I watched Kevin Macdonald’s marvellous film Life in a Day last night. It’s made up of footage from around the world, 4500 hours distilled into 90 minutes, supposedly showing the story of one day on planet Earth. It’s beautiful in its richness and variety, and occasionally utterly hilarious, but there’s also a couple of scenes in it that stuck out to me as kind of jarring.
The most noticeable of these was in a section where people across the globe were talking honestly and vulnerably about what they fear. Responses ranged from the predictable – spiders, snakes – to the deeply heartfelt (“I fear losing someone I love; that’s why I avoid getting close to people, because if you love someone and then they go, how do you carry on?”)
But there was one girl in the States who popped up in the centre of this and declared, “my biggest fear is that there’s all these people out there who don’t know Jesus Christ as their personal lord and saviour. And if they die without knowing him, they’re going to hell. That scares me.”
That’s a word-for-word repetition of what millions of people across the world would articulate about Christianity. It makes theological sense. I even agree with it. So why would anyone have a problem with that?
Well, you just have to watch the eyes.
Watching people honestly confessing the things they truly fear is incredibly moving. Its frightening to be that vulnerable, but it’s also powerful for the same reason. You see something about who that person truly is, and how they respond to that fear too, how it defines them.
Maybe it is just because I am cynical, but where there is honesty in confessing, say, a fear of personal intimacy, this girl’s response seemed muffled by the words that she used. She seemed detached from what she was saying – almost like she wasn’t really feeling it at all.
It wasn’t just her, either. The man who declared, “I love my wife, I love my kids, I love my land, I love my dog, but most of all I love my lord and saviour, Jesus Christ”, too, or the Muslim guy who stated, “I fear nothing but Allah. I fear him alone.” They were speaking words that articulated something about their belief or faith, but those words fell far short.
What they acknowledged (knowingly or otherwise) was mystification, or need, or a desire for sanity or an ordered framework through which they could make sense of the world. But in almost all their cases, they resorted to a verbal formula in order to do so.
And it bothers me that the bits that felt least true about Kevin Macdonald’s depiction of life on earth were those videos of people of faith. I know they’re not a wholly representative sample, but all the same, it says something too.
I do wonder if part of the reason that many Christians find it so hard to engage with people on the outside of church is that we have discovered that we actually need that vocabulary of faith just to be able to communicate with one another. We want to articulate joy, or how amazed we are by grace, or grief, or fear, or doubt, or need, but that’s hard enough at the best of times, and that doesn’t seem what church is for these days. And we are aware that we need some kind of words that will help us to speak at all. So, when we find them, or some approximation of them, we eventually stop looking for new or more accurate ways of expressing what is truly going on inside of us and resort instead to jargon that we know our community will understand, because community takes a lot of work, and we just want (need?) to be heard.
Community does take work, though, and if you think of the people you love the most I’d imagine that they will be the ones who you have struggled at words with, who see into some part of who you truly are and don’t recoil from that, who you have tried to explain the way you feel about and have been understood by, however partially that may be.
The alternative may be easier, but it also creates shallow relationships, and although that may be okay in the short-term, in the long run that has consequences for the church, making it less a place of honesty and vulnerability and increasingly a place of marketing slogans, propelling people towards a particular end goal. Whatever that may be.
Since working for a church in the past year, I have noticed members of that church have started to blank me in the street. Sometimes it’s been intentional, other times it’s just been awkwardness, I think, but that’s hard to take. I think it’s because we don’t know how to communicate, don’t really know how to talk to one another, but it still makes me sad that ended up being the case, as surely that isn’t what church is supposed to be about, is it?
Bring back the poets to church. The people who won’t stop struggling at words, who will keep looking for more – of God and in their relationships – and who will give voice to what needs to be spoken.
Sure, jargon has its purposes. It may even be helpful for a while.
But sooner or later, if we don’t learn to go beyond that in our communities, then we may simply end up with an emotionally stunted church; one that truly is out of touch with the world, even if it is growing in numbers, because somewhere down the line it has lost touch with its soul.
And didn’t Jesus once ask what good it was to gain the whole world but lose your soul in the process?