Walking on the Boardwalk last week we stopped for a second and watched as a caricature artist was doing a very interesting portrait. A good caricature artist accentuates features both pleasant and unpleasant to make a comical work of art. The good artist also might ask for a sport or activity someone likes, but by design there is a lot about a person that is left out of a caricature drawing. But that is the point! We pay someone to get a good laugh or maybe to get an insight into how others see us. It is easy to compartmentalize the caricature artist and say that is something for the fair! But the reality is that often we are our own caricature artists, especially when it comes to God.
Take the “atheists” as a group. Yes, I know a dangerous thing and a caricature of that group. When listening to them talk about God, often what you hear is a narrow opinion, often highlighting the negative aspects, but forgetting or reasoning away the positives, often leading to the logical assertion that there is no God.
At the same time you could take the religious zealots, again a dangerous thing to take as a group. However, often when you find a meeting between the zealots and the atheists you will see that the zealots have just as much of a caricature of God, having a singular always-positive understanding and image.
As you might see, as with the caricature of a person, not seeing the completeness of God can and does create real problems. Almost always when you see cults develop they do so using a caricaturized version of God. Some people really love this because it often the God they think they need.
In our tradition one of the first things that happens in seminaries is a challenge to everything the incoming student knows or think they know about God. For many first-year students in seminary this is a painful experience, especially those who thought they picked a school that would only affirm what they already knew! But the importance of this cannot be missed, because especially as a pastor it could be easy to have a singular caricaturized version of God. While that is great for growing congregations, it really does not do much for developing or growing disciples.
Step back for a second and think about that. When you hear people say they believe in a cause, they are often spouting a political agenda or myopic view. I am not saying this is good or bad; in fact, many times it can be very good! Take the Black Lives Matter movement. At the beginning it brought awareness to an issue and helped many in our community who don’t understand the plight of many African Americans to understand and have a way to help. BUT we know that the problems are not just about the respect and dignity of Black Lives, but a need for a deeper, more systematic correction to the relationship between police and the whole community. The problem is that it is hard to introduce the bigger issues when the cause is so myopically focused.
This is true when we think about God. If our view of God is merely the God we want, or don’t want, we are not really having a full image of God. The God who we are imagining is only the God we want to see. This means that many times people come to our churches with the same mindset, choosing churches that will affirm their beliefs and not challenge their understanding of God. Our challenge is to help them to see that God is much bigger than the caricature they have, and when we see God more fully, then we can have a real relationship with Him and understand a deeper, fuller faith.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen