I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen a sharp increase in what I would call “Bumper Sticker Christianity” during our recent time of social distancing.
Lots of folks are posting their favorite religious quips and quotes in what I’m sure is a genuine attempt to be helpful, to offer words of comfort or encouragement to help see us through the uncertainty and anxiety under which we’re all living right now.
I get it. Our faith is something in which we should be able to seek consolation.
But I wonder if we’re missing something. If our platitudes are a band-aid trying to cover a gaping wound?
Spiritual lucky charms
Back in May 2013 I traveled to Ivanovo, Russia, to work with teenage orphans as part of a program run by Orphan’s Tree, a ministry dedicated to breaking the country’s cycle of children without parents.
When our group got into the small bus that had been hired to take us from the Moscow airport to our hotel in Ivanovo (about a 4-hour trip), I noticed that the driver had several icons of saints placed on the vehicle’s dashboard.
I pointed it out to one of my friends who had made the trip several times before, thinking that it was pretty cool that this driver was openly sharing his Russian Orthodox faith in this way.
“It’s basically a rabbit’s foot,” she replied. “Everyone here does that.”
That image has stuck with me for a long time.
I wonder how many of the Christian platitudes we toss around so easily are essentially good luck charms.
During the week leading up to Easter (which we in the Jesus tradition refer to as Holy Week), a couple of very interesting and helpful articles emerged (this one by N.T. Wright was particularly insightful) on the topic of how modern Christianity has lost its ability to embrace lament.
I think that might even be an understatement. We’ve not only lost it, we’ve actively sought to avoid it.
In our zeal to sell our particular brand of religion as THE answer for life’s pains and sufferings, we’ve created a culture that downplays the very meaning of pain and suffering.
We’ve often held to the ancient heresy that our sufferings are, if not punishment from God, then at least the consequence of not “believing” in God.
And so when something like a global pandemic hits that completely disrupts all of our routines, we fall back on those feel-good messages.
“If God brings you to it, God will bring you through it.”
“God won’t give us anything bigger than we can handle.”
“God is bigger than the virus.”
Again, I get it. We really have no idea what to do in these times.
We certainly don’t know what to say.
But I wonder if our platitudes are just covering for a faith that’s really little more than superstition.
And I wonder if we might be missing an opportunity to grow our faith into something deeper and more meaningful.
Something that actually changes the way the world works.
Facing the Dark Night of the Soul
One of the spiritual practices I had begun to explore in the months just prior to the Covid-19 outbreak was what a lot of contemplatives refer to as “shadow work.”
Essentially, it involves examining the things that trigger my negative feelings or responses, asking myself hard questions about why I react the way I do to those things, and trying to figure out ways to turn from a stance of negativity to one of love.
It’s admittedly very hard work, and I’m quite sure I fail more often than I succeed.
But I think it’s important that we explore the dark sides of our spirituality. I’m not sure real growth is possible without it.
One of the reasons I write so much about spiritual deconstruction is that I’ve become convinced that spiritual maturing can only happen when we’ve confronted what St. John of the Cross identified as “the dark night of the soul.”
It’s only through facing our doubts, our fears, our prejudices, our wounds, and our desires that we can grow past them.
And it could be this pandemic might be giving us the gift of a collective dark night of the soul.
Saying no to normal
To be fair, it’s common for people who are confronted with their personal darkness or shadows to throw up walls of denial.
After all, that kind of self-examination can be unpleasant at best, and horribly painful at worst.
And so it might be the most natural thing in the world to try to cover it up with our happy Christian bumper stickers.
But what if we saw it not as a challenge, but an opportunity?
What if, instead of hiding behind our band-aids of religious superstition, we confronted our shadow sides…both as individuals and as a society?
What if we took this time not to yearn for a return to “normal,” but to take a hard look at how broken our “normal” was and learn new and better ways of existing in the world.
Light through the darkness
It will take courage, to be sure. Both to confront our shadows and to begin to implement the changes we desire on a societal and cultural level.
If you’re paying attention, advertisers are already working to be sure our consumeristic status quo stays in place once stay-at-home restrictions begin to loosen.
Some government officials are pushing to end restrictions quickly in order to re-start our economy. Protestors and politicians have plainly shown that our “normal” was pretty comfortable with placing profits over people.
If our only faith response is to continue to spout platitudes, to whistle through the graveyard of our collective dark night, we’ll return to that “normal” in no time.
But if we can face the shadows, if we can do the deep work of self-examination, if we can walk into this dark night instead of trying to go around it, maybe things can change.
Maybe the dark side of our spirituality can lead us to a brighter dawn than we’ve ever dared to imagine.