Tony Woodlief | Author

On sugarcoating

I realized this morning that part of the reason I haven’t written here in so long, the reason I balk at the thought of it, is that I got the most hate-filled letter I’ve ever received, back in July, in the form of a comment someone tried to post here. The writer claimed I was headed for hell, and likely my children too, because sons tend to fall into the sins of their fathers, you know, and because “God is not as merciful and forgetful as you pray He will be.”

As best I can tell, between the IP address and the embittered comments about how my last church should have kicked me out before I could leave (recall from time to time I’ve written here about the soul-destroying heresies of Jean Calvin, and about my previous church’s decision to excommunicate all the children of congregants), the person is a member, if not of my former church, then of the sect to which that church attaches itself.

Which is a shame, because nearly everyone there, including most of the leaders — as dreadfully wrong as I believe they are about Christian dogma — are good and loving people. Now the thought of walking through its doors ever again makes me cringe, in much the way one might be reluctant to dive into a pool once he’s found a thick ugly snake slithering about in it.

But I realized only this morning, as I thought about all the things my boys are doing, and what I’m learning from them and about myself, and how surely there are other parents who find themselves caught up in maelstroms who must struggle to be present and good in spite of these — that I scribble these things down but don’t put any of them here, because I know there is this ugly person lurking out there, judging not only me but my children. And there are a dozen more like him, who don’t just content themselves with hate mail to me, but write letters and emails to other people — publishers and pastors with whom I associate — in an effort to get them to cast me off.

Then there is my family, and people I’ve alienated, and employees, and people I’ve fired, and preachers I’ve angered, and people who don’t even know me but think they do because they know someone who knows something about me and so feel entitled to have an opinion about me, and all I can think is that years ago I should have named this bloody thing instead of

But then half the writing gigs I’ve ever gotten wouldn’t have come my way, which I suppose would have been a bad thing, though half the time I wish I hadn’t written half of what I’ve written, not because I disbelieve it but because there’s nothing people hate more than someone who will not fit himself to their ideal of him.

The thing is, I don’t like writing cautiously. I had the honor of speaking at Ruminate Magazine‘s Faith and Arts Dinner a few weeks back, and I put it this way:

“I’ve not been accused of sugarcoating. I’ve been accused of exaggeration, and slandering dead theologians, and libeling living ones, of homophobia and homophilia, of socialism and libertinism and judaism, and I’ve been accused of heresy so many times that I’d start to worry if it wasn’t coming from a pack of heretics — but I’ve not been accused of sugarcoating.”

It’s hard, now, to feel like I have to sugarcoat, because someone may not like what he reads when he comes to the place with my name on it, where my words are, where nobody has to venture if he doesn’t think himself up to enduring what I have to say.

I know, I know, it’s a two-way street. If I’m going to be in the business of calling something a God-damned heresy, then I ought to gird myself for the other side of that transaction, which is that some Puritan somewhere is going to decide it’s me who’s God-damned. And so he’s going to say so, and if I think I’m man enough to write boldly, I ought to be man enough to read what someone thinks about what I’ve written. That’s only fair and right and par for the course.

But this person wrote about my children, about the hell to which they’re headed because of me, and suddenly I was right back in those old Baptist churches of my youth, listening to some fat, sweating bully rail at all of us for not being good enough, for heading to a place where we’ll burn and burn and burn unless we shape up, because if He is nothing else, God is really, really angry.

All of which just drains my soul right through the bottoms of my feet, which is sometimes why I think they call that place your sole, because that’s where it feels like it’s gone sometimes, doesn’t it? Down through your belly, screaming along the veins of your legs, into your feet and spilling out through the bottoms of them, into the dry dirt on which you stand.

But then I think — this is how these people rule each other, in too many churches. A few amateur scholars set up shop around the ramblings of minor, abstruse theologians, and a bevy of chattering hens surrounds them to cluck away at questioners, and so those who disagree, who feel their souls oppressed by the doctrines and the dynamics and the denuded aesthetics of the place, slink away in ones and twos and entire families, until the church isn’t what it once was.

We slink away because we are polite, and because we feel outgunned, and because we want peace, not a fight. Those are all good reasons to slink away, but I don’t suppose a writer is much of a writer — or a man much of a man — if he gets bullied away from his own website.

Which is my longwinded way of saying that I’m sorry I haven’t written more here, and I’ll try to do better, and if you happen to be one of those lurking vipers, I’d appreciate you attending to your own brats, and leaving mine to the grace of God, which is far greater and wider and grander, thank God, than you would have it be.

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