The De-Calvinization of Kit Kennedy

There we were, my ex-husband and I, walking our two babies along a boardwalk during Covid19 lockdown. The dew was still fresh on the plants that carpeted the wetland floor. Our two-year-old was busy conquering her fear of bridges (because look, a boardwalk is one long bridge, isn’t it). I watched her a bit proudly and reflected on my unfaced fears, and whether I had any. (Spoiler: We all do.) Then I said the thing that had been bothering me for a long time, but that I hadn’t given voice to yet: “Bae, I just don’t think I subscribe to the Evangelical trope of Jesus as my bestie anymore. And I can’t think of God as an old white man in the sky who is morbidly curious about my every action, reaction and inaction, and who has a huge “choose your own adventure” style book of punishments and prizes depending on what I do or don’t do in any given moment.” 

Patrick responded with a sentence almost as wordy as the two I’d just thrown him. And that is perhaps one reason we work so well as friends even after splitting.

But that wasn’t the moment I was observing. I was observing another one, a big one where I recognized the seismic shift in my faith. There was no one around. It’s not like anyone could hear, and if my theory was correct (which I won’t know until eternity), then the only person who would hear was Patrick. After a lifetime of believing that God watched and judged and reacted to every single thing I did or thought, and even wondering whether the “cloud of witnesses” were still creepin’ when you were shaving your legs or whatever in the shower, it was almost a relief to get that thought out of my head.

Superstitiously, I’ve waited for the other shoe to drop and for cosmic judgment to fall upon me because I don’t look at Jesus as if He is my best friend.

It hasn’t. And that is perhaps the most telling thing of all.

Let’s step back a bit: what is this Evangelical Trope of which I speak?

It has long been a trend in Christian worship music for songs to kinda swing in a direction where the word “Jesus” could be subbed out for the word “Baby,” a slick beat dropped behind the catchy riff and BOOM: club-worthy song. There was a meme that made its way around the internet not too long ago in which the dorkiest band you’ve ever seen sang “Jesus is my friend. I have my friend in Jesus. He taught me how to sing, and how to save my soul, He taught me how to love my God and still play rock and roll” blah blah blah. In fact, I have instant regret over typing those lyrics because the song is that catchy. There goes a perfectly good night’s sleep.

That song, released soon after the advent of color television, was a very early iteration of the “Jesus is my best friend/lover/brother/” genre. It might have worked for me as a teenager when I needed to feel a sense of connectedness, lofty destiny, and the illusion of a guaranteed rosy life, but it certainly sat a little wonky in later years when I started to wonder whether this was true worship. I’d started to wonder whether worship should instead carry an attitude of reverence and awe, rather than the sort of poetry cooked up by hipsters to make their target market feel good.

Harsh. I know. Heck, I’ve written some of this stuff so I’ve certainly been part of the machine. Admittedly nothing as cool as the pop-star worship-leaders of today.

But can I say it out loud? Can I acknowledge it for what it is? I don’t think many of us see Jesus as a literal best friend. And that’s okay. Perhaps to call Him that is to bring the divine down to a human plain, or worse still, to raise ourselves to god-status by calling ourselves equal to the third part of the trinity.

Jesus is, in my mind, the divine incarnate. To others, He is a prophet or a philosopher. To others, maybe just an invisible buddy they like to chat to. I don’t believe its bad to see Him as any of these things. But I certainly don’t believe it is bad to admit that we don’t see Him as the latter.

But where did this “Jesus is my friend”, buddy-buddy attitude come from? 

I’m sure there are better scholars out there, a fact I recount often. But there seem to be only a few instances in scripture and none of them seem to line up with “Jesus is my best buddy.”

  • John 15:14 – 15 “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
  • James 2:23 “Abraham believed in God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness, and he was called a friend of God.”

Jesus was certainly called a friend of sinners, the first-born of many brethren, and he was certainly a friend of the disciples. But none of these instances put him on the same human level as the recipient of his friendship. It’s more like having a name in your phone book of someone powerful who you could call on if you needed them. I have a number of MP’s on my Facebook friends list. But I don’t play pool with them or muse to them about my thoughts on dating post-separation. Having an influential friend is different to having a buddy.

Yes, Peter James and John had a closer relationship with Jesus than anyone else. I’m not denying that. But am I as close as they were? Could I ever be?

If I was ever in a position where I thought I could clearly, accurately, faultlessly and tangibly hear Jesus’ voice and “rest my head on Him” as these disciples did, I truly hope one of you would drag me to a psychologist office – stat.

Now, look: the point of this post isn’t to change your mind on anything. If you look at Jesus as if He is your best friend – good for you. I guess what I’m writing about here is an honest look at the state of my deconstruction. I’m not scared to call my approach to faith what it is anymore. I’ve got the podcast which creates a beautiful opportunity for me to explore the more intellectual avenues of deconstruction, theology, faith, and social justice. But who would I be if I didn’t say exactly what’s on my mind in terms of my own deeply held thoughts?

The truth is, I don’t view Jesus as my best friend. Perhaps I never have. Perhaps I did but I’m glossing over history with the kind of paintbrush that makes things all look tidy and consistent in the present. I don’t know. But either way, it’s okay. I think I’ve mentioned before that I watched a beautiful series on Netflix called “The Story of God.” It was narrated by Morgan Freeman (which was sort of meta, as it sounded like God was narrating his own story. Bravo Netflix). But what I noticed was a rich reverence woven through the exploration of each religion’s origins and traditions. The gorgeous sound of the Islamic call to prayer, the deep respect that Native Americans and Indigenous people of other countries had for their spoken traditions, the incredible respect held by the researchers looking into the origins of the Abrahamic religions. The thread woven through was one of reverence, respect, awe, and somehow despite the diversity and difference presented in each faith or tradition, there was a thread of something familiar. It was a story of origin, of connection, of searching for a way of being in the world that was good. 

Then Joel Osteen stepped on screen for the first time. He was there as the standard-bearer for American Evangelicalism – a faith that should be the closest relative to mine. His teeth, impeccably capped and whitened, made me grimace, but none so much as the words that came out of his mouth. I felt like I’d just switched channels to a Tony Robbins thing. I hated it. Where were the reverence and awe? It felt cheap and tacky but dressed up in a suit that undoubtedly cost thousands.

Today, in the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, I saw another cringe-worthy moment. Mega-church pastor Louis Giglio sitting with rapper LeCrae of all people, explaining the “Blessing” of slavery and reframing “white privilege” to “white blessing”. My stomach sunk. It is a statement Giglio has since offered up a sincere apology and said he sees no blessing in slavery. Thank God. But still, I see something in the institutions of Evangelicalism as something deeply problematic: something more like Tony Robbins than Jesus. Something more like a fast-food franchise than a slowly-grown, deeply held, intentionally-built ethos that asks “how might I model myself off the life of Jesus? How can I make this world better?”

Jesus isn’t my best friend. He is the highest-held model and ethical ideal in my mind. He is my God. Yes. But I won’t bring Him down to sibling or bestie level.

My best friend and I (or ex-husband, however you want to phrase it), we sit and binge Netflix shows. We talk trash. I run things by him when I want a second opinion, but I know I can ignore his advice if I want. I don’t base my ethical and moral decisions on what he would want me to do. My other best-friends – well at this point in Covid lockdown, we drink a fair bit of prosecco or gin and talk about our love lives a lot.

Again. Not doing that with Jesus. Although praying about what decision is right – that I do.

The Bible calls Jesus the firstborn of many brethren. But let’s look at sibling relationships: I’m the eldest in my family. Of the five of us, I really only have semi-regular contact with one (if you don’t count the odd snapchat or text). She is a free-spirit and a gifted public speaker. She is generous and a hard-worker. She is fabulous with kids and her wardrobe is phenomenal. There are things I admire about her.  But I don’t build my life around her and she certainly doesn’t build hers around me.

What am I saying? Jesus isn’t my sibling. He isn’t my bestie. That’s not a role I would ever reduce him to.

This realization has made me understand, for the first time in my life, that there is a jarring misfit between me and the contemporary church.

But why use “de-Calvinisation” in the title of this blog when you weren’t even raised Calvinist, Kit?

A few weeks back I blogged on the five pillars of Calvinism. There at the top of the list is the doctrine of “Total Depravity.” It’s one that Evangelicalism is still very much steeped in; that since the fall of mankind in Eden, we are all born with a sin nature; totally depraved, enslaved to sin, selfish and self-serving, determined to act against God.

We hear it in altar calls. We hear it in the speeches of Billy Graham, who has been held up as the greatest evangelist of the modern era. Over the last few years I’ve been sitting with this uncomfortable question though: is it possible to follow Jesus without subscribing to a deep and wounding sense of self-loathing. Of inadequacy. Of “I can do nothing without God.” I first started to wrestle with this when I was reading my ex-husbands Gay Conversion Therapy manual. I realized my own sense of inadequacy, fear of doing the wrong thing, feeling of being the wrong thing without the approval of the church – it was all internalized shame gifted to me from that Calvinist belief I had marinated in since childhood. It paled in comparison to the internalized sense of homophobia he carried. But that’s another story, and another blog post (How I survived gay conversion therapy).

Side note: I wasn’t raised Calvinist. It’s just a belief that I see deeply steeped in the “Come to Jesus, all ye sinners” narrative.”

Then I heard a podcast. The guest was Richard Rohr, and I can’t even remember what else he said apart from this sentiment: why do we start our faith in Genesis 3 with the fall of mankind, when we could start it in Genesis 1 where God repeatedly looked at creation and said “It is good. It is good. It is good.”?

So perhaps I’m a Franciscan now? Maybe? I don’t know. All I know is reading Genesis one and letting those words wash over me felt healing. Because here is what I know about humanity:

  1. No loving parent looks at their newborn and sees sin and depravity. They see beauty, even in those first weeks when their kid is funny looking – Let’s be honest. We are told God is love, but then told that we are depraved and He hates sin (thus he can’t stand us). Furthermore, we are told the Bible never contradicts itself. Well, it just did. If God, whom we are supposed to call Abba Father, is love, then he loves us. Or He is a hateful parent who alienates and estranges his children from the get-go until they can earn their way back. I’m a mother of two children. I know which parent I am. And I am infinitely less good than the divine good.
  2. All of us are doing our best. I loved watching Game of Thrones. Because every character had redeeming qualities and also the ability to do awful things. Yet we wouldn’t call them awful. (Okay, Joffrey doesn’t count. Straight up jerk, that one!). I believe all of us are doing the best we can with what we are given. Can we all do better if given the right resources? Yes. In “Little Fires Everywhere” featuring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, the latter yelled, “You didn’t ‘make good choices, you had good choices.” And wow, it’s true. That’s privilege in one sentence.
  3. Not many of us believe we are inherently bad people. Why is it that religion steps in, and before accepting us into its exclusive club, makes us admit that we are terrible and hopeless, and sinful without God? Surely, if God is God, and if Jesus is the human incarnation of the divine, then there should be good enough reason to follow him without self-hatred and shame. I believe there is. I don’t believe we need to think of ourselves as the scum of the earth before we reach for a more merciful, honest, compassionate, anti-corruption, anti-exclusion, self-sacrificially loving existence. Do you?

So look. This is an intensely personal post I’m just putting out there because I need to get what’s on my mind off my mind before I finish crafting a ghostwritten book on infant and pediatric craniopathies!

Here’s what I believe about myself now.

I start my faith in Genesis 1. I am good. I am not perfect, but I do not hate myself for that. Jesus is a divine being I approach with reverence, not familiarity. I do not follow Him because I hate myself. I follow Him because I love humanity. I believe that Christianity that builds itself on instilling a sense of self-loathing or shame in its adherents is inferior because it is not built on the immensity, infinitely expansive, compassionate, merciful, intentionally diverse nature of God and the world He/They created.

So yeah. That’s me right now. This is the state of the de-calvinisation of Kit Kennedy as at June 17, 2020. Let’s see where we are next year!

Peace

Kit K

P.S. Here is the song I referred to. You’re welcome.

 

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