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More Familiar than Funny

While the difference between mortal and venial sin seems obvious, don’t be fooled. There is more to this than meets the eye. What is really bad and what isn’t? And who decides?

Here is a routine situation that every Catholic of my generation had to deal with: You are at a baseball game at Yankee Stadium on a Friday night in June 1950. Catholics are forbidden to eat meat under penalty of mortal sin. But you want a hot dog. Now, just considering eating meat on Friday is a venial sin; wanting to is another. You have not moved in your seat and you have already sinned twice. What if you actually ate one? Aside from the risk of choking on forbidden food and getting punished right on the spot, have you committed a mortal sin or a venial sin? Well, if you think it’s mortal, it may be mortal; and if you think it’s venial, it still may be mortal. After much thought, you decide it’s venial. You call the hot dog vendor, you take the money out of your pocket, and you buy a hot dog. This is clearly an act of free will. You figure you can go confess your sin to the priest on Saturday night. But wait! Does a venial sin become mortal when you commit it deliberately? That’s a chance you take. What if you’ve forgotten it’s Friday? In that case, eating the hot dog may not be a sin, but forgetting it’s Friday is. What if you remember it’s Friday halfway through the hot dog? Is it a venial sin to finish it? If you throw it away, is wasting food a sin? Within five minutes you have committed enough sins to land you in purgatory for a million years. The safest thing to do is not to take any chances–stay away from Yankee Stadium on Fridays.

The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning

It might be funny if it didn’t sound so familiar.

I’ve taken my own sort of vow of poverty. I’ve participated in endless cumin-dividing discussions about the fine arts (as if “fine” had more to do with its size than character). I’ve “done devotions” with every sort of program, cutesy name, and innovative strategy since early elementary school. I’ve been lured to strive for that “higher life” monastic upper-class known in my world as “full-time Christian service.” I’ve endured endless preaching where justification by faith is just a brusque bro-hug that gets you in the sanctification-by-works club. And we think we’re so different from the “Romish” church?

The crazy-making internal conversation cum tailspin that Manning describes is the life of a fundamentalist. That’s it.

What stuns me is how we do it together.

Just like the Shakers. Really. The Shakers’ individual (tail)spinning and twitching developed over time (due to outside criticism) into a full-fledged communal performance. I look at that picture and imagine how easy it is to get swooped away into the spin. The individual must persist with the dance because well . . . people are watching, and it’d be a bad testimony for . . . the group. You wouldn’t want to be “ungracious.”

I got shoved out of the spin. But I’m not sitting in the crowd watching on the left either. I don’t know yet where I am, but I’m kind of amazed at how many people keep calling me back to the dance. Or back to the prison, as Steve Brown would say.

8 thoughts on “More Familiar than Funny

  1. You’re right on. I grew up a Catholic and my sojourn through fundamentalism was very like the Catholicism I thought I left. Catholics have the Pope; fundies have their all powerful pastors. Catholics admire their saints; fundies have their sold-out to Christ role models. Catholics have their sacraments; fundies have standards. Different terms and cultural baggage, but the bottom line is eerily the same – Work will set you free. Faith in Jesus gets you into the club, but staying there long term is up to you.

  2. I have told you before, I will tell you again. This is the book I want to write. I am continually amazed by thing things Roman Catholicism and Fundamentalism hold in common. How, at the end of the day, very, very similar they are.

  3. I had a conversation the other day with my wife along these lines. Only this was talking about a few friends we have in Boston. Both grew up in jewish families that sent their children to Hebrew school. One attends my church and is in our small group. Clearly a Christian. The other may or may not be a Christian, but the point is that both are no longer practicing Jews. It is amazing how their stories sound so familiar. Some of the rules they had to abide by sound off the wall…but then I think of some of the convoluted rules I had in the Fundy circles. It would seem that there is a lot in common amongst each of these religions, but in all the bad ways and for all the wrong reasons.

  4. My favorite definition of the similarity between the Catholic and Fundamental way is a friend of mine from my old church. She said one side of her family was Catholic and the other Fundy. One was “doing its way to heaven” and the other was “don’ting its way to heaven.”

  5. My family and I spent this class Christmas in P-cola with my father, who is a proud ifb preacher. We were not looking forward to visiting his kjb church while in town, but I knew my father was wanting to show off his granddaughter to his church so I embraced Romans 14, prayed for grace, and bit the bullet. Sunday morning was bad enough, complete with the claim that Noah’s ark represents the rapture, but Sunday evening was a jaw dropping revelation. A visiting evangelist spoke on Sunday evening. My wife and I were stunned when he said, “Grace has to be earned.” and then went on to tell the congregation that if we are using I John 1:9 then we are doing something wrong. He said many other things and the main thrust of his sermon was that sanctification has to be earned. I grew up in the capital of crazy fundy land (Pensacola), but maybe I wasn’t listening during that time. I don’t remember a preacher being so honest about sanctification by works. The most startling revelation came when I realized that he sounded just like my Catholic friends when I discuss things like sanctification with them. All things being equal, I believe that if I had only two options for a church for my family to attend, Catholic or ifb, I’d have to choose the Catholic church. Thank God I will never have to make that choice.

    Thank you for your blog. It has been a help and encouragement for me.

  6. I just ate a hot dog for lunch today. And when my not yet married to boy friend, ate a hot dog on a Friday evening, years ago, I thought it was very funny. This post has to be the funniest thing I have ever read on this blog! The misconceptions about the catholic church are so many that a list of them would fill a very long page. Thinking and believing that someone can really, possibly ‘know’ what a Church actually ‘teaches’ and ‘believes’ by looking at the Church from the ‘outside’ is like trying to critique the paintings of an art gallery, by looking at the outside of the building. And trying to understand what catholics are taught to believe and practice, from hearsay, and second hand information, is like trying to seek truth about something from the National Enquirer or a local paper which speculates on the various opinions of curious humans. I realize many Catholics do not know or understand what say, Evangelicals believe. But I as a Born again Catholic wanted to know. When I was Born again thirty one plus years ago, I made it my mission to learn what people believed, so that I could relate to them. There are christians in many various christian faith folds, who are really not interested very much, in learning what their christian neighbours believe. Their lack of interest in coming to understand their neighbours, may be a symptom of another more serious ‘lack of interest’, such as not really being intersted in learning what it is ‘they’ really believe ‘themselves’! Do that many christians ‘really know’ what ‘they’ believe’, or ‘what’ the Gospel even really means? Like, here’s a for instance. ‘ ..if the Gospel means Good News, are ‘we’, are ‘they’ good news, such as ‘in our manner, in our personal presence, in the way that we live and walk?’ Are ‘we’ good news? Do ‘we’ create a positive, happy, and life-giving atmosphere, when we come around people,and when people come around us? It is a really big misconception about the catholic church that it is like fundamentalism. Fundamentalism can be so Graceless, that saying the Catholic church is like a fundamentalist Church, is really saying that the Catholic Church is also Graceless. I really do not know how a Graceless church could possily have been responsible for creating ‘more’ charities in the world, than any other faith fold! Nor how a Graceless system could ever possibly have created the ‘first’ schools in say Canada, or the wonderful missions it started to reach native Indians in North America with the Gospel? I have to ask the question, ‘what history’ are you reading from? Is it the history of ‘hear say’, or ‘he said’? Or, are you getting your history from ‘entertainment?’ Like Hollywood movies and secular christian bashing TV programs? If ‘any’ form of authority repulses christians, then chrotians will not look at authority in ‘any church’ as right or acceptable. The Catholics have only one pope. But the Protestants have many popes. Just google discipleship, shepherding, and the nightmare of spiritual abuse in churches, and you can see the negative finger print of many protestant popes, whose distorted concepts of authority, have created a religious nightmare for people’s lives. The issue is about authority. Nobody likes being told what to do. So any organization that practices a united form of authority, it has to be somehow suspect and wrong. Why? We stop for red lights, and stop signs. That’s obeying the law behind the authority that gives us a ticket if we break the law. So we respect police more than God’s spiritual laws, because we don’t want to be caught and humiliated? I do not believe God is a fundamentalist. If I thought he was, I would not want to love, know, or follow Him. I would not want to have anything to do with Him. Would any of you? Protestantism began 500 years ago. Fundamentalism began less than a hundred years ago. Neither one of them can be found in the writings of the history of the early Church. Misinterpretation is a danger. So is pseudo-history, and so is Protestant history sanitized of the whole picture of what really happened. Historical illiteracy among christians today, for both Catholic and Protestant laity,, is as rampant and widespread an epidemic of ignorance as is Biblical Illiteracy. IF we do not know our history, we do not know where we have come from, or what our predecessors did, rightly or wrongly. What we do not know leaves us weak an vulnerable, to be mistaught half truths and distorted truths. If all former and ex catholics returned to the Catholic fold, many Protestant churches would fail to have enough members to continue! Something to think about. Revival, ‘true revival’ could be ‘very inconvenient’ for the Protestants, for all of us! But we do need it nevertheless. I have no idea what it would look like. But I can’t wait to see it come. “Lord send forth your Spirit!” “And wake up the sleeping giant of your churches.”

  7. Just read this funny post again. I was thinking today, how we easily make a common mistake, of ‘branding’ an entire group’ by ‘what’ we hear and see, someone ‘from’ said group, ‘do’ and ‘say.’ What I mean by that is, a dedicated Baptist acts in natural human behaviour of frustration with trying to follow a predetermined ,pre-set set of rules. Because he or she, believes, that, ‘that’ is how one cn be a ‘good Baptist.’ So, non Baptists conclude, ‘that’s’ what ALL Baptists are like, and therefore ALL Baptist Churches. A dedicated Baptist who has a weak understanding of Grace, justification, sanctification, and who has been mistaught, to rely ‘more’ on feelings,( as so many Protestants ‘have’ been taught!!) than on God’s Grace the power of God’s love, and , being ‘rooted’ in the word of God properly understood…., all of those true spiritual realities God uses to ’empower’ dedicated Baptist to follow God,… a non Baptist sees the frustration, and concludes that ALL Baptists are like that, that ‘that’s’ what Baptist churches ‘teach’, etc., etc.,.. and in reality only meeting ‘one’ dedicated Baptist, can hardly be said to be representative of an entire Protestant Evangelical denomination! Being frustrated merely means that one is struggling with their christian life and walk, which can hardly be called a sin, or following some kind of false teaching! But, concluding that said Baptist denomination, actually ‘teaches’ doctrines that ‘makes’ people ‘frustrated’ is ridiculous! Or is it? Now I’m talking in circles. HELLLLPP!I think I’m confusing myself. A Baptist’s, a fundamentalist’s and a Catholics ‘misunderstanding’ of what the Gospel really teaches, and of what their christian denomination really teaches, to assume that each individual’s MISUNDERSTANDING of their own church’s teaching, is representative of their entire church teaching’ is very erroneous thinking. A former Evangelical leader who fell from Grace a few years ago, did NOT represent the level of morality or personal committment to christianity, of his entire organization! His immoral behaviour, represented himself, and his own personal pain, and human weakness of sinful behavior controlling his life. Nobody but cynics, skeptics, atheists, agnostics, ex christans, and people who already ‘hate’ christianity, would ever ‘say’, that ‘that’ man was what all of Evangelical christianity was all about! A ‘bad protestant’ misrepresents whatever church denomination he belongs to. And the same goes for a bad catholic. A bad Catholic’s stupid and ignorant behavior, can hardly be said to be, what the entire Catholic church teaches him to practice!! And the same goes for evangelical christianity in America. One bad apple does not mean the entire barrel is also bad and needs to be thrown out. And the bottom line of all this, is, I’m sad to say. When it comes to the systemic widespread sin of un forgiveness, I believe the christians, both catholics and protestants, are the worst culprits wh disobey christ’s teaching to forgive, who allow their lives to be controlled by this sin of unforgiveness. And add to that, the shocking lack of mercy for the suffering and for those who have fallen seriously into serious sin. Do we show mercy to such christians? Or do we go after them like sharks after the taste and smell of the blood of the fallen? We need both, of the healthy sense of humor to laugh at ourselves, and the serious side of remembering how we need to take seriously what Jesus taught us, to be taken seriously. The christian reponsibility of practicing forgiveness, and showing mercy. When I was driven from a beloved group fellowship, fourteen years ago, I told God that ‘ I wanted to live differently. And I asked Him to fill my heart with his love and compassion for people. I did not want to be pulled down into becoming like my persecutors. So showing mercy for my enemies, and forgiving them, showed God that I really meant business. And God answerd my prayers. He protected me from becoming like those who so deeply hurt me. And I’m still learning more and more about being forgiving and being merciful. Forgiveness and mercy are two very important things that I never want to ever take for granted. Because unforgiveness seems to be one of the worst sins chrstians hold onto like a pet rag, I believe that the best way we healthier minded christians, can be a part of the solution while being a better witness of same, is to continue to forgive and show mercy. If we choose to be part of the solution, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to help make this world of divided christianity with all of its bad witness of hypocracy and lack of charity, a better place, by our truly sincere example.

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