I think art is the only thing that’s spiritual in the world. And I refuse to be forced to believe in other people’s interpretations of God. I don’t think anybody should be. No one person can own the copyright to what God means.
When you’re taught to love everyone, to love your enemies, then what value does that place on love?
Despite my childish longing to reconnect with the Catholic church of my youth (I actually dragged the entire family to mass this past Christmas eve!) my world views are not generally compatible with religion.
So why would I even think of hosting a preacher on my blog?
What many people would call sin is for me a celebration. What I struggled with as I put this interview together was the fact that after all discussions of grace, I cannot agree with Jim on a key point in his discussions of sexuality, but still found his argument and position thoughtful and in one distinct way, encouraging. Among other things, his words remind me that not all “religious people,” think the same, and they are just as aware of the baggage that comes with words like “Christian” and “Preacher” as any other label.
In Sex and Death in the American Novel I likened sex to the intimate and very spiritual exchange between reader and writer. Here comes this preacher who wrote a book where he encourages people to have a romance with Jesus! I had to know more. When I engaged him he introduced this idea of scandalous grace. Short of Joseph Kramer, if I was going to talk to someone who had ever followed the religious path, it would be this guy. He told me that sex was his favorite activity and he wrote this post that I thought was really cool, celebrating his wife and his physical relationship with her. It even has a picture of people kissing on top. Way cool.
Jim McNeely lives in Everson Washington, and is a teaching pastor and elder at Dakota Creek Christian Center in Blaine, Washington, where he lives with his wife, Betty, and their four sons. In addition to being the author of Romance of Grace Jim is also a jazz pianist and composer.
SM: What is “scandalous grace”?
JM: It is forgiveness and release from responsibility that is so complete and so final that no accusation or guilt or inadequacy can overcome it. It is acceptance and favor that really isn’t even fair. It is one-way love that is so undeserved and so persistent that it doesn’t even make sense. It is love that is so passionate and so outrageous that it is actually scandalous, like a cosmic public display of affection. Grace is karma busting delight coming at you. It makes uptight moralistic people who demand fairness and equality truly angry. For instance we have Jesus telling the story of the vineyard owner who hires people who work all day, people who work half a day, and people who work the last 5 minutes of the day. Then he pays them all the same full day’s wage, and the people who worked all day were scandalized! It wasn’t fair! The vineyard owner says, I paid you what we agreed to, what is it to you if I was generous to these others? These kinds of stories were the hallmark of Christ’s teachings, which is why the prostitutes and “sinners” gathered to Him like moths to a flame, and why the uptight religious assholes wanted to murder Him. He scandalized them with outrageous grace and love for the kinds of people that Brennan Manning calls “ragamuffins”.
Paul was more cerebral in his writings, but it is the same exact message. He raises the question – if we have forgiveness and acceptance so strong and so unbreakable, can we just sin and sin and sin and do whatever we want? (Romans 6:1) If whatever you’re hearing from someone doesn’t end up sounding like scandalous and outrageous love, it may seem obvious, but it just isn’t. I’m not in this to become more prissy and moralistic, I’m in it for the scandalous grace. I’m constantly saying that it is scandalous one-way sloppy-agape love that leads us to true virtue.
SM: Why is religion still relevant?
JM: This is such a great question. There are many people that I really love who would say that grace-centered Christianity is the end of religion. I think you can have grace with or without religion, and you can have religious and non-religious “prisons of ought”. In fact, one of my favorite writers and an atheist, Allain de Botton, did a TED talk on “atheism 2.0” where he talked about the things that are good about religion – there is community around profound ideas, regular organized messages, and good pressure in some cases to do well. So I think that even non-believing types need some sense of community around something that they would consider important or even somehow sacred.
More importantly, I think that we are seeing a backlash among many intellectuals and artists against the purely materialist view of humanity. There really is free choice and creativity and love which cannot be explained by genetics and biochemistry. I am a real boy, not a meat puppet. What happens to me matters. We are really seeing serious philosophical discussion around this with the likes of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book “Mind and Cosmos”, where he posits that you cannot explain the existence of the rational mind’s relatively sudden appearance on the evolutionary stage, given that according to the materialistic dogma, rational teleological design (such as governs the human mind) is disallowed. We are very spiritual beings and we really need spiritual answers. God is the ultimate spiritual being, you would think there would be some interest there.
SM: What do you read as a pastor that might enrich the lives of my readers?
JM: I read everything. I read Richard Dawkins. I’ve been reading Mary Karr, what a writer! I grew up in Texas and although I wasn’t an alcoholic, I really had quite a damaging sexual addiction back when, so her story really resonates with me. I read C.S. Lewis; Mere Christianity is such a deliciously reasoned little book. I read Henri Nouwen’s beautiful books on being a wounded healer. He wrote a book on his years-long journey in coming to a deep spiritual understanding of Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal; I am crushed to tears every time I read that book. I read Brennan Manning’s books, such as “The Ragamuffin Gospel”. Manning is a raging alcoholic who never got control of himself but continued in a fruitful career teaching scandalous grace. I read everything on Mockingbird Ministries’ web site mbird.com – this is
a truly brilliant bunch who embrace pop culture, literature, music, everything and find stories of scandalous grace in everything. They’re like the opposite of the “religious right.” I spoke at their spring conference in New York City in April 2013, which was a very exciting event! Of course I would recommend my book, The Romance of Grace. I go for the scandal in it, I even actually reference SEX! WOO HOO! I confess, sex is pretty much my favorite thing on earth. My wife puts the oomph in being submissive.
SM: How did you come to be a pastor and how do you feel your experience changes the way you view the world today? Fifty years ago so many things that many religions say are bad; open relationships, homosexual marriages, premarital sex, not attending church etc. would maybe not have been so common.
JM: This is such a great question! I am so grateful for your welcoming tone. Peter Rollins has made the point that in communicating across ideological divides, we are often monsters to one another. In many ways I know I am a monster, and others are monsters to me. We must have the courage and grace to speak kindly and truthfully with genuine respect across these divides, to hold what we hold true as true, and to respect one another’s convictions, while also holding out the possibility of learning and persuasion with each other. I recently posted a piece on my blog on the gay marriage debate, which got 10 times the normal traffic. Almost no one actually read it, they just used it to get into a huge ideological war. I want to try to be more clear here with your readers.
The real jewel in the crown is grace, not my opposition to someone’s set of morals. The standards by which we judge ourselves and judge others are simply the stones of the prison of obligation. I bet porn stars get irritated and argue with each other on moral grounds! Hedonism and religious moralism both have their standards, and we equally have trouble living up to them. My message is that grace is so much better, and offers so much more freedom. When I enter the universe of grace, I do not need to do anything anymore to prove my relevance and significance and worth. I already start off knowing that I am so loved that I am worth dying for. I don’t need to worry about the flavor of your need for grace. I know my own need for grace. What use is it to say, I don’t need grace? You don’t need one-way love coming at you whether you deserve it or not? Who’s going to turn that away? I say stop quibbling over where we each draw the line of deservedness and just take the gift! If someone offered you a million dollars, you wouldn’t refuse unless they agreed that it was OK for you to spend it all on bubble gum. WTF? Take the money! I may think I want grace only so I can pursue my sexual agenda, but far beyond this, I am scandalously loved even when I don’t deserve. I am allowed to be boring, allowed to be imperfect, allowed to fail. I am allowed to be rich or allowed to be poor. I am already guaranteed to be safe forever. People want to say, but you are against homosexuality. OK, I’m also “against” greed and murder heterosexual sin; but the only “against” I’ve got is that your failures and my failures lead us to more grace. In fact I am against my own heterosexual sin, which I don’t always seem to be able to control at all.
SM: So do you believe that you are sinning when you have heterosexual sex?
JM: Of course not. I have heterosexual sin when I leer at women I’m not married to. I’m in a monogamous relationship, which means I’m at least in principle against leering.
It is ridiculous to assume that God is expecting perfection all at once, even a perfection of agreement with His moral lines. Jesus said if you even look at a woman you are guilty of hell; this because the religious tight-asses were so scandalized after he said that you only have to be “poor in spirit” to receive the keys to heaven itself. He is saying, “you want to have to deserve heaven? Let’s talk about how good you really have to be.” If you break your leg, the X-ray shows you clearly what is wrong. The Xray isn’t the solution. Orthopedic surgery may be the solution. These strict sayings of Jesus are X-rays, and grace is His solution. I am saying, stop worrying about what I or you or someone else is calling good or bad, and admit you are poor in spirit. That’s the real key to the kingdom, just give up; I can’t tell you how liberating that is.
I would also say this. In my book I have a whole chapter on the two goods, moral good and aesthetic good. It is an aberrance of humanity that these two are split; we find the forbidden desirable and we deem the moral repellant. Don’t think that uptight religious people are immune from this; they find the moral repellant just like the hedonist, they just try to pretend it isn’t so until they blow up like Jimmy Swaggart or Ted Haggard or all of these Catholic priests who molest children. When grace strips the world of the sting of moral punishment, the only thing left is the choice of the heart, and in the end the heart will have its way for better or worse. We throw away something very cosmically important when we throw away marriage because of this; it is the ultimate picture of the romantic good and the moral good coming together in the desire. It is a love which says, no matter what, you will never disappoint me or bore me or irritate me enough to leave you; I have one-way love for you. Of course no one really is that good at love, but marriage is a shadow of the one-way scandalous persistent love that the Creator has for each of us. Grace, after all, is the air that love breathes. Grace at the center makes for very beautiful romance.
I refuse to look at people as “homosexual” or “polyamorous” or whatever, any more than I want someone looking at me as heterosexual or adulterous or now, religious. Screw that, screw all of it. Are we really going to define ourselves by what closet we were in or came out of or whatever? You know what, I refuse to put people in a box that way. Does anyone really want to define themselves by what kind of scintillating thing they like to do for only a fraction of their time? You were born a glorious and amazing creature, brilliant and creative and with an immediate grasp of justice and truth! I see someone who says they are gay and they think that is how I am going to define them, by the one thing on which he thinks we disagree. Just like with everyone, I am going to look right past that and love who they really are – a brilliant person, in touch with their desires, willing to confess it when it is scary, and so courageous and honest. Those are good qualities, not bad ones, they are qualities which I celebrate. I’m sorry I can’t approve everything you want to do any more than you can approve everything that I want to do. We need love more than we need labels or weird agendas to reform each other. Grace transforms, but grace is far more than an agenda to transform. We are all conscience-ridden love-starved lonely people frightened and looking for genuine acceptance. When relationships end we feel rejected and we feel a little bit like a piece of trash that got used for someone else’s gratification. We know in our heart we are meant for something far greater. We’re not really looking for these other things. We’re looking for scandalous grace. Eternal life means love that really doesn’t ever break.
SM: So the definition of grace here seems to mean that what someone is in their bedroom doing is fundamentally wrong and these actions require forgiveness. What if sex in all its forms was a gift from God and unless hate or greed or hurt entered the picture it was something to celebrate. So do you also believe that you are sinning when you have heterosexual sex?*
JM: I find these constant attempts to peg people and compartmentalize them such a problem. For example, if I say I am a Christian, which I am happy to say, I am immediately thrown in with all kinds of prejudices and weirdnesses that I desperately disagree with.
On the sticky gay issue. It is so sticky, and every thoughtful Christian writer from here to Timbuktu has their take on it, from full acceptance to Jerry Falwell fundamentalism. Everyone is trying to find their right twist. You really can’t believe how churches are falling all over themselves trying to figure out how to be accepting and loving and wonderful while still being against homosexuality. People are not flippant about this, they are tortured by it. I think the now dominant gay-acceptance culture should have some respect for the struggle this represents.
One thing to remember is that no one on any side of this debate thinks that anything that anyone wants to do is right. The question is where you draw the line. I think everyone would agree that pedophilia is wrong, even if all parties seem to be consenting. I would think that everyone would think that sex with animals is wrong, or perhaps sex with fish. We’re not going to arrive at a place where there is no boundary, but if our aesthetic is to find excitement in things simply because they are at or outside the boundary, one wonders if we are truly finding enjoyment in our intimacy. There is going to be some new boundary of unacceptability no matter where you draw the line. As an orthodox Christian believer, it isn’t mine to draw these lines. It’s not my line. Once I stray, I cease to be orthodox, and I throw away a lot of good with this. I think some people outside of these circles don’t understand what they are asking people to do when they want them to redraw these boundaries.
As for me, I cannot imagine having someone come to me who says, “I’m gay, now what Mr. Churchy Pants?” and then rejecting them outright on that basis! I don’t know how many ways I can say this: I am not a single issue person. I would not ask them to as a condition to our friendship or relationship or church membership to change this fundamental thing, which is tied to their sexuality, to their very life, which they have surely sacrificed family relationships and have had great courage in coming out and being true to their real desire and heart. It would be similar to demanding a fat person to lose weight before I would be friends with them. It will not be my focus; living in the light of God’s one-way love for them and for the liberty of the Holy Spirit will be my focus for them. What kind of heartless and damned fool would I be? I am not demanding change, I am offering a very strong and enduring kind of love: GRACE based love. Sadly, I have sometimes found that while it is not my focus, it is theirs, and we cannot communicate past this. If they cannot peg me as accepting them in a certain way, then they reject me and everything I have to say.
This is not to say that there are not standards of right and wrong. The message of grace isn’t, “lets change the standards.”
SM: This word is problematic to me. Whose standards? Bishop Gene Robinson came and talked about how in the Episcopalian faith people who are gay or transgender are able to serve officially in the church. Their standards would likely be different than the standards you talk about.
JM: In fact we have Jesus drawing a higher and more stringent standard, such as “don’t even be angry with your brother” and “don’t even look at a woman”. These sayings are not the solution, they are the diagnosis. It is like getting an X-Ray, finding you have a broken leg, and having people say, “broken legs are not bad. Stop being judgmental.” The diagnosis is a good thing, because it makes healing possible. The standards are all heart-level “born-that-way” kinds of things for everyone. I stand equally deficient of the standards on the same wrong side with the same flamingly wrong heart as the gay person. I’m not saying, “be like me, I’m heterosexual. I’m good.” I’m saying, acknowledge with me your helplessness to really love what is right. Grace hugely forgives and accepts the broken and failing. Period. But don’t ask me to change the definition of right and wrong, of brokenness and success, it isn’t my place. It is the wrong direction; we want a more stringent diagnosis, not a looser one. You don’t go to the doctor and pretend to be OK. If you are coming to me to change the standards, I don’t think it is mine to give. Here is where I am a green monster, with a heart of love, saying something alien.
SM: So still the problem looks to me to be how powerful labels can be: one person’s broken is my enlightened and free. One person’s success is my oppression. Standards that for one person mean right, for me mean wrong.
JM:As Slavoj Zizek has said, there is power in orthodoxy. I’m not trying to destroy orthodoxy. I am making poetry with it. The genius of Stravinsky was that he could take 13 weird instruments and within those limits, make something world-shakingly brilliant with it. As Zizek has said, maybe you can stand on a stage naked covered with chocolate masturbating and call that art, but that has become mundane. Beauty does not lie only with the profane. The real power is in knowing how to take a paintbrush and make something real and moving and amazing. It is far stranger and more powerful now to have a marriage and have sex only within that monogamy. Can you carry on a romance without it being bizarre and forbidden? Can you love the person and not the scintillating raciness? I’m not trying to control anyone else, but I also resent being called a homophobe and a religious bigot and idiot because I have a very thoughtful orthodox position. There is a bit of “orthodoxophobia” going on that way too. G.K. Chesterton notes that we can fall over at a thousand different angles, but we can only stand up at one angle. Orthodoxy is like this. The hallmark of my orthodoxy has nothing to do with homosexuality, it has everything to do with grace and true spirituality. Homosexuality, and other flavors of sexuality, are very intimate and very important parts of us, and not to be dismissed or marginalized. However, the power of grace is that it supersedes all of these things and makes something real and honest that is much larger and truer of us. As in Peter Gabriel’s song “Solisbury Hill”, we come to say, “You can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home!” When scandalous grace has dawned on you, you drop everything else from joy over it to grasp this great great beauty. It is this beauty which I am pointing to; I am not pointing at your shame or your wrong sex.
So, there will remain for all of us, regardless of the issue, ways in which all of us will continue to be “little green monsters” to one another. Grace is about persisting in love despite this. I must persist in grace for my own wife, and she for me. This includes respect for our honestly differing ideas about where the lines of morality are drawn, and everyone has those lines. Everyone really does. The community of grace says, we are the forgiven and beloved ones, we see each other in the light of the love which God has for us, not the deficiencies which are so easy to focus on between us. Is it so strange to say that Christianity is supposed to be about love? I don’t think so!
SM: What questions do you not get asked very often and would like to speak to?
JM: I think a question that should be asked more is this: why is religion in general so focused on guilt and morals and forgiveness? If God is love, why can’t it just be about love love love?
I think that the focus on guilt is weird until you think about it. There was an episode of “Touch”, Kieffer Sutherland’s new show, where it turned out that this guy had been in Japan during the Tsunami and had survived. You would think that he was flipped out with PTSD from that experience, but his real pain was much more specific. During the tsunami he had been holding on to this woman for some time, and finally he let go of her so he could save himself. His real pain was that one incident, because it involved his personal guilt. The greatest evil is not the evil that comes to us, it is the evil that we choose. This is the thing that our conscience tortures us over. It is a persistent problem too. If someone has committed murdered, he cannot come into the court and say “I’m sorry – I repent! I swear I’ll never murder again!” It’s too late to make these ridiculous promises. “Repentance” is a crock. We need forgiveness with teeth and muscle in it to free us. So this greater evil is the one that is addressed. Love says, I recognize your greatest trouble, which is your guilt, the evil you chose. I absolve you of that! And that is scandalous grace, real overcoming love. It is about love love love, and that is why the main barrier to love, which is guilt and shame, comes up. It is about removing these barriers to love, not about reinforcing them.
SM: Would you flip if I asked you if you thought Jesus had sex? I just can’t imagine him not getting down personally. If he came to earth to be a man, it makes no sense whatsoever to believe he wouldn’t. I know as a pastor though you might not want to go on record, I can appreciate that, but if you would engage me on this, that would be lots of fun!
JM: For the question, don’t worry, I won’t flip, it’s just a question. To be frank, I don’t think it is true, there is no accepted text that says this. The relationship of Christ with the church is compared to a romantic and even sexual relationship throughout the scriptures. Christianity is the story of a cosmic and passionate love between creature and creator. He didn’t need to do that in a salacious way because that’s what His life was about anyway.
SM: So is sex salacious?
JM: No, of course not, but trying to read that into Jesus’ life kind of is. Also, for God there is no division between the moral good and the aesthetic good. He always loves completely and wholeheartedly in a way that is not immoral, but moves beyond the measure of mere moral acceptability.
Also, see my prior comments about Zizek’s comments about the power of orthodoxy and the mundanity of the shocking.
If you made it this far, I hope you have gotten something from this post. If not, I very much appreciate your indulgence. It took me several months of fiddling with this interview to figure out how to deal with this topic and to include all of Jim’s answers. I worried about how to present this interview without giving the impression that I endorse the premise that sexual preference can be wrong at all and therefore require grace and forgiveness in the first place. I am leaving everything in as a way to say that I appreciate the thoughtful nature of Jim’s position, though I do not support it.
I also think in some way these comments will be useful for those who may find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to deal with people who approach discussions of sexuality from a fundamentalist angle. “Well, what about grace?”