Let me start by saying that I've been reading two books by Peter Rollins lately, to whom I owe many of the lines of thinking that have been developing in my confused little head. Rather than try to pinpoint specific ideas he's written about that have influenced me, let me just issue this overall proclamation that his writing is heavily influential to my thinking at the moment. But please don't take that to mean that any of what I say below is in any way representative of his writing or thinking. He may have meant something completely different than what has been stirred in me by interacting with his writing, but I guess that's the beauty of art and perception.
I've been thinking a lot lately about this idea of "the gospel", the story of God throughout the Bible and Jesus coming down as God incarnate and dying on the cross for our sins. I was raised to believe that this was good news. Only I could never really figure out who it was good news for. The way I was taught to bear witness to this gospel was by instilling fear into the hearts of people regarding what would happen to them if they died and then delivering the solution. It was really the ultimate sales pitch. Point out a need (if you die without repenting, you're going to suffer for all eternity) and then deliver the solution (but don't worry, if you pray this prayer, you'll be able to be with me in eternity and then we can party together on streets of gold next to the crystal sea while the rest of our friends burn in hell).
When I was in high school, there was this big production that came to our town and was put on in the auditorium of our school. I'm pretty sure there must have been some sort of fallout but at the time everyone I surrounded myself with thought it was the greatest thing ever because it scared a bunch of people into becoming Christians. There was this traveling Christian production company that would go around to different cities, get volunteers to participate in the production, have a full schedule of rehearsals, and then have several nights of performances. It was basically a series of stories in which different people were engaging in daily activities when they died and had to face judgement. Inevitably, the Christians got to walk up this beautiful ascending staircase into the paradise above while the condemned unbelieving were dragged away by Satan. They really did it up too, with scary music and smoke and flames and everything. I shit you not, there was even a warning that this presentation was not suitable for children because of the serious and troubling content. Imagine that, a production about a supposedly loving God that was not appropriate for children. I guess we missed that part of scripture where Jesus said to let all the children come to him and talked about having the faith of a child.
I never really understood how this was good news. Good news should not necessitate scaring someone to the point that they have to believe the news is good. It should come as a refreshing drink of water in a desert of suffering. Or maybe it doesn't even require suffering. Maybe it's just good because it connects to something within us. It resonates with what we know to be true.
So I've been thinking a lot about this "good news".
I can't help but notice in reading through the stories of Jesus that the very people we tried to scare into believing were the ones who flocked to Jesus, while we were the ones who hated him because he was destroying our perfect construction of religion. We had all the answers, everything fit into nice little boxes. We knew how to explain all the problems in the world and we knew how to make people do things the right way. Then Jesus fucked it all up. Here comes this crazy guy living on the outskirts of society claiming to be the Son of God and he's getting people all riled up. He's telling them that they don't have to follow our rules because he's come to show us a better way. He's telling them they don't need our religious rituals because there is another way. Not only is he telling them all these things, he's eating meals with them and actually seems to like them. No, scratch that, he loves them. And they don't have to jump through any hoops in order to get his love or approval. They are simply so overwhelmed by his love and power that they actually want to change on their own. We can't have him ruining this perfect system we have going on. We've devoted our lives to developing this system, so what does it mean if we had it all wrong? We can't bring ourselves to face that. So we kill him.
I've long thought that this is exactly how things would play out if Jesus walked the earth again today.
The news of the gospel was not good for the church. In fact, it was downright damning. Jesus destroyed the religious system of belief so that it could be rebuilt on a more solid foundation. Only we screwed up. We went right back to our system of rules and rituals because that's what we know. That's the only thing that makes sense to us. We can't handle this idea of unconditional love and acceptance. There have to be limits. We have to show people what's right and what's wrong by withholding our acceptance. We have to love them but hate the bad things they're doing. Only it doesn't really feel like love to be on the receiving end of that system.
So, who was the gospel good news for? Obviously a lot of people. They skipped entire days of work just to come listen to him speak. What was he saying that caused such a stir? It seems clear to me that I've missed the mark my whole life because my understanding of the gospel never seemed like good news for anyone. It doesn't make sense to say that God helps to explain life because he doesn't, just makes it more complicated. It doesn't make sense to say that everyone has a God-shaped hole in their heart that can only be filled by a relationship with the divine because the hole in my heart has only gotten bigger over the years. It doesn't make sense to say that we need a relationship with God in order to avoid eternal suffering because what the hell kind of God bases the need for a relationship upon fear of suffering. I mean, that's totally how I got my wife to marry me. Trust me babe, your life is gonna be hell if you don't marry me so you better just say yes.
Why is it that the good news I've believed in my whole life just makes me feel so bad? If this is really good news, then why am I not more excited about it? And why are people not lining up around the corner to hear about it? Why do we have to convince our friends to step inside a church building with us?
A truly good product should not require good salesmanship, it should sell itself. Because it meets a need people already have, not one that is fabricated in order to convince them that they need to purchase from us.
I have an inkling that we've got it all wrong. I have a feeling that the gospel message is not some nicely packaged product that we are supposed to convince people to buy into. It's not even something that meets a need, real or perceived. Rather, it is a terrifying reality in which nothing makes sense and your entire world is turned upside down. But it's real. And that's refreshing. It makes sense because it makes no sense at all.
And that's the truly good news.