The Caitlyn Jenner maelstrom has taught us one thing in particular. Our culture has one thing right that many churches have wrong. The culture at large prizes personal testimony, while many of our churches do not.
We live in an age where personal experience is king. Authenticity means being true to yourself–your feelings, experiences, and beliefs. You cannot go a day without seeing some viral testimonial being passed around on social media. People host wildly successful blogs–about their daily life. Popular articles these days take the form of confessional journalism. When a person opens up their life and shares their story, the support, love, and affirmation pours in from the world at large. Our culture affirms personal testimony, and the cardinal sin is denying the truth of anyone’s personal experiences.
The church wonders where the disconnect with culture is, and I would argue that this is ground zero. We do not affirm personal experience, and we by and large do not emphasize the centrality of personal testimony in our history as God’s people. We fall off this horse on one side or the other.
One group falls into rigid doctrinairism, as though the essence of Christianity is the acceptance and manicuring of particular dogma. These believers reject the narratives of the world, rebuffed by the messiness of personal testimonies of sinners that do not neatly fit into their pristine systems of belief. When a celebrity expresses his actual feelings and confesses his journey as a transexual, these write the whole testimony off with a dismissive “well, that’s sin” and a list of accompanying Scriptural proofs.
Unfortunately for these folks, the Bible is, first and foremost, a book full of personal testimonies. The lives of the characters in the Bible are as messy as Caityln Jenner. Just consider Abraham. The man began as a pagan idolater, had visions of God talking to him, started cutting off the foreskin of his sons, had a baby with a bondservant, kicked her and her son out of the camp, and nearly slew his own son. Messy.
The Word of God was not handed down by Him on golden tablets. It was written by the hands of men who were being led by the Holy Spirit. The Gospels are not a table of doctrines, but chronicled personal testimonies. Read the book of John and try to ignore the number of times he mentions witnesses, testimonies, and bearing witness. Luke the Physician specifically tells his readers that his gospel is an orderly arrangement of eyewitness testimonies–the personal experiences–of those who were with Jesus. We have no Bible without personal testimony. We have no Gospel without personal testimony.
We cannot know our Savior Jesus Christ without the testimonial experiences of our brothers and sisters found in God’s Word. The irony of many dogmatic conservatives is that in discrediting the personal testimonies of our culture, they lose any grounds for trusting the Bible. If personal testimony is garbage, then the Bible must also be placed in the waste bin.
There are others who believe they are doing Christianity a favor by deferring to the experiences of modern society. These believers are quick to affirm the personal testimonies of men and women who are struggling in a broken society. Scripture is not so much a place to find eternal truth but a place to mine inspiration. The stories contained in the Bible spur us on toward courageous existential living. With a comforting arm around hurting individuals, they fend off those who would question anyone’s personal decisions.
Their compassion is palpable. They realize that no system of doctrines can completely categorize feelings. They rightly discern that no dogma can completely explain the messy personal experiences of people living in a sinful world.
The problem is that by deferring to modern personal testimonies they run rough-shod over the testimonies of Scripture. If modern personal experiences are valid, why not the personal experiences of the people of Scripture? People in Scripture claim to have talked with God, to have actually seen Jesus Christ die on a cross, to have touched with their own hands the resurrected King. Are these personal experiences not true? In their efforts to comfort and affirm their contemporaries, they choose to deny the truth of those who came before.
Nothing screams “inauthentic” to our society louder than Christians who deny the personal testimonies of those they claim as “brothers and sisters” (i.e. the writers of Scripture). Additionally, Nothing is more hypocritical in our society than people who deny the personal testimonies of their contemporaries but insist their contemporaries must accept the testimonies of men who lived two thousand years ago.
What shall we do?
Some of us refuse to listen to personal testimonies of our culture and ignore the fact that the Bible is a collection of the personal testimonies of God’s people. Others of us refuse to acknowledge the truth of personal testimonies in Scripture because they contradict the mantras of modern culture. What shall we do?
Listen. In a society where everyone is writing a confessional, everyone wants to champion their personal experiences, we need to do a lot more listening. Listen to the feelings of others. Give a patient ear to the stories of others’ personal experiences. Have no agenda and simply listen.
Additionally, we must listen to the testimonies of Scripture. There is no either/or. If we shall affirm personal experiences, we must choose to listen to the testimonies of contemporaries and forebears. As Christians, we are so quick to pretend we know the answers to life’s questions and problems, when so often the posture we really need is that of Mary–sitting and listening quietly at the feet of Jesus.
In a culture that wants to share its story, Christians need to gain a reputation as people who listen. Only once we are willing to listen to the testimonies of others will we be able to share our own story, a story that fits into the grand narrative of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ.