From the Nov/Dec, 2015 issue of Touchstone

Oh, For a Blank Slate! by Raymond J. Brown

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Oh, For a Blank Slate!

Raymond J. Brown on the Honesty of One Heathen & the Excuses of the Lapsed

It was a rare experience for me: reading the unfiltered, indeed innocent, impressions of an honest heathen encountering Christian believers. And I rather wish that I had been a witness to the event, quiet and pedestrian though it was.

It was Ash Wednesday in Iraq—and the rest of the world. Englishwoman Emma Sky was serving as the political advisor to General Ray Odierno, commander of all the coalition forces in the country. That morning, Sky noticed a black smudge on the general's forehead. Her first inclination—Sky harbors no trace of Very Senior Officer Veneration—was to inform the theater commander of his dirty face and then wipe off the smudge herself.

However, she presently noticed other soldiers wearing similar ashes and soon ascertained the associated piety. And she had previously observed that many GIs were not at all bereft of some old-time religion which she had never known. Indeed, she had noticed the difference between the Americans' religiosity and the corresponding lack in their Commonwealth counterparts, and recalled the comment of one Aussie Digger that Yanks actually prayed more often than Muslims.

I have heard worse testimonies and witnessed worse evangelism.

The Brilliant Brit

The text I read was The Unraveling by Emma Sky. Frankly, I would seldom, if ever, consult a left-wing, anti-military, citizen-of-the-world, secularist intellectual for wisdom on any subject whatsoever. And Sky appeared to be the type who speaks venom to power, if only just to stay in practice. But I have to admit that her book contained more than its share of beneficial insight, and I have recommended it to others.

This Briton in Mesopotamia was the unlikely political advisor (POLAD) to, initially, a rugged airborne brigade commander, and then to the overall theater commander, General Odierno. In her book, she is scathing and painfully accurate on the ill preparation for the occupation of Iraq, the many political blunders made, the profound lack of cultural understanding shown, and many other foibles. But she also comes to own a deep admiration, to the point of tears, for the worthy American soldier.

The respect was mutual, even though Sky eventually discovered that her official codename, Bravo-bravo, stood for British babe.

Emma Sky is an Oxford graduate and possesses prestigious credentials from the halls of academia in several countries. A true internationalist, she is now a professor at Yale. Certainly not born to any privilege, her youth was not at all easy. But her impoverished and twice abandoned mother ensured that her daughter received a first-rate education, if also no introduction whatsoever to matters godly.

Early in the book, Sky makes clear her contempt for "organized religion" (an expression that always leaves me wondering what attraction disorganized religion may hold). Her unbelief—and indeed her implicit lack of experience with and contempt for matters religious—is hardly the point of The Unraveling. Rather, the message is apparent in the subtitle: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.

However, I found myself pondering, alongside the author's many preconceived notions of Americana, her un-preconceived rendezvous with unashamed believers, and their various mores, habits, and traditions. As a believer in North America, I have encountered many people who were once inside but are now outside the orb of Mother Church, or somewhat near the spherical edge. I live in the state that, according to polls, rates as the second least church-going in the country. But I was once stationed in the deep South, and my wife hails from the Midwest. One observes more earnest piety in both those locales than in my home state of New Hampshire. And to think that New England was once the Bible Belt.

The Language of the Lapsed

But wherever I have lived or visited (45 states, 15 countries), for every honest atheist I come across, there are ten or more people who describe their spirituality in one of the following fashions. Sometimes it is said; sometimes I read it. And these words often appear in electronic and print journalists' interviews with celebrities. Here goes the list:

• "I was raised Catholic."This is most often said by a non-practitioner with some abiding respect for the church discipline of his youth. It is often heard when an individual has reservations about abortion, or is commenting upon the difficulties of divorce. I have also heard the expression ending with "Southern Baptist," "Christian Scientist," and "in the church."

• "I am spiritual more than religious."This vagary, of course, means whatever the individual who says it wants it to mean. It is equivalent to punting before fourth down (and is usually said on conversational second down).

• "I consider myself a cultural Catholic/Jew/Presbyterian." That last was stated, incidentally, by a Scottish writer. This expression speaks to some memory of tribalism in which the individual takes residual identity and comfort. For Catholics, it may be an abiding and inarticulate feeling about the incarnational presence of the Church—something most pronounced among the Romans, the Orthodox, and, at least occasionally, the Anglicans.

(I have twice heard said—really—"I'm a Catholic, but I don't believe in Christ." And one of the speakers was an engineering graduate of a distinguished eastern college.)

• "I am not particularly religious."This is usually expressed with no defensiveness or rancor, but as a simple matter of fact. Indeed, it is sometimes allowed when a person is expressing admiration for people who happen to be religious.

(During two months spent almost immobile in post-surgery rehab, I admit to having watched re-runs of Magnum, P.I., and Blue Bloods. I like the characters Tom Selleck plays in both shows. Commissioner Frank Reagan of Blue Bloods reminds me of my own paternal heritage of New York Irish cops. Tom Selleck was raised in the Disciples of Christ, but admits to little participation these days. Yet he says he admires the relationship his TV character has with the clergy of the Big Apple.)

• "I am lapsed."This simple confession is usually just that, but said with resignation instead of repentance. Sometimes it's accompanied by a faint and sad smile.

• "I don't go to church myself, but I support my wife and children who do." This expression has always left me cold. If the speaker is thinking at all, he must know the signal he is giving, and probably just does not care. He is loosely aligned with the guy who drops his kids off at Sunday school while he goes to the driving range or downs a Bloody Mary or two.

The Silent Types

There are also those folks who usually take a "vow of silence" when matters of faith arise for discussion. These have two groupings:

First, there are the unchurched, who really do have no background. Their appreciation for matters theological is rather like my relationship to my brother-in-law's Ph.D. in molecular biology. I read one of his scholarly articles once and understood only "and," "the," "a," and the punctuation marks. That was it.

Second, there are those—and this is particularly true of baby boomers who were once "Jesus People"—who knew awakening, and being born again, and who may have had charismatic experiences. But that was yesterday, and yesterday's gone. These, after coming down from the mountain, may even have once set their faces toward Jerusalem. But they did not make it all the way. The Parable of the Sowercomes to mind. "Long obedience in the same direction" is not their choice. And their latter-day response to discussions of faith is usually an acute desire to change the subject. Their non-verbal communication with former acquaintances signals a visible wish for temporary oblivion.

I recall running into such a one. The former-time brother in Christ (who had been far more given to emotive Jesus-speak than I ever was) greeted me, "Hi, Classmate." And he assiduously steered the conversation to professional subjects, not confessional ones.

The Temporary Cannabis

Then there is the politician who feels politically obliged, when no alternative presents itself, to speak in theological/biblical terms with which he is not really familiar or in any remote way mentally exercised. I particularly remember Wesley Clark attempting to pull this off in front of a black congregation. I actually felt sorry for him. And our current president has often demonstrated that his impressive education and experience have not steeped him in systematic or biblical theology. Then recall Howard Dean, who, while playing some catch-up in claiming his own interest in affairs of the soul, allowed that his favorite book of the New Testament was Job and that he had departed the Episcopal Church over some disagreement about a bike trail.

Yes, Republicans generally do better in Christian-speak, but some then get caught in a scandal involving quite the opposite of their espoused "family values." That is another subject for another time. By someone else.

A Personal Desire of My Own

The American Dialect Society could easily make an academic study of the in-house language of various Christian traditions, just as is accomplished concerning regional linguistics. Moreover, another phonetic exploration could be done on the vernacular of those who have departed or lapsed from a particular communion.

Be all that as it may, I would like one day to have the experience of portraying and explaining my beliefs in the God made known in Jesus Christ to someone quite intelligent and educated but legitimately and innocently clueless on the subject. A person with neither guile nor the related embarrassment. I envy those ground-pounding grunts who had that privilege around Emma Sky.

No, she is not converted to the "faith once delivered unto the saints." Yet. 

Raymond J. Brown , retired U.S. Coast Guard Captain, is an all-hazards consultant living in New Hampshire. Married with three children, he is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau and the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal. The names used in this article are all pseudonyms.

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