On Harleys, Christian Car Shows, & the Good Life (or, Why Nietzsche Was Wrong About Christianity)
I read a story in the paper not long ago about a pastor of a Protestant church who, in the hopes of drawing more men to his services, organized a car show. This pastor rides a Harley & wears jeans & Hawaiian shirts, a point of some importance to the writer of the article. In its fifth year, the car show draws about 10,000 attendees, has big-name sponsors, & is tied into various charitable causes. This is a nice story, as people are enjoying themselves & helping others. Whether or not the pastor is meeting his stated goal of getting “dads out of the garage & into the church” was left unsaid, but the dads are at least out of the garage, which meets the first half of the goal.
I’ve heard similar stories throughout the years about pastors, youth ministers, & others interested in evangelizing the unchurched by inviting them to events such as Christian film nights, Christian rock concerts, Christian coffee houses, Christian comedy nights, & so on. On the face of it, there’s probably not much to say about this ongoing attempt to reach people by showing them that, yes, we Christians can have fun, too. We’re human, after all, & we can watch movies, make jokes, & drink lattes like everyone else. We can even rock-n-roll. Yet I think there is an underlying assumption in all these stories, one shared by the journalists who write them & by many of those who read them. Namely, the assumption that Christianity makes living an enjoyable life, one replete with everyday pleasures, difficult if not impossible.
I want to be careful here, because I don’t want to be be unduly critical of believers trying to cast their nets & fulfill Christ’s call to be fishers of men. Evangelism has always taken on interesting & creative forms, including in societies like ours where the Gospel has grown stale. Nor do I want to make too much out of what, as I said above, is a nice story. And yet. . . I couldn’t help, when thinking about pastors wearing Hawaiian shirts, riding Harleys, & organizing Christian car shows, being reminded of Nietzsche’s caustic remarks about the deadening effects Christianity has had on the soul of the West. Of course Nietzsche had never seen a Protestant pastor in jeans, & he was spared from the banalities of both Christian rock & American journalism. He did, however, say some things that are pertinent to the story I cited & what many in our society today instinctively feel about Christianity.
Of all the critics of the faith Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) holds pride of place for his wit, ability to turn a phrase, & psychological insight into the impact of Christianity on the psyche of the West. It would be refreshing to encounter a critic of Nietzsche’s intellectual stature today amid all the drivel dished out by publishing houses seeking to capitalize on the new atheism buzz. At the very least, we would be treated to a literary elegance that would make even the worst overstatements & inaccuracies more tolerable. More importantly, we would have a critic who takes Christianity seriously enough to try to understand it & how it shapes its followers. Even if Nietzsche often badly misreads the faith & its implications, he knows that he must do more than hurl missiles in the hope of destroying something he doesn’t like. Rather, as a critic he must understand in some depth the Christian ethos & how it revolutionized everything from politics to art to morality as it swept through the late ancient world & changed the way people in the West felt & thought about everything.
Throughout his work Nietzsche complains that Christianity emasculates those who embrace it & the society it takes root in. “The death of the genuinely human” might be the best short answer to the question of what Nietzsche thinks happens when Christianity establishes itself as the dominant faith of a people. The ressentiment (he always uses the French word; no one I’ve read seems to know why) he finds at the root of the Christian ethos is a living & active force, sitting in judgment of & trying to root out the very virtues which make genuine greatness possible. These virtues, according to Nietzsche, are in fact the principle means by which humans make sense of their world & seek to overcome the tragic dimensions of existence. The pride that Christians denounce as the worst of sins, the recognition of the superiority of the noble to the mediocre that Christians decry as a refusal to honor all of God’s creatures, are, among other qualities characteristic of the greatest civilizations, required to ensure that those civilizations do not lapse into the decadence that Nietzsche associates with nihilism. Such decadence results from the denial of what makes us most human, & Christianity bears much of the responsibility for this decadence. A creed that elevates weakness at the expense of strength eviscerates human beings & the cultures they build, as is evident when we study the historical record of the West.
This type of criticism is widely & instinctively felt, if not well understood or articulated. Not because people have been reading Nietzsche & his disciples, but because it seems to many that religion makes people soft. Isn’t it commonly held that to “be religious” is to be somehow unnatural & weak? Think of all the restrictions, all the denials, all the things we are supposed to avoid. Chastity & abstinence, rejecting anger, suppressing our natural aggressiveness, turning the other cheek, forgiving those who harm you, becoming the milquetoast subjects of an ethic that demands the unnatural virtue of meekness: How does this fit the do-it-yourself American ethos? How does this allow us to be properly human? And, in a society with simplistic ideas about gender roles, doesn’t this Christian ethos seem too feminine? Isn’t this apparent at every church service, where all you have to do is check out the male/female ratio of those in attendance to take the measure of this religion? Nietzsche was tapping into a natural vein of criticism when he attacked Christianity as life-denying, & while the average critic today may not be able to keep in step with his blistering polemic, there is a shared distrust of any form of religious sensibility, especially one nurtured by all the sweet sentiments expressed in popular Christian culture. Christianity can often seem like a humorless attempt to follow the Jesus in those kitschy paintings, the one who is holding a lamb & surrounded by cute little children. All so sweet, all so sentimental. This is the faith that conquered a world?
Some Christians will respond to this view, which they may unconsciously hold themselves, by mimicking secular culture. I remember going to a Christian rock concert shortly after my conversion all those years ago. The friend who invited me, a recent convert as well, tried to convince me that the devil did not have the best tunes, & that Christian rock was legitimate. “You praise Jesus and get to rock,” he said. After a few songs, as we walked out of the auditorium with blank stares on our faces & a sick feeling in our hearts, we got in the car & cranked up REM (this was the mid-’80’s). “Too bad they’re not Christian,” we said, wondering how many more Christian concerts we’d be invited to. “Too bad we’re not supposed to like this stuff,” we thought, wondering if we’d get to listen to the music we liked without feeling guilty. “Love not the world,” right? This meant, according to the crowd we hung with, “Love not secular music, secular movies, secular activities, anything that smacks of the life you are leaving behind.” For these are not the fruit of the love of Christ, so what good are they? They glorify the flesh, not the Lord. And how do they help us evangelize the lost? How do they not corrupt those of us who now live in Christ & are called to denounce the spirit of this age? Yes, the devil probably does have the best tunes, as we had to admit after listening to the Christian stuff, but real sacrifices must be made. Take up your cross & all that. Just like the guy did who testified in church that he had burned all his secular records because of his desire to serve the Lord with all his heart. The applause he received was impressive.
Such was the thinking of the Christian world I had entered, the world of a conservative Protestant evangelicalism still haunted by its fundamentalist origins. My group of new friends had a few who still listened to secular music & watched secular films, though guiltily. That included me. Lacking a theological foundation in the incarnational logic of the faith, we enjoyed secular culture with a bad conscience, & even tried to justify our delights by appealing to how we would be able to meet unbelievers on their own turf. “This will actually help us to witness to Christ,” we said, trying to answer the critic inside us who wondered how our visitations to the land of the lost would be seen by its inhabitants. “Unbelievers will see that we Christians are actually cool, that our faith doesn’t disqualify us from the good life.” And, of course, we tried to find all kinds of hidden Christian ideas in our secular music & films, deciphering lyrics & scripts as if they were allegories begging to be cracked open by those of us brave enough to risk such dangerous exposure.
This will sound familiar to a lot of believers, not only Protestants, current or former. While I think this is more of a Protestant issue, there are Catholics who struggle with the same questions & doubts. With this sort of struggle within the community of believers, is it any surprise that those on the outside think what they do about us? It often seems to them, as it does to many believers themselves, that we have embraced a faith that demands of us a renunciation of everything that makes life worth living, even innocent pleasures. Isn’t this just more evidence that we can’t enjoy life without feeling guilty? Who needs Nietzsche to point out the obvious? It’s enough simply to hear us babbling about beatitudes that deny common sense & running away from even harmless pursuits like music & movies to remind people why going to church seems a huge waste of time.
I think this is behind those stories that inform readers that there are Christians who wear Hawaiian shirts, ride Harleys, engage in activities like going to car shows, open coffee shops with religious names (“Sacred Grounds,” “Holy Beans,” etc.), go to Christian concerts, & so on. “Hey, look,” the stories imply, “those religious people are actually doing things we enjoy. Maybe they’re not so weird, after all.” The newspaper is no place to look for theological sophistication, but it does reveal the common American lack of even the most basic awareness of Christian teaching. This misunderstanding includes the idea that, as Nietzsche believed, we Christians can not by the very logic of our faith live the good life, as too much must be excluded. The Harley riders, moviegoers, & rockers among us must be the exception to the rule. It’s as if we’re at the zoo & we see a baboon combing its hair. “Hey, kids, look at the funny monkey,” we say. ”It’s trying to act like us.” Yes, but it’s still a baboon.
Some believers accept the basic premise of these stories, & play the baboon, primping & preening for their secular neighbors, hoping to be validated in their eyes, or perhaps hoping to convince themselves that they are not giving up everything that makes life worth living. No, I am not indicting the pastor in the story mentioned above, or most of the other Christians who do similar things (but “Sacred Grounds”? C’mon). Rather, I am simply reflecting on my own experiences as a new believer way back when, what Nietzsche said about us Christians, & some commonly held ideas in our society. I do think there is some validity in reading news stories from this perspective, or in asking these questions about them & why they are considered worthy of being published in the first place. What’s most important to me about all this, however, is the conviction that Jesus was actually wrong, that following him does demand our emasculation, that the poor in spirit are not the blessed ones, & that meekness is a sign of weakness. And that the saints I so admire didn’t know the truth that sets us free. The good life may or may not include car shows or rock music, but it will be modeled upon the life of Jesus. On this point Nietzsche was badly mistaken, as are all those who accept his conclusions. That those outside (& sometimes inside) our community of faith are surprised by the fact that we can use the things of this world, that we can enjoy many things that are not overtly “religious,” is not ultimately due to their commitment to Nietzsche’s writings or lack of theological knowledge, but to our inability or unwillingness as believers to understand Jesus & the faith we profess, & to live accordingly. Were we to live the Beatitudes, as the saints always do, & witness to the joy that life in Christ makes possible, we might inspire journalists to write a different type of story about us, one that does not express surprise at the fact that we can ride Harleys. Too many Christians seem to think that everyday pleasures are morally suspect & that there is something odd about Christians who enjoy themselves doing “regular” things. In our preaching & in our lives we should be better able to tease out the implications of the incarnational faith we profess, & show by the joy of our lives that Nietzsche, & everyone who suspects that he was right, had a deeply flawed understanding of what it means to be human. And that Jesus was on target when he told us that the good life, the happy life, the life of genuine blessedness, is lived only by those are transformed by the Holy Spirit so that they are poor in spirit, knowing their dependence upon God; so that they are meek, able to battle successfully the temptation to use force against the foes & frustrations that seek to thwart us; & so on. We are hardly emasculated by the Spirit, but strengthened & enabled to live as God intended us to live. Rather than having to read reports on how Christians are doing things others do, despite their religious beliefs, we should see more stories about how utterly different we are, how we live with greater joy & peace than our neighbors, & how that joy & peace is a sign of the presence of the Spirit within us.