It was a small church history class of only eight or ten students and it was mostly populated by young, smart, good-looking students trying to out-academic each other. They would engage confidently with the professor and articulate their opinions with each other on any historical or theological discussion at hand. There wasn’t much they didn’t know.
And then there was me. Sitting quietly, taking it all in. I was a mature student at that point with rounding places beginning to appear at both my waist and the top of my head. For some reason there was only one girl in the class and she and I were glad to sit back and let the boys-club do the discussing.
We had to present papers at the end of the semester and mine was on John Wesley’s failed marriage. The club members sat, intrigued and speechless as I presented the awkward relationships Wesley had generated with women. It was almost as if they had never considered that he was a human being who sometimes strayed outside the lines of theology and preaching.
Kids … they have so much to learn about real life.
To be clear, John Wesley never did anything inappropriate that we know of but I remember how refreshing it was for me, and for the club, to learn that one of our heroes was human after all.
- Jean Vanier was an icon to many people, dedicating his life to building L’Arche living communities around the world to help people with intellectual disabilities. He died about a year ago and was venerated by a world of people whom he had blessed. It was revealed this past winter that several women are accusing him of sexual misconduct.
- To be clear, his organization lives on and does wonderful work, but the revelations badly tarnished what seemed an untouchable hero in the church and the world.
- Later this week a documentary is premiering that tells the story of Norma McCorvey, also known as ‘Jane Doe’ in the much publicized Roe v Wade court ruling that outlawed abortion in 1973. In 1995 McCorvey claimed to have been born again and became a loud voice in the pro life movement while at the same time denouncing her lesbian lifestyle.
- The documentary reveals McCorvey’s late-life confession that she was desperate for money at the time and organizers on the religious right paid her to tell the conversion story. It turns out the hero of the anti-abortion movement was a paid actor.
These are just a couple of items that popped into my mind today as social media has been alive with people testifying their admiration for a well-known christian voice who just passed away. And that’s fine, we all have a variety of influences shaping our lives.
I have been thinking about the penchant evangelicals have for hero-making. Protestants point accusingly at Catholic saints and icons but we all have our own way of doing the same thing. Christians lionize all sorts of people and ministries and ‘holy ground’ geography.
I’m not even referring to the televangelist category that I love to make fun of in my ‘Circus’ blog posts – that’s too easy. I’m talking about main stream personalities who were trusted and looked up to: Jack Hyles, Mike Warnke, Bill Gothard, Ted Haggard, Bill Hybells, James McDonald are enough to get started.
Even in the Bible there are lots of messy heroes like Noah, Abraham, David, Solomon; Peter and Paul and Silas couldn’t get along long enough to work together.
Much later in history, Jonathan Edwards admitted to being too harsh with his fire-and-brimstone preaching. Rumours abound about C.S. Lewis’ personal life. Martin Luther liked beer too much and didn’t like Jews enough.
Even bible translations have skeletons. King James (of King James Bible fame) had political motivations for ordering a new bible translation and gave translators a list of rules to follow to ensure it was worded to his liking.
Off the top of my head I’m guessing that most of our 20,000 denominations have their own heroes who birthed their movement simply because of a disagreement or he/she was too headstrong to follow someone else.
Those traveling evangelists from back in the day? Yes, they were strong and godly – except for the ones who weren’t. History is strewn with pastors from every generation who left their wives or made selfish decisions or manipulated people under their care. The lists of broken marriages, disenfranchised children, moral failings, power struggles, jealousies, vendettas, and bad teaching are all there and you don’t have to look hard to find them.
Oh I know, christians are human and they make mistakes. Exactly. And there are lots of great ones – many great ones, in fact – who we can trust, learn from, and be encouraged by. I whole-heartedly agree that God does change and purify and help people. But everybody is capable of halo slippage once in awhile.
I’ll never forget the time when, as a young pastor I disagreed with something that a mature, well known minister was doing. I fearfully expressed my feelings to him and by the next day he had quietly re-thought and reversed his decision. He didn’t change his mind for me, he changed it because he loved Jesus and the kingdom of God.
My point is that all people are human – broken, imperfect, scarred – and we need to be careful about who we hang halos on. What does it say about our faith that we cling to anyone who will legitimize our beliefs, make us feel good about ourselves, and argue convincingly that Christianity has meaning? Why the insecurity? Why do we feel the need to hang halos on people when we have Jesus?
Jesus. Now there’s somebody with a halo you can hang your hat on.