The movie "Amazing Grace" arrived from Netflix today and because I didn't want to watch the primary hysteria, I sat down and watched it. I was a bit surprised to find that it was a depiction of the stories of five old hymns in addition to the title song: What a Friend We Have in Jesus, How Great Thou Art, Silent Night, and It is Well With My Soul.
These are all hymns I grew up with and, as I sang along with a variety of soloists and choirs, I couldn't help but think about how wide has become the gap between where I was then and where I am now. Singing those old hymns brings me a very deep pleasure but there's also a disconnect because I interpret the words so differently now from the ways I interpreted them as a child and teenager.
Recently a commenter challenged the brainstormed list I made of my speculations about why people choose conservative faiths, the faiths exemplified by these old hymns. The commenter would like, I think, to label me as someone who believes that conservative people of faith are stupid, ignorant, fearful. I don't hold this opinion; I know too many conservative people of faith who explode those stereotypes. People choose their faith for a myriad of reasons and I am not skilled to understand (another old hymn line).
But as I listened to the hymns and sang along and reminisced about hearing George Beverly Shea sing "How Great Thou Art" at a Billy Graham revival meeting in the 50's, all I could identify as my reason for choosing Unitarian Universalism was that I had grown beyond those ways of looking at God, at Jesus, at prayer, at blood sacrifice.
Those old ways just didn't make sense to me any more. I wanted a religious faith that stood up to rational thought, one whose miracles and doctrine did not depend on supernatural events, no matter how beautiful. It was becoming clear to me that the miracle of Jesus' ministry was in his teachings, not in his turning water into wine or in his coming back to life after being murdered. The miracles everybody seemed to think gave Jesus credibility were pale in comparison to his radical teachings.
Those teachings were real, indisputable, challenging, exciting, transformative. They stood up to critical inquiry, didn't require me to suspend my disbelief. The miracles seemed like red herrings, to distract me from the teachings which were scary as all get-out.
Nowadays, when I see so much of Christianity subverted by the gospel of prosperity or discrimination against the Other or turned by charismatic leaders into something I'm sure Jesus never envisioned, I feel great sorrow that so many people cannot see beyond the so-called miracles to the real heart of the message of Jesus, the message of "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself". For, as the rabbis say, "all the rest is commentary."