Reunion Retrospectives

This past weekend, Leeman and I attended our 10th reunion at our undergraduate college. Reminiscences were reminisced. Nostalgia was embraced. Amanda got to poke other alumni babies in their eyes. And generally a good time was had by all.

Leeman and I also had fun impressing the current crop of student workers at the reunion with tales of how we had been dating since our Freshman orientation way back in the fall of 2000. Yes, we really are Lily and Marshall from How I Met Your Mother. But, really, we are by no means unique in being a Kenyon alumni couple. Most of our close friends seem to have married people they met in college. I’m not sure if it is impressive or disturbing how many couples from our college days were still together and now producing babies 10 years later. But what I do know is that it is most certainly a result of the fact that attending a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere Ohio is basically like being part of a cult. Marrying someone from inside the cult just makes things easier on all parties considered. As one friend who married an outsider put it–her husband’s reaction to visiting our little college on the hill was to ask, “What is this strange place where everyone smiles at eachother and sings all the time!?”

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To be fair, we Kenyon alumni do tend to be a smiley lot. And we do sing strange songs about how we are like a river called Kokosing and a dude named Philander who smoke hams and spank naughty freshmen well. We tell ghost stories about buildings on campus. Just, seriously, check out fellow alum John Green’s love letter to the college. Part of the delight in going back for a class reunion is getting to hang out with people who share these bizarre in-jokes and references. Seeing yourselves through the eyes of “outsiders”, though, can make you realize how insular and cult-like your undergraduate community truly is.

Really, there’s nothing wrong with an insular and cult-like college. It’s part of the joy of an institution that exists for its members alone. The purpose of an educational institution is to educate its students (presumably so they can become good and productive members of society, but there is also something to be said for education as a valuable end in itself). So, strange rituals that make no sense to the outside serve their purpose of creating a tight, close-knit community.

However, pondering the perspective of non-Kenyonite spouses toward our collegiate customs do get me thinking a bit about the church. Specifically how the church must at times look to outsiders. What do we do that makes no sense? What strange rituals do we have that would alienate, rather than invite, those not indoctrinated into our ecclesial culture?

Don’t get me wrong. We as the church can certainly make the error of “dumbing down” integral aspects of our worship in the name of cultural accommodation to contemporary society. I am not in favour of overhauling the liturgy or doing away with the creeds. It is nevertheless worth noting that the difference between the church and my undergraduate college is that the church as an organization exists for those on the outside, rather than for those on the inside.

What aspects of our corporate life are truly integral to our faith and worship and what are simply habits of custom that make us feel comfortable, while serving merely to alienate those to whom we should be reaching out? Do we want to be an inward-looking, insular community which takes delight in our own in-jokes, or do we truly want to be a transformative presence in the world around us? What will we have to change about ourselves to make that happen? These are not easy questions to answer. But they are the questions we must be asking as we prepare to move forward as the body of Christ in a dynamic, ever-changing world.

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Reality Check

A few days ago, my better half started reading Left Behind. For … some reason?

For those of you not up to speed on rapture-themed literature, the Left Behind series paints a picture of what might happen after the Rapture, when all believing Christians are taken up into heaven to escape the period of tribulation when the anti-Christ will rule the world and bring about a reign of bloody terror. Now, cards on the table time — I don’t believe in the rapture. It’s just one theory of God’s plan for the end of human history–full knowledge of which rests with God alone. While I don’t want to get side-tracked about eschatology, I will say the rapture seems to rely on the idea that those who are righteous are spared suffering (we get plucked out before all the bad stuff goes down after all). That’s problematic on a number of levels–good people do suffer and does not the story of a God who achieved victory only after great pain and death suggest perhaps there is something redemptive in suffering? In other words, I think the rapture (which is a wholly modern belief) gives into to modern cultural assumptions that unpleasantness is to be avoided and the righteous are rewarded with divine protection. But I digress…

Lets also not get into everything that bugs me about the series as a student of literature–whether that be its depiction of women (all of whom must fall on one extreme of the virgin/whore dichotomy), shoddy prose, or fixation on 90s-era geopolitics (seriously, who is under the delusion that the UN actually has any power?). Too easy a target, and what does it edify anyone to pick on such low-hanging fruit — also a book that’s nearly 20 years old. Why am I wasting time on this again? Oh, yeah…we’re getting a new movie version this summer. Oh, Nick Cage, shouldn’t you leave strange Christian movies to Kirk Cameron?

However, there is a point that I want to make, and a criticism which might be worthy of our reflection. And that is babies. Specifically, raptured babies.

On the one hand, we might be grateful that the Left Behind authors took it as a given that innocent children would be taken up in the rapture. Presumably this is a good thing? But they also quite explicitly take that to its logical conclusion. ALL children and infants disappear from the world. Babies are taken from inside pregnant wombs. From this one new mother’s perspective–THIS IS THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES AND HORROR!! And yet, the book presents it a coldly logical thought experiment: we believe children go to heaven if they die before the age of accountability … so all children and babies will get rapture … we believe unborn babies are fully people … ergo fetuses would be raptured as well. The only emotion that comes into play is a sort of “your children are in heaven now … that doesn’t make you happy?”

To contrast, check out this trailer for the upcoming HBO rapture drama, The Leftovers, where the first thing the writers do to invoke a sense of horror is to show the terror of a young mother whose infant son suddenly disappears. I’ll admit–I could barely watch it. But at least the horror of it was emotionally honest. Whereas our Left Behind authors seem more interested in carrying out a thought experiment than engaging with the actual human condition. At one point the team who converted to Christianity after the rapture reaches out to (I guess older?) children whose parents were raptured. Not to, you know, care for lost and frightened children. But to make sure they get “saved” before the end.

Which brings me to my big beef with the Left Behind books. They are BORING. Full confession time, I couldn’t get through the first book but I watch the movie, and I read all the plot summaries on Wikipedia one really depressing afternoon (I did the same with the Twilight novels … I may have a wikipedia problem). Characters run around reciting proof-texts from the Bible, rather than engaging in actual dialogue. The series is SIXTEEN BOOKS’ worth of pedantry as the authors try to convey a literal interpretation of scriptural texts which defy such interpretation (for example, we have to make sure exactly 75 days pass between Jesus’s re-appearing to defeat the antiChrist and the 1000-year reign of Christ on Earth … for some reason?). I’ll give this to the horrific end-times movies I watched in my youth — they were at least dramatically compelling enough to scare the devil out of you! Seriously, watch the Thief in the Night too late and I dare you not to have nightmares!

Whatever school one want to embrace for the end times (insofar as I have any concrete theory beyond “God Wins”, I probably fall into the Augustinian amillennialist camp), can’t we at least assume that the story of God bringing about the end of human history will be IMPRESSIVE? DRAMATIC? INTENSE? Can we assume the reason why they end of time is conveyed in poetic images in scripture is because it will defy our frail human understanding? This is the Easter season, when we celebrate once again the greatest story ever told. The story of a God who took on human flesh and then gave of himself and died on our behalf and, defying all expectation, rose again triumphant! To paraphrase the great Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Dogma is the Drama”–tell a person this story and they might not believe you, but they may at least concede that it is a story one would be proud to believe.”

I do not fault the evangelistic impulse that led to those unfortunate Left Behind books (even if the authors and I might have our theological conflicts). But if we are going to go out and share the Good News of the Easter Gospel, can’t we at least make sure it is *Good”? We have nothing to be ashamed of. So if we’re going to tell stories of our faith, lets make them stories that people will be proud to believe. Really, that shouldn’t be too hard.