Are You Serious? Christian gravitas in a narcissistic age
The question of whether particular people are saved, or are converted, or are believers, is often heard in evangelical circles. We recognise it in some form as a necessary question, because it points to the momentous passage from spiritual death to spiritual life that everyone needs, and does so in a way that excludes the sacramentalist fancy that merely being baptised makes you safe forever.
Not all, however, are happy with the question in this form, for in the first place it seems to assume that everyone who ever comes to faith will have a dramatic Damascus Road experience to testify to, which is not so, and in the second place we find that some who testify volubly to conversion experiences that brought them to faith turn out to be hypocrites and frauds. Does the question as to whether people are spiritually alive or dead have to be asked in these terms?
No, it does not, nor has it always been. For half a century, up till 50 years ago, it was regularly put thus: do they love the Lord? That was a good way of focusing the question, for it zeros in on what people are in the present rather than on what they experienced in the past, and love of the Saviour-King who loved us and gave himself for us really is the heart of Christian life.
Before that, in England at the turn of the century, Anglican evangelicals used to ask whether people had become serious. This also, I think, was a good way of putting the question, once one understood what was implied. Let me spell out the meaning that the question carried.
First, however, a negation, lest we jump to the wrong conclusion at the outset. The question did not mean: have these folk become somber and long-faced?
Have they given up cracking jokes, and laughing when others crack them? Do they now take themselves terribly seriously? Yesterday’s evangelicals knew as well as we do that self-centred seriousness and posturing piosity of that sort is unspiritual and unbalancing, if not actually unbalanced. (Did you know the word piosity, by the way? — it’s British slang, very useful for puncturing the pretentiousness of the pompous. I recommend that you add the term to your vocabulary.)
The truth here is that if you mortify your sense of humor and lose the ability to laugh at yourself you are actually screwing down one of the safety valves of your sanity. There is nothing godly about doing that. Such action produces people who are profoundly proud, utterly unrealistic, frequently fanatical, and always intolerable to live with. In the hearts of all who are genuinely holy, along with their intensity in adoring the Father and the Son, goes a sense of their own silliness, absurdity, and intrinsic unimportance before the Lord, who as they know could get along very well without them. Their refusal to take themselves too seriously, paradoxical as it may sound, is in fact one expression of their evangelical seriousness.
What did those faraway 19th century evangelicals, Wilberforce, Hannah More, and their circle, really mean when they spoke of people becoming serious? What they meant was that these folk had begun to reckon seriously with God, Christ, the Bible, the gospel, their own sinfulness, and guilt, and the issues of eternity, which are settled for good or ill by the choices we make now.
Serious writers are those who focus on the long-term, deep-level implications of their themes and point up these implications in what they put out. Serious Christians are those who perceive the eternal implication of the life they live now. They make decisions in light of the eternal realities of God’s love and wrath, God’s heaven and hell, which will still be there for us after we have left this world and indeed will still be there after this world itself has ceased to be. That is the seriousness that we speak of here.
A recent essay in Time dealt with “the gravitas factor” (gravitas is Latin for seriousness in our sense and was evidently used because the writer did not think any English word can now be trusted to carry his full weight of meaning). The essay distinguished between public figures whose actions showed them to be thoroughly and far-seeingly serious, like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, as compared with leaders who seemed not to think or care about the long-term effects of what they did, so that they became corks tossing around uselessly on the waters of change and crisis, like — well, never mind. Purposeful people like Churchill and Thatcher model for us real Christian seriousness, of which they represent the secular counterpart.
In a narcissistic age like ours, the question of seriousness presses Christians uncomfortably. We can be bright believers, burbling away about our wonderful conversion and still be living frivolous, unstable, ego-tripping lives. We run from one brief enthusiasm to another, constantly pursuing way-out novelties of belief and behavior, and earning for ourselves at home, in church and in the wider community David Niven’s biting comment on Errol Flynn: At least you knew where you were with him; he always let you down. Steady seriousness is one mark of right-living Christians. Am I serious? Are you?