Monday, August 16, 2010

To be or not to be "Christian"

There is an interesting article by Brian McLaren (author of “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “A New Kind of Christian” and several other books which I find to be fascinating studies in the relationship of faith and culture, or the living out of the life of faith “in context”), on novelist Anne Rice’s decision to “quit Christianity” (see

I would like to add another perspective both on Rice’s decision and on McLaren’s comments on that decision. (I would recommend the article for the full details of McLaren’s discussion.)

From an anthropological perspective, what Rice is reacting against is a parochial, ethnocentric, naturally human phenomenon of creating and protecting one’s group and boundaries – in this case, “Christian” and “Christianity” (however broadly or narrowly defined) – against those perceived to be outside of the group or the boundaries. She came to conclude that to be “Christian” means to be “anti-gay … anti-feminist … anti-artificial birth control … anti-Democrat … anti-secular humanism … anti-science … anti-life.”

I would comment that (a) that definition of “Christian” is one particular group’s definition, not by any means shared by all those around the world who go by the name “Christian”, and that (b) were we to explore the roots of those various beliefs, we would find a mix of Biblical texts / values / principles and cultural interpretations (which would also differ from the interpretations of other groups of “Christians” at different times and places). In other words, there would not be agreement, through time or around the world, that to be “Christian” is to be all of these things. And I would argue, as a person within the broad category of “Christian,” that on several of these points, those arguing that to be true to Jesus is to be these things which Rice feels that she cannot be, are simply wrong – wrong, that is, in arguing that these beliefs are indisputably “biblical,” divine, of God, universal. The human and the divine, in this case (as in many others), have gotten mixed up, in ways that are not relevant to all people in all contexts.

And what Rice is doing, in trying to emphasize attachment to Jesus rather than his followers or what they consider to be “Christianity,” is trying to separate the human and relative and changing from the divine and absolute and universal.

Her reasoning, and McLaren’s in response to her decision, is reasoning that I share. As someone who wants to know and be true to God, through following and living by the teachings of Jesus, I am concerned not to bind up that which is human, connected specifically to a particular group of people or time and place, with my faith. Someone may be a follower of Jesus and (happen to) be anti-Democrat or anti-secular humanism, but those beliefs are not necessarily dictated by Jesus, and other followers of Jesus may have different perspectives on those (and other) matters.

(On the side from this conversation, one of the reasons that I value multicultural “Christian” community and settings another topic, is that we gain insight, through comparing similarities and differences, into what is shared and perhaps absolute, and what is human and culture-bound.)

I would add, further, that “Christianity” is a human religious construction. It has some (perhaps much, in some cases) of Jesus and his teachings wrapped up in it, but also much that is human and cultural. I do not see “Christianity” in the Bible or in the teachings of Jesus, and do not think it helps us to talk about people “converting to Christianity” or “believing in Christianity.” We convert to and believe in and live in relationship with Jesus, not the broad complex of religious ordinances and principles and regulations and rituals and practices, etc., which have come to be known as “Christianity.”

I agree with McLaren that “there’s no escaping the human condition,” with our fallenness and failings. I also agree with him that all religion – which I understand as the complex of rituals and practices, etc., that people have constructed, as they attempt to seek and honor God – is failed (at least, in the sense that all religions have failed to truly change or reform people through an emphasis on external practices and controls, and in the sense that all religious groups have failed to love their neighbor as themselves, to live according to God’s highest ideals for human relationships). And I appreciate his “redefining Christianity” so that it doesn’t mean that he feels superior to anyone by being a “Christian.” (I think he’s onto something in talking about the “Kingdom of God” – a concept which Jesus talked about nonstop – rather than “Christianity.”) His thoughts remind me of what the Korean-American pastor Jin Kim of the Church of All Nations ( calls being “penitently Presbyterian” (or “Christian”) – i.e., accepting one’s background and rootedness, but not being triumphalist, acting as if that way of being “Christian” (or human) is better than that of other groups.

If more of us who go by the name “Christian” were “penitently” Christian (and beyond that, focused more on being true to Jesus, and less on establishing and defending our brand of “Christianity”), perhaps fewer people would feel the need to distance themselves from us. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter so much whether people are distancing themselves from “Christianity,” as whether they are drawing closer to Jesus. The greatest tragedy, I think, is when “Christians” have the effect of pushing people away from Jesus.

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