A Messy Faith

I was reading RelevantMagazine yesterday and ran across a Q&A with Mark Ruffalo—you know, the indie film actor turned Hulk in The Avengers. He’s directed this new, gritty, faith-themed film called Sympathy for Delicious (don’t know anything more about it so far than the title, so don’t write me angry letters if it’s a horrible movie—the screenings haven’t made it to Colorado Springs yet), and he had something really interesting to say about faith and film … and why the two sometimes mesh about as well as Dracula and a tanning booth.
He said:

To have a really honest conversation about faith today is taboo in a way. You want to clear a room quickly? Start talking about God. For better or for worse, it’s a taboo conversation. There’s a lot of hangups, and people, I think, have a lot of negative connotations that are attached to it … We’re in a market- driven culture. I think they’re afraid that there is no market in these kind of stories.

Part of what Ruffalo says goes back to the old cliché … when you’re at a party, never talk politics or religion. You’re bound to make someone mad. Folks who make movies can’t afford to make anyone mad, if they can help it—not if they want to make money—so most stay well clear of the topic.
But there’s something else Ruffalo said that caught my attention: It’s not just having a conversation about faith that’s difficult; it’s about having a “really honest conversation.” Some people are leery of discussing religion and spirituality. But there are others who long to talk about it but can’t quite hack through all the weirdness that’s grown around it. Ruffalo might’ve been talking about some of the standard stuff we Christians—particularly we evangelical Christians—get accused of … how political religion seems to be these days, or how judgmental we can be or whatnot. But when it comes to telling a good story, I think one of the biggest drawbacks isn’t so much how “unattractive” we sometimes can be, but rather the opposite. We try so hard to make our faith look as attractive as possible that we forget to tell them what that faith actually looks like, day by day. We brush over our own doubts and struggles and stick with the good stuff. We tell them that Christianity can change their lives (which it can) without mentioning that, in some ways, it makes it harder. We sell it as a cure-all tonic when it’s more of an exercise plan.
There are a lot of nice Christians out there making nice Christian movies, and I think most of them can be great and wonderful in their own way. But many of them sorta steer clear of the inherent messiness of faith. It’s completely understandable, because that messiness can kinda mess up the story they want to, and feel they should, tell. But it can leave the story just half told.
But God, as perfect as He is, never shies away from the mess. After all, the Bible is a pretty messy book. It’s filled with paradox and tension and conflict and mystery. Someone with a bent for book editing might well look at the thing and rip out verses and chapters and maybe half the Old Testament to make the core story—that of God’s boundless love for us—a bit neater, a bit cleaner. And if we’re really honest, we’d have to admit that we sorta edit the Bible already—plucking the “best” stories to read to our kids, the “best” verses to stitch into our throw pillows.
And there’s nothing really wrong with that: We don’t need to explain to first graders what a “harlot” is and why Sampson wanted to visit one. We don’t need to feel guilty that Leviticus doesn’t resonate with us as much as Romans.
But  sometimes, I think we can forget how inherently messy this walk of faith was from the very beginning—how mysterious and confusing and, ultimately, paradoxically profound it can be. And so we end up not just telling half-told stories, but believing that’s all there is. And when we realize that our own walks of faith don’t feel quite so neat and tidy as we’ve come to believe Christianity is, it can freak us out a little. It can even shake our faith.
I wonder sometimes whether people would find it easier to embrace Christianity if we Christians were a bit more honest about the own messes in our lives—our problems and frustrations and failings. I know that, throughout my own strange, meandering journey to and through Christianity, I’ve always had an easier time trusting “messy” Christians than those who always seem to say and do the right things.
But maybe I’m in the minority. As Ruffalo says, we’re in a market-driven culture. Mess, I imagine, doesn’t sell very well.


  1. Clay Morgan says:

    Great thoughts Paul. I had caught that Ruffalo interview as well. Thought provoking for sure, and I agree that Christians try to whitewash life way too much.


  2. Anonymous says:

    I followed Clay's tweet over – so glad I did! What a wonderful post. Sometimes I feel so guilty because I too often wish it wasn't so hard. And often I feel that I must be the only one who struggles with this. If everyone else is living this miraculous and glorious Christian life, seemingly with ease, then what is wrong with me? Even so, I wouldn't give up the struggle for ignorance.Your post really resonates with me, and I'm glad to see there are other messy Christians.


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