I was at the gym early one morning, before heading to teach classes at the evangelical university where I was a tenured professor. There were some young guys grouped around the weight machines fretting aloud about meeting their “witnessing quotas” for the week. Apparently they attended some local bible school or seminary that was even more fundamentalist and aggressively evangelical than where I taught. The Downtown YMCA was about the only place you could go at 6:00 a.m. to find potential victims and complete your overdue homework.
I had moved from the bench press to the lat pulldown bar, when one of them peeled off from the herd and headed my way. Apparently I looked alone and vulnerable in the wild.
Him: (Leaning too-nonchalantly against the tricep machine beside me), “Gettin’ some reps in before work?”
Me: (Grunting.) “Yep.”
Him: “Well you know (as his hands came together and his lips pursed involuntarily), the Apostle Paul in blah-blah said we blah-blah-blah….
Me: (Dropping the weight…kinda loudly, turning to look him in the eyes), “What do you know about me?”
Him: (Confused. This was not how prey were supposed to respond to the well-worn attack formula.) “Umm…uhhh.”
Me: “You know I workout and you know I have a job. That’s the sum total of what you know about me. And from that comprehensive assessment of my life you presume to know just what sort of message will liberate my soul.”
Him: (Blink…swallow.) He regathers himself, buoyed by centuries of arrogant, white, mansplainy DNA…”Well, in Ephesians blah, blah, Somebody blahs blah….”
Me: I stop lifting, turn to him and stare. It wasn’t the please-tell-me-more-mister kind of stare, it was the Your Honor-do-I-have-permission-to-treat-the-witness-as-hostile kind of stare. The hunter became the hunted. Thankfully he broke eye contact and moved away, with the slumped posture of one who’s going to fail today’s assignment in Annoy the Shit Out of Everyone Until They Comply With Your Hackneyed and Culturally Myopic Evangelistic Message 101.
I learned something important that day. I realized I hadn’t been interested in critiquing him or helping him refine his strategy, as I might have in the past. Something had shifted. I wasn’t on “his side” anymore (and he had never been on mine). I opposed everything about what he was doing. That was one of the first days I truly began to see myself as outside the faith tradition I had previously been very much inside.
What really changed that day was my absence of guilt. In the past, I would have felt the need to “love him in God’s way,” and see him as a brother-in-arms, even though his technique was cloyingly banal. I would have recognized the many ways I continued to fail in my spiritual calling, and it would have troubled me that I might have done anything to interfere with the flow of the Gospel that morning at the Y. Not today. There was no anxiety, no regret. I was surprised by my feeling of contentment. It felt sinful…but good. I was at peace and fully accepted, with or without this weight room preacher or his god.
Later that day, I told this story to my students, as we talked about intrinsic and instrumental communication. I showed them this scene and this from The Big Kahuna.