I guess it all started with Sean Hannity.
Years ago, I was a fire-breathing, know-it-all Christian conservative who steeped myself in all the accoutrements of the political junkie. I read all the Right books. I bookmarked all the Right websites and checked them multiple times a day. But most of all, I listened to all the Right talk shows on the radio.
I listened while I drove to work. I listened while I worked. I listened while I drove home. I had a period of unemployment when I spent a lot of time painting other people’s houses just to make ends meet, and boy-oh-boy did I listen then.
I knew all the arguments. I had all the facts. I knew my side was right and the other side was full of clueless ignoramuses at best and diabolically evil geniuses at worst.
And then I got a job for a Christian marketing company. One of the things we promoted was a conference for young professionals that promised to help you bring Jesus into your everyday world at work. One of the keynote speakers was Sean Hannity.
As I worked on the marketing for that conference, Hannity’s show — and his extreme confidence in his own point of view — suddenly sounded different to me. This is the guy who will be talking to people like me about how to bring Jesus to work?
I was passionate about encouraging Christians to live a Jesus-oriented life on the job. That passion collided with Hannity’s rhetoric of certainty, and that collision changed the way I heard his show. Instead of strident confidence, I heard smug condescension. Instead of rational analysis, I heard rationalized assumption. Instead of careful consideration of ideas, I heard contempt.
Hannity’s laser-like focus on his own rightness smelled a little too much like self-righteousness, and it made me uncomfortable. Why? Because I was doing the same thing, but not just with my politics. I was doing it with my faith.
I had always been extremely certain in the way I read the Bible. In my parts, we had a phrase: “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.” That was me. My reading of the Bible, as guided by the leaders’ voices I chose and by my self-selected circle of friends and acquaintances, was the only right one. I just knew it.
I began to realize I didn’t have any friends in my life — not serious ones, anyway — who ever challenged the rightness of my ideas, especially in the free-form evangelical context I’d grown up in and remained in as an adult. I had no one from outside my church circle saying what they happened to think about scripture; if I ever heard any interpretations that didn’t automatically line up with mine, it was only because some preacher or friend was using them as an example of how wrong that person was and how right we were.
Except for a friend of mine, whose name was also Sean. He had grown up in a faith context similar to mine, but he had since shoved off for the dangerous land of graduate school, where he began to experience a crisis of faith. He and I talked often during this time, and he began to throw some ideas at me that I’d never considered but that went against my certainty, ideas like the earth being older than a few thousand years or that the Bible contains several literary genres that shouldn’t all be interpreted the same way.
I began to worry. What if I’d been reading the Bible all wrong? What if all my certainty in my interpretation was really just me humming very loudly to drown out the sound of my doubt?
I used to pride myself on having the right answer to everything — such is the downside of being an insufferable know-it-all. (There is no upside.) But if I began to surrender to my doubts, I would also have to surrender my rightness. And then who would I be?
But then I had a thought, and it’s the thought that saved me: if Jesus is real and true, then he’s bigger than my doubts. He’s bigger than my worries. And he’s going to be bigger than my Bible.
So what did I have to be afraid of? If I really believed the love of Jesus was true, then wouldn’t his love withstand the onslaught of doubt? Couldn’t I be confident that I could compare — truly compare — Jesus with other strains of Christianity, with other religions, with the absence of religion, and trust that he would come out on top?
I figured I could. So that’s what I did.
I started reading books that weren’t written by people who had regular punditry slots on Fox News or who weren’t carried by the church bookstore. I read N.T. Wright and learned about the influence of the Enlightenment on the ways we read the scriptures; I read Kierkegaard and learned that God is comfortable with paradoxes; I read Brennan Manning and learned that I was kind of a shithead, but that Jesus still loved me anyway; I read Richard Dawkins and learned that he’s kind of a shithead, too, but by then I knew that Jesus loves him just as much as he loves me.
I re-read the Psalms and found myself in them. I re-read Song of Solomon without blushing or snickering. I re-read the gospels and saw the Pharisee I’d been all along.
I made other friends in life, like Jeff, who liked to pose provocative questions to me. He hit me with one that knocked my socks off: “Do you think sometimes we worship the Bible instead of Jesus? And not even the whole Bible, but just the parts we like?” I didn’t have an answer for him. Some days, I still don’t.
I used to be very fond of saying, “The Bible is clear” about whatever spiritual bugaboo I would get worked up about. I was very adept at applying talk-radio rhetoric to my faith. I don’t say that anymore, because all too often the Bible isn’t clear. Or it reads very clearly, and therefore becomes frightening and leaves my beliefs less clear. (Deuteronomy 13:6-11 comes to mind.)
I still read and study the Bible, but I’ve stopped looking at it as an answer book, an instruction manual, or a bullet-pointed Wikipedia entry that tells me in plain English exactly what I need to know. It’s not an information-delivery system; it’s a diverse collection of fingers from across time and civilizations that all point to Jesus. He’s the One I worship now. I no longer worship the book that tells me about him.
So thanks, Sean Hannity. You led me to the Truth.