The Narrow Door of the Cross

The Seculosity of Instagram and the Need for Better Guidance.

Guest Contributor / 3.10.21

This post comes to us from Jason Micheli, upcoming speaker at the Mockingbird Festival in Tyler, TX:

Leigh Stein is the author of the new novel Self-Care. It’s a satire of the wellness industry and social media influencer culture. In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” Stein confesses that she too fell for the accessible combination of self-care, social justice activism, and tongue-in-cheek Christianity proclaimed by the charismatic “preachers” on platforms like Instagram. Acknowledging that almost a quarter of all millennials in America claim no religious affiliation at all, Stein nonetheless questions if such statistics reveal a reduced rate of religiosity or if instead “our belief systems [are] too bespoke to appear on a list of major religions in a Pew phone survey.” Stein suspects the latter is the case. She writes,

Our new belief system is a blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology and Dolly Parton. And we’ve found a different kind of clergy: personal growth influencers. Women like Glennon Doyle, who offer nones like us permission, validation and community on demand at a time when it’s nearly impossible to share communion in person. We don’t even have to put down our phones.

It’s not simply the case that we are in church less. It’s rather the case that we are in church all the time now, online. In her article, Stein goes on to argue that the problem with these “electric churches” on your Instagram feed is that they ultimately cannot deliver what they promise; or rather, what they promise is not what we truly need. For example, Stein notes how many of these personal wellness influencers model something like confession in the way they authentically share their day-to-day struggles to their followers, but what they cannot do — what they do not presume to do — is offer their followers absolution.

Stein continues:

I have survived the pandemic (so far) by performing the role of tough cookie and shielding myself with cynicism.  […]

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning […] I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves. There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church? Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church.

Were looking for guidance in the wrong places.

As Jesus might put it, we’re bloodying our knuckles knocking on all the wrong doors, or we’re exhausting ourselves and scraping up our knees trying to climb up over the walls on our own strength and shrewdness. Maybe we need to try a different door.

If the Bible is indeed a constellation of images, then one of the icons that recurs a surprising amount is that of a door or gate, thyrais in the Greek. In the Old Testament, the blood-streaked door is the sign that spares firstborn sons as Death passes over on the eve of the exodus. At the Bible’s end, in the Book of Revelation, it’s Jesus who’s at the thyrais with, as Robert Capon colors it, top-shelf wine and the universe’s best takeout under his arm. “Listen!” the glorified Jesus says, “Hear my voice and open the door, and I will come into you and eat with you and you with me.”

When you turn the kaleidoscope of scripture’s images, you see a lot of doors, just as when you look around our lives you see a lot of doors, too. There are doors labeled health, wealth, and happiness. As Leigh Stein points out, the keys to those doors usually belong to someone else, and they’ll only let you through if you pay up. There are doors marked marriage, children, and career. Most of those doors aren’t locked or, if they are, they’re easily picked, but the problem with those sorts of doors is that if you make any of them the door, you quickly start worrying that maybe you should’ve chosen a different door. And, of course, there are all the other doors decorated with the different religions of the world. Most of those doors stand open with a welcome sign above them. They’ll let you inside, but once you’re there, you’ve got to earn your keep.

“I AM the Door,” Jesus declares in this third I AM statement. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Jesus has just healed a man who was blind from birth. And the Pharisees respond to the man-who-was-blind’s joyful testimony by policing his theology: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us? Get away from us!” They respond to the One who can do what only God can do by accusing him of being a sabbath-breaker. And because they have missed the Messiah right in front of them, in miraculous, incontrovertible detail, Jesus calls them blind. Then, in true Jesus style, he presses still deeper: “I AM the Door. Anyone else who attempts to offer access to the flock is a thief and a grifter, but whoever comes by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

With this image, Jesus doesn’t say that there’s only one way to get into the flock or to be a member of the sheepfold. His parable suggests it’s pretty easy to jump the fence or scale the wall and find a spot in the pew. But there is only one way, the Door that is him, if you want to be able to “come in and go out and find pasture.”

“Come in and go out and find pasture” is a Hebrew idiom for freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from the worry that you don’t really belong or that if you leave and come back your place will be gone. Come in and go out — it’s freedom from your need to optimize yourself. If you enter the Door, you’re free to be.

In the Gospel of Luke, while journeying “through one town and village after another,” a listener asks Jesus, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” And Jesus replies with an allegedly forbidding image, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.”

Narrow door? But Jesus has already told us that his yoke is easy and his burden light. Therefore, it’s not a matter of slimming down our sinful selves and squeezing ourselves through it like the camel through the needle’s eye. It’s fixing our eyes upon a particular door, a door so specific, unimpressive, and counter-intuitive it looks small and incapable of accommodating the lot of us.

The cross is the narrow door.

As Francis Spufford writes, “It is not what he does, it is what he is. He is all open door: to sorrow, suffering, guilt, despair, horror, everything that cannot be escaped, and he does not even try to escape it, he turns to meet it, and claims it all as his own. This is mine now, he is saying; and he embraces it.”

The cross is the narrow door.

Even more precisely, the cross is the wedding threshold by which everything that is ours — our sin — becomes his own possession and everything that belongs to him — his righteousness, his holiness, his faithfulness, his permanent perfect record — becomes our own as though we had done it ourselves. This the narrow door. It’s narrow, nearly impassable, because, as Paul says, the word of the cross is foolishness to the unreligious and a stumbling block to the religious. Most of us can’t bring ourselves to enter it, but on the other side, where what’s yours is his and what’s his is yours, is freedom.

On Easter night, the fearful disciples huddle together behind locked doors.

And suddenly Jesus is among them. He gets there not by knocking on the window or hollering from the alley or texting Thomas. Without a scrap of special effects or hocus pocus, he just appears.

The Door is just there on the us side of our locked doors as though he is the Door who has installed himself in every room of the world and every corner of our lives, as Robert Capon says, so that it’s never too late nor are we ever too far gone to enter into the party for which he has already brought the cooler of booze and the basket of the finest food.