Monday, October 26, 2009

Aloysius Snuffleupagus

I very much enjoy the writings of Donald Miller. I am proud to be one of the few people who actually bought Searching for God Knows What and Through Painted Deserts (yes, he has written quite a bit since Blue Like Jazz). Last week I finished reading his newest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.

I know this girl (we’ll call her Big Bird) who used to constantly talk about her “friend,” (we’ll call her Snuffleupagus). Snuffy was Big Bird’s roommate. But, every time we went to visit Bird, Snuffy wasn’t home. Big Bird would regale us with wonderful tales of misadventure and mayhem involving herself and Snuffleupagus. But, alas, Snuffy never materialized. Eventually, there were photos on the wall of the notorious (yet ever illusive) Snuffleupagus. Photoshop magic? We began to wonder if “Snuffy” was really just Big Bird’s alter ego. One evening we attended a party, of sorts, at Big Bird’s house and, low and behold, there was Snuffleupagus (or at least the actor hired to play her to throw us off the trail). She hung around for 20 minutes or so and then vanished. That was a few years ago. We’ve not seen her since.

I know this guy (we’ll call him Gordon) with whom I lunch from time to time. Last week, over Asian food, we started discussing life and faith. The conversation went something like this (I will undoubtedly embellish. That is a writer’s prerogative, you understand.)

Gordon: Growing up, I was always taught that the most important thing a Christian is to do is make more Christians. But, how can I convince someone else of something if I have so many unanswered questions about it myself?

Me: Like what? What do you mean?

Gordon: Imagine you’ve grown up being taught that all of the answers to life's questions and everything you ever need to know about God can be found in this book. The book tells you how much God loves you and cares for you. Then, as an adult you start to look into this book, where it came from, how it came together… you look around at the world you live in and you see all of these inconsistencies. Even things in the book itself don’t seem to always add up. People around you ask you all kinds of questions about your faith, what you believe and why, but your answers often seem to come up short—both for them and for you. What if you are discovering that maybe God isn’t who you thought He was. You’ve had undeniable experiences with Him, but you don’t know how they fit into your understanding of who He is.

Me: Academically speaking, the Bible is a loose collection of writings spanning hundreds of years, removed from their original context, translated, organized and distributed by believers in Jehovah; followers of Jesus, the Christ. Whatever you believe about it from there, know and understand the limitations, apart from Divine insight, we most definitely have in understanding the intent and context of each writer. Would it really represent a compromise to who God is for one writer in one time and place to have one experience with Him and yet another to have a different understanding? The story of the three blind men describing an elephant comes to mind.

Gordon: Yeah, I get that. But where does that leave me? Then there is the whole,” if God is so loving, why is there so much tragedy and suffering in the world?” argument. Where are the biblical answers to that? If I can’t find God there, where do I find Him?

Me: Exactly. That is exactly my point. You have to stop trying to find God IN the Bible and start letting God speak to you through it. The Bible isn’t merely a means to knowing God. You can acquire an exhaustive knowlege of the Bible and still not know God. I had a professor in college who had a master’s degree in biblical studies. He knew more about scripture than I did but didn’t believe in God at all. He had only pursued the degree because of his fascination with the Bible as literature. Literary understanding of a book won’t connect you to God. Hermeneutically reconciling any contradictions between accounts by various biblical authors is not the secret to knowing God. I do, however, believe the Bible is the principle of quite a few different ways God can speak to us. It is also a good way for us to get caught up on this grander story—who He has been and wants to be in relationship to humanity; to creation.

Would you believe me if I told you I knew the author, Donald Miller?

Gordon: Probably. You haven’t given me any reason to believe you would lie to me.

Me: Okay, so you would believe me based on the nature of my character as you know it. Fine. Good, in fact… thank you for that. But, say you had doubts. What would it take for me to convince you that I know Donald Miller? Keep in mind, I’m very familiar with his writings. I’m his social networking “friend.” I could share with you life stories and personal information regarding Donald’s likes, dislikes, childhood struggles and hang-ups. On my facebook page, you can see a recent photo of the two of us (his arm around my shoulder). I can even show you words written to me in his own hand.[1] Would that be enough for you?

Gordon: Probably not.

Me: So, what would it take? What would you need to believe that I knew Donald Miller?

Gordon: Well, I guess I would have to see the two of you together.

Me: There you go. God isn’t asking us to convince anyone that He is. We can’t. What’s to keep thinking people from concluding God is just an elaborate myth if all you have to show for Him are artifacts, stories and organizations? But what if they saw us together? What if they met my friend, God, instead of my book or my church or my empirical evidence? What would that look like? What would that be like? Suddenly, it is God’s responsibility to prove that He is (something He is certainly capable of doing with or without me). But, it is my responsibility to know Him and to make our friendship public. I’m not talking about TBN, here. I’m talking about friendship, not salesmanship. Besides, we are charged to “go and make disciples”—not “new converts.”
My most recent faith struggle is not one of intellect. I don’t really do that anymore… Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care.[2]
Right now, Snuffleupagus is featured in Big Bird’s facebook profile photo. I recognize her. I’ve met her, but I don’t know her. It is unlikely that anyone will ever see me and Snuffy together. She is Big Bird’s friend, not mine. While I am sure she is a wonderful person, I have no real desire to call up Big Bird and get Snuffy’s contact information. I don’t imagine my wife and I will be inviting her to dinner any time soon. You see, Snuffleupagus hasn’t really been a part of our relationship with Big Bird.
I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.[ibid.]
By the way, God says "hi."

1. All of this is true, though not what it seems (or as creepy as it sounds). I read his blog. He autographed my copy of A Million Miles and I took a photo with him at the book signing.

2. Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003)