The Smell Test

Living in Paris has introduced me to the joy of good cheese. The French are proud of their cheese (as they are of their wine and of course their haute couture). And really they shouldCamembert_(Cheese) be. It’s damn good. I’ve particularly fallen in love with a cheese called camembert, which I did not know existed until moving to France in August 2015. I’ve mourned the fact that I’ve missed out on this pleasure for most of my life. It’s a soft and creamy cow’s milk cheese first made, you guessed it, at Camembert, Normandy in the north of France.

But what you really need to know is that it is as delicious as it is smelly. Which makes it hard to gauge when it has run it’s course and needs to be thrown out. Though I can’t imagine a scenario when I wouldn’t eat it before this happens. Because that’s what you do when you are a bachelor responsible for feeding yourself. You smell things… because things typically smell bad when they are no longer good for human consumption.

Cheese might be a confusing example, but we do this all the time with food. We test it. Does it smell right? Does it look right? And finally, if you’re brave enough, does it taste okay? These tests gives us clues to whether something is potentially harmful to us. Maybe it works this way with theology as well. Yes, I went there.

Lately, I’ve been reading Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus?, tackling the Christian doctrine of atonement and looking for new alternatives. Near the beginning of the book Tony describes his own smell test when it comes to our theology. And for Tony it really matters what your theological positions are aside from personal conviction.

“That may seem an odd way to measure a faith system. We are used to matters being true or false, right or wrong, not beautiful or ugly, sweet or sour. most prefer a more forensic approach: she who has the most logical doctrine wins. But… many religious systems that are perfectly logical are nevertheless downright ugly. They’re bad for the world and bad for people. In other words, you can devise a system of doctrine that makes perfect sense within its own little self-inscribed world, but when you take it out into the broader marketplace of ideas, it spoils, like dropping a teaspoon of vinegar into a gallon of milk.”[1]

The more I’ve thought about the theological smell test, the more I’ve resonated with it. Jones reminds us that “Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. Good Theology begets beautiful Christianity.”

As you think about what you believe about God, Jesus, sin, or any number of things ask yourself if what you believe is shaping your behavior and your relationship to others in positive or negative ways?

Because, as Jones writes, “it doesn’t matter how logically airtight some doctrinal system is if it results in an army of jerks.”

If you tend to see God as wrathful, bound primarily by supreme laws of justice, then chances are your life will model this. Think of Westboro Baptist Church. We use them often as a case study for religion gone awry, but think about their message. God is angry, God is full of wrath against sin, and God wants the world to know it. They delight in their message, which the rest of us, including most Christians, see simply as hate. But their theology comes from the same pages that all Christians read.

Sandro_Botticelli_050Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. I would say that “God hates fags” is bad theology and doesn’t pass the smell test.

Next time you come across a group of people attached to a particular theology or doctrine, notice what kind of fruit it produces. Does it breed love? Does it breed compassion? Would it mesh with the kind of life that Jesus lived and taught others to live? If it doesn’t pass the smell test, it’s time to think of better alternatives more akin to character of God exemplified in Jesus who as Paul describes in Colossians is, “the image of the invisible God.”

So many people don’t bother too much with theology, thinking it is the job of the pastors and leaders in their church to decide and share with the congregation. I think that’s a shame. It matters what you believe because what you believe shapes you.

The question is how? Will your theology propel you towards love or legalism?


Jones, Tony. Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. New York City: HaperOne, 2015..

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