Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

The Christian temptation to tell clean stories

This is perhaps not what you are looking for.

By “clean” I mean that Christians often want to tell conversion stories that are clean: I was a sinner and then I found Jesus and now I’m squeaky clean. This kind of story happens sometimes — and I know lots of people like this. So this is one kind of story.

But there is another kind of story that is far more normal than the “clean stories” suggest. The fact is that many if not most Christians struggle, especially until they line up into the ruts and routines of middle age (and then some are still struggling). If struggling is far more common than we often hear, why don’t we tell more of those stories. Will it, as some have suggested, create a bad model and steer the struggling into thinking that their struggles are OK or that they can sin and it is OK?


I doubt it.

Some tell this story: I was a sinner and still am; I am a Christian but not all that good of one at times; I wish I were a better one. God be merciful to me a sinner.

This is why I like stories of Christians like that of Karen Spears Zacharias, told so insightfully in her memoir Hero Mama but which will soon come out in paperback with the title After the Flag is Folded.

John Burke’s new book, No Perfect People Allowed, is along the same line. If some of you had the opportunity to read Tony Hendra’s Father Joe one finds a similar kind of truth-telling about a person struggling for faith. A more theologically-shaped story but just as truthful is John Goldingay’s Walk On.

I could go on, but I wouldn’t mind it if others pointed to similar honest-to-God strugglers.

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Lukas McKnight

posted July 18, 2005 at 7:18 am

Anne Lamott’s conversion tale in Traveling Mercies comes to mind as a very un-glorious conversion.

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posted July 18, 2005 at 7:45 am

I believe we are obligated to relate our struggles. Mike Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality comes to mind – which is more about all of our messiness and not just his.There’s a great new musical artist named Mat Kearney whose story is not so clean. But it gives his music a point of connection that a lot of current Christian music just doesn’t have outside of church-goers.I’m in youth ministry, so I get to hear and experience a good deal of undignified conversion stories. I think Scot’s on the right track in saying that this would promote a dangerous (yet working) model. I, for one, am ok with that. Good models are for shelves.Thanks,PJ

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posted July 18, 2005 at 8:28 am

Patton Dodd’s _My Faith So Far_ (Josey-Bass, 2004) comes to mind as a good, messy story of conversion and deconversion. He doesn’t identify himself as an “emerging” or “emergent” Christ-follower, but his story and the questions he grappled (and grapples) with would be welcome in any emerging setting. See

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posted July 18, 2005 at 8:32 am

How ’bout Brennan Manning?

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posted July 18, 2005 at 9:36 am

I love your blog…you say provocative things that I agree with and get bothered over.So…what about Paul? Paul gets a flash of light and a voice and stops killing Christians. His soteriology is pretty bold and wild-eyed–Jesus has set you free! You are a new creation! Be completely transformed!I can’t imagine Paul saying, “Well, you know…maybe we need to be more realistic here. We are all sinners and we’re just going to stay that way, ya know? I mean, it’s not like we’ve been redeemed or something miraculous like that, right?”There is a great temptation to emphasize struggles…because we think they are more Real. We want to talk about failure, mistakes and sins because that is more Honest or True. But, I argue, Paul says the opposite! My sinful self is a False Me! Righteousness is my True, Honest, Real Self!The Reality of Jesus trumps our illusionary desire to feel Honest by talking about sin.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 18, 2005 at 9:58 am

Agreed. The purpose of the gospel is to create a new creation — but it doesnt happen all at once.Paul himself could be an ornery person: read Galatians 2 and his public confrontation with Peter. I love Paul, but he’s not perfect. He tells us that he has to beat his body to keep it under control. But, fair comment: we are not to swing the other way either. But are we worried about that happening?

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posted July 18, 2005 at 10:08 am

“I doubt it.”I recently participated in a rather lengthy discussion of this flavor.If we can somehow begin to look at sin as a symtom of the human condition, it helps to avoid focus and concentration/preoccupation in exploitation or management. I have found this profoundly affective in communicating the hopefulness in the message of Christ. Messy stories are more about… “How can I tell a story in such a way where the emphasis is not on my behavior (either before or after points of conversion)but rather draws a listener into the commonality of the human condition, and our need for a cure for the soul. Messy stories that are incarnational,lead others to say “Yes,Yes to Jesus.” Jean

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posted July 18, 2005 at 11:22 am

I have more of a church practice answer to your question (rather than an author-answer). The church that I am a part of (see has what we call “circle time” as a central part of our weekly gathering. We describe it as a chance for each person to process what has happened (good, bad or ugly) through the week, and as a chance to remember out loud what God has been saying or doing that might otherwise be forgotten or drowned out. There’s too much to say about it in one comment, but I can say that both messiness and holiness come out pretty regularly. Thanks for the thoughts.

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posted July 18, 2005 at 11:30 am

Sorry, I just realized that my overall recommendation on our practice of circle time was left out. We’ve been doing circle time now since January, and my personal view is that it has not tended, at all, to make participants feel okay with sin, as if it’s no big deal. What it has done, among other things, is helped people take responsibility for their own discipleship (or conversion) to Jesus and his way, and made honesty with community and listening for God an essential tool in that process.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 18, 2005 at 1:10 pm

“T”, whoever that might be, many thanks for this. What you say is the proper mix of authenticity and grace, along with love and holiness. Nice thought.

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posted July 18, 2005 at 1:28 pm

Provocative post, for it is the general tendency of Christians to tell their story this way. In fact this is the way that we often teach people to organize their testimony. But at times we are deceiving not only others but also ourselves in not being honest to the ongoing strugges Christians face. Also contributing to the temptation to tell clean conversion stories seems to be the variety of teachings on holiness (e.g. Wesleyan, Keswick, Augustian, etc.).

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posted July 18, 2005 at 5:14 pm

Yaconelli was working on a book called “Impersonating Ourselves” when he died, about this topic. Unfortunately, aside from Phil Yancey or Anne Lamott, the “Jesus saved me and I’m still a mess” stories don’t sell very well. They are also harder stories to tell.

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Ted Gossard

posted July 18, 2005 at 7:47 pm

Warts and all. I ran into an interesting Time magazine special on Abraham Lincoln. What was appealing to me about it was to understand something of how Lincoln came across to his contemporaries- along with the gift finally appreciated. He was out of step as far as what was expected for his time and place- in manner and speech. He was prone to grave depression. Yet he is now considered by most our greatest president.Most would say David was Israel’s greatest king (before his greater son- “the son of David”). Yet certainly flawed. But gives hope to so many of us wounded.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 18, 2005 at 7:55 pm

Ted,Nice thoughts. My family is from the Springfield area, so anything about Lincoln interests me. I’ve tried to figure out his faith, but not really worked hard enough to find much.

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Kerry Doyal

posted July 18, 2005 at 8:09 pm

We distrust the Holy Spirit in these matters – not in His role of sanctifying, but in His using the “witness” of ragamuffins to point people to Jesus or futher other strugglers in their oft stumbling walk.We obsess about being a “good witness” & come across as inauthentic, unapproachable & like someone others could never hope to become. Is this not the beauty of the second half of John 4’s “Woman at the Well” tale? Yes, Jesus reached out to her, but then look at her outreach. The city people come to faith & ultimately say: “we no longer believe because of what you said, but we have seen / heard for our selves.” (paraphrasing)They had tasted & seen that the Lord was good, having been invited to the table by a less than ideal witness. HE is the issue. Admitting our weaknesses and failings points out His grace & at time, His disciplne. Heb. 12 makes clear this is a source of encouragement, strengthening week knees. Thanks Scot for more good prods.

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posted July 18, 2005 at 9:24 pm

Encountering stories with a bit of dirt in them was one of the biggest factors in my finally coming to Christ. I was reading Bonhoffer, Hammarskjold, the Bible and Rilke- all things I had read before. I don’t have a specific ambassador, but coming to the realization that people of strong faith struggle helped me picture myself in a relationship with God.I love that you call it a “temptation” to tell clean stories.

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John Frye

posted July 19, 2005 at 5:44 am

Scot and blog friends, don’t forget the impact of a former generation of pastors who were taught in seminary, “Don’t EVER share from your own life or let others know your weaknesses. Just ‘Preach the Word.'” The pastor’s life was off limits to the congregation because people would lose faith in him/her as a “man/woman of God.” Like their leaders, people clammed up about their struggles. It was unChristian. Thankfully by the time I got to seminary, the Bible had been studied a little more closely and there you find Paul “spilling his guts” about trial, struggle, weakness, depression, etc. Vulnerability about not being so squeaky clean was a trait of Paul’s. Yes, yes, a pastor has to be careful about how and how much she/he shares, but I found that telling not so clean stories about the struggle of faith was a magnet of hope; it also got peoples’ eyes off me and onto Christ.

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posted July 19, 2005 at 5:45 am

Bob wrote:Unfortunately, aside from Phil Yancey or Anne Lamott, the “Jesus saved me and I’m still a mess” stories don’t sell very well. Exactly…

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posted July 19, 2005 at 6:41 am

Scot,This is one of the reasons I love Turning to Jesus. My daughters (15 and 12 as I write) have both recently re-examined their “conversions.” (Heck, I’m continually re-examining my own conversion, 30+ years in the past.) Conservative evangelicals (like myself) so emphasize personal conversion that we unwittingly marginalize those who “grow up in the Church” and DON’T have those great “I was sinking deep in sin” stories to tell.Turning to Jesus made it easier for me to talk with my daughters about how that paradigm for conversion is not the only legitimate paradigm. PLStepp (Theophilus Punk)

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Scot McKnight

posted July 19, 2005 at 7:07 am

Circleslide/PLStepp?Thanks for that. I wish I had started counting the number of pastors and Christians who have told me this. I think we need to tell the story of all sorts of conversions, including both sudden and gradual, but there are many kids who never really wander and their story is so valuable to all of us.Thanks.

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posted July 19, 2005 at 2:47 pm

Andy Crouch recently spoke somewhat to this topic (as related to Christian fiction) at an award ceremony at the CBA conference. Text can be found here: Christian Fiction in a Virtual World

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posted July 20, 2005 at 9:12 am

Postmodernists take modernism for granted, but at the birth of the Enlightenment, it was our ability to think, doubt, and reason that became the basis of existence. Descartes argued for beginning from a position of doubt and systematically working toward absolutes. Enlightened as we are, we tend to forget that our postmodern preference for questions and mystery over resolved belief stems from this modern intellectual approach to faith. Professing not to have found the answer may be the superior perspective. But think of Jesus’ statement, “Unless you become like little children…” Kids are wired to believe without question. They freely state what experience has taught them to believe. And sadly, they grow up and learn about cogito ergo sum and begin to accept doubt as their starting point. The more we learn, the less we

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Milton Stanley

posted July 20, 2005 at 1:28 pm

Excellent work. I reacted to this and five other of your recent posts at my blog today. Peace.

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Ted Gossard

posted July 21, 2005 at 9:03 am

Scot, thanks for your kind words. I greatly appreciate your blogging both for myself and for all of us.

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