Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sobering Words

Russell D. Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a a Baptist pastor, writes a worthy account in Touchstone Magazine of what it was like for him to grow up as a Baptist in a mixed Baptist / Catholic home, in the largely Catholic Biloxi [Mississippi, near New Orleans], itself a Catholic oasis in the Protestant Bible Belt.

His focus in the article is on Mardi Gras, about how Baptists were (rightly) offended at the idea of drunken debauchery as a way of ringing in Lent.  Moore is quick to note that this wasn't how Mardi Gras was actually celebrated in his own experience, but that if the stereotype were true, the Baptists would be right to condemn it.  Then he says that Baptists have their own form of Mardi Gras, of giving a nod and wink to sin, but that instead of a day a year, it's a period during young adulthood:
The typical cycle went something like this. You were born, and reared up in Sunday school until you were old enough to raise your hand when the teacher asked who believed in Jesus and wanted to go to heaven. At that point, you were baptized—usually long before the first pimple of puberty—and shortly thereafter, you had your first spaghetti-dinner fundraiser to raise money to go to summer youth camp. And then, sometime between the ages of 15 and 20, you’d go completely wild.

Our view of the “College and Career” Sunday school class was somewhat like our view of Purgatory. It might be there, technically, but there was no one in it. After a few years of carnality, you’d settle down, start having kids, and then be back in church, just in time to get those kids into Sunday school, and start the cycle all over again. [...]

I never really went through the wild stage. But years later, having externally lived a fairly upstanding life, I found myself envying a Christian leader as he gave his “testimony.” This man described his life of mind-blowing drugs, manic sex, and nonstop partying in such detail that, before I knew it, I was wistfully thinking: “Wouldn’t that be the best of both worlds? All that, and heaven too.” I’d embraced the dark side of Mardi Gras, in my own mind. As much as I thought I was superior to both the drunken partiers on the streets and the dour cranks condemning the revelry, I had internalized the hidden hedonism of it all. I was under the lordship of Christ, but, if only for that moment, wishing for the lordship of my own fallen appetite.
In my experiences, this idea -- what the Amish refer to as a Rumspringa -- is something which Catholics and Protestants alike are often guilty of.  One of the reasons I'm attracted to the Mormon idea of sending young men of 19-21 out as missionaries is that it turns all that youthful energy and drive into something pleasing to God.  We, on the other hand, tend to send them to college, where they experience a life without supervision for the first time... at the most volatile time of their lives.

Moore is quick to condemn this Rumspringa, in no uncertain terms:
Do many Catholics follow their appetites and “sin that grace may abound,” hoping that confession and the last rites will even it all out before God? Sure. And do many Evangelicals do the same, hoping that a repeated prayer or an altar-call response will deliver them in the Day of Judgment? Yes. Both paths lead to the same place: to hell.
Moore's startling bluntness is much needed.  We're largely silent on the epidemic of sinful depravity unleashed during young adulthood, assuming that it's just a phrase they'll get through. That approach ignores three things:

  1. Things have Changed -- This is not the first generation to experience a Rumspringa.  But it may be one of the last.  There are two reasons.  First, people are marrying later, because of changes in the economy, crushing student loan debt, and a whole host of economic and cultural reasons.  It's usually marriage and parenthood that brings young adults back to their faith.  But as the space between leaving and marrying grows ever wider, they become less and less likely to return. The second reason is that the culture is much more hostile to Christianity than in generations past.  The social pressures to baptize your kids and send them to Sunday school have never been weaker, and without those draws, many new parents are quite content to raise their children without God.  In this altered landscape, we can't send young men and women into a world of vice with the sure knowledge that they'll return someday.

  2. Young adults die, too -- Granted, this point is grim, but it's also true. In James 4:13-14, we're instructed “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  We shouldn't presume that we can sin today and return tomorrow, since we don't know if we'll even be here tomorrow.

  3. Sin always leaves the person feeling worse off -- No one who's truly converted can be pleased at the many ways that they've displeased God during their prodigal years.  That is, those who successfully see themselves returned to the Faith will genuinely regret that they ever left.  Moore puts it like this:
On the morning after Carnival, it’s easy to feel the queasiness of stomach, the pounding of the hangover, or the throbbing of the conscience. It’s much harder to feel the futility of a whole life lived under the tyranny of the appetites. That’s especially true when, as with most of us, we see the sovereignty of our appetites as “normal.” We live among a people, let’s be honest, whose stomachs are full but who are vomiting it all up, with an Esau-like disgust. We live in a culture of craving that is never satisfied, in a world where it is always Mardi Gras and never Easter.
St. Augustine, as a young man, famously prayed: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”  By the grace of God, he lived long enough to profoundly regret that prayer and to wish he'd come home sooner. We shouldn't presume that each of us will be so fortunate even to experience such regret.

****

By the way, if you're not familiar with Touchstone Magazine, it's worth looking into.  Billing itself as “A Journal of Mere Christianity,” it's run by editors who are Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox, including both Dr. Moore, the author of this article, and greats like Robbie George.  As a result, it's a very good resource for viewing Christ and Christianity from many perspectives.  And a great many of the articles transcend ecumenical bounds as well, whether that's Houston Baptist's Louis Markos talking about the need for cultivating morality in education, or the Catholic convert, J. Budziszewski, on taking sex seriously.  Christians who understand their faith will find themselves nodding along to many articles, whether they're Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or something else.

4 comments:

  1. It would seem that Moore's "feeling worse off" is what we commonly connote as "contrition" and is available to the humble for every sin committed.

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  2. Peter,

    Indeed. But I think Moore's point is that the shame and contrition are a reason not to sin in the first place. If you don't want the hangover, don't get drunk.

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  3. We still buy into the lie. That somehow we are missing out on some real fun by pursuing virtue. Part of it is a lack of joy in our own journey with God. But a lot of it is just accepting that the life of a thrill seeker is desirable despite the fact that God tells us it is not. At some level we believe Satan and disbelieve God.

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  4. In ancient times, when Christians did not baptize infants, it was not because they were below the age of reason. It was because this sort of wild life was expected -- and indeed, dismissed, on the grounds the youngsters were not yet baptized.

    St. Augustine is livid about it.

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