May 25, 2010

Bi-polar Christianity

Richard Gelina

In my blog post The Journey I mentioned that a coworker had given me the Philip Yancey book Soul Survivor. I have been reading it as I find time, which means I’m making very slow progress through the book. But I have found it fascinating.

I love authors who make me think, and Philip Yancey is definitely one of those authors. The issues he deals with in this book are his personal struggles with the seeming incongruity of the Christian faith as viewed against the behavior of those who claim the name of Christ. His context is quite different than mine, but the issue is one I have struggled with for a few years now.

As soon as I started the book I was struck with an interesting parallel between my son’s behavioral issues and the behavior of many of us Christians. My son, as many of you know, is severely bipolar. He has many other neurological issues as well, but bipolar may be the disorder that seems to have the most impact on his ability to get along in the world. My son never takes a middle ground—he is always out on one fringe or the other. This is tremendously uncomfortable for the people around him as extremes are simply not the norm.

Jack Kerouac

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars...

There are positive ways of looking at this extreme character, such as the quote by Jack Kerouac in the callout box to the right. But in real-world terms, those extremes make it very hard for my son to communicate with others. They make it hard for him to have friends. In fact, they make it hard for him to get along in the world in any way at all. The wild extremes are simply not acceptable in our society.

So I was reading Philip Yancey and I was struck with the thought that we Christians seems to gravitate toward extremes. In a recent conversation with my brother-in-law, he mentioned that Martin Luther had spotted this tendency in Christians and gave the analogy of a man trying to mount a horse, but each time he tries to jump onto the horse’s back he springs all the way over onto the other side, never actually making it onto the horse’s back. He said that Christians react to a perceived innacuracy or heresy and we jump all the way over the horse’s back to the reactive opposite side. Then other Christians react to our extreme by jumping all the way over the horse’s back to the previous opposite extreme, or perhaps a whole new extreme altogether. I think Martin Luther was pretty close to the truth in that observation. And not much has changed in the 500 years since his life.

The one extreme The other extreme
Liberal/Antinomian    Legalistic works-based salvation
Your reality, your truth,
Popes, pontifical pastors,
paranoid elders

Bipolar religion is not inviting to a watching world. And it is not the way of true Christianity. While we are not to be lukewarm, we are also told to practice moderation. And moderation is not a common characteristic of those of us who claim the name of Christ.

I believe that we should be known by a quiet personal encounter and relationship with Christ leading us to reach out in love to a world in need. This gentle and quiet love for others should typify Christianity. It is the characteristic displayed by Jesus toward the common people around him. Jesus’ vitriol against others was only employed against the religious leaders who were living bipolar religion—out on the extreme fringes, pushed there not by scripture but by man-made tradition.

I do think there is a place for extreme living—we should be extreme in our commitment to balance, reasonableness, and quiet faith.


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