Outlaws in the Church

By Jeff Mallinson

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When I was eight, my pop took me to see Johnny Cash. More precisely, we went to Angel Stadium, where Billy Graham was hosting a “crusade,” in order to see Cash sing and talk about his story. I’ve forgotten a lot about those years, but Cash’s words still echo in my mind as if I heard them yesterday: “I crawled into the Nickajack Cave to die.” The rest of the story was astounding. It was a tale of divorce, love, loss, death, anger, drug addiction, music … and Jesus. Despite his rough language and his candor, the crowd—even the So Cal Jesus Freaks around me—seemed to love him, vices and all. And so did I. He was the real deal and his music was profoundly moving, because it delivered truth.

The question this raises for me today is, can we allow young Johnny Cashes to be part of the conversation today? Sadly, I think the typical answer is “no.” Sinner-Saint John had a rare kind of capital; the sort of capital I can’t recall seeing in anyone besides C. S. Lewis. What I mean is that Lewis is a hero of almost all the conservative evangelicals I know in America. For example, he’s cited several times in a recent LCMS position paper on religion and science. Likewise, Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center is dedicated to the writings of Lewis and his Inklings comrades. Nonetheless, I doubt that if a young Lewis were alive today, he’d be able to teach at a Concordia University or Wheaton College, given his belief in theistic evolution and his Anglo-Catholic bent. I’m not here to suggest that institutions shouldn’t define and guard their theological identity and confessions. Rather, I’m suggesting that we might miss important insights from artists and thinkers who don’t line up perfectly with our orthodoxies because we refuse to welcome them into the conversation.

All these thoughts are stimulated by a recent conversation my friend, The Man About Town, and I had on our podcast with L.A. country musician, Sam Outlaw. His new Album Angeleno comes out this week. He’s a guy who unabashedly calls himself a Christian and unabashedly tells about his history of getting booted from campus ministry when he slept with his girlfriend in college. Then he was asked to step down from participation in the church music leadership after the collapse of his first marriage. Additionally, he’s got opinions on marriage equality that many conservative Christians will find problematic. If you listen to his interview, some might find his candor startling. But let me tell you something. I don’t. Why not? Because this is how most sons and daughters of the church—whether my peer group or the young adults I teach in college—talk about life. They may not let you in on the secret, but they are uninterested in the things that send you into a rage about our dissolute culture. They love Christ but don’t get Christians today.

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Some will respond: “They’re wrong, so set them straight!” OK. But what would we lose? Might we lose a young scholar and author—a new Lewis perhaps—who might challenge our assumptions but champion the core of mere Christianity? Might we lose a young Cash whose first marriage collapsed, but deeply loved his wife June until the end, and confessed Christ till the end, contributing cultural treasures in the process? Time will tell. But for now, I can attest that Sam Outlaw is a cool cat, and someone whose voice—musical and actual—shouldn’t be too quickly dismissed.

When I asked him whether he felt the same support and camaraderie within the Church that he’s experienced in the burgeoning music scene in Southern California, he responded: “What I’ve encountered is, Christians try to take on the role of the Holy Spirit, and they’re the ones trying to convict you. And often times it doesn’t seem like it’s because they really love you, but because they just can’t stand to see someone living outside the boundaries of what they think is right and wrong.”

Does this mean there’s no place for prophetic voices to challenge self-destructive or vicious life decisions? No, but according to Outlaw, the best way to get someone to find a virtuous path is to provide a beacon, rather than a moral bludgeon. “If you believe in, let’s say, sobriety,” he explains, “go out and simply be the most incredible shining example of sobriety you can be. [If] you go around telling everyone that drinking is wrong then all you do is look like a jackass.” “You gotta let people learn the hard way,” he continues, “and maybe that’s why my Christianity really started when I was finally out of the house and I had the option of doing the wrong thing; because what good is virtue if you’re not choosing it?”

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Sam is on to something here. Incidentally, what he talks about on the podcast is about what children of devout Christians say amongst each other and to me as their theology professor when they are being candid. If we have patience for our own children when they struggle to reconcile their faith with their life, can we not also extend the same generosity to all of our neighbors? Classically, virtue is an internalized habit that becomes part of our character. It isn’t primarily about rules; it’s about the kind of person one really wants to be. We can’t bully people into virtue. We can’t even woo them to it through clever programs. But what the Christian church offers is a strong medicine in our world of fragmentation, degradation, and loneliness. We don’t have to bully anyone into taking the medicine. Rather, we need to be the gracious sort of hospital that welcomes the wounded in to receive it. Indeed, for St. Augustine, the hospital was a good metaphor for the true church. It is not a place where pure and complete people enter. Rather, it is a place for people to stagger or get carried in on a stretcher, bleeding and calling out. Even outlaws get patched up in the ER. Do you have the Christian guts to allow spiritual outlaws like Sam Outlaw into your ears, at least long enough to understand how they are talking about and muddling through this life of faith in a complex cultural landscape?

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