‘Clean’ can mean a lot of things. First and foremost, it’s a state of being orderly and untainted by unwanted dirt, clutter, dust, mess, and so on.
For the most part, our American Christianity is squeaky-clean.
Our understanding of the Bible is squeaky-clean.
The issue with this is that the Bible is anything but squeaky-clean, and the world in which we live (including our own lives) are far from clean. This seems to be a simple summation of why so many people struggle to rectify being a Christian when they look at the world around them, the lives of Christians around them, and their own lives.
We sanitize our faith to the point that is it ineffective, like bleaching a yogurt because it has some bacteria in it (that’s the point…).
Perhaps a better metaphor is our own gut health. I recently began learning about gut health and how our immune system is basically ‘good’ bacteria in our stomachs. I grew up thinking that all bacteria were ‘bad,’ and we should just kill them.
We essentially do the same thing with the world, with the Bible. Welp, this doesn’t fit into my worldview as ‘good’ so it can’t be from God. Gotta sanitize this and that…Christians can only make G-rated movies, etc.
Forcing our faith through such a strainer creates a series of impossible dichotomies for us to answer for. Like why are there X-rated parts of the Bible? Well…because there are X-rated parts of the world and they are not hidden from the real God.
You may have grown up under Veggie Tales and thought that the siege of Jericho involved slushies being thrown and Monty Python-esque taunts exchanged, rather than violence and the slaughter of women and children. I’m a big fan of Veggie Tales for the record…for kids. But when it’s time to move from milk to meat in our faith, that means cultivating a more nuanced, more sophisticated and complicated understanding of the Bible and how, exactly, it plugs into the world around us.
A G-rated religion has nothing to say to an X-rated world.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a Christian who was terrified of the world who was effective at reaching it. By that, I mean those people who only watch G-rated films, cite selected Bible verses to prove their points, and have never set foot in a bar/club/bad part of town. The sheltered homeschool type of Christian who is scared of tattoos and gay people, which is often how our faith looks to the outsider. The most effective Christians are those like Father Greg Boyle who don’t fear the dark bits of the world, but dive on into them, shedding light and hope where there was none.
It makes me chuckle when people ask how a Christian could watch a horror film, as if it was the most sinful genre. As if it were more sinful than a licentious episode of Friends where the harmless protagonists sleep around daily. As if the Bible wasn’t chock-full of horror tales of its own.
Some of the most prominent Christians in Hollywood made The Conjuring films, not just to make a quality horror flick, but to be evangelistic in reminding people about the power of the spiritual realm. And they were pretty successful. This is what it looks like for Christians to relay spiritual truths to a violent, not-clean world without sacrificing quality or Christian integrity.
Addressing this in my own faith also means that I have to admit that ‘my house is not in order.’ By that, I mean my system of theology still has a hefty amount of clutter and nooks with which I am unfamiliar. I have a lot of questions which will likely remain unanswered until death, and there are two ways to approach this: pretend I know the answers/force some answer upon those questions which would inevitably do it some injustice, or become alright with a little mystery, with a little mess.
American Christianity tends to pretend it has all the answers; that its structures and systems are secure and faultless. That you can know it all about God.
As someone who has worked behind the scenes of this machine for over a decade, I can tell you that your pastors don’t know all the answers. If they never answer ‘I don’t know’ to at least some of your questions, they are either deceiving themselves or you.
There are no airtight pistons in this mechanism.
This scares many people. It scares me. The comfort we can take in this is that Jesus Himself doesn’t shy away from our questions and doubts, from the areas where our theology seems to disconnect. When Thomas expressed some doubts about Christ’s resurrection, Jesus didn’t scold him with a line about getting his faith in order; He let Tom touch the holes in His hands.
We may have to wait a little longer to stick our pinkies in the divine wounds, but I like to think Jesus will still let us if we need to. I think He’s less like the strict Catholic nuns scolding us for straying from the path of perfect faith, and more like, well, Jesus letting Thomas touch His hands. (speaking of squeaky clean, think about putting your finger in a 3-day-old nail wound…).
No, the Bible is not clean by any sense of the word. It is not devoid of violence, sex, prostitutes, and a little confusion.
The world is not a clean place.
Your life is not a clean life.
And that’s exactly how it should be.
It seems like God likes things that are a little less than perfect…otherwise, He’d have no work to do!