Pastor Craig, Bullshitter
It didn’t take long for me to feel like a fraud. My wife was in Cambodia working for a small NGO when I started my first appointment as a pastor in the UMC. People were a bit shocked at how young I was. I don’t think the church had ever had a lead pastor under the age of 55. The congregation knew that I had just moved to Baltimore, that my wife (then fiance) was out of the country, and that I was trying to adjust from being a student to being an independent adult. They tried very hard to be hospitable and were incredibly generous.
After my first Sunday service, I learned that the congregation served food and drinks for members and guests. I was excited. Free food. Oh my God, yes! I think I ate about 3 plates. I could have eaten more, but it was getting kind of embarrassing. There were some leftovers. “Craig, why don’t you take some leftovers home?” Oh my God, yes! I would love to. Every week, I would keep eating more and more, and the leftovers kept coming. The members would laugh. I would play it up a bit. “I bet he can’t wait until Loren comes home to cook him some food! He’s so thin! Do you ever eat?” I was glad to take leftovers home, and they were glad to give them to me. It seemed like a perfect arrangement.
One day, somebody brought cupcakes. Oh my God, yes! Cupcakes! I ate about five. After everyone left, there were about 25 cupcakes leftover. “What should we do with the cupcakes?” “Just give them to Craig. He’ll eat anything!” I automatically responded, “Of course I will!” Everyone laughed. But really, what was I going to do with 25 cupcakes? I didn’t eat any of them. They all ended up in the garbage. “Did you eat all those cupcakes Craig?” “Of course! They were gone by Sunday evening!”
The “Craig can’t take care of himself” narrative kept up for years, even though I was an adult who knew how to walk to a grocery store and follow basic cooking instructions. I was sent home with hot dog buns but no hot dogs. Condiments. So many casseroles. Lasagnas. Cakes. And in one instance, multiple bottles of Catalina salad dressing with no salad. “Craig will eat anything!” Don’t get me wrong, I loved the food, and I was appreciative of what they were doing for me. My lunches were often the leftovers given to me by the church. There was a core group of people who made sure that I had enough to eat on Sunday and who wanted to make sure that I knew I was appreciated by giving me lots of delicious food. I remain very grateful for their hospitality. But every time I walked home and carried bags of leftovers with me that I knew I wouldn’t eat, I felt like a fraud. I wasn’t lying. It was just bullshit.
Maybe I was just being polite. Maybe it was just a big joke and all of us knew that I wasn’t going to eat 25 cupcakes or guzzle 5 bottles of Catalina salad dressing. But the pro-social bullshit didn’t stop with leftovers. I was always happy to see people, even though I really wasn’t. I was always upbeat and positive, even though I was really depressed. I was always optimistic about the church, even though all I could see in front of me was an inevitable church split and declining influence.
Despite the fact that I consistently preached on the need for genuine and whole relationships in the church, not many people really knew who I was, largely because I never told them. They didn’t know the cynical guy who never ceases making inappropriate jokes with friends. They didn’t know that the guy who preached at the Sunday service and on the radio and who talked to every person in the pews every week actually had near crippling social anxiety to the point where he would often skip eating dinner just so that he didn’t have to leave his apartment. They didn’t know that the pastor who preached that the politics and economics of 1st century Palestine were central to the message of justice in the Gospels was actually a rabid libertarian who saw injustice everywhere and in everything. Instead, I tried to act like a pastor. I tried to emulate Jesus Christ. But I wasn’t that. I was a pastor who wasn’t feeling, or acting, very pastoral. I was in the ordination process, but was looking for a way out. Now, I’m the guy who tells people that I’m a writer because I don’t want to tell them that I don’t know what I am anymore.
I’m a bullshitter. An aviator. Like my grandfather said, I sure know how to pile it. My theology of genuine and whole relationships based on the person and work of Jesus Christ alongside my own hiding of self from those to whom I preached ultimately created a new theology of praxis. It wasn’t a theology of how the Gospel is to be carried out in the world. It was a theology of bullshit.
Politeness, concealment, defense of the marginalized, and response to bullshit, may be appropriate times to bullshit, but they’re still not without their dangers. A common complaint from people everywhere regarding churches, and particularly from younger generations, is that people in the church are fake. More than that, for me at least, it isn’t so much that people are fake in the church, it’s that the culture of the church makes me feel like I had to be fake too in order to do my job. While I hated that, this feeling and my participation in it, increased, rather than decreased, as I began leading congregations. I became Pastor Craig. I hated that guy.
I wasn’t able to be endlessly compassionate, even though it was Pastor Craig’s job to be compassionate to everyone who walked through the door. It would have been inappropriate for me to tell them the truth, “I just don’t have anymore compassion left for you today. Sorry.” The only response is to fake it. Bullshit wasn’t just something I did to get by – it was a job requirement.
This type of bullshit is actually celebrated by Methodists in a famous story about John Wesley, only we won’t call it what it really is. John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist movement, was once speaking to his friend Peter Bohler. Wesley, who obsessively doubted himself early in life, asked Bohler how he could preach faith if he didn’t have faith himself. Wesley wanted to know if he should just stop preaching. Bohler told him that he shouldn’t stop, rather he should, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” Bohler’s suggestion, essentially, is to bullshit until you believe it, then it won’t be bullshit anymore.
While I believe that faith is only possible when that faith is both preached and lived, I don’t think that the struggle regarding preaching faith and living faith is adequately communicated by clergy to the church. And because the struggle of preaching faith and living faith while not always feeling faithful isn’t modeled by clergy, it isn’t modeled by the rest of the church to a world who often feels both fake, and alone in feeling so. Bohler’s suggestion may be right, but the real bullshit is not telling the truth to the church and not being aware of how its working in one’s own self.
When this was happening to me, I felt fake, and the only place I could be honest about it was in the pulpit. I didn’t think that I could tell people in one-on-one conversations, but I could preach about doubt, faith and struggle to those in the pews. Still, I wish I would have been more honest. But it wasn’t just faith. It was also the Methodist orthodoxy that I was required to know and in which I was required to profess belief if I wanted to keep my job. Bohler’s suggestion to Wesley that preaching faith precedes faith also played out with me during my ordination process. Did my beliefs regarding Methodist orthodoxy come from my genuine study of scripture and tradition, or did I arrive at those conclusions because I was required? Like the struggle of preaching and living faith, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, but the church needs to be honest, or at least be aware, of the bullshit that is built into this system.
Step 1) Go to Seminary. Step 2) Pay for Seminary. Step 3) Learn what you’re supposed to believe. Step 4) Believe it. Step 5) Get job. What happens if after Step 3, after you’ve already paid for seminary, you find out you don’t really believe some of the minor sticking points necessary to be a Methodist minister? Isn’t it a little suspicious that essentially every prospective minister that goes through this process just ends up professing belief in infant baptism, Christian perfection, and prevenient and sanctifying grace? Either our leaders are that persuasive (despite the fact that they struggle to persuade the laity), the Methodists are obviously right about everything, or, at least, some prospective candidates are bullshiting themselves or the church because they really need a job after 3 years of grad school. I know the latter to be true because I was guilty. And I know it to be true, because in our Methodist doctrine classes at my Methodist seminary taught by an ordained Methodist minister, we were told what to say, and how to say it without technically lying if we had some issues with the pre-prepared lines. There’s a word for this. It’s called bullshit.
The church needs to accept that bullshit is widespread in our congregations, in our history, among our leadership, and in our scriptures. We also need to accept that this isn’t always a problem. Too much bullshit, however, erodes our credibility to the outside world and to each other. It erodes our credibility to ourselves.
I believe that the public Sunday worship service will inevitably and necessarily be awash in bullshit. The pro-social bullshit of politeness and concealment will still be necessary for our social interaction. More importantly though, people will greet each other warmly when they don’t mean it. They will be hopeful about the world even when the news only speaks of war and suffering. They will love friend and stranger when they are unlovable. They will forgive even when the crime is unforgivable. They will do so because they feel a need to be fake – to be a different person than they are. They’ll also do so because they are legitimately trying to figure out how to act like Jesus. Call it, pro-gospel bullshit.
All of this means little if we do not also acknowledge who we really are with the members of our congregations, and it means little if we do not also admit that our Sundays are so full of bullshit. Sunday morning may demand politeness, concealment and proclaiming the truth of the Gospel over the obvious truth of the world and ourselves, but the church also demands, alongside politeness, a harsh criticism of ourselves and others. It demands, alongside concealment, revelation about God and the challenges of our lives. Along with proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, it demands proclaiming our own lies, manipulations, and sins. Sunday morning is a bad time for this. Sunday morning is not everything. Sunday morning is not the church. Sunday morning is the pro-social bullshit of our culture, the pro-Gospel bullshit of emulating Jesus Christ, and the truth-eroding bullshit of our fallen humanity.
A Sunday church will always be a bullshit church. If the church chooses not to perform the pro-social bullshit required in our culture and if it chooses not to act out the pro-gospel bullshit of attempting to emulate Jesus Christ, then that church may tell truths and it may be authentic, but it will also be mean, unwelcoming and it will never transform the world.
The Sunday church needs the everyday church. It needs the private relationship that Jesus has with his disciples that includes fellowship, teaching, criticism, rebuke, and fear. The everyday church needs the Sunday church. It needs hope and resurrection to be proclaimed loudly in the face of despair and death, and it needs people to be met as they are in the human cultures in which they actually live. This requires bullshit because our cultures require bullshit. A generation that demands authenticity will never be satisfied without acknowledging and struggling with the necessity and inevitability of bullshit.
The need for authenticity in a fake world requires an embrace of a holistic theology of bullshit: I’m a bullshitter. You’re a bullshitter. The Bible bullshits. Jesus bullshits. Bullshit is inevitable. Often it’s necessary. Sometimes its preferable. The church needs to bullshit. The church needs to limit its bullshit. We need to tell the truth about our bullshit.
And because it keeps piling, we need help shoveling.
*Much of my thoughts on bullshit and theology are inspired by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology. Read his series on bullshit and theology here.*