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Into the wilderness

I recently received an email from a young woman saying that she wanted to read my novels, but that first she needed to know if we believed the same things.

I’m still reeling from that question.

And yet, if I’m honest…

…I remember that way of thinking.

Growing up, I remember choosing which Sunday afternoon football team I’d favor by which one had a known, professing Christian on it. I remember being worried if what I read wasn’t written by a Christian. I remember that most of the households I saw in childhood had Bibles, inspirational “Christian” books (the equivalent of “easy listening music” for Christian readers), and books about managing finances, but very little else. I remember most of the music being “Christian” music… or classical (because instrumental was easier—it didn’t confront us with other worldviews, or rather, it often did but we weren’t educated enough in music to know that it was doing that).

I remember most of the attention being on “tell,” “proclaim,” “preach,” rather than “observe,” “listen,” “attend,” “receive.” (And aren’t “witnesses” people who, first and foremost, see and hear?)

At this point in my life, my faith has been built and shaped as much by expressions I’ve encountered beyond the “borders” of the safe “Christian” community in which I grew up.

I’m beginning to believe more and more every day that we can measure how well we “love your neighbors as yourselves” in part by considering how willing we have been to welcome, listen to, read, and attend to the testimonies, art, and writing of people who believe differently than we do.

Increasingly, I’m convinced that if we are too afraid to listen graciously, and without fear, to those who disagree with us… if we don’t open their books or go to their concerts, if we can’t read their editorials without snarky comments, if we don’t strike up conversations with them at the cafe with the one who is Different… we won’t know the rewards of obedience to “Love thy neighbor.”

That tells me that much of what I was taught in “Christian community” as I grew up — how to protect myself from “the World” — was actually a lesson in how to excuse myself from the hard work of love.

And, while sending money to a troubled nation through a charity may be a good practice, it isn’t a substitute. It isn’t one of the fuller expressions of “dying to self” or “sacrifice” or being… what was the term we so loved to use… “Christ-like.”

That’s why I have taken to saying (tongue in cheek) that I’m a “recovering Evangelical.” Or, more to the point, “a recovering jerk.” And I still have a long way to go.

If that young woman must “approve” a writer’s beliefs before receiving a writer’s witness, she is probably going to remain relatively comfortable most of the time, living in the familiar, in the sameness, in a place where there is no provocation to growth, no challenge, no testing, no revelation, and very little love. And as she does, everything beyond her borders is going to seem more and more frightening, more and more threatening… and what good is our faith if we live in fear of the world?

Meanwhile Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. And who led him there? The devil? No. The Holy Spirit.

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.