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Introduction: An Image of God That Isn't True


"God is not nice."

lehnerThe students in my theology class at Marquette University stirred and shuffled their books.  Heads came up.  A young woman on my right scrunched her face.  A young man on my left frowned.  More than a few looked confused.  I tried not to smile.  It is a moment that every teacher lives for: interaction.  Students started to raise their hands, ask questions, and engage with the lecture.

But why?  Why did my pronouncement awaken my students from their academic slumber?  The answer is very simple: they've probably never heard someone say, "God is not nice."  It challenges the dual narrative fed to them by our culture through a twenty-four-hour-a-day bombardment on TV, social media, and, sadly, even at church, telling them that if God exists then God is nice and will do whatever we ask.  We can make "deals" with God, or bargain for what we want, as if he is a firm but kindly merchant at a farmer's market.

Or the culture contends that God is some kind of divine therapist, and this belief infects even those who attended Catholic schools, as did many of my university students.  For them, God is like a psychiatrist who treats each of his patients the same way, a friend whom we can call in times of need.  But when things are going great, we don't bother him much.  Thus, God doesn't play a role in our lives, and grace has no chance to transform us.  Why change your life for such a God?  He makes no demands.

At first I thought that the religious education these students had received in school and at home contributed to the problem, and it no doubt had.  But when I listened to my own kids, as well as the children of others whom I know have been taught since birth about God's character, I realized that they all use the same language.  It made me realize just how powerfully the culture shapes the common narrative about God.

If I am to be completely honest, I am not entirely immune to it either.  I have often found myself a little too comfortable when it comes to my own relationship with God, making it routine and conventional.

The word conventional means ordinary and not very exciting.  At best, it is mildly pleasing, forgotten when the next pleasant thing comes along.  And in our culture, there are many things to do that delight and surprise.  Is it any wonder, then, that students and young adults leave the Church behind?  We have made attending church and believing in God something that nice and polite people do, mostly on Sundays.  But this is idolatry of the worst kind and a deadly threat to not only our faith but also the faith of our children.  Surveys tell us that an overwhelming number of people believe in God or some kind of spirituality.  Yet those same people never attend church or ask questions about how knowing God might transform their everyday lives.  Instead of seeing God and God's people as a countercultural movement that defies current trends, most people get the impression that God is boring.  And so are his people.

This is why we all need the vaccine of knowing the true transforming and mysterious character of God: the God who shows up in burning bushes, speaks through donkeys, drives demons into pigs, throws Saul to the ground, and appears to St. Francis.  It is only this God who has the power to challenge us, change us, and make our lives dangerous.  He sweeps us into a great adventure that will make us into different people.

At the heart of Marquette University sits St. Joan of Arc Chapel, a fifteenth-century stone structure transplanted from France.  Inside is a stone kissed by the saint herself before she went into battle.  As a young teenager, Joan met God in a fiery and profound way that changed her life.  She came into contact with the wild God and it transformed her into a saint.

Usually I walk by the chapel and pray, "Holy Spirit, help me to guide my students."  One day, as I pondered the life of the great saint, I realized I had been conventional about my faith, especially with my students.  I had held back my passion for God in the class- room, and I hadn't given my students fuel for their own walk with Christ by inviting them into the mystery of faith.  My own faith was drowning in the conventional, the boring, and the unadventurous.

The revelation washed over me, and I felt the burning fire the saints often tell us about: God's love and insight that devours but doesn't destroy.  The revelation about the nature of my own faith buckled my knees.  I could almost imagine Jesus standing in front of me, as the Challenger, the Listener, and the Healer.  I wanted to renew my own efforts to go beyond the safe house I had constructed for Christ and push into trying to find him in all things, as St. Ignatius of Loyola said.

It is only this God who has the power to challenge us, change us, and make our lives dangerous.  He sweeps us into a great adventure that will make us into different people.

But how to show this to my students?  The answer came as I sat in my lush garden and graded their papers.  I had asked them to write about the Israelites and their journey out of Egypt—an amazing adventure story of wandering into the desert, drowning armies, and depending solely on God for their daily lives.  Yet I often read things such as, "God helped the Israelites because they prayed to him."

This is a true statement.  But it doesn't capture the complete picture.  I realized that I needed to help my students connect the dots and reject the conventional vending-machine God—that is, the idea that if we put in our coins (or prayers), we will get our goodies dispensed.  So in my next class discussion, we talked about the history of redemption in the Old Testament.  Abraham was called out of Ur into the unknown.  He left everything to follow God merely on the promise that something would be there in an alien land.  We talked about Moses and the burning bush, removing his sandals because he stood on holy ground, and about Elijah being fed by ravens and talked to by God in a still, small voice after a great wind and storm.  Story after story in the Bible emphasizes the beautiful and strange mystery of God.

And then I said, with more passion than they had probably ever seen from me, "This is a God who invites you on a great adventure that will change your life and who dares you to attempt great things.  In the words of Mr. Beaver from The Chronicles of Narnia about Aslan, 'He's not safe, but good.'" Really, safety in our lives is an illusion.  People and events are always changing us, either for good or bad.  A great example of this is marriage.  When I met my wife at the University of Notre Dame during a class on the Holy Trinity, I knew she would change my life.  And she still does on a daily basis.  She challenges me to be a better husband and father.  It is not a safe situation.  I can't rest in my comfort and live in the world of my own head.  Rather, the great adventure I began with my wife changed us both.

I told my students that if a human being can change us that much and can call us to an amazing journey, imagine what God can do.  He takes us on adventures we could never plan and to places we would never expect.  God wants us to be transformed, to be uncomfortable in our lives and to stretch toward heaven, a beautiful grace he gives to us.

This grace doesn't make us nice — if it did, it would be just a superficial thing.  Instead, it transforms us as wine changes into the Blood of Christ at the Eucharist.  It flows from God's very character, and it therefore interrupts all our best-laid plans.  We think we know what's best, but God disagrees because he loves us.

St. John of the Cross once wrote, "If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom, you will never find him."  The journey to knowing God brings us to places we have not been, helps us notice unseen things, and opens our eyes to surprises and delights we didn't know existed.  Only the adventurer is able to see what nobody else sees — and it is this insight that we have lost when we think about God in conventional ways.  And then we wonder why life doesn't make sense — why we are so unhappy and why our existence bores us to death.  Deep down, we want that challenge, that journey, that adventure.

This book lays out a road map to help us leave the comfort of our bedrooms and meet the wild God who wants our lives.  When I fi began thinking about this theme, I remembered an episode from my high school days.  I sometimes served Mass for an old, retired priest, whom I enjoyed talking with afterward; he had gravitas but also embodied a fierce joy.  In one of these conversations, Fr. Karl confided in me that the night before his ordination in 1936 in Hitler's Germany, he knelt in front of the tabernacle and asked God, "Lord, take all that I am, but please don't give me a boring life."  His wish was granted.  A few years later, he was called to be a military chaplain, serving dying soldiers in Russia.  After the war, he almost died in a Soviet gulag, and once he returned to Germany he served in a big parish.

Fr. Karl smiled and said, "And I haven't been bored a single second."  He carried no bitterness about the lost years of the war, the pain of prison, starvation, or health problems that deprived him of a career in the Church — just the sincere joy of being a worker in the vineyard of God.

Today, when I stand in front of my theology students, I remember him and his story: with God there is life, a life of adventure.  The God whom Catholics believe in is not a nice, conventional being but a radical, all-consuming, at times terrifying mystery.

This book is an invitation to know this God.  By discovering who God is, we will find that he invites us to an exciting life but also that he is interested in our eternal well-being.  I will try to identify some roadblocks and idols that hinder us from embarking on an adventure with him and suggest how to overcome them.  I want to show you how walking with God means adventure in our lives and faith.  And, in the end, I hope you realize that God loves you too much to be nice.



lehnerUlrich L. Lehner. "Introduction." from God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2017): 1-6.

Reprinted with permission of Ave Maria Press.

The Author

lehner2lehner1Ulrich L. Lehner is professor of religious history and theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is a native of Bavaria/Germany and has earned doctorates in history and theology. The author and editor of more than twenty books, Lehner received the John G. Shea Award for the best book on Catholic history in 2011 by the American Catholic Historical Association for Enlightened Monks. Among his other books are God Is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For, Women, Enlightenment and Catholicism: A Transnational Biographical History, and The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement. Since 2014, he is an elected member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. Lehner lives in the Milwaukee area with his wife, Angela, and their five children. 

Copyright © 2017 Ave Maria Press
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