Wednesday with Michael Spencer: “The exhausting effort to be a good Christian denies Christ.”

daughter of sisyphus. Photo by Andrew Wallace at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Wednesday with Michael Spencer
Excerpt from Mere Churchianity: Finding Your Way Back to Jesus-Shaped Spirituality

I discovered, while listening to a lecture on Luther’s breakthrough discovery of grace, that the victorious Christian life is a lie. It is a completely un-Jesus-shaped imposter. The Christian life isn’t a denial of the prodigal son parable, with the prodigal suddenly becoming a good boy and making his father proud. It is lived at the point where the empty-handed, thoroughly humbled son kneels before his father and has nothing to offer. The son can do nothing but be loved. He is empty and has only one recourse—receive the gift of all things and eternity.

The exhausting effort to be a good Christian denies Christ. If you insist on securing your own holiness and acceptability, you disqualify yourself from receiving anything from Jesus. He came to earth to save sinners, not good Christians.

This discovery, like most Jesus-shaped discoveries, doesn’t go over well in your usual religious environments. It plays well in AA meetings, counselors’ offices, bars, and prison chapels, but doesn’t fit the program in the success seminars and motivational sessions passing as mainstream North American evangelicalism. It falls far short of the glamorous lifestyles of wealth, beauty, and popularity that keep showing up in church promos. It is, however, very good news to the poor, the brokenhearted, and the destitute, who welcome the message that Jesus proclaimed and lived.

If you have left the church or are headed for the door, there is a strong possibility that you have to leave in order to hold on to your integrity. You realized you can no longer play the religion game. You may be playing other games—I’m not letting any of us off the hook. But you found you could no longer be party to the endless act that says you are living the victorious Christian life.

If that is the case, your leaving in order to find true humanity, real vulnerability, and surprising grace may be the greatest gift you could give to the church. Not because of your absence, but because you have become one more person who has chosen real life in place of the inauthenticity of pretending to have it all together.

Mere Churchianity (p. 135-136)

50 thoughts on “Wednesday with Michael Spencer: “The exhausting effort to be a good Christian denies Christ.”

  1. There is a story in the Buddhist Lotus Sutra that has some very obvious similarities to Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. Here is the link; I think you’d find it interesting.

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  2. A friend attended our church a couple times with us then pointed something out. “Apparently the cross never happened.” A quiet man quietly slapped me upside the head. I brewed on that for months but finally it made a lot of the challenging aspects of Christianity and challenging verses not so bad anymore.

    My yoke is light and few will pass into heaven drives many nuts, the ideas seem so in conflict, yet they are not. The work is done (yoke, the cross) but few can accept my gift. Accepting the cross means I can’t control my salvation, can’t earn a better place in heaven (yes, we had a pastor that taught that).

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  3. “We commit sins; we are not our sin. Christ is with us, delivering and healing us even when we have been unaware of God’s love, or overtly rejecting it, or feeling wretched about not fully knowing it. Romans 8!

    Dana”

    Dana, this was so meaningful to me. Sometimes, grief is more bearable when it is seen as an expression of how much we loved someone, and that ‘sustains’ us in the darkness of it;
    so your comment had special meaning for me right now, and I felt it was a blessing. Thank you.

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  4. What makes this parable so outstanding is that in one very short story Jesus touches upon so many different relationship issues. The elder son’s issues are clearly one element of what Jesus wants us to think about.

    What I loved about Nouwen’s book was his ability to dive into all three actors in the story, and then show us how we either are, or can be, like all three of them. His bottom line was: We are all called to be a bit like the Father, ready to shower others with lavish love.

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  5. My $0.02…I think that many people that go through a period of faith “deconstruction” are just flat out tired of performing. I myself have just plain got sick and tired of trying to be the good Christian boy. You know…doesn’t swear, doesn’t listen to secular music, doesn’t lust. Then when I fail (not if, but when), feeling like I don’t measure up to what has been presented to be as how good Christians behave. I have much regret, shame, and hurt from thinking I had to cow-tow to what others demanded of me. No wonder I have a hard time in church.

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  6. Okay, but I tend to think of the “prodigal” son in this parable as a plot device to flesh out, reveal, and highlight the problems that the other son is having with the father.

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  7. “The Bible maintains that sinning is ultimately the reason for all suffering and death.”

    I would dispute this, though human sinning certainly bears a great deal of the blame for the shape the world is in. I read the Bible to say that the problem with human sin is that it opened the door to the dominion of Sin, Evil, and Death in the world — powers of chaos that pre-date and go far beyond acts of human sinning.

    As the story goes, in my reading of it, Adam could have saved humankind from the sin, evil, and death that was already in the world by choosing the tree of life. However, he didn’t, and by his choice he opened Pandora’s box, as it were, allowing the forces of chaos (see Genesis 1:2) that humankind was called to subdue (Genesis 1:28) free reign throughout the world.

    I don’t want to argue against your point, Iain, that we should all want to stop doing bad things that hurt ourselves and others. Of course. And that a “new obedience” (per the Augsburg Confession) is possible in Christ, energized by the Spirit. But Michael saw, and so have all of us, I would wager, that too much emphasis upon trying to stop sinning so easily leads to moralisms and legalisms of all kinds — “gospels” of sin management, as it were — that can crush the life right out of us. After all, there are probably just as many religious “sins” as non-religious.

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  8. –> “This is nonsense to me, since freedom from sin, for the reasons above, is exactly what gift I want from God, and, in fact nothing else at all.”

    Not to sound like a jerk about that statement, but not everyone sees this the same as you.

    My analogy regarding sin is that sin is like the garlic fries at Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park?) here in Seattle, and living requires going out “into the world” aka T-Mobile Park. Now along comes temptation in the form of the wonderful smell of those garlic fries. Now, I could become a monk and go live “away from the world” to avoid the temptation, but that’s not my calling. I view myself as a Christian called to live in the world.

    So when I go to a Mariner game at that park, there’s no way around it: I’m going to smell those garlic fries. The aroma permeates almost every level, seat, nook and cranny at the park. Just walking to my seat before the game even begins is a test of the will. I know they’re not good for me, but they smell SOOO DANG GOOD! I might last an inning. Or two. Maybe even three. But then the guy in the seat in front of me plops down with his tray of garlic fries and a big cold beer, and I’m hosed.

    To me, THAT’s what sin is like. It’s not easy to even want to be free of, not when partaking doesn’t seem so bad, not really, and the allure is great. And you know that it’ll taste so good, even if just for a moment, and you’ll regret it a bit later, maybe…

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  9. It’s actually the relationship between all three actors: Father, younger son, and elder son.

    Read Henri Nouwen’s fine book “The Return of the Prodigal Son” for a great glimpse at all three.

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  10. I don’t think I was clear enough. There’s no “evaluating” to be done. I strive to be good and beg God for the power to do so because I like being good, which makes me happy and joyful, and dislike sinning, which hurts me and others and makes me sad, and I want to stop sinning and start living fully but I can’t. If God had no interest in helping me then he’d be no d*mn use, frankly, and I’d not bother having anything further to do with him.

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  11. This is so ingrained into thoughts about sin, it’s d*mn near impossible to be sufficiently clear:
    Sin doesn’t hurt God. “Being good” isn’t a requirement for anything and doesn’t earn us anything and it’s not needed for any other purpose than itself.
    Being bad hurts *me* and *those around me*. It wrecks lives, relationships, everything. If I do bad stuff I suffer, not in by being prodded by pitchforks in a sick part of Dante’s imagination but right here, right now. The Bible maintains that sinning is ultimately the reason for all suffering and death. Man’s collective sinning if left unchecked will destroy him entirely – we kill each other, steal from other, fight each other, we have come within a whisker of blowing ourselves up and we are still making a really good effort to poison and / or cook our planet.
    We are addicted to this. Try as we might we can’t stop doing it. If we don’t stop doing it we are all going to die. We are the prodigal son in the pig pen starving to death in the famine.
    The point of the parable is that God had absolutely no interest in retributive justice. He doesn’t care what we have done, or for his own dignity or honour or “just desserts “: he just wants us to stop being a**holes and hurting ourselves and each other because he doesn’t like seeing us hurt. The message is that God will still cure us from our sin addiction if we want him to, and is able to do so, so that we stop doing all these bad things to ourselves and each other, and it doesn’t hurt any more. In fact, God will have us go further and so cleanse from our sin and impart us with love, joy, Spirit and holiness that we will be in perfect ecstatic Union with each other and with Him. The problem I have is the idea that God doesn’t care at all about sin, and we don’t need to worry about stopping sinning, and it is somehow unnecessary or even wrong to endeavour to do so. This is nonsense to me, since freedom from sin, for the reasons above, is exactly what gift I want from God, and, in fact nothing else at all.

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  12. And, every last damn one of us is being pushed out of this world…we can ignore that reality for a time, we can try to deny it by playing a game of some kind of “immortality by greatness”, or we can accept that we’re dead losers.

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  13. The quoted section from Mere Churchianity is rife with tones of Luther. That’s ok. Luther wasn’t right or wrong about everything, but one thing I think he was right about is the contrast of a “gospel of glory” vs. the Gospel of the Cross.

    Every one of us needs change in our way of life simply because it makes life more bearable and meaningful both for ourselves and for others around us. That’s life. Yet, at the same time, despite all our efforts, very little if anything at all actually changes. The gospel of glory is what we tell ourselves so we feel better about who we are not. The Gospel of the Cross does not help us much to feel better about ourselves, but it does tell us that being pushed out of the world is not the final word.

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  14. “People always assume that the church’s primary business is to teach morality. But it isn’t; it’s to proclaim grace, forgiveness, and the free party for all. It’s to announce the reconciling relationship of God to everybody and to invite them simply to believe it and celebrate it. Morality, law, rules, prescriptions – those are all the world’s business. And the world keeps up a steady drumbeat on those subjects: you must do this; you mustn’t do that; you’re out until you can prove yourself worthy of being let in. But that’s just a thinly disguised way of saying that most people aren’t going to be in for very long and that none of them can be in for good. Nobody, from Adam to the last person on earth, can pass a test like that. And therefore God simply doesn’t risk it: by the Mystery of the Incarnation, he cancels all the tests and gives a blanket hundred percent to everyone. In the Mystery of Christ’s death, he drops all the rotten works in the world down the black hole of his own forgetting; and in the Mystery of Christ’s resurrection, he makes a new world in which we’re all home free.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon, The Mystery of Christ… & Why We Don’t Get It

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  15. Yes, it’s about the relationship between the father, and the son who stayed at home.

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  16. Facing them is very painful and difficult, and for the most part, at least in my experience, I neither felt God’s presence with me in facing them, or empowered by God to face them, even though I’ve begged — begged — him to help me again and again. Now don’t tell me I should look to others to come alongside me to embody God’s grace in facing those things, because I’ve never met those others, and I’m certainly no good at relationship or community building as a way to find them. I haven’t even been able to find a decent therapist or counselor, one that I trust, never mind a therapeutic or counseling community.

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  17. is it a sign of our egocentrism that we think this parable is all about the son – what he thinks, feels, does and says, and not about the father?

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  18. Any performance requirement for me puts me outside the paradigm. At this last date, I would need decades of choosing to walk in the right direction before I could possibly become anything like a “Good Christian”; it’s way too late in the game, I don’t have those decades even if I had sufficient good will. Now, it’s possible that I’ll be given the time I need in some sort of purgatorial afterlife to do better than the one step forward, two steps back I’ve been doing my whole life; but then we are in religious terrain pretty similar to Eastern ideas of reincarnation, with perhaps an endless extent of time to get it right, but who’s to say it won’t be one step up, two steps back for all eternity? If you say all that matters is whether or not I’m moving in the “right” direction at the moment of my death, or for some relatively brief finite period of time right before my death, that’s letting an awful lot ride on a few moments or brief span of being a “Good Christian.” It all sounds very tiring, very worrisome, and not like Good News at all to me. It sounds like a religious treadmill, on which my chances of going nowhere — or worse!– are much greater than going somewhere. Where is word of deliverance to the captives?

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  19. “In my experience, a person who approaches life like that is not so concerned about getting “fixed.”
    That’s it. Jung said that some things were never resolved as such but simply lived through. That’s not very appealing with the “victorious Christian“ motif in mind but is much truer to reality.

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  20. It’s a painful process filled with every encumbrance and pot hole. Rejoice in all things is a high order.

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  21. CM, your 1, 2 and 3 points remind me of this from Colossians 1:5:

    “…the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel…”

    Those three are intertwined, but faith and love spring from hope, suggesting… No Hope, then no Faith and No Love.

    I think of Iain’s reference to the younger son in the prodigal son parable. All he had was hope that if he went home, his father would hire him as a servant and at least he would have food and not die. This was KNOWING how much he’d squandered, how much he’d lost, how much he’d tainted his father’s image and affronted his brother with his actions. “Despite all I’ve done against my father and brother, I think he’ll hire me as a servant and I’ll be okay.” His hope led to a faith that his father would not kill him when he returned, which I would have to assume eventually propelled him to a gracious love toward others “post-party.”

    The father also had a hope that his son would return, faithfully waiting for him to appear “a long way off,” then lavishly showing his love by throwing a party.

    The elder son, meanwhile – his brother’s actions years before still gnawing at him, making him bitter; his father’s hope not registering or connecting with him – has lost his hope, his faith, his love.

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  22. Iain, I’ve always found that the rub comes when it’s me who does the evaluating. I’m notoriously poor at understanding my own life, my “holiness,” my standing as a “good” or “better” Christian. Usually, just when I think I’m doing ok, I’m reminded that weaknesses I thought I overcame when I was 13 are now deep fissures under the surface of my adult “maturity.”

    And our “sins” are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems regarding holiness that we face in this world. There is the power of (capital S) Sin waging a constant war against us, the unseen forces of evil working their complex schemes to make good works practically impossible or ineffective, the corrupt and unjust institutions and structures that give shape to our lives, delimiting our ability to choose and or even see what choices are available. “Freed from sinning”? Unlikely, from my perspective.

    That’s not to say there is no effort forward, no Spirit-energy to motivate, move, and sustain me in doing good works, no progress or maturity to be gained. But, in my understanding, that progress involves:

    1. A deeper faith, which actually means I know I need to trust Jesus more and more because I can’t trust myself,
    2. A stronger hope, which means I long for new creation to be completed in Christ so that I can finally be free,
    3. A fuller love, which means I devote myself to laying down my life for others rather than measuring my own holiness.

    In my experience, a person who approaches life like that is not so concerned about getting “fixed.”

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  23. Eastern Christian anthropology.

    A monk I respect recently spoke about keeping your head down in humility and your heart up, trusting Christ who loves us, and putting one foot in front of the other.

    We commit sins; we are not our sin. Christ is with us, delivering and healing us even when we have been unaware of God’s love, or overtly rejecting it, or feeling wretched about not fully knowing it. Romans 8!

    Dana

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  24. “God’s gift is the will and power to do good – if we decide we don’t have to and shouldn’t try to be a “good Christian” in favour of accepting God’s free gifts we are rejecting the very gift that we are begging God to give him.”

    Many of us have been told that all our lives. At least from our perspective, we haven’t changed. So, are we not really Christians? Either way, we’re outside your paradigm.

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  25. I’m sorry but I think the above misses the point of the parable of the prodigal son. He doesn’t come back because he misses his father or he is sorry for what he has done or wants to restore his relationship with him, he comes back because he has effed his own life up, reached rock bottom and is starving to death in a famine, and he reckons even if though father will never accept him as a son, at least he can get something to eat. If there hadn’t been a famine he wouldn’t have come back at all. He doesn’t want his father’s forgiveness for messing up, he needs food or he will die.
    The story follows on from the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coins. God’s salvation is *practical* – the coin is restored to the strongbox, the sheep is saved from cold, and starvation and thieves and wolves and safely brought back to the fold, the prodigal son is saved from starvation, given warm clothes for rags and a safe comfortable bed instead of a pig pen.
    It’s death, not God’s punishment or wrath or unforgiveness that the Bible says is the punishment for sin. I want saving from my sins, I don’t want God to not care about them, I want him to fix them, because they are killing me, they are killing all of us. Michael Spencer says: “The exhausting effort to be a good Christian denies Christ. If you insist on securing your own holiness and acceptability, you disqualify yourself from receiving anything from Jesus.” This makes no sense to me: the thing I want to receive from Jesus is holiness, and the power to be a better Christian, so I can be freed from sinning and the long, inevitable decline into misery and and ultimately death that it brings. God’s gift is the will and power to do good – if we decide we don’t have to and shouldn’t try to be a “good Christian” in favour of accepting God’s free gifts we are rejecting the very gift that we are begging God to give him.

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  26. with your gift of poetry, Robert, you share with us your vision of ‘a strange land’ and through your poems, you uncover to us its soul

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  27. “The Christian life isn’t a denial of the prodigal son parable, with the prodigal suddenly becoming a good boy and making his father proud. It is lived at the point where the empty-handed, thoroughly humbled son kneels before his father and has nothing to offer. The son can do nothing but be loved. He is empty and has only one recourse—receive the gift of all things and eternity.” (Michael Spencer)

    THIS

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  28. There is a strange subtlety, a mystery if you will, in finding that place where you can accept yourself as a louse and a lech, fully embracing that reality, while at the same time not embracing a sinful existence. Hypocrisy is always just a step away. I suppose it has a lot to do with the narrative, the persona, I present to the world. How am I presenting myself? A Mr. Holy or average schmuck? A Christian seems to be both. The light is never without the dark.

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  29. Let me give a concrete example: I had a housemate who was a recovering addict and could speak very eloquently about his own brokenness and need for God – but who was also incredibly adept at constructing a narrative where absolutely nothing he did, even when his actions deeply hurt people around him, was his own fault. He had gotten to the level of admitting the surface-level brokenness in his life, and some of the childhood trauma that had precipitated it, but had stopped short of being able to accept any responsibility for harming others.

    For many others, our deepest, darkest sin is things that have been inculcated in us by our culture that we so take for granted that we don’t even recognize them as sin – for example, the stories we believe about what masculinity or femininity looks like, or the prejudices we hold, or the particular idols we turn to when we need to feel safe or comfortable or in control. Often those things go completely unexamined even when facing them is the only way we can be transformed from people bearing the image of our culture into people bearing the image of Christ.

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  30. I agree that our salvation isn’t dependent on how well we fight that battle, but the world around us will be a very different place if we’re people with a deep relationship with Jesus who reflect his image more and more with each passing year. And of course, our own lives will be richer and fuller as well.

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  31. –> “There *is* effort required of us as Christians, but it’s not effort to try to make ourselves better or to put on a good show or to avoid sin through sheer effort of will. Rather, it’s the battle to maintain a deep and vital and honest relationship with God, ourselves, and others. When we have that relationship, transformation into the image of Christ comes naturally as a side effect.”

    I like how Jesus says it, as translated in The Message, in Matthew 11:28-30 (and my favorite scripture ever):

    “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

    –> “So while it’s true that we can’t transform ourselves, it’s also true that if we aren’t transforming, something is wrong.”

    Old self vs. new self. It’s a tough battle. I’m counting on Jesus pulling me through the gate into heaven when the time comes, regardless of how well (or poorly) I’ve fought that battle.

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  32. I left the church — in my case, the Roman Catholic Church — as a teenager. I found my way into a mainline Protestant church in my 30s. I’ve spent decades in a number of those mainline churches, but the fact is I’m never totally “of” them. I always keep one foot out the door, in terms of my inner disposition; and I always attend to everything that happens in church with a critical and alienated eye, knowing that even there I’m a stranger in a strange land.

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  33. “there is a sort of surface-level poverty of spirit – acknowledging some of our most obvious faults or failings, while hiding from our innermost wounds and brokenness and sin”

    I’m sure that’s possible for some, but in my experience my innermost wounds have been very insistent in not wanting to be hid.

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  34. There *is* effort required of us as Christians, but it’s not effort to try to make ourselves better or to put on a good show or to avoid sin through sheer effort of will. Rather, it’s the battle to maintain a deep and vital and honest relationship with God, ourselves, and others. When we have that relationship, transformation into the image of Christ comes naturally as a side effect. So while it’s true that we can’t transform ourselves, it’s also true that if we aren’t transforming, something is wrong.

    In the same way that a surface-level self-righteousness can prevent us from the deeper righteousness that comes from allowing Christ to work within us, there is a sort of surface-level poverty of spirit – acknowledging some of our most obvious faults or failings, while hiding from our innermost wounds and brokenness and sin – that can block us from the sort of true poverty of spirit that makes our hearts fertile soil for the Spirit’s work.

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  35. I aspire to lead a life as good as that of Lazarus laying helplessly at the Rich Man’s gate. That’s as high a bar as I can reach, and believe me, it’s more than high enough.

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  36. “If you have left the church or are headed for the door, there is a strong possibility that you have to leave in order to hold on to your integrity. You realized you can no longer play the religion game. You may be playing other games—I’m not letting any of us off the hook. But you found you could no longer be party to the endless act that says you are living the victorious Christian life.”

    This, 70 times 70. It’s dangerous to speak on behalf of the dead, but I think Michael would be very sympathetic to the Nones and Dones today – especially as the evangelical church has only gotten more insane since his death.

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  37. “In spite of all our fakery, though, Jesus’ program remains firm. He saves losers and only losers. He raises the dead and only the dead. And he rejoices more over the last, the least, and the little than over all the winners in the world.”

    — Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

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