Taking aim at the bull’s-eye of religious experience

Why would we reduce faith to a decision stumbled upon by being suckered in by the chance of winning a gun?

By Joseph Phelps

There is something so obviously amiss with the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s gun-giveaway evangelism that it may not require commentary. But ecclesial silence might be confused with complicity. Someone needs to state the obvious.

What most offends some is the choice of guns — violent weapons, unless used only for target practice — as the decoy to entice men to listen to a spiel about the Prince of Peace.

Really? With guns riding shotgun in the highest percentage of violent acts in our country, what less appropriate bribe could a church organization use to gin up a crowd? If you’re going to use guns, then why not use premium whiskey (“this might be bad for you, we’ll have to wait and see”)? Or a lottery ticket (“bet a few minutes of your time for the chance to win a big payout”)? or DVDs of porn (“some people find this offensive, but hey, it’s what men are attracted to”)?

Singer Steve Earle calls a pistol “the devil’s right hand.”

But as one of the clergy in the news article who noted the disconnect between Jesus and guns, even more alarming is the story’s broader insinuation about religious experience. In the aftermath of Ken Ham’s and the Science Guy’s creation debate this story adds to the argument that religion is downright ludicrous.

But you couldn’t defend it by this story. Surely there is more to a faith experience than wandering into a church service that is veiled as an outdoor store. You show up like an unsuspecting deer at a feeder near a deer-blind, on the off-chance of winning a gun, but to your surprise amidst the jokes and hunting tales you hear an entirely new philosophy of life which awakens you from your nightmare of materialism and the love of violent weapons which drew you like a junkie to this event in the first place.

In this sudden awakening you believe that you have so thoroughly examined the strengths and weaknesses of this radically new value system that you make a decision more life-altering than signing the lease on that new fully-loaded truck without telling your wife or best friend, a decision that could possibly dissuade you from owning the very weapons that drew you to this evening’s program in the first place.

Wow, that’s a lot to take in, all while preoccupied with hunting stories.

Raising this concern is not a ploy to promote my particular product. Nor is it merely to poke fun at this program or the good people behind it, a reaction that someone actually described to me as shooting fish in a barrel. Rather, it is to advocate on behalf of all voices of faith for the validity of another kind of religious experience.

This kind takes longer to marinate. You can’t just show up with a desire to own another gun, internalize its message while awaiting the big drawing, and suddenly be prepared to say “I’m in 100 percent.”

Not so fast.

Legitimate religious experiences of all stripes takes time for their breadth and depth to sink in deeply. Don’t just take our word for it secondhand. Test it out for yourself. See if it shoots straight, so to speak. Come with us. Watch how we do it. Ask hard questions before signing on to this way of life.

I can’t imagine NRA enthusiasts thinking it wise for a gun-averse critic to attend an NRA rally, hear their pitch, change views completely in the moment, then bolt to the lobby to buy an assault weapon for their very first gun. It may be optimistic to presume that the NRA would consider this foolhardy, but assuming it is, why would we reduce religious experience to a decision stumbled upon by being suckered in by the chance of winning a gun?

The Bible that we share with gun-giveaway evangelists tells of unscripted, out-of-the-blue conversions at the drop of a hat (or a dip in a well, or a climb up a tree, or the cast of a net, for those who recognize the conversion settings of the woman at the well, Zaccheus, and Peter and Andrew).

But surely these stories are akin to highlights on SportsCenter — clipped to show the decisive moment. Shouldn’t we infer that each of these moments was preceded by intentional searching, longing, weighing an experience and counting its costs?

This is why we should be as wary of quick conversions as we are of doctors credentialed by mail order, or couples contemplating marriage a week after meeting.

Perhaps gun-giveaway evangelism wouldn’t feel like a caricature of genuine religious experience if it didn’t claim to do more than it does, at best: plant a seed of spiritual curiosity in an unsuspecting someone.

Then, to use Jesus’ analogy, we’ll have to wait to see if this seed landed on hard soil, rocky soil, weedy soil, or good soil.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.