Back in the mid-1990s, I excitedly announced to my mother—who had spent a good part of her adult life as the wife of a Southern Baptist minister—that I was going to enroll in seminary.
She looked up from her tomato plants long enough to say, in her sweet Southern drawl, “You’ll shipwreck your faith.”
I stood in stunned silence. I am the last of five children, the first of my siblings to earn an undergraduate degree, and now the first to pursue a master’s level degree. This is the reaction I get? In her next breath, she clarified why she could not express joy in my decision.
“You shouldn’t ask questions. Questions are the devil’s playground.”
I entered the devil’s playground anyway. And yes, my faith was shipwrecked. But the faith that rose out of the ruins is what author and Concordia College religion professor Jacqueline Bussie would call that of an “outlaw Christian.”
In her new book, Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the Rules, she applauds those of us who are willing to ask the hard questions of our faith and to challenge mainstream religion’s acceptance of “God under the usual laws of dishonesty, silence, intimidation and fear.”
April 19, 2016
“An outlaw Christian doesn’t condemn questions or discourage doubt,” she writes. “Instead, an outlaw Christian seeks to live an authentic life of faith and integrity, and chooses to defy the unwritten laws governing suffering, grief, and hope that our culture and our religious traditions have asked us to ingest.”
I got the chance to talk with Bussie recently about her new book.
RD: What prompted you to write Outlaw Christian?
I had the experience of teaching students for 14 years as a full-time professor and leading our college’s interfaith resource center (The Forum on Faith and Life), and I started noticing some trends. There were things my students kept saying—whether they were progressive or conservative—that I found fascinating.
They kept saying, “I feel like I’m a really bad Christian because I’m so upset with God over this terrible thing that happened.” Then they would tell me these terrible stories and I thought, “Wow! They really don’t see that the Bible is actually filled with a tradition of lamenting and basically having it out with God?” Somehow, if that was a message, it’s not one they got from whatever tradition they were part of.
Also, as I share briefly in the book, my mom came down with early-onset Alzheimer’s when I was 20. For the next 16 years she was dying by millimeters and before I knew it, my adult life was this kind of wrestling with her death and my own struggle with faith. I thought, “Well, this is the book I wish I could have read.”
Anne Lamott always says you should write what you want to come upon, and this is what I would have wanted to come upon and couldn’t find. I had all this great wisdom from all these amazing theologians and I thought, “I can share that. I can be the translator. As an academic theologian, I can take what I’ve learned and translate it for lay people.” That’s what I wanted to do because I found a lot of personal comfort in it.
My mother told me that I would shipwreck my faith going to seminary. Should we all be shipwrecking our faith?
As a young person, my faith shipwrecked on my mother’s illness, and I’m really glad it did—because I never paid any attention to people suffering around me and that wasn’t fair. There’s obviously things I don’t want to have happen to people like injustices that I describe in the book, but I do think our faith could be the better for it. Our eyes could be opened.
In the book you say, “We traffic in certainty porn,” and tend to avoid questions or things that might make us doubt, or rethink our faith.
I classify that as our American obsession with certainty—the idea that people who are very certain and speak with great conviction are not only right but an authority. There’s no theological or epistemological humility in that, and I’m not really sure how it’s happened that we equate certainty with truth. Sometimes the truth is, you don’t know the truth, and I think there’s a virtue in being able to admit that. Yet, if you look at any politician, which one would be respected if we ask them a question and they say, “I don’t know the answer to that?” Yet, we respect people when they admit that they don’t know. As a teacher, it’s important for me to model that.
In the book, you lay out some of what you call “unspoken laws” that do spiritual damage. It was “Law Four: Always speak in cliches about suffering and evil,” that especially resonated with me. At my mom’s funeral last year, people kept saying things to me like, “She’s in a better place,” or “This is God’s plan.” You define these as “theodicies.” What does that mean?
Theodicy is a word that means a defense of God’s justification or goodness and power or justice in the face of the radical evil and suffering that happens in the world. It’s whatever kind of defense we’re going to offer for that. A lot of philosophers say it’s how we reconcile the sentences that “God is good” and “God is all-powerful and just,” but that evil exists. That’s all theodicy is. But we encounter it every day in the simple phrases people say like, “Oh, God needed another angel,” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.” All these Hallmark greeting card kinds of things we hear that I don’t even think are biblical.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. A friend of mine’s young son died in a car accident, under the influence of drugs and alcohol. People at my friend’s church told him that his son was in hell for all the sins he had committed. With tears in his eyes one day he asked me, “Where is my son?” I told him simply, “I don’t know. I believe he’s in the arms of God, but I can’t tell you that for certain.” As the tears fell he shook his head and said, “That’s the best answer anyone has given me.”
Your response shows how much people are longing for that honesty. I’ve become someone who doesn’t leave people alone in their grief unless they want to be left alone. I call it the “sit with.” We’ve adopted it from Judaism, to sit shiva. You’re only allowed to make certain comments, and they have to be from Psalms, Lamentations or Ecclesiastes. Nothing else is allowed.
Christians have a lot to learn from Judaism and that tradition. For me, personally, to be able to sit with people and hug them and tell them that I love them is all I have to offer. I don’t really have anything to offer beyond myself. I don’t have the perfect words, and I won’t strive for that, but what I can offer people is me and my time. I won’t make people feel ashamed for their tears.
In debunking “Law Number Two” about never doubting your faith, you give a wonderful reinterpretation of the “Doubting Thomas” story. Tell me more.
I started rereading the story of Thomas while I was writing the book and thought about how all you ever hear is, “Don’t doubt! But believe.” It’s true Jesus says that to Thomas, but this is not really the whole story. There’s also the only other time when Thomas is talking in the Bible, when Jesus decides to go back to Jerusalem, and all the other disciples say, “You can’t do this. You’re going to get killed. They hate you,” but Thomas is like, “I’ll go!”
So, it’s weird that we take this one aspect of Thomas and call him “Doubting Thomas” rather than “Willing to Die With Jesus Thomas,” which he really is. He’s the only person close to Jesus willing to do that. I became fascinated by the fact that Jesus shows his scars to all of his disciples to prove who he is. But, Thomas was the only one not there for that. It’s fascinating to me that Thomas is thinking in his mind, “Okay, if this guy in front of me does not have scars, he can’t be my friend Jesus, because I know my friend Jesus has suffered and that suffering leaves scars.”
What’s wrong with that? That’s actually pretty beautiful. Jesus responds to that telling him to touch his scars and tells him, “You’re right, I do have these scars.” It seems to me that Thomas is much more insightful. I read him as breaking a cultural taboo of our modern time, which is asking: “Tell me about your scars.”
We don’t want to know the bad things that have happened to people and what they might have survived because it makes us uncomfortable. We want to slap a cliché on it, so it’s something we can see as ordered. If you look at Jesus and Thomas together, they are outlaws in this. Jesus is willing to say, “I don’t think scars are something to be hidden. I’m willing to show them to you.”
So, what would a church of outlaws look like? What would worship services be like?
I’ve given lots of talks about this topic and engaged in conversations during speaking engagements over the past several years. One of the churches I spoke at told me that they had a lot of members who had lost loved ones—which is true of any congregation—and they decided to have an alternative Christmas service. They, of course, had their normal Christmas pageant with all the happy hymns and the Christmas trees, but they also had what they called a “Blue Christmas.” They held it on Christmas Eve, and it was a service of lament.
They gave me the liturgy for this, and I’ve shared this with other congregations who want to start this as well. We’re not saying everyone has to feel grief on Christmas, but with the usual “Merry Christmas” we’re forcing people into one emotion—that you should feel merry—and that is not what everyone feels on holidays when they’ve lost a loved one. You just can’t make it to that merry space. Where is the service for those folks to share those memories of what it’s like to no longer have their loved one there?
I also went to a Unitarian Universalist service on Mother’s Day where they plumbed the history of the holiday and discovered it’s not just about feeling happy, but it was born as a day of grief and resistance to the war. It was designed by mothers who were tired of losing their sons and husbands to war. It was a protest and a resistance to war.
I never felt so at home in a Mother’s Day service.
People also came up and did joys and concerns and laments for lost mothers. It was as perfect as it could be, and it allowed room for everyone wherever they were at to speak to that during the service.
Where does the term “outlaw Christian” come from?
The term comes from Reynolds Price, who is one of my favorite authors. He had once, in an interview, used the term but never said what he meant by it. He was social justice-oriented, and I always loved his writing and his style of Christianity. I thought I’d like to take that term and put my own spin on it. For me, outlaw Christians are people who are no longer willing to hide all their grief, doubt, anger, questions and scars—from each other or from God.
It raises the question of where did these laws come from—and for some of them it’s impossible for me to answer. Who decided that every time I cry I should say “I’m sorry?” I don’t know. I just know that everyone is doing it, and I want to resist that. I want to say, “Is this truly in our best interest to apologize for our humanity?”
All these laws, it’s really hard for me to say they come from any one source. I think they come from a combination of capitalist superpower kind of values as well as just some of our cultural norms. My family is largely German, and Germans value stoicism and find it to be really strengthening. But I think stoicism stifles.
As a theologian who teaches about the problem of evil I’m always surprised that students come to me and tell me about something difficult that has happened to them. No one ever warned me about that in graduate school—that if you do your job well, vulnerability breeds vulnerability. If you share certain things that you’re comfortable sharing, people will come to you and do the same. That’s really a gift. I appreciate that they do that.
So, what’s the difference between an outlaw Christian and one who is not?
Outlaw Christians love Jesus just like other Christians, and outlaw Christians want to be social revolutionaries for love in the same way that Jesus was. In our lives of uncertainty, outlaw Christians are going to err on the side of agape, no matter what.
Also outlaw Christians might be perceived in a more scandalous light because they are willing to acknowledge the moments of agnosticism in their own faith. I always think of the philosopher Derrida who said “There is a moment of atheism in every prayer.” What a fascinating statement!
Outlaw Christians aren’t going to give pious platitudes or easy answers. They are willing to learn from other faiths and say, “There’s so much wisdom in this world, and Christians don’t own all of it. Christians don’t even own Jesus. Christians have a lot of things to learn from everyone around them.”
Outlaw Christians aren’t going to sanitize their own story. They’re going to tell it like it is, scars and all, warts and all, ugly and all, and they’re not going to keep those same kinds of secrets that we’re asked to keep.
In your day job you teach members of the younger generation who are rejecting the kind of Christianity you’re writing about. Are your students moving away from traditional religion?
I just had a class, and it was fascinating. The class was diverse, but they were unanimous in their anger at theodicies because theodicies had been spoken to them in a time when they just did not satisfy. A real concern my students have is the hypocrisy of Christianity. A lot of my students are gay, and they don’t feel like they can be themselves. They resonate with parts of my book because I’m talking about not living inside the jail of other people’s judgments.
One of my gay students came to me and she said “That’s my life.” I asked my students to do these six word memoirs, and they were really moving. I was trying to encourage them that their story matters, and they should tell it. One of my students wrote, “Gay religion major, scared of church.”
I put these up on the wall of our religion department and thought that’s really all we need to know. We need to think about these. One of them I really loved—who is a survivor of sexual assault—she said, “Life’s a bitch. I bloomed anyway.” I got up and hugged her. I thought it was the most beautiful thing.
Young people are sick as hell of inauthenticity. They compelled me to write this book. It would be impossible without them because so many times I would be comforting them in a certain situation, not making them feel ashamed, saying to them, “Don’t apologize for your tears about this.” And they would tell me: “You need to write that down.”
Finally, one day I decided to take their advice. I teach all these amazing theologians, and I learn from them. We’ve got to start living a more authentic life, or young people will turn and walk in the other direction.