A 30-Year Milestone — Or Millstone?

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Greg Richter decides the fate of someone in a Roman arena -- about 2,000 years too late.
Greg Richter decides the fate of  someone in a Roman arena -- about 2,000 years too late.
Greg Richter decides the fate of someone in a Roman arena — about 2,000 years too late.

This month marks my 30th anniversary of becoming a religious fanatic.

I was 19, and I had been spending every Friday and Saturday night smoking pot, getting so drunk it was unsafe to drive – but driving anyway – and trying unsuccessfully to lose my virginity.

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You’d think my father would have been happy I finally stopped doing all those things – well, maybe he’d have been OK if I’d kept trying to lose my virginity.

His problem was that when I stopped doing those things I picked up an even worse habit: Christianity.

Dad’s not anti-Christian. He even goes to church now in his old age. But back then, he told me you have to take all things in moderation.

Like most new converts, though, I didn’t feel very moderate about my newfound faith. I was a fanatic. And even then, I didn’t feel like I was being religious enough.

My main crime in the eyes of my family and friends was that I didn’t want to do anything wrong. Anything.

I wasn’t running around preaching against sin; I was just trying to live what I believed to be a holy life. But people seemed to think I was personally rejecting them.

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I became known as the religious guy. My mom referred to me as her “religious son” even though she is a born-again Christian herself. When the small newspaper I worked for decided to have three staff writers take over special sections of the paper, I got assigned the Religion Page because, they said, I was the only one with religion — although everyone else in that small Southern newsroom considered themselves Christians.

Even fellow church members thought I was over-the-top. I once had some Southern Baptists over for a party and they were astounded I was playing Tom Petty and The Rolling Stones on the stereo. They thought I was such a holy roller that I listened only to Christian music.

They might have had a stroke if I had told them I watch Kevin Smith movies.

I’ve also liked Seth MacFarlane, Mad Men and other horrible things you’d think a fanatical evangelical would rail against.

Greg Richter tours the Holy Land in 1999.
Greg Richter tours the Holy Land in 1999.

These days, I’m stuck with this religious fanatic label. But I think I’m a terrible representative for my faith because I’m not forgiving enough or loving enough or sacrificial enough.

The whole reason I seek other people who share my faith is so we can all learn to grow closer to each other and to God. It’s hard to find anyone who feels the same way.

After attending a Southern Baptist church for five years, I found another church where I thought I’d fit in. This one was really big on spiritual growth, without the fire and brimstone preaching. The focus was on “small groups,” where you could build close friendships and accountability.

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We’d have dinner, then discuss spiritual matters. Sometimes we used the Bible as our basis; other times we would study a popular book or video from a noted Christian personality.

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Once, I suggested we study a book I had just read: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. Our group’s leader, who also was one of the assistant pastors, thought it was a great idea, so we did the first chapter the next week.

The book compares cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer says, requires no sacrifice from the believer. Nobody in the small group cared for this.

I wrote about the experience on my personal blog. This was a mistake, because, well, my friends in the group read my blog. They weren’t too happy being characterized as people who weren’t interested in studying about hard subjects. I don’t blame them. Poor communication skills on my part.

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So we went right back to studying perfectly fine – if unchallenging – lessons.

Eventually, I gave up. I knew there are people out there like me. But even through the miracle of the Internet, I had trouble finding them.

Then a few weeks ago I received a review copy of a book by Christian author Drew Dyck. In Yawning at Tigers,Dyck recounts experiences similar to mine in which Christians are happy to sing songs of praise to God or listen to sermons on how to improve their families. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but the point of Dyck’s book is that we have attempted to tame God to the point that he is no more exciting or dangerous than a tiger in a zoo. Even children hold them in little regard when they are only inches away. The safety glass and lack of a need to hunt for prey have turned vicious, skilled hunters into little more than stuffed toys.

But God is more than that – even if we attempt to convince ourselves otherwise. He isn’t a big teddy bear; he’s the Teddy Roosevelt who spoke softly but carried a big stick.

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That’s not to say God is just a big law enforcer. The second part of Dyck’s book focuses on the loving, fatherly side of God. I think the part of me that annoyed my friends in the small group was that while I did see both sides of God, I tended to emphasize the big stick over the soft speech – at least when I was talking to them. I didn’t mean to insult them – I just figured we had studied the warm, fuzzy side enough that we could balance it out with the side that demands action. You can’t just tell people God loves them; you have to demonstrate it, and that’s not always easy.

American Christianity’s latest buzzword is “relevance.” The church has to relate to people, so we’ve had Christian rap music and Christian feel-good self-help books. I’m surprised we haven’t had Christian luxury SUVs.

I’ve never felt relevant to society – and pretty much still don’t. My wife, who has vastly different views on religion and politics and what constitutes a clean house than I do, says she doesn’t see me as a religious fanatic. The funny part is, now I actually want to be seen as one.

I’ve spent 30 years trying to make people think I’m not a fanatic. Now that I’ve convinced them, I’ll have to spend the next 30 trying to change their minds.

Then again, maybe I’m supposed to be focusing on someone else.