I just finished reading a Tony Hillerman mystery in which the villain was a New Mexico landowner who started out as a geologist working for an oil company. He was looking for oil, and in the process of finding it he also found a huge uranium deposit. The uranium would have been worth much more than the oil, and he did not want to see it go to waste, so he arranged to have the oil well blown up and all the workers killed in an apparent drilling accident. He remade his identity, came back a couple of years later and bought up the land when the oil company’s lease on it had expired, mined uranium to his heart’s content and became hugely rich and powerful.
The whole mystery hinges on the fact that this man had two completely and totally separate identities. There was the old self–who he was prior to the apparent drilling accident, and the new self that he made himself into afterward. He took this so far that all that remained of his old self was a few artifacts which he kept hidden in a strongbox in a secret vault.
I think a lot of evangelicals do the same thing. We divide our lives into two completely watertight compartments: our lives “before Christ” and our lives “after Christ”–that is, before or after we made the decision to begin a relationship with Jesus Christ–or “got saved”, to use the correct evangelical terminology. We justify this arrangement using verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:17 (“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”) or Ephesians 2:1 (“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world…”) or Colossians 1:21-22 (“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight…”).
One consequence of this arrangement is seen in the way we interact with our friends. We neatly divide our friends into two camps: pre-Christian and post-Christian. The post-Christian friends are those whom we met after we “got saved”–almost all fellow evangelicals. The pre-Christian friends are generally those whom we knew prior to becoming Christian, and are generally almost all non-Christian–or at least not on the evangelical team like we are.
Some evangelicals will cut themselves off altogether from their pre-Christian friends. This happens sometimes by choice, but more frequently as a result of their becoming such insufferable religious jerks that their pre-Christian friends want nothing more to do with them.
But for the vast majority of us, the disassociation option is not acceptable. We want to do and say all the right things so as to remain acceptable to our post-Christian friends, that is, our evangelical teammates–and yet we also want to hold on to our attachments with our pre-Christian friends. So we work around the dilemma by dividing ourselves into two separate people. We keep our post-Christian identity–the one which says and does and thinks and believes all the right things–proudly on display as we move through church and life with our evangelical teammates. And for those occasions where we are hanging out with our pre-Christian friends, we go into the secret vault and dig out the strongbox which contains our pre-Christian identity. You know the one–the one which likes to drink and cuss and tell dirty jokes and hang out at the bar. The one which actually likes secular music and secretly despises most of CCM. The one which wishes that Pat Robertson and James Dobson and all the other evangelical culture warriors would just sit down and shut up. The one which thinks that Ken Ham and the other proponents of young-earth creationism are talking shit. The one which believes that Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are not worthy to even kiss the ground upon which Victor Hugo, C. S. Lewis, or Philip Pullman have trodden–and that their eschatology is completely and totally whacked as well. The one which believes that Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer are the greatest fraud ever perpretrated against Christians in America. We take this identity out and wear it for the night, and then when it’s time to go to church the next day we put it back in the strongbox and close the vault and off we go.
Let me take you to a passage in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters which speaks to the issue at hand. In Letter 10 Screwtape notes that the junior tempter’s “patient” has come into the acquaintance of a circle of worldly intellectuals whose beliefs are in opposition to much of the Christian faith. He instructs Wormwood to take advantage of the situation as follows:
If he is a big enough fool you can get him to realise the character of the friends only while they are absent; their presence can be made to sweep away all criticism. If this succeeds, he can be induced to live, as I have known many humans live, for quite long periods, two parallel lives; he will not only appear to be, but will actually be, a different man in each of the circles he frequents. Failing this, there is a subtler and more entertaining method. He can be made to take a positive pleasure in the perception that the two sides of his life are inconsistent. This is done by exploiting his vanity. He can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper,” “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea–the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all. Thus, while being permanently treacherous to at least two sets of people, he will feel, instead of shame, a continual undercurrent of self-satisfaction.
I am sure that many of us would say that the above quote is an accurate descriptor of our experience in trying to balance our engagement with our pre-Christian and post-Christian friends, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.
I “got saved” while I was in college (the first time around). For the remainder of my time in college, I was actively involved in several circles of friends, consisting of both fellow evangelical teammates and non-teammates. While I tried to be consistent in my interactions with all, I must confess that there were some inconsistencies. When I was with my non-Christian friends there were things which I said, did, watched, listened to, laughed at, etc. that I would never have said, did, watched, listened to, laughed at, etc. in the presence of my Christian friends. And vice versa.
But now I am in the process of doubting and questioning many things which evangelical Protestant-dom is trying to sell. Much of what I have written here at this blog has arisen as a result of this questioning process. And part of what I am questioning is the idea that the scriptures pertaining to the transformation which we go through in becoming Christians necessitate us becoming such insufferable religious pricks that we run off all our pre-Christian friends–and that the only alternative is to divide ourselves so that we are one thing in one circle of friends and something else in another and thus remain acceptable to all.
There is a third option–and that is simply to be who you are all the time, no matter who you are with or what you are doing. Your fellow evangelical teammates may not like this because they may see certain parts of your personality as offensive. Tough. They can deal. Your pre-Christian friends may not like everything that you are about either. They can deal too. In the end both sides will come to respect you because they will recognize that you are true to who you are and that you are the same person, no matter where you go or who you are with.
This is what Jesus was talking about when he said such things as “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:51-52), or “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37. Yes, some would use this as justification for becoming insufferable religious pricks in the presence of our pre-Christian friends, but it cuts both ways. Anyone who loves any friend or family member more than Christ, whether pre-Christian or post-Christian, comes under the judgment of this verse.)
I seek to embrace this alternative, and I call upon my fellow evangelicals to join me in this. Imagine the revolution that we would see in our world if we no longer embraced the lie that we must break ourselves off from our pre-Christian identity or at least compartmentalize it away. Imagine if all our friends, both inside and outside of evangelical Protestant-dom, were to see us as people who are true to ourselves and who do not change, no matter where we go or who we are with.
Since joining Facebook, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with many people whom I have not known since high school or grade school. Many of these people have not known me since long before I “got saved”. If I were not in the place in life where I am now, then I would probably have had little interest in reconnecting with them; I would have been more concerned about staying connected with my present evangelical friends and maintaining the good opinion of evangelical Protestant-dom. But nowadays, I don’t care.
My blog and my Facebook page are now going to be a place where all manner of friends from all the circles that I have been involved with, both pre-Christian and post-Christian, come together in one place. And what I present in this environment will be the same, no matter who is looking. So for those of you who are coming back into my acquaintance after lo these many years, be warned that in this space I will be speaking of spiritual realities which I have come to understand and experience in a radically different way since last we met. But don’t worry that I am going to attempt to become your worst Christian nightmare because I am not. I refuse to play that game. And I am done with trying to be one thing in one circle of friends and something else in another. I just don’t have it in me anymore. If anyone out there has a problem with that, tough. Deal with it.