One of my favorite parenting books is Barbara Coloroso’s Kids Are Worth It! She describes three basic kinds of families: brick wall, jellyfish, and backbone. I am struck at how her helpful metaphors can also describe three kinds of spiritual postures.
A brick wall is rigid and unyielding. It keeps people in or out. A brick wall posture, then, tends to be rigid and authoritarian. It emphasizes rules and getting things right. Christians who adopt a brick wall posture tend to see issues in black and white. They often have very firm convictions. In the extreme, this posture leans toward dominance and legalism.
A jellyfish has no firm parts at all. It is swept along by every wave and current of the sea. A jellyfish posture, therefore, is less concerned with rules and boundaries. It tends to be accepting, often following trends. Jellyfish Christians may be comfortable with ambiguity but may lack spiritual stability and grounding. They are in danger of permissiveness and relativism.
A backbone, on the other hand, is both firm yet flexible, giving both structure and movement to the body. A backbone posture recognizes the need for boundaries but avoids setting them in stone. Backbone Christians, in my view, combine the best of both brick wall and jellyfish postures.
To be clear, the brick wall and jellyfish postures are not synonymous with so-called conservatives and liberals. I have seen liberals who are intolerant and brick-walled about their beliefs. People can sometimes be a brick wall with certain beliefs and jellyfish in others. I have seen some conservatives, for instance, stand resolute on certain issues and yet follow along on other societal trends. I am talking about one’s default or dominant posture and disposition, not theological position.
We tend to confuse backbone strength with brick wall rigidity. Similarly, we confuse backbone flexibility with jellyfish weakness. And so we often fail to even recognize that there is a third way.
Every sign of accommodation is interpreted by brick wall Christians as losing our principles, while jellyfish Christians view every boundary suspiciously as oppression. Both sides, therefore, tend to misinterpret each other’s concepts and language, often jumping to the worst conclusions. We fail to appreciate and learn from each other’s good points.
A saying, often mistakenly attributed to Augustine, can be helpful here: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. The essentials are the spine of our spiritual backbone. These are what hold us together, giving us strength to stand. Freedom to differ on non-essentials is where we need to be flexible. And we must do all things in, with, and out of godly love.
Unfortunately, our list of essentials seems to be getting longer over time. By increasing the number of non-negotiable essentials, are we in danger of turning our backbone into a brick wall? On the other hand, I don’t want us to morph into jellyfish either.
Can we re-train our imaginations to imagine this third way posture? Can we strive to be backbone Christians, supple and strong, serving Christ in the world?