David Dark, in his confronting book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything (Zondervan, 2009) tells a story which has a profound question attached: What is your God like?
Dig, if you’re willing, this picture: a tiny town with a tight-knit community. The people share joys and concerns, woes and gossip. They keep a close and often affectionate watch on one another’s business. They talk and talk and talk.
What an outsider would notice within minutes of listening in on conversations are constant and slightly self-conscious references to “Uncle Ben.” A beautiful sunset prompts a townsperson to say, “Isn’t Uncle Ben awesome?” Good news brings out how thankful and overjoyed they feel toward Uncle Ben. Even in tragedy, a local might say, in a slightly nervous fashion, “You know, it just goes to show how much we all need Uncle Ben. I know — we all know — that Uncle Ben is good.”
Uncle Ben is always on their minds.
Even when the magnificence of Uncle Ben isn’t spoken of aloud, he’s somehow present in facial expressions and actions. It’s the look of stopping a train of thought before it goes too far, of letting an uncompleted sentence trail off into awkward silence, of swiftly changing the subject. It’s as if a conversation can go only so far. People hardly ever look one another in the eye for long.
At the beginning of each week there’s a meeting in the largest house in town. Upon arriving, people get caught up in good fellowship and animated discussion of the week’s events, with conversations straining in the direction of Uncle Ben. When a bell sounds, talk ceases. Everyone moves to the staircase and descends into the basement. Each person sits facing an enormous, rumbling furnace. Seated close to the furnace door, as if he were a part of the furnace itself, is a giant man in black overalls. His back is turned to them. They wait in silence.
In time the man turns around. His face is angry, contorted. He fixes a threatening stare of barely contained rage on each person, then roars, “Am I good?” To which they respond in unison, “Yes, Uncle Ben, you are good.”
“Am I worthy of praise?”
“You alone are worthy of our praise.”
“Do you love me more than anything? More than anyone?”
“We love you and you alone, Uncle Ben.”
“You better love me, or I’m going to put you . . . in here” —he opens the furnace door to reveal a gaping darkness — “forever.”
Out of the darkness can be heard sounds of anguish and lament. Then he closes the furnace door and turns his back to them. They sit in silence.
Finally, feeling reasonably assured that Uncle Ben has finished saying what he has to say, they leave. They live their lives as best they can. They try to think and speak truthfully and do well by one another. They resume their talk of the wonders of Uncle Ben’s love in anticipation of the next week’s meeting.
But they’re limited, in myriad ways, by fear. Fear causes them to censor their own thoughts and words. Fear prevents them from telling anyone of their inner anguish and fright. Fear keeps them from recognizing in one another’s eyes their common desperation. This fear is interwoven, subtly and sometimes not so subtly, in all of their relationships.
End of story.
I find this story both jarring and entirely familiar. It captures some of my worst fears concerning the character of God. And I suspect a good number of people live their lives haunted by a nightmare similar to this one. Perhaps you entertain fears like these. Perhaps Uncle Ben forms your image of the divine even now.
Something akin to the Uncle Ben image might be what a lot of people refer to when they speak of religion as the worst thing that ever happened to them, a nightmare that damages everything it touches. We might protest that there’s much more to religion than such tales of terror. But I find it hard to deny that the image of Uncle Ben lurks within an awful lot of what is called popular religious belief.
Uncle Ben might be the best-selling version of an all- powerful deity, a great and powerful Wizard of Oz-type who refuses to be questioned and threatens anyone who dares to doubt or protest. Fear constrains many to call this God good and loving, ignoring what they feel inwardly. The less reverent candidly observe that this God is the perfect model for a brutal dictator, the cosmic crime boss who runs everything and expects us to be grateful.
Trying to satisfy such a God while also getting through a workday, trying to balance a chequebook, and being moderately attentive to the needs of others can take a certain emotional toll.
Does this story resonate with your experience of God? Your doubts of previously-held black-or-white descriptions of God’s character? You’re not alone. Maybe it’s time to dig out those well-used doubts and re-examine them, hold them up to the light, see if they perhaps may be challenges sent your way by God’s Spirit to lead you into his truth.
And get the book. It’s a worthwhile read.