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Public or Private?

Public or Private?

Do you consider your faith to be a public or private thing? This question is elementary for some, controversial for others and confusing to the rest. But the way you choose to carry your religion in public will, more than likely, impact your life.

Recently, I watched an interview with Alan Alda (The West Wing, Mash); during the interview he spoke about his reasons for leaving the Catholic Church—mainly because he couldn’t believe that the Eucharist actually became Christ (I don’t either). And to keep a clear conscience, he left the Catholic Church. As the interview continued he was asked, “Do you still believe in God?” That’s when Alda shut down the conversation stating that he doesn’t talk about that in public. Discussing the church was fine, theology—no problem, but personal faith was off limits. It’s interesting that many people feel this way about their faith.

To some, faith is so intimate and private—it’s nobody’s business. Don’t ask. Don’t tell.

Glamour magazine dealt with the issue of public vs. private faith in a recent article entitled, What do you believe? The article discussed the growing trend for many to embrace a more private spirituality. Seems more people are connecting with religion, but less are talking about it. In other words, spirituality is “in” but pushing it on others is strictly “out”.

To others, faith is more public, in a deeply-megaphone sort of way. Everything they say or do is done with a side order of Bible-belt-God-talk. You may have run into someone like this. They’re the ones that don’t let you have a conversation without dropping that King James quote like a lead balloon. In the eyes of many, faith is an in-your-face duty that finds it’s way into every slapdash conversation in a somewhat forced manner. The word “militant” comes to mind. For this group, faith isn’t real unless it’s highly publicized—in every way.

You may not be comfortable with either of these approaches—ultra private or highly public—and that’s okay. People have always wrestled with how to handle their faith in the real world. I like what Jim Wallis (God’s Politics) said, “Faith is always personal but never private.” Being Christian is about “identifying” with Jesus, not just thinking good Jesus-thoughts behind closed doors. But, there is a sense in which we need to understand what having a public faith really means. It’s not about being showy but being honest. It’s not about being pushy, but being transformational. The way Jesus laid it out was that we should be salt and light by the way we live. But this “way” wasn’t meant to be obnoxious or forced—it was meant to be subversive and full of grace.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t talk about our faith, and often, with the intention of sharing the truth of the Gospel, but having a public faith is more than just the passing of information, it’s about embodying the message, too. When there’s a disconnect between the medium and the message the message tends to become irrelevant. When it comes to faith, we need more beatitudes and less chest-beating self-righteousness. Somehow, if you have to go around telling everyone you have a deep-seated faith, it just doesn’t come off as authentic. It comes off a little pushy. And, pushy religious people have made it a tough-sell to have a public faith without being perceived as, well…jerks.

I think this is the tension that we live in—finding a faith that is real, not agenda driven, and one that is useful, not hidden or secret. If I claim that I’m “in” on the movement of Christ, then it’s only natural that I go public and remain there. But, going public means more than talking louder than everyone else, it means I have to embrace a new way of living. One that can speak for itself—when it needs to.

Maybe you’re uncomfortable about sharing your faith with others and you’ve kept this God-thing too private. Or, maybe you’re so boisterous with the message that you have neglected your character and focused on the sole duty of God-talk—treating people as targets. In either scenario, there’s room for growth. The way you express your faith may depend on your personality and the way God designed you, but we all have to decide if we are doing our faith justice.

How do you view your faith? Is it more private or public? Do you see yourself more like Kirk Cameron, less the cameras, or more like Francis of Assisi, out there preaching the word but only using words when you have to? Use the comment section to share your thoughts.

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