Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Boxers of Christianity

Deanna, a guest poster over at Neil’s Godless in Dixie blog, has an excellent post up about the narcissism of preaching. She paints an all-too-common portrait of members of the clergy. I have trouble finding fault with it. My only counterpoint would be to suggest something I’m sure she’d have no problem admitting. That is that not all preachers completely fit that mold. Certainly some folks will be able to think of exceptions to many of the otherwise spot-on characterizations she puts forward. The take-away for me is that this particular career path undeniably shapes and attracts certain people that find great success, acclaim, honor and monetary gain as a reward for traits like narcissism and megalomania. Of course there are exceptions. There are probably some decent people in politics too. How does the system treat them, though? Who fares better?

Personally, I had difficulty fully identifying with some of that characterization because the man I called my pastor for most of the time I considered myself a Christian is one of the most humble, caring and honest people I’ve ever known. He drew a salary that was barely enough to support his family and frequently turned down cost of living adjustments when there were budget shortfalls. I know this because I was directly involved in the church’s finances. He never had more than a hundred or so congregants and the vast majority of those congregants were working-class folks of meager means. You could count the number of bachelor’s degrees on one hand. He wanted to comfort people when they were sick and dying and suffering. He got his hands dirty offering free labor Monday through Saturday, whether it was swinging a hammer on a rooftop or running a ditch digger. Sure, on Sunday mornings he was standing in the pulpit doing what most preachers do, but he was the only pastor I’ve ever heard utter the phrases, “I don’t know” or “I can’t explain that” with any regularity when it came to matters of the Bible and theology.

That somewhat undogmatic approach may have helped nudge me down the path toward looking for solid answers on my own, but I suspect his example of living justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with his god may have kept me in Christianity longer than I would’ve otherwise stayed. My confirmation bias told me that people like him were the silent majority and the crooks and megalomaniacs were in the loud minority. Looking back though, even in my own little Christian bubble, it should’ve been obvious this wasn’t the case. I had known and had dealings with plenty of other preachers and should’ve known better.

I attribute his longevity in a single pastorate to the fact that for a long time the influential members of his congregation viewed the church, which had been founded as a white flight suburban church plant, as a blue-collar social club and not as a means of “bringing Jesus to a lost world.” Thus they had no real desire to grow beyond the existing walls. They only saw his inability to draw new members and converts as a problem when the coffers ran low. They knew a good thing when they saw it and he was never assertive enough to truly threaten their complacency.

I’ve known plenty of other people in churches that weren’t paid, full-time clergy that were just as hard-working, caring, self-sacrificing and humble. My experience has been that most organizations have an 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people. I think this has to be adjusted for churches, based on my personal experience. I think churches typically have a 90/10 rule. These people are repeatedly leaned on for their monetary gifts, time, talents, and genuine love of their fellow human beings to the point of exhaustion. Sure, they will all give credit to Christ within them and call themselves unworthy vessels. They will say they’re doing it for his kingdom and for their eternal reward. I think that’s crap. I think they’re just good people who truly enjoy the feeling of helping others and being a part of something bigger than themselves. I suspect they would make great Humanists.

The whole thing is reminiscent of some of the characters from Animal Farm. The preachers Deanna writes about (or the select congregants who often wield power greater than the pastor’s) remind me of the pigs. The majority of the other congregants are like the rest of the animals, sheep mostly. However, the people like that exceptional pastor and the other hard-working, caring volunteers in the church I've known over the years remind me of a couple of the horses, Boxer and Clover. If you haven’t read the book or don’t recall, the pigs ran the farm after the animals drove away the humans, but the horses like Boxer and Clover did all the work. The pigs were nothing without the loyal, trusting, hard-working, yet gullible Boxer. He bought into their bullcrap and in the end he got sent to the glue factory when he was no longer useful.

After about twenty years at that church, my pastor friend saw many of his original congregants leave or die off. With numbers dwindling, a group within the church led by some newcomers who were pushing for a harder line on a single theological point began questioning his fitness as pastor. He resigned. His usefulness was done. He was sent to the glue factory. He now drives a truck and doubts he will ever go back to paid ministry.
"I will work harder. The Bible is always right."

To this day he remains one of the only Christian friends I retained after my apostasy. He’s never once tried to argue theology with me because he knows full well that I’ve heard it all before and he respects me as a person (his Calvinistic soteriology also helps). The faithful in Christendom will hang their hats on people like him and get plenty of mileage holding them aloft while ignoring the vast swathes of egotistical alpha dogs, crooks, narcissists, megalomaniacs and quite a number of psychopaths that curiously find themselves more than at home shepherding the sheep. As far as I’m concerned, this man was too good of a human being to ever be a truly successful preacher.

I see many like him scattered throughout churches, though not usually in positions of great authority. Though they themselves will likely never see it and many will declare they find great fulfillment in the service of the church, the Boxers and Clovers of our species deserve better than what some popular versions of Christianity have to offer them. My hope is that many and more will allow themselves to finally look beyond the fence without being blinded by the dogma they’ve had pumped into them Sunday after Sunday. You don’t have to be a cynical, stubborn old donkey to see through pig shit. Open your eyes; take a long, thoughtful look; have courage; jump the fence.


  1. I left such a wonderful long comment on here. It was eloquent and insightful. I even used the word "laconic" in a sentence, ironically. But it's gone.

    1. Ugh. You're the second person that's tried to comment here that I am aware of that's had that problem. I don't know if it's my settings, a browser glitch or what.

      I'm sure you weren't using "laconic" to describe anything I had to say. This post was really just a comment that I started making on your blog that grew in length to the point that I just decided to make my own blog post of it.

    2. What a laconic bailiwick, Neil. Excellent post as always, Brian; I really dug the analogy to Animal Farm.