brow, as if God himself must live a righteously grim life.
And yet there are very few times when, as I’m lying down for the night, I don’t think about what’s happened to me and shake my head in wonder. How I got to this point has felt like one strange journey.
From Not the Religious Type. Copyright © 2008 by Dave Schmelzer. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188.