One of my friends delights in his disposition toward things that are free. He will drive across town for anything with that moniker attached…from free car washes to free chicken sandwiches. He is the proud purveyor of the phrase, “if it’s free, it’s for me!” Curiously, his inclination toward frugality does not extend to things he “lives in”, i.e. furniture, televisions, transportation, etc. He wants to pay for the less temporal items and services in his life. He will be the first to tell you that you cannot buy a quality car or couch for under a certain price and is very quick to assert his suspicion at such deals, while devouring his buy-one-get-one free hamburger.
I experienced this phenomenon a couple of summers ago at a yard sale and wrote about it for Relevant in an article about grace and consumerism. Here is a bit of the story: My mother always said, “You don’t have yard sales to make money, you have yard sales so that other people will come and haul away your junk for you.” And it was with that advice that my wife and I placed the sentimental old couch on the driveway with a sign, hoping that some family would come (with a truck) and haul it away for us. Although the outside was a little worn and stained, the frame was still very strong, a slipcover and the couch still had miles to go. Maybe it was because the couch had been in my family for twenty years and reminded me of my father and my little sister who had since passed away, but we decided it was best to give the couch away for free — we really wanted to see it adopted to a good home…
Consumers walked by our free couch all morning. They sat on it, commented on how sturdy and comfortable it was, allowed their kids to climb and play on it, but person by person would end their examination of the couch with a suspicious look. Finally after observing hours of this behavior around the couch, an older gentleman approached my wife stroking his salt and pepper beard and peering over out-dated glasses, voicing the suspicion that had gone undocumented all morning, “That couch over there, it looks nice, but what is wrong with it, why is it free?” My wife sincerely tried to convince the man that the couch was structurally fine–but he wasn’t buying it. After the gentleman’s departure there was a brief lull in the action where my wife decided to remove the “Free to a Good Home” sign and replace it with one that read “$10 non-negotiable.” Within twenty minutes, two families offered to buy the couch, and we awarded it to the family who could come and pick it up.
I thought of this story and of my “free-loving” friend the other day as I sorted through a bit of the massive response Rob Bell is receiving over his controversial new book. A New Testament scholar that I really respect (Scot McKnight) was being pretty critical of some of Bell’s particular readings of language and meanings in the Biblical text. Unlike some of the Bell-Haters out there, I found his was a pretty honest conversation. I finished Love Wins early last week and am still letting the semantics (the wreckingball) andthe theology behind what he is saying settle a bit before I try to write about it.
The bigger issue to me is the overwhelming theme and tone of manyofthe other evangelical conversations that surround his book. A few of the major arguments bother me — it seems that many desperately want to pay for their salvation, earn their eternal destiny. Whether it is by a simple prayer or a lifetime of dedicated service, folks want to feel like they deserve the grace that God has extended them.
Why? It might sound silly, but I believe it goes back to what my wife and I learned about grace in our yard sale experience and from my friend who loves free stuff. There is nothing more terrifying and suspicious to us than something of quality and substance offered so freely… At the very heart of its message, the Gospel of Jesus is truly: free, unadulterated, unmatched, complete, all-encompassing, and unconditional -love. It is so radical, even the most devout of followers seem to spend their whole lives learning to accept it. We desperately want to place conditions on it. We want to scaffold the divine with doctrine and dogma. At the end of the day, we want to pay for the couch. We believe we have to offer a certain amount of money for the quality car. The hysteria and controversy surrounding Bell’s new book has reminded me that while the most profound offering in the universe is free — it is also just way too radical for some of us religious folks to accept.