When Toby Ricketts and Marianna Fenn married each other last year, they included a lot of the stuff one expects in a modern wedding: special attire for the occasion, a venue significant to their beliefs, and ceremony that honored their religion. But the way these elements played out was a bit more unusual. For one, the couple dressed as pirates and made their vows on a pirate ship. Not only that, but they made a lot of references to spaghetti and meatballs.
Weird, right? That’s the point, actually. Ricketts and Fenn identify as Pastafarians, members of a church that worships the Flying Spaghetti Monster and believes that humans evolved from pirates. You might, at this point, think that I’m joking, but I’m not. They are. Pastafarianism is a satirical religion designed to criticize American Christian fundamentalism, and specifically the respect some demand for Christianity on the part of the federal government or school boards. Pastafarianism is not recognized by our government (nor by MS Word’s spellchecker, apparently), and that’s the point: Pastafarians believe that all religions are equally absurd and made-up, and should not be respected, a position advocated by New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
While my aversion to the Pirates of the Caribbean precludes me from condoning their style of dress, I actually agree with the Pastafarians’ point. Christianity is absurd, and my fellow Christians and I profane our beliefs when we try to pretend that it’s not.
Just think about the central tenets of Christianity: the sovereign creator of the universe cares about the thoughts and feelings of every single person who ever lived or will live; this same all-powerful being became a person and allowed people to torture and kill him; the existence that we can observe and share is only a small sliver of our ultimate being. These statements are unavoidably strange and offensive. Any attempt to make them normal or palatable would, I fear, diminish them of their power.
This is even more true of the demands these concepts make on our day-to-day behavior. Common sense tells us that we only have one life, and should therefore try to make ourselves as happy as possible. Atheist ethicists like Peter Singer build their cases on this notion, that goodness limits suffering and increases pleasure (or, in less potentially hedonistic terms, happiness). Common sense tells us that we should be kind to one another, but only within reason, and that we deserve some sort of reward – even if it’s a good feeling – for doing so.
There’s a lot of worthwhile stuff to the arguments made by Singer and his contemporaries, both in their prescriptions and critiques of the degree to which Christendom has increased suffering and injustice. But their arguments are often based on common sense and logic, which is unquestionably good and admirable. But it isn’t Christianity. (It might be Christendom, Christianity’s empire and conquest-loving shadow, but I don’t want to focus on that here).
Christianity is absurd, and runs contrary to common sense, as we can see in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus uses a structure that refers back to common sense morality and then insists on something else, something extreme and nonsensical:
“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
“It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Throughout these passages, Jesus takes common-sense morality and goodness, and renders it ineffective. He agrees that it is common, so common that even tax collectors and Gentiles – were Jesus talking to people in 2016, he might say unscrupulous bankers and atheists – can do this stuff and not even need to think about God. And if no one even notices your common goodness, then who cares? That’s not goodness – that’s standard human behavior, the baseline for being a person in the world.
Instead, Jesus demands a level of goodness that no one can attain. Why would He do that? That’s absurd! And that’s the point.
If we were all pretty good people on our own, a race of more or less all right guys, then cosmic intervention is unnecessary, even grotesque. But Jesus states that all right is still not enough to be accepted into the presence of a perfect God, a God who demands a level of goodness that no one can attain. It’s this line of thinking that drives Jesus’s rejoinder to the rich young ruler: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18, NASB)
Oswald Chambers wrestles with this point throughout his famous devotional collection My Utmost for His Highest, perhaps putting it most succinctly in his entry for May 26: “The danger with us is that we want water down the things that Jesus says and make them mean something in accordance with common sense; if it were only common sense, it was not worth while for Him to say it.” For the things that Jesus said to matter, to be anything more than self-help jargon or ancient pop psychology, it must be something that humans could not figure out for themselves. The gospel must be non-sense, it must be uncommon, it must be absurd.
In other words, acting within the realm of the logical and common sense removes God from the equation. It leaves no room for Him to act on our behalf, to demonstrate His sovereignty, to reward our faith. Operating within the world according to the rules and expectations of the world leaves the world as it is: broken, untransformed, untransfigured.
In my own life, this truth has had the most resonance on a personal level. My habitual sins stem from my own day-to-day feelings of loneliness, and they are fairly common and, some argue, really aren’t sins any way. My most destructive sins are utterly understandable as the actions of a distraught and hurt person. I regularly call upon my reason to justify driving past broken down cars (“Someone with more car knowledge will help them!”), not speaking to someone who needs help (“I’m too awkward to say the right thing”), or … Common sense says I’m good enough and the world goes on the way it was.
But Christianity demands that I love other people more than I love myself, that I forgive those who hurt me, and that I not let the constraints of reality determine who or what I do.
Pastafarians are right to point out how weird this type of thinking is. But, if Christians like myself will live according to these truths more often, all of those watching will see these strange beliefs motivating a love and desire for justice that cannot be explained as niceness or moral behavior. I have faith that they will, absurd as it might seem.