At the end of spring term at OSU, I left Professor (and Roman Catholic Deacon) Chris Anderson’s C.S. Lewis literature class with the sense that both Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had rehabilitated Christianity. In Lewis’s Surprised by Joy and Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” each author articulates a vision of the spiritual life that struck me as authentic, a life grounded in experiences of joy and freedom from self-consciousness to encounter what is real. I felt that both authors had called me to the edge of a cliff. To step off the edge was to acknowledge that full life-the life I was meant to live-meant accepting Christ as my Lord and Savior. This seemed more of an intellectual insight at the time, as though it was something that was “true,” but I did not go beyond that. As the summer wore on, while transcribing much of the 46 hours of interviews I conducted with 19 evangelical Christians for my M.A. Thesis, I grew tremendously impressed with the majority of my interview subjects’ efforts to surrender to God as known in Christ. For all of their failings and areas where I felt they may not have thought their beliefs through far enough, I was quite taken by their determined focus on God-the effort to put God first in their lives. Even as I respected this, I maintained some critical distance from it. Still, I could not help but be impressed. During the same summer, I found myself curious about NW Hills Baptist Church and asked my friend Jenn (a Starbucks co-worker) about it. We spoke briefly, but I dismissed the idea of attending. And while I had been quite active in the Roman Catholic Church, I was now dissatisfied with it. The liturgy did not “do it” for me-I felt disconnected there. I have come to a realization that one of the big draws to Catholicism had been Professor Chris Anderson, who taught and spoke to me deeply about the spiritual life. However, when I moved away from him and other Catholic friends, the liturgy, mass, and Catholic teachings did not sustain me and left me with a sense of hollowness in my heart.
One Sunday later that summer something happened unexpectedly. My gut tightened and I had an urge to go to NW Hills; so I did. The worship songs were simpler and more direct than I had heard before; yet I really appreciated that directness and the way we sung to God, not just about God. I was also taken by the pastor’s sermon. While I found out that the belief system was underpinned by biblical inerrancy and exclusive salvation (two things I resisted), I liked the message about living one’s total life for Jesus Christ, in whom we find true life. I began to attend NW Hills regularly and on the fifth Sunday, I felt something I had never experienced in any church before-a feeling of being “at home.”
Another important event was reading A. W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. There was a ring of authenticity about Tozer that just blew me away. He wrote that the Bible alone was just a book, but illuminated by the Spirit, it was the Word of God; and he indicated that we ought to make Christ the center of our lives, that the relationship with God must take precedence over everything else. Tozer’s explanation of how pride and the sin of self-absorption blocked us from connecting with God impacted me. Roughly two-thirds or more into the book, Tozer refers to how the intellectual can become a “smokescreen.” I don’t recall the actual context, but somehow those words spoke to me about my own relation to the Bible. It hit me that, while I thought I was reading the Bible in a spiritual light, I was really subjecting it to skeptical scrutiny. Instead of opening myself to God and surrendering to God through the Bible’s words, I was too busy deciding what I did and did not want to believe had actually happened.
Over the following few days, I began to rethink the way I had been viewing the Bible. Instead of literal-factual or metaphorical, I began to think of “more than literal” as a way of seeing the Bible. Thus, my new orientation became one of not trying to ascertain exactly what happened at all, but to trust that God was somehow working through the pages of Scripture. Hence, I realized that my task was to open myself to, and surrender to, the God who spoke through the Bible. I was not to analyze but to listen. I had been blocked by intellectual defenses that kept me closed.
During the same time period, while talking to my friend Megan Brown at Starbucks, it just hit me-God is real, God is right here, I can pray to God, God is listening. I felt a fiery conviction in my gut that this was true-and it was mixed in with a peace and confidence. Suddenly, I “got it.” No longer was I worried about all the efforts I had put into ascertaining the truth or falsity present in the Bible. Instead, I found myself turning to God, to focus on God, as best I could. Also, I found myself feeling that Jesus really is my Savior, and that I need Jesus in order to be who I am supposed to be. Even more, I realized that I am not supposed to follow my own ego or my own lights, but to do my best to follow God as known in Christ; thus, Christ is also my Lord. Suddenly, I began to see things differently. The passage in Ephesians that indicates wives are to submit to their husbands and husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church-a passage that I used to see as sexist nonsense, struck me as different. This was because I now see the God-factor, that it is the husband and wife first submitting to God, and then to each other. I now find myself taking seriously the idea of God, not as an idea any more, but as a present reality, as a personal force integrated into life that should be taken seriously.
A couple of weeks after my conversion to evangelical faith, I read a book that History Professor Gary Ferngren loaned me entitled The Future of Evangelical Christianity by Donald G. Bloesch. Gary figured it would help me delineate between different types of evangelical Christians, but I found myself reading with amazement for other reasons. First, Bloesch gave words to issues I had thought about but was not sure if anyone else had articulated, and he did so more thoroughly than I could.
For instance, Bloesch spoke of how the Bible itself was not inerrant, but that God’s Word (Christ) is somehow present in the Bible, and that is what is inerrant. Second, Bloesch cited Karl Barth’s reference to “superhistorical,” which appears to be the functional equivalent of my term “more than literal,” in describing Genesis. Bloesch’s point (using Barth) is that it is not merely literal or mythical, but more than either. Third, Bloesch argues that the church must stand as a check on the contemporary culture, that when the dominant culture and politics swing left, the church should swing right, and vice versa. To identify too closely with the Republican or Democratic parties was, in his view, to align too closely to kingdoms of this world.
As I was reading Bloesch, I was reminded of your words, Marcus, about how the source of Jesus’ compassion was in his experiences of the Spirit, a transcultural Spirit who calls us to a compassion beyond ourselves. As I look out upon the world, I am struck with the sense that we need this life-giving Spirit more than ever.
The events I have mentioned are the key ones, but there have been others-namely, a lot of seeming coincidences when various evangelical Christians have come into my life at the right time, supporting and encouraging me or simply showing me what they are about. While I am not totally convinced that those who are not consciously saved in Christ are damned (I leave that to God), and while I see the Bible as authoritative as opposed to inerrant, I do see the evangelical emphasis on the authority of Scripture and salvation through Christ as having the utmost significance. Indeed, I have needed this focused evangelical orientation in order to break through the bonds of my ego so as to find real life, the truly meaningful life of following God in Jesus Christ. Importantly, I do not think this is ultimately something I have done at all. That day in Starbucks-when I felt and perceived Christ was real as my Savior and Lord, and when my world changed and evangelical language suddenly made sense to me-was grace.