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Call me Mara: Why Duck Dynasty is Bad for Christianity

November 30, 2013

Call me Mara:

Why Duck Dynasty is Bad for Christianity

 phil-robertson

“She replied to them, ‘Don’t call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty.’”                                                                                                                                             – Ruth 1: 20-21 (CEB)

“I’ve come to believe that only broken people truly worship. Unbroken people – happy folks who enjoy their blessings more than the Blesser – say thanks to God the way a shopper thanks a clerk.”                                                                                – Larry Crabb, Ph.D.

First, a Confession

Although it will come as no surprise to those who know me, I feel it important to make clear right from the start that I harbor a passionate dislike for all things Duck Dynasty. No, it isn’t the Robertson family’s appalling lack of fashion sense, atrocious and persistent butchery of the English language, or even their poor hygiene habits; what offends me the most about the show and its impact on the popular culture is the way in which they trivialize Christianity.

Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty paterfamilias, makes no bones about his faith, and for the record, I applaud his belief in Christ and his willingness to share his faith with others. Robertson has favored us all with his recently published tome “Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander”, which was predictably followed by son Jase’s “Good Call: Reflections on Faith, Family, and Fowl” and, of course, the sage insights of Uncle Si in “Si-Cology 1: Tales and Wisdom from Duck Dynasty’s Favorite Uncle”.  It takes only a cursory perusal of the comments section of the Amazon.com book reviews to understand that most people see a cause and effect relationship between being a Christian and being “Happy, happy, happy”, and that is where I start to get irritated. In fact, while we’re being honest, the very phrase itself triggers my gag reflex.

Let me be clear, I don’t blame the Robertsons for where all of this has gone. I have no doubt that they are sincere, hardworking, devout Christians, and if a publisher threw a bunch of money at me if I would agree to put my name on a ghost-written book, I’d probably jump right in as well. My problem is that the show and the resulting phenomenon have given new life to a mindless, shallow, and downright wrong understanding of life as a disciple of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take a genius, or even a particularly observant individual, to notice that, although we love to focus our attention and adoration on Christians whose lives are going just ducky (pardon the pun), the reality is that there are many more of us who are walking in dark places, and, worse yet, the Bible makes no guarantees that any of us is assured of a “Happy, happy, happy” life this side of heaven. When we place people who promote that lie on a pedestal, much less reward them for it, we lay the groundwork for a lot of disillusionment and give fuel to the perception of the culture at large that Christians are dimwits who believe in fairy tales and actively seek out simplistic answers to all of life’s questions.

No Happy Ending

If you’ve never read the Book of Ruth, or even if it’s been awhile since you last did so, I encourage you to sit down and do so. In four short chapters, the author lays out two possible tracks for understanding both life and God – one, which I call the Fairy Tale Track, and the other, which I call the No Happy Ending Track (I realize the latter is not as catchy, but it is the best I could come up with).

The story opens with things going from bad to worse. Naomi, whose name means “delightful” or “pleasant” in the Hebrew, is married to Elimilech and has two grown sons named Mahlon and Chilion. Their life together is interrupted by a famine in the land of Judah, and, in order to avoid starving, they are forced to make a difficult choice. The story tells us that they leave their home, their family, and all that they know, and move to Moab. In our highly mobile culture, it is difficult for us to understand just how hard this would have been. Semitic peoples are strongly attached to their ancestral lands and their extended families. In many ways, moving a short distance, much less to another country altogether, would be much like amputating a limb. Add to that the distaste that their people had for the people of Moab, dating back to some hard feelings over political and religious espionage, and you have four people who are hoping and praying that the famine ends quickly so they can get home and resume their lives as soon as possible.

Fast forward ten years, and not only are they still living among the Moabites, but Elimilech has died, leaving Naomi a widow. On top of that, her two darling sons have gone and married Moabite women, making them members of the household, which, I’m sure was a source of tension around the dinner table for awhile. But, wait, there’s more! Both of the boys die as well, leaving not one, but three widows to fend for themselves.

Hebrew culture made women extremely dependent on their husbands. They were basically passed from their father’s household to their husband’s, and if he died, they were left with three choices: find another husband soon, rely on your sons to care for you, or resort to begging and prostitution. By now you can see that Naomi’s prospects are pretty grim.

By the time she comes limping back home to Judah with her tail between her legs, she is not only shamed by her failure in Moab and burdened with the problem of trying to survive as a widow, but she has Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law, in tow. When you take all of this into account, it is little wonder that, when greeted by her old friends, she admonishes them not to call her by her old name anymore.

See, while Naomi means all sorts of pleasant and, dare I say “Happy, happy, happy” things, “Mara” translates as “bitterness” or “pain”. In her mind, God has betrayed her trust. She did her best to stay faithful in the midst of difficult circumstances, and in return, she has been left with a handful of ashes.

The Gospel of Dumb

I know how Naomi feels because I live right there. I know what it is like to have the world you knew and loved come to an end overnight. I know what it is like to pray and plead and hang onto your faith by your very fingernails and to watch as days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, as things only get worse. I know that sinking feeling that slowly turns to bile in your mouth as you feel the doors of heaven shut to your supplications.

My job also exposes me to a lot of other people who feel the same way. I sit and visit with the elderly woman with failing health whose kids are too busy and self-centered to visit her, who is lonely and sick and sees the life she built dissolving like so much tissue paper in the rain right before her eyes. I stand in the hospital room with the young man whose cancer diagnosis will soon leave his wife and children without their husband and father, who has prayed and fasted and begged for healing, but can see in the eyes of the doctors and nurses that no such help is forthcoming.

Among my many frustrations, not only for myself, but for those to whom I minister, is that modern American Christianity has no good answers for the Naomis of this world. And because we are either too intellectually dishonest or emotionally shallow to address this problem, we settle for spewing a series of feckless bromides that I call the Gospel of Dumb or Duck Dynasty Christianity. Let’s look at three of the main pillars of this approach.

You Must Deserve It Somehow

Having lived in her shoes, I would have to guess that this was as much a source of Naomi’s pain as the other losses she experienced. In her culture it was widely accepted as gospel that bad things happened to people for a reason, and that reason was sin. If you were sick or deformed, you were getting what you deserved. If you got leprosy, you asked for it. If your house burned down, your cattle died, and your kids ran away with the circus, it was God’s loving way of bringing to everyone’s attention that somebody needed a remedial lesson in following the rules. Of course, since it was “God’s will,” that justified turning their backs on the “sinners,” excluding them from polite society, and even reveling in their suffering. The fact is, Naomi came home in the throes of grief, and her hometown was more than happy to add a heaping shovel full of guilt, shame, and ostracism to it.

There are two very sad things about what I will deem Phase One of the Gospel of Dumb. First, for whatever reason, the people who are truly bad – who deserve to have things go wrong – almost never get what they deserve, and, second, not a whole lot has changed in the last two thousand years. Sure, people come around with the old stand-bys like “I’m praying for you” and “If there’s anything I can do . . . “but those don’t last long. They are soon replaced with “Well, I heard (insert rumor of the day here), so maybe you need to do some soul searching” or the tried-and-true favorite “God doesn’t give us any more than we can bear or any less than we deserve”.

We as a Church need to come to grips with some very hard truths, foremost among them being that Christianity is not a guarantee of a happy, fulfilling, or even fair life. Things happen to people that they have done nothing to deserve; things happen to people (and regularly, I might add) that are considerably more than they can bear; things happen to people that your promises to pray for are not going to fix. If that’s the best we can do, it may be better to just say nothing at all.

You’re not Trying Hard Enough

Predictably, when the week or two of “I’ll pray for you” and the thinly-veiled “You must have sinned” comments don’t move heaven and earth, Gospel of Dumb adherents move to Phase Two: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves, also known as Put on a Happy (happy happy) Face.

The subtext here is basically this: “Hey, your failure to overcome your circumstances is really harshing our joyfest here at the church, so could you just go ahead and smile even if you don’t feel like it?” and it makes me want to say and do things I know I shouldn’t. People who trot this one out have never been through a real loss in their lives. They may know of someone who went through a tough time, but it resolved itself to their (the observer’s) satisfaction, which means everything is great.

I’m guessing Naomi got her share of chiding, too. Of course, no one would have taken into account that she had traveled 60 miles on foot – a seven to ten day journey in rugged and mountainous terrain – from Moab back to Bethlehem. They wouldn’t have considered that, as a widow, she likely had very little to eat during that arduous journey, nor would they have tried to imagine all of the begging and humiliation that was already behind her, much less that which lay ahead of her for the rest of her life, and how it might weigh on her psyche. Add to that the reality that, barring a miracle, she was going to spend the rest of her life alone in a world of families, and life looked pretty hopeless.

Sad faces force us to confront the possibility that hardships come to us all. They make us uncomfortable because we prefer the “I asked Jesus into my heart and my alcoholism went away and my marriage was restored” stories to the “I’m really struggling and it is hard for me to believe that God even cares about me right now” testimony. Unfortunately, what happens is that we shame the very people who need answers and encouragement the most into either pasting on a fake smile or, worse yet, staying away from church altogether while we allow our worship to turn into a callow pep rally that celebrates the good things that have happened to some of us and hopefully pumps us up enough to endure the week ahead. There is no depth or compassion or grounded faith – just easy believism and the same mantras chanted over and over again as a way of warding off evil and misfortune. Do we have anything more to offer a hurting world than “Hey, things are bad right now, but if you hang on for _____ years, you’ll get to go to heaven when you die!”

And then we wonder why our sanctuaries get emptier and emptier every week.

You Just Don’t Have Enough Faith

This last one seems to kick in right about the time that any desire to believe has pretty much petered out. Church attendance is either a thing of the past or is now just some rote, robotic task that is endured out of obligation or fear of what people might say, but it is dry and lifeless. People notice that Phases One and Two of the Gospel of Dumb haven’t had their intended effect, and so they decide to go nuclear and unleash Phase Three, the Faith-O-Meter Failure. In a nutshell, well-meaning individuals who feel “impressed by the Holy Spirit” and who have “given this matter a lot of prayer” feel it incumbent upon themselves to ask you to consider the possibility that God is testing your faith. Of course, the implicit notion here is that, since your life is still in shambles, the real issue is that you are not responding with enough faith, thus dooming yourself to more pain and suffering.

The questions we never really seem to answer here are many: What does faith look like in my circumstances? How much is enough? Is faith measured by time or quantity of suffering and disappointment endured? How can I both not have enough faith and not being doing enough for myself at the same time?

My favorite implication of Phase Three admonishments is that “If you had enough faith, God would be sufficient in your life. I wouldn’t matter that you don’t have (insert loss or losses here). You’re choosing not to be filled with joy because you are focusing on what you don’t have.” Again, people who say, much less think, this kind of idiocy, have likely never spent more than a few nights alone, don’t know the heartbreak of their children rejecting them or losing their home. They are fairly sure that the time they got passed over for that raise in 1994 and the time they didn’t get elected Homecoming queen qualify  them to understand your pain, and, hey, they got past it, so why can’t you?

People often point to particular biblical stories as examples of how God always sets things right. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but I wonder if they see the whole picture? Jacob got a happy ending as a reward for his faith, but what about Esau? He got screwed over time and time again, yet he forgave his brother when he could have wiped him from the face of the earth. Nothing. Isaac gets the good life, but what about Ishmael? What did he do to deserve to lose his home and his father? Nothing. The story of Ruth is yet another example. We celebrate God’s faithfulness to her by bringing Boaz to serve as her kinsman redeemer and bring about her happily ever after, but what about Naomi? If you’ve already made it to the end of the book, you’ll find that there’s no such happy ending for her. No husband, no life of her own. We’re left with the notion that Ruth’s son being a part of the lineage of Christ is blessing enough.

And maybe it is. That is definitely one of those questions on my list for God. My point is that we compound the suffering of hurting people when we refuse to acknowledge the fact that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between our faith – however you choose to quantify it – and getting what we want or need in life. When we allow people to believe this, we are liars, and worse yet, we are driving people away from God.

Not a Very Good Friend

The problem with Duck Dynasty Christianity as I see it is that it reduced the God of the universe to a good ol’ boy/best buddy who just wants us to be “Happy happy happy”. Hey, if I had millions of dollars in the bank, a smokin’ hot wife, and got to spend all day blowing things up and lighting my flatulence, I’m guessing I’d be pretty happy, too. Good for you, Phil. Enjoy it. Just don’t try to sell us on the Gospel of Dumb while you’re at it.

In his excellent book “Shattered Dreams: God’s Unexpected Pathway to Joy”, Dr. Larry Crabb points out that the “God as best friend” analogy really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He invites the reader to make a list of all the people in their life on whom they can depend to do whatever is in their power to make a problem go away. For the average person, there are probably four or five people on that list, but, if we are honest, God isn’t one of them.

What do we do with the fact that the God who spoke the universe into existence and owns the cattle on a thousand hills won’t fix your marriage, cure your cancer, or bring that special someone into your life to end your loneliness? “My real problem with God,” Crabb notes “becomes apparent when long-held and deeply-cherished dreams are shattered and he does nothing. . . Depending on an unresponsive God in the middle of crumbling dreams can be tough on faith. Relating personally with a God who is less responsive than friends with far fewer resources is difficult.”

The answer to this dilemma is complex. It can’t be explained or resolved in a short conversation or explained in passing. In large part, this is due to the fact that a satisfactory answer requires healing in our hearts and souls that penetrates much deeper than mere words can reach. That is something God has to work out in us individually. But it doesn’t absolve us as Christ-followers from responsibility. It also demands that we search for answers, that our responses offer relationship rather than patronizing words that comfort us but leave the other in agony. It calls us as a Church to stop pretending that we are “Happy, happy, happy” when we are not, and to stop shaming those who can’t find peace and joy in the midst of their storms, to redefine what it means to gather for worship as an opportunity to bind the wounds of the hurting rather than to watch a performance or attend a pep rally, but most of all it is a call to reject easy answers that can be tied up in a neat bow after twenty minutes, to acknowledge that, although salvation is a great thing, we need answers to help us navigate the days until we meet our maker.

Kyle Idleman sums it up best in his book “Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus” when he says “In teaching people what it means to be a Christian, we spend much of our time and effort bringing them to a point of belief without clearly calling them to follow. We have taken “believe” and we have written that in capital letters with bold print: BELIEVE. But everything that has to do with following has been put in small print: follow.”

May we stop trivializing the cost, the pain, and the frustration that come as a part of following Christ and start providing real answers as to how to do so faithfully.

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