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I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the phrase. In a backyard Bible school. Yes, that was a thing for a while, holding Vacation Bible School in neighborhood backyards. Some sort of outreach emphasis, I suppose.

“Everyone has a Jesus-shaped hole in their heart. We all try to fill that hole with lots of different things, but only Jesus fits. Only Jesus can fill the hole,” said the charming, earnest mother teaching our little gaggle of kids.

Obviously, it left an impression on me.

Six or eight years later, now I’m in high school. My youth group crooned, “Jesus is the answer for the world today. Above him there’s no other. Jesus is the Way.”

More or less, I suppose I still agree with those youthful statements. They’re not how I speak now. I’ve read careful, convincing critiques of them both. The “answer” metaphor in the youth group paean is problematic. I recall a college classmate in the 1980’s telling me the only “answer” for apartheid in South Africa was relentless Billy Graham crusades.

Nonetheless, neither my VBS nor youth group memories is that far from Augustine’s well-known “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee”

Restless in Seattle

Visiting Seattle—my childhood home—is always stimulating, stretching, filled with memories, and a mini-spiritual crisis. Seattle is so thoroughly secular, and hardly seems the worse for it. In fact, its “happy pagans” really seem happy.

I’m in a crowded grocery store on Sunday morning when normally I’d be in worship. The place seems exciting, abuzz. The Seattleites—so many varieties and so many colors—are picking up stuff to eat during the Seahawks game or to take on their sailboat or toss in their daypack before a small hike in the mountains. I’ll concede I’m probably over-awed, bright-lights-big-city, country parson agog over a mundane grocery store on a Sunday AM.

These people don’t seem to have a Jesus-shaped hole in their hearts. They’ve found their answers in coffee and legalized cannabis, dog parks and brunches, sailing and soccer.

Of course it isn’t so simple or so clean. Hiking may be good for you, but hikers are still anxious and overwhelmed like the rest of us. All of those exciting people in the grocery store were troubled souls, with fractious relationships, fears, neuroses, loneliness, and the rest of the lineup.

But are they any more so than the Christians I know? Any more so than those whose Jesus-shaped hole is filled, whose hearts are no longer restless? I’m not sure. I don’t see any great difference between the happy pagans and the middling Christians I know.

Obviously this isn’t a scientific study. I’m sharing my immediate, gut-reaction. In reality, these are deep, complex issues. And I don’t want to hold Christians to some shiny, perfectionistic standard. But I do wish I could sense a greater (or any) difference. And I kind of wish that I’d stop envying those happy pagans.

To Its End

Meanwhile, I see struggling, little churches in Seattle. To call the church in Seattle “irrelevant” is to over-estimate its power and influence.

In the parts of Seattle I frequent, the church buildings are small and dated, often surrounded by a high chain-link fence. A tired plastic banner on the fence proclaims “Welcome” or some invitational message, often both in English and another language—Amharic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish.

I don’t doubt that good mustard seed things are happening in these churches. In fact, many of them double as daycare centers for kids or shelters for the homeless. They distribute food and give space to public health clinics offering free flu shots. Needs like this are multiplying rapidly in a teeming city. And whether anyone notices or not, lots of churches are responding. But it feels as if the demands just grow and grow, while the church becomes smaller and weaker.

The church as we know it is disappearing. But the church as we have never known it is appearing. I saw this on Facebook. It makes me hopeful.

I believe that the Son of God, through his Spirit and Word, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community, united in true faith, gathered from the entire human race for everlasting life. This Christ has done from the beginning of the world and will do to its end.*

I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)

But they really do seem to be such happy pagans.

*Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 54

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

18 Comments

  • Kent says:

    “Seattle is so thoroughly secular, and hardly seems the worse for it. In fact, its ‘happy pagans’ really seem happy.”

    “…or shelters for the homeless. They distribute food…Needs like this are multiplying rapidly in a teeming city.”

    • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

      I know, I know, Kent. Seems like a contradiction. This isn’t an “answer” but what I’ve heard. Seattle’s homeless population is large because of its humane and lenient response. It is a place that takes refugees in abundance. Or maybe the social problems aren’t due to “secularity” but a booming economy–Amazon et al. So maybe the “bad guy” is capitalism not secularism? Or are they the same thing? Anyway, thanks for being an astute reader.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Delightful, as usual, and resolutely honest.

  • Harris says:

    Yet isn’t this all too individualistic?

    That God-shaped hole is filled, that restless heart stilled so that we may be part of a community, one that passes through time.

    If the Gospel is about a form of human happiness and comfort, then a suitable income will take care of that. But if the question is how do we do justice, how do we forgive enemies, or how we dare hope in a time of catastrophe — these are things which communities do, especially Gospel-marked communities.

    • Harlan Ratmeyer says:

      Having the privilege of relating to Medical College students, I am moved by the enthusiasm with which they respond to lectures on the role of spirituality in healing. Largely rejecting Christian language, they seem eager to think aloud about their calling and vocation. To the challenges regarding justice, forgiving one’s enemies, building a peaceable kingdom…they report they are not likely to find those concerns addressed by local congregations. Not a scientific study or research, but my impression and experience. Distributing food is important. Stepping into other aspects that would narrow the hole in our hearts…..not so much.

  • John says:

    You seem to know a bunch of middling Christians that you compare to the happy Pagans. Do you know of any happy Christians that you could compare with?

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Of course, for a whole different take on Seattle, see the Netflix series The Killing.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Psalm 73 jumped to mind, Steve. Caution about that! We are not to condemn others. In fact we take up the cross for them. However, the Psalm touches the feelings of confusion and dismay about the church we have when looking at the “happy pagans.” How interesting that the issue is resolved for the Psalmist when He/she goes to the “sanctuary of the Lord.” “Until I went into the sanctuary of God.”

  • Dick M Stravers says:

    Probably more than one writer/thinker has said, “Close every church in town and what would change?” I sometimes wonder.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      This is something that people from Judeo-Christian cultures say, blissfully unaware of the depth/significance of their heritage.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “They’ve found their answers in coffee and legalized cannabis, dog parks and brunches, sailing and soccer.”

    I’m not sure, but the way you wrote this made it seem like this was (in some way) supposed to be attractive.

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      I believe he wrote to seem the opposite.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      “But are they any more so than the Christians I know? Any more so than those whose Jesus-shaped hole is filled, whose hearts are no longer restless? I’m not sure. I don’t see any great difference between the happy pagans and the middling Christians I know.”

      You’re probably right, Daniel. I suppose I should focus more on the second leg of his argument – that middling Christians have no more peace than those who proclaim the virtues of the eternal brunch. I wonder what funerals look like in Seattle for “sailing enthusiasts”.

      Which also makes me wonder, with a culture so in denial (or resistance!) as to find “answers” in coffee – what are we (and I include myself here) preaching? Better dog parks?

  • Sarina says:

    As another fellow Washingtonian, I loved this. Seattlites are far from perfect–they’ll complain about traffic and housing prices and they can be as discontent as anyone else–but they do have this advantage with regard to happiness: the magnificence of the mountains and ocean puts them into scale. Human beings are human–small–in comparison with that vastness.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Steve,

    Your post reminds me of Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for a reality check on the Christian experience. Does Jesus fill a hole in the Christian’s life? Is Jesus the answer for the world today? The Heidelberger asks, what is your only comfort in life and death? Is Jesus, and belonging to him, the only answer?

    As you have suggested many (most) non Christians seem pretty content in life and death. If they have holes, they fill them with meaningful relationships, a good education, meaningful work, an enjoyable social life, a hobby, charitable causes they contribute to with time and money. And many (apart from any Christian influence) are quite comfortable with the prospects for eternity.

    Sure, there are disgruntled non Christians, many who have little hope, but that is no different from the many Christians who also experience broken relationships, poverty, a boring life that brings little joy. Would you really suggest that Jesus can fill the hole that many experience? The reality is, there are (as Steve suggests) fulfilled people with or without Jesus.

    The holes that we fill are often filled with subjectivism, fulfilling a psychological need with hopes that religion (based on faith, not reality) will make a difference. That sounds like the case that Steve is trying to express in this article. Thanks Steve for a challenging article.

  • Steve Mathonnet-Vander Well says:

    Thanks to everyone who commented. I am gratified, dare I say honored, of the conversation. By and large, it seemed to be the sort of conversation I hope for–where people have space to comment, to wonder, even to go down their own little rabbit holes that were occasioned by what they read, and much less “winning,” dinging others, correcting others, and making sure that everyone had the right boxes checked. Thank you for that.

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