You might recognize the name Lisa Gungor as one half of the singer/songwriter duo, Gungor, who have written and recorded widely beloved songs such as "Dry Bones," and "Beautiful Things." A few years ago, the Gungors made headlines after revealing they no longer believe in biblical historical narratives such as a literal Adam and Eve, or Noah's flood. They even compared these notions to believing in Santa Claus.
For many Evangelicals, this came as an utter shock. But for those who were paying attention, the Gungors had been veering from historic Christianity for a while, and none of this happened in a vacuum. To help connect the dots, Lisa Gungor recently penned her memoir, The Most Beautiful Thing I've Seen: Opening Your Eyes to Wonder.
The book tracks the couple's spiritual journey from hyper-legalistic fundamentalism to a more progressive type of Christianity to atheism, and finally to a wider spirituality that they no longer necessarily call "Christian." It's beautifully written, and Lisa manages to describe the desert of doubt and loss of faith with captivating tenderness, honesty, and vulnerability. She shares the pain of being sexually abused by a church leader as a young girl. She explains the disorienting control of a cult-like church environment. She takes the reader on a journey from childhood in a tiny New Mexico town to meeting the love of her life in college to touring the world as a successful music artist to becoming a mother.
Although I disagree with many of Lisa's conclusions, I by no means wish to trample on her thoughts and memories. It's not easy to open your heart to the world, lay it bare, and share your deepest reflections. I’m thankful for this book because it helps me, as an apologist and as a Christian, to interact more meaningfully with those who have adopted progressive Christianity. I wish I had the space to speak to all of the nuances in the book, but this post will deal primarily with Lisa's most fundamental assumption about reality. I pray it is helpful.
The Most Beautiful Thing I've Seen begins in an art class. Lisa's teacher draws a dot on a blank paper and asks the class what it is. Various students begin naming this dot things like "point" and "ball" and "cylinder" and" pencil" and "nail" and "tower" and "line." The teacher responds, "It may be a dot, but maybe it’s also something else. It’s all perspective, isn’t it?" (p. 17)
This is very clearly how Lisa sees reality. The most pervasive theme throughout the whole book is this: Reality is relative. It's all perspective. It's all what you see.
Here's the problem. Reality doesn't actually work like that. Our perspectives can shift throughout our lives, and we may see things differently than we did before. But that doesn't mean reality has changed. It means that we have either embraced reality more fully, or walked away from it to see something entirely different. The dot on the paper? It's a dot. It's not a line or a tower or a pencil. Although it may look like those things when you glance from different angles, it is still just....a dot. There can be deeper ways we grow to understand the dot, and more ways we can apply what we know about the dot to our lives, but that dot will never be a pencil. Once we call it a pencil, we are no longer operating in reality.
For example, imagine you deposit $808 in your bank account, and go back a few days later to withdraw it. Suppose your bank teller says, "Well, you may see $808, but I see the word ‘BOB.’ So sorry...have a good day.” There isn't one of us who would stand for that. We would appeal to reality, and say "You're wrong! Give me my eight hundred and eight bucks!" This is because we all innately know that reality is not just a matter of opinion.
Lisa writes, "Reality is one thing to you and another to me, but none of us sees it for what it is." (p. 18) While it's true that none of us has a fully accurate picture of reality, our goal should be to line up our perspective with what's real as best we can...not simply see it as an excuse to embrace a form of relativism.
Lisa weaves her memoir around the theme: dot, line, circle. The "dot" is the tribe you are born into. It's the small part of the world in which you learn the basic things of life. On your dot, you learn your tribe's beliefs, customs, and way of seeing the world. But at some point, your dot begins to shake. As new questions rise up and unfamiliar ideas invade your small world, you begin to walk out on a scary new line that is emerging from the dot. Just when you begin to feel safe on your new line, it also begins to shake and disintegrate, dropping you into a circle, which Lisa describes as "the reality underneath and around the reality you could see." (p. 124)
In her view, the dot and the line weren't really a dot or a line at all, but that was just how you saw them because of your perspective. This may actually be an accurate metaphor for how her beliefs developed, but that doesn’t mean it’s applicable to everyone.
Lisa's writing is rich with metaphor, so she never explicitly explains what her dot, line, and circle are. But it's not difficult to see that her dot was the hyper-legalistic, almost cult-like sect of Christianity in which she was raised. Her "line" was Christianity in general, with its tenets, Scripture, and exclusivity. Her "circle" is now a more pluralistic view of spirituality, and a recognition that "the divine" isn't restricted to one religious group. (p. 116) In her estimation, this is ultimate reality.
She received this epiphany while attending a silent retreat she describes as employing a more Eastern approach to spirituality, complete with two hour meditation sessions and Buddha statues. At the end of the retreat, she felt something "almost like feminine arms" holding her. She began referring to God as "Divine Mother” and practicing "centering mindfulness." (p. 180) (Mindfulness is a meditative practice that is the seventh step on the Buddhist eightfold path.)
But this didn’t happen in a vacuum either. Prior to this new way of thinking, she had already given up on reading the Bible, dismissed historic Christian teachings about marriage and sexuality, and described the God of the Old Testament as a "bratty violent murderer who killed babies and desperately needed his son’s blood in order to save all the rotten humans he accidentally created." (p.174)
So, the book reads like an ode to relativism, but ends up bottoming out in absolutism: trading belief in one absolute truth for another.
So what do we make of all this? I've done my best to carefully analyze and understand Lisa's viewpoint, and I don't think that ultimate reality is what she thinks it is. I might suggest an alternative path:
Assess your dot. Peel back the layers. Question absolutely everything you were taught about God, the Bible, Christianity, religion, and the world. Reject the things that are false and hold onto the things that are true. Maybe your dot will have quite a bit of truth. Maybe it won't. But don't reject your dot just because it was your starting point.
Here's the bottom line. If Christianity is true, then it is, by nature, exclusive. This means all other religions are false. If Christianity is true, then the circle of reality Lisa fell into is really just someone else’s dot. In my view, she has rejected the exclusivity and moral demands of Christianity, and traded them for something equally as dogmatic and exclusive—religious pluralism, the belief that there isn’t just one road to God.
Jesus loves Lisa Gungor, and I am praying for her. I am thankful for her creative mind, poetic honesty, and raw vulnerability. This book won't soon leave me. I pray that God will lead His wandering daughter home...free from abuse and confusion.
I am hopeful He will do it—because He truly does make beautiful things out of the dust.
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