AT: Heroes with Clay Feet
When famed novelist Kurt Vonnegut died recently, our local newspaper ran a glowing tribute written by a woman who knew him. The article began in this way:
An avowed atheist, Kurt Vonnegut was perhaps the finest example of a Christian I ever met.
Now, if that’s not a kick in the teeth of the church, I don’t know what is. A man who doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of God better represents His Son than those of us who believe?
I have no argument with the article writer about Vonnegut’s having been a fine person. Maybe he was; not having known him, I can’t say for sure.
But what vexes me is this: what exactly does this woman think a Christian is?
Unfortunately, she probably thinks what too many people think: that a Christian is someone who is--like Vonnegut--“unfailingly kind to everyone around him.” A Christian, then, is warm and friendly, tolerant and nonjudgmental, and he at least lives up to his own moral standards.
In other words, a Christian is defined by how he acts rather than by Who he trusts. With actions rather than belief setting the criteria, it’s easy for unbelievers to decide we are not what we should be and to simply dismiss us all as hypocrites. Which leaves room for the twisted logic that someone who is not even a Christian is actually the best Christian of all.
Granted, we as the church have to accept a good portion of the blame for all of this. Because there is something to the idea that Christians should be good witnesses (we are, after all, “living epistles” (2 Cor. 3:2-3), expected to walk in a manner worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1). Heaven knows we’ve messed up big-time when it comes to that, both corporately and individually.
But to say that being a good person makes you a Christian is as far off the mark as you can shoot. Because we are not inherently good, and that’s the whole point. We are sinners saved by grace, and as long as we remain in this world, we will struggle against the powers of the flesh. And very often, even with the best of intentions, we will fail.
Sadly, when we do fail, people dismiss God not because of God but because of us. Because they don’t understand that while
He is perfect, we are not.
How can we help non-Christians understand that being a Christian doesn’t mean living up to a standard of goodness, but rather means trusting a good God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves?
As writers, we have a unique opportunity to tell the world what it’s all about. In our stories and in our characters, we can show what it really means to be a follower of Christ, and that means accurately portraying the struggle. We can tell about how we grapple with lust, with greed, with dishonesty, with bitterness, with any of the myriad sins that tempt us and sometimes bind us--while at the same time speaking of the great mercy of the God who keeps trying to transform us into the image of His Son anyway.
I love what novelist Frederick Buechner says about his characters. When asked by a reader why he had imperfect heroes in his stories rather than real heroes of the faith, Buechner explained, “Any saint I write about [will] always have feet of clay, because they are the only saints I know anything about or could imagine. I don’t think there are any other kind. I can’t imagine a hero of the faith in the sense that he or she does not have shadows and darknesses.”
Even if we could convince each other to straighten up and act right, that wouldn’t be enough. Should we somehow suddenly all be on our best behavior, we’d still be people filled with shadows, stumbling along on clay feet. Unbelievers would continue to call us hypocrites, because they don’t understand that we can’t “be nice” on our own and that, in the end, it isn’t even really about us anyway.
It’s about God. It’s about what He did and what He continues to do, in spite of us. The amazing thing is that we are so wretched, but He loves us anyhow. That’s the story that unbelievers need to hear.
Ann Tatlock http://www.anntatlock.com