Tag Archives: Christ

Killing Me Softly With His Sermon

Today, I attended a Methodist church. It’s not a bad place, as churches go. The minister has a knack for funny moments in his sermons, though I hope he manages to find something new to be funny about, beyond his feminist-friendly self-deprecation as a hapless father of four. I’ve only been there a few times, and that’s been the basic story line each time, and I can imagine that at a certain point it might wear thin.

Like today, maybe. Because while he was going on about — actually, I don’t quite remember what the topic of the sermon was; but whatever it was, my mind was drifting, along with my eye. I happened to be seated at the far rear, which is normally a good place from which to make an escape if I just can’t stand it anymore, though today my exit was blocked by the woman to my left, a cute, pudgy, little old thing who kept falling asleep, slumped forward. I still probably could have climbed over the back of the pew — always an option in the rearmost seating tier — but then I’d have gotten a stare, again, from an old guy in a wheelchair, off to my right and slightly behind me, back in the empty space, where I guess wheelchairs belong. He seemed to notice every time I raised my little digital recorder to whisper some additional brilliant observation about the experience of being there. So, what the hell, it was OK: I stayed.

I did have what I considered one especially brilliant insight. When I arrived, a few minutes before the service started, I noticed that people were talking to each other. It’s not a bad thing to do, but in my particular case I didn’t know anybody and wasn’t about to horn in on the discussions of the families and couples seated around me. I’d be happy to do so, but I find that’s not necessarily understood or appreciated. The little old lady to my left could have been a candidate for conversation, but she had already seemed rather oblivious when I first arrived — she didn’t notice me standing at the end of the pew; I had to ask her if I could squeeze by — and I didn’t really want to force myself upon her or disrupt her reverie.

In fact, I think she and I might both have appreciated it if the church had implemented what I recognized, in my brilliant insight, which was this: they should have been playing quiet, contemplative music before the sermon started. I’ve been to some other churches that do that, and I’ve liked it. If I want to shoot the breeze with people who won’t remember my name, I can go to a bar. In church, I prefer to church; and for me, churching includes trying to imbibe whatever traces of spirituality may be floating around on the conditioned air. With the aid of the right music — and maybe the right fragrances, though I know that’s controversial — I’ve found that the ten or fifteen minutes before a church service can actually be the best part of the whole experience. At other churches, I’ve been known to make a point of getting there early, whenever the music starts.

To tell the truth, I also think a meditative period prior to the service would aid my project of meeting a nice woman, somewhere around my own age. It’s not much of a project — I’m not actually doing anything to achieve that — but I’m just saying it wouldn’t hurt if the church gave me an excuse to arrive early, other than some unexplained desire to sit there like a doofus when there’s no music playing and nothing else really going on for a party of one. If I could arrive early enough to give everyone fair warning of my presence, it seems like I might have a chance of being approached for conversation, given my convenient location in the back row, where an individual or her friends could stand somewhere behind me, chatting, hoping to catch my eye. There is, of course, the possibility that nobody in that place would ever do such a thing. I’m just saying it beats the alternative, which is to arrive, church, and leave. There isn’t a space or an excuse to hang around anywhere else before or after. The church does seem to want to promote a sense of community — they have various dinners and brunches and whatnot throughout the week — but for some reason they don’t seem to think their members would be interested in spending any time with each other before or after the church service itself. The minister was talking in his sermon about how they are a family, and I suppose that’s what some families are like.

I was thinking of sending the pastor an email, to suggest this thing about contemplative music. Two fears restrained me. First, if he did take my suggestion, I was afraid the person assigned to provide spiritual tunes would be the guy who plays the organ during the service. This is an organist who loves the power of his instrument. “Contemplative” might not quite describe the experience he would produce. The second fear was that the pastor would respond to this second email conveying a suggestion as he responded to my first — which is to say, he might ignore me.

My previous emailed suggestion was that the minister could slow down a bit. He’s a fast talker, and judging by the heavy representation of retirees in his audience of maybe 300-400 people, I wouldn’t bet they’re all keeping up with him. Here’s how I phrased it, in that previous email to the pastor, a few months ago:

You probably noticed me during the sermon. I was the guy sitting in back. Regarding which, I wanted to offer a suggestion. I heard somewhere that the lead singer for AC/DC, or some metal group, decided to take lessons from an opera teacher, so that he could keep on screaming without damaging his throat. This is not my suggestion to you. It is more like an analogy or metaphor or something. The thing for which it is a metaphor or analogy is that I think you must master the art of overly dicting, or whatever they call it when singers are taught to crisply deliver the starts and/or ends of their words, almost to a fault, almost as if they were attempting to sound like cultured individuals instead of being mere musical wastrels.

What I mean is that, when you get on a roll, the syllables come fast and thick, and I think it must be hilarious for those seated in the front rows. But, alas, my family was never given to the front row at church. This was partly because we lived next to the church, out there in the countryside, and Dad liked to turn on the buzzsaw and roar through a pile of poles to be cut, during Sunday School, invariably dropping heavy pieces on his toes and cursing loudly to make it feel better — and then realizing he had better get into the house and put on a suit and slink into the back pew next to Mom before the sermon was halfway done. So, as I say, no front row for us.

So I, this morning, observing family tradition, was partly defeated by the acoustics. I could see your lips moving; I could hear people laughing; I believed that was my cue to laugh too; and therefore I did, even if those around me did not. For this, we could blame their aged ears; we could blame mine as well. But I really do think it might just be the delivery. An alternate hypothesis would be that it is male hearing — not lack of auditory detection, so much as a craving for a firm grip on each syllable, honed perhaps by millenia of needing to make sure that spearing the man is the proper response to what he just said.

There is, however, a scientific method of testing this, to wit: I suggest sending your adjunct choir members abroad as missionaries, more precisely assigning them singly or in pairs to sit randomly throughout the auditorium, and thus to lend moral support to those would-be hymn singers, such as myself, who are only too happy to warble audibly, given assurance that we are at least in the vicinity of the desired musical note. In other words, if someone near me seems to be singing, I feel encouraged to do likewise. Such was not the case this a.m., and that brings us to the scientific part of the expedition: to gather data. Your proposed missionaries would hypothetically report back from the trenches, sharing valuable intelligence as to what is seen and heard, way back there in the outer darkness — just in case I happen not to be present and am thus unable to serve in that capacity.

Having acquired social skills in New York City during my formative years, when he ignored that first email, dismissing all the effort I had put into it, I sent another, asking why he was ignoring me. That one did get a reply, though a brief and tired one that seemed to wish I would just go away. And that’s understandable. A father of four can tend to only so many things at once. He did thank me for my suggestion. I can’t say that it registered, though; neither I nor the sleeping lady to my left seemed to notice that anything had changed since my last visit. So I am not going to bother him again, except perhaps to send him a link to this post.

In coaxing the minister to make sure his audience can understand what he is saying in his sermons, I could be overlooking a fundamental rule about churching, which is this: nobody cares about the sermons. If they did, they wouldn’t be there, because sermons are generally aimless indulgences of random thoughts that achieve nothing. Admittedly, this is not how ministers see it. As I know from my time among ministerial types, they usually believe the sermon is driving home an important message — about some Bible passage, or consumerism, or how God restores the spice to life. And some of that stuff does sink in sometimes, at least for listeners predisposed to take it seriously. I guess I was moved to offer the suggestion to this guy because, especially in that first visit, I thought he was very good. His sermon actually made me think. Evidently I did absorb some of its essential thoughts, even if some of the fun stuff did blow past me. It even affected my behavior a bit. For a sermon, that was something.

Today, however, as I say, my thoughts and my eye were straying. The key moment was when the minister interrupted his sermon to show a brief video created by the church itself, featuring a black guy in dreadlocks who turned out to be the church’s own director of outreach to college students. The guy was well-spoken, young, and — did I mention? — black. This raised, for me, a question, halting my mind in its travels: was his skin color an important reason for his hiring? For instance, was he making important gains in proselytizing among an enormous population of black students at the nearby university — a population that I had not detected, during my visits there? Or was his video perhaps being played for some other reason, to this audience of hundreds, among whom my roving gaze found no nonwhite people?

I’m not doubting the black guy’s qualifications. He was photogenic. In that brief video, he seemed intelligent. I’d be delighted to learn that he was hired strictly for his abilities, in a color-blind hiring process. That would be different from being hired because the church was determined to hire a nonwhite person even if s/he was less capable. There would be an issue of discrimination, but the question on my mind was whether perhaps the church hired a black guy for purposes of using him to improve its image, to make itself seem more multicultural than it actually was.

Let me put it this way. In this city, non-Hispanic whites account for only 27% of the population. Hispanics account for 63%. In my time of sitting in that pew and watching who walked in and out — and also during my previous attendances — I saw no blacks, indeed only one or two who appeared to be in any sense nonwhite. That’s among an attendance that I would estimate at 300-400 souls, in each service I’ve attended so far.

As a point of comparison, I’ve also attended the Lutheran church down the street a few times. I’d be surprised if Sunday attendance averaged 100. Compared to Methodism, Lutheranism is closer to Catholicism. Maybe that would explain why the Sunday morning congregation at the Lutheran church included a significant percentage of Hispanics. They even had a black woman, who for her own reasons endured or conceivably appreciated the white male minister’s joke at the expense of Muhammad Ali.

A different guess would be that the two churches seemed to have different cultures, and the Lutheran one was more congenial to minorities. I’ve mentioned the soullessness, for me, of the experience of this Methodist church — the experience of walking in, seeing no sign that anybody wanted to talk to me, having noplace to go other than my spot in the back pew, not having spiritual music or fragrances or anything else to justify sitting there alone in that spot, for any longer than absolutely necessary — and then seeing, at the end, that everybody stood up and just walked out to their cars, evidently without any concept that there could be what we in the Jesus movement used to call an afterglow experience. For us, afterglow was where a person would want to sit and marinate, after the church service, alone or with friends, savoring the sense of having encountered the presence of Christ and the love of his children. In other words, we just didn’t want to leave.

I mention those factors because that Lutheran church, more than most others I’ve attended, seemed to be making a diligent effort to populate its little lobby, before and after services, with church members who would barely let a stranger enter without having someone at least say hello to him/her. Beyond that, if you want to really blow someone’s mind, you might tell them that I was sitting alone in the pew before services, at that Lutheran church, minding my own business — listening, yes, to their organist’s contemplative music — when a young, pretty, married woman off to my left actually slid down my way, offered me her hand to shake, and introduced herself. This simply doesn’t happen to old white guys in America, especially not to those who aren’t anyone’s boss or banker. I don’t think she was attracted to me for my money. I think that, at some point, somebody at that church called a come-to-Jesus meeting, as it were, and delivered a choice: either we make a real effort to reach every stranger who comes through our door, or we wither and die, and with us the gospel.

A reader of my other posts may suspect that I would not be entirely averse to the prospect of churches withering and dying. Some of them, anyway. But the focus in this post is on a somewhat different thought, namely, that I’m not too sure the Methodists have a workable game plan. I’ve contrasted the Lutheran and Methodist ministerial style before, but in that previous post I noted especially that the seminary training of Methodists seems to emphasize practical aspects of how to run a church, while the Lutherans are more up inside their heads with theological study of the Bible and its ancient languages. You’d expect that a practical, methodical Methodist minister would be living up to his own concept of building a real worship home — but instead, to me, despite all his theologizing, the Lutheran pastor was doing a much better job of that.

I would say the difference was subtle and yet remarkable: you could miss it, and yet it could really matter. At the end of my first visit to the Lutheran church, I noticed that people were not getting up and walking out. I guess I assumed that’s what they would do; but after I stood up, I saw that a number of them were remaining in their seats. I’m not sure why. I mean, of course some did get up. But as I observed in my next visit, a fair number hung around in their pews for at least five or ten minutes afterwards. I’m not sure how long, actually, because I only went a few times, and after a certain amount of pretending to read and re-read the paper bulletin and inspect my fingernails and listen to the music and so forth, I ran out of excuses to be still sitting there without looking like some kind of lurker, so I had to go — being accosted, again, on my way out, by people who wanted to shake my hand and thank me for visiting.

My guess is that, for all his lack of polish — or perhaps precisely because he wasn’t putting on a slick production — congregants appreciated that the Lutheran minister was sincere. I mean, I even emailed this guy some links to my anti-religious writings, and yet he still wanted to buy me coffee. This was, obviously, a profound contrast against the Methodist’s response. The message from the latter was, hey, I’ve got a thousand members; I don’t need you. He so clearly didn’t need me that he didn’t even bother assigning someone on his ample staff to treat emails from people like me as a sign of potential interest. Outreach to me, making people feel welcomed — it wasn’t happening.

But if I’d been black? That, I think, would have been a very different matter. I think in that case the Methodist minister would have fallen all over himself to welcome me. That would fit with hiring a cool, middle-class black guy to run the ministry to white and Latino university students. It was like the 1970s, when radical Marxist professors at Harvard were declaring their solidarity with the working man, because that was the academically fashionable thing to do, but they still didn’t want the working man as a neighbor.

This city’s demographic makeup was only 7% black, as compared to 13% for the U.S. as a whole and, say, 24% in Boston or 49% in St. Louis. In this neighborhood, it was probably not even 7%. So it was pretty clear that the black guy was not hired for outreach in the black community: wrong part of the city; wrong city altogether. Very few black people were going to visit that Methodist church on Sunday morning, and those who did were very unlikely to say, “Oh, wow, they hired a black guy for their student ministry; I belong here.”

So then why hire the black guy? One possibility was that the church was completely color-blind. They just hired the most capable applicant, regardless of skin color. That is possible. It is not likely. According to Pew Research, the United Methodist Church is 94% white and 1% black. From this, one might estimate that, when the church advertised this position, there would be 94 white Methodist applicants for every one black Methodist applicant — even if we assume, contrary to the data, that blacks and whites obtained college degrees (presumably required for a position involving university outreach) at the same rates.

Well, if a black guy probably couldn’t deliver much increased interest from the nearly nonexistent local black community, how about hiring a Hispanic, in hopes of persuading more Hispanics to join this Methodist church? In a majority-Hispanic city, that would make sense. And that is precisely what did not happen. Indeed, the staff page, with photos, suggests that, among at least a half-dozen primary and auxiliary pastors and other public-facing leaders in this church, this black man is the only member of a racial or ethnic minority. Sure, the Methodist church is only 2% Hispanic nationwide — but to achieve that average, one would expect the Hispanic membership, in cities like this one, to be much higher.

It seems rather obvious that the black guy would be hired only if he was what the white membership wanted. For purposes of persuading college students to attend a church, it is not clear whether a cool black man would be more effective than a cool white woman or Latina. In any case, it did not seem that the church’s white members and leaders were making a serious effort to bring more Hispanics into the picture. It appeared that, if you want to prove that you’re socially aware and diversity-oriented, you can shoot for a 30% Hispanic mix, and risk upsetting the comfortably white composition of your congregation; or you can just hire a young black guy who looks really different from your graying Baby Boomer membership.

So there was a question of tokenism — of the perceived need to hire a relatively flamboyant representative from another race. I guess that was what I was wondering, as I sat there in the pew and watched that black man in that video. I would have preferred to just watch and be impressed, but I’d had so-called “diversity” thinking rammed down my throat for too many years; I had learned that the presence of a black man, where you would not expect to find one, is probably due to the misguided bureaucratism of a white social justice warrior, the type who would consider male and female fraternal twins to be more “diverse” (because their genders differ) than Billy Graham and Adolf Eichmann (because they were both conservative white males). Basically, in that world, if you can check a box on a standard form (female, check; African-American, check), then you’ve got diversity, even if you wind up with a lot of people who look different but think alike. If they could have their own personal Obama on staff, that would pretty much prove, in their minds, that they were morally superior to those of us who just don’t care that much about skin color until someone shoves it in our face.

These were my thoughts and impressions. Obviously, I wasn’t on the church staff. My surmises could have been completely off-target. But that’s sort of like saying that a customer decided not to buy your toaster because she thought it was a Frisbee. The customer would be completely wrong, but misunderstandings are to be expected when you present people with strange appearances. I was looking at a cool black guy in church full of old white people; I had my years of victimization at the hands of privileged whites who congratulated themselves for believing that they gave a damn about blacks like the ones I’d had as roommates 30 years earlier; I was drawing my own conclusions. C’est la vie.

Observe, then, what has happened here. I went to church. There was the dim possibility that I would make friends or meet a woman there, but the primary mission was to church — to have at least a bit of a spiritual experience, possibly from a sermon that would give me something to think about, or perhaps just from being in that place, among those people, hearing that music.

To emphasize, I had nothing against the black guy. I didn’t see that he said or did anything wrong. My reaction had nothing to do with him personally. The point is rather that his appearance was so glaringly incommensurate with that incongruously white assembly that I couldn’t help being distracted by questions and frustrations arising from past attempts to reason with sociopolitical ideologues — among whom, as I suddenly recalled, some had been Methodist. I wondered what the minister and his people were up to, what they would assume about me — what he had in fact assumed from my words and/or surname, resulting in his decision to essentially dismiss my emails.

Evidently I was primed for these reactions. I hadn’t thought so, when I decided to attend church today. But now it seemed my mission had gone completely off the rails. There was a question of whether this church would be, for me, a sanctuary or, rather, an arena. True, I didn’t fit with the true believers in the Lutheran church, where I definitely didn’t share their views of the Bible and such; but at least I was safe there, for the time being. Better than that, actually: the minister remembered me, and went out of his way to talk to me. You might think I would be safer in the big Methodist church, where I could be completely anonymous — and I was, as long as I stayed silent and unknown. But if I ever dared open my mouth, what would they think of my reactions to their black minister? I was certainly welcome to add my name to the attendance roll, my voice to the hymns, and my dollars to the collection plate. But why would I want to?

There is talk, these days, about the contrast in membership trends, between liberal and conservative churches. I don’t know if such trends affect this particular Methodist franchise, within the liberal United Methodist Church. But as I recalled the number of old people in attendance today, I had to chuckle at an observation by a pastor in Minnesota, talking about that state’s churches:

United Methodism in Minnesota since 2000 has lost 35 percent of members …. The Presbyterian Church USA in Minnesota has lost 42 percent …. And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Minnesota [i.e., not the more conservative Wisconsin and Missouri synods, to which my neighborhood Lutheran church belongs] has lost 22 percent ….

Answers to some of these mysteries might be found at the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly meeting last month and the Episcopal General Convention meeting this month. At their current rates of decline neither denomination will exist in 20 years. Yet neither convention focused on evangelism or church growth. Episcopalians debated whether to compel a handful of dissenting traditional dioceses to host same sex nuptials. They also discussed editing their liturgies to become more gender neutral. Presbyterians denounced Israel and USA border policies, opposed religious liberty in favor of LGBTQ and abortion rights, and pondered whether to divest from fossil fuels. A senior church official claimed there’s increasing excitement in their denomination over “justice” issues. No doubt. They lost 68,000 members last year.

The conservative churches were losing members too, but not nearly as rapidly. Declines over the past 20 years seemed to be in the neighborhood of five to ten percent.

So the question there is why the liberal churches are in free-fall. I don’t know — do you suppose it could be bad for membership to align oneself politically with progressive non-Christians who voice unremitting disrespect toward white males, when that demographic accounts for at least 40% of your members — more like 60+%, if you include the wives and girlfriends those guys may drag elsewhere?

Politics itself may be a culprit. It seems that a substantial share of the public finds politics stressful and distasteful. Disputes about socioeconomic policy could be just about the last thing most people want to deal with in a church, where the whole idea is to encounter beliefs and ideas that are in some sense constructive, sociable, redemptive, or otherwise supportive of a shared religious experience. Being mad about stuff belongs elsewhere. It appears there’s just not that much of a market for a religious sphere that would seek to repeat what you can already get from a debate with your next-door neighbor.

But there I go again, talking about issues instead of the personal experience of being in the church. And yet, when the personal experience is so empty, one can’t be surprised that other thoughts would fill the vacuum.

Maybe the real conclusion, from all this, would be that the Lutheran church felt safer because damnation was safely postponed. Until I died, those people would probably be praying for me, hoping I would come to accept Jesus as my savior, or some such thing. But in a church with a social justice orientation, questions arising from the discovery of that black minister reminded me that eternal judgment could come almost immediately, as soon as I asked the wrong question. At least the Lutherans would give me time to listen to the music.

Advertisements

About Christians Losing the Culture War

I have recently encountered several articles in which Christian writers talk about losing the culture war. This post focuses on a prominent example: an article in Time by Mary Eberstadt titled “Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture.” Eberstadt is promoting her book and, as this post demonstrates, she peddles falsehoods to excite the persecution narrative and stimulate sales.

I felt that Eberstadt’s title started off a bit strangely. What, exactly, is a “regular Christian”? Her article said she was referring to “American Christians who lean in toward traditionalism,” and she immediately restated that as “Traditional American Christians.”

But what is “traditional”? The answer is, it depends. For example, according to History.com, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 as a religious sanctuary against “the orthodoxy of New England Puritanism.” It seems the Puritans were the original “traditional American Christians.” But a funny thing has happened since then: they have pretty much vanished, being remembered nowadays as just one source upon which other Christian denominations draw.

Today, Baptists and Catholics would surely be considered “traditional American Christians” — and yet these were actually among the nontraditional types rejected by the Puritans. In this regard, Eberstadt made the mistake, common in Christian writing, of ignoring the history of her own religion. What was traditional in the 1600s is gone now; what is traditional now will probably be gone some day. That’s how it works. We don’t speak Middle English anymore; we don’t live in log cabins. Times change. The Baptists and the Catholics found a place in New England precisely because someone spoke up for those who were not the traditional American Christians of that time and place — just as Jesus did for the outcasts of his day.

As just noted, Eberstadt implies that the “Traditional American Christian” is a person who “leans in toward traditionalism.” But that’s not necessarily true. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians — these are among today’s mainstream, traditional Christian denominations in the United States. But being a traditional American Christian in that sense does not necessarily make a person a traditionalist in daily life. Among the members of those denominations, you don’t see much interest in, say, a Mormon-style emphasis on modest, traditional clothing. Nor do the teachings of the mainstream denominations necessarily result in mainstream beliefs among their members. Churchgoers often say they listen to the sermon, but don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. Silver (2013) offers research on atheists who attend churches for reasons of family, social connections, and church-related activities. From the Lutherans to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christianity’s thousands (some say tens of thousands) of denominations and sects exist because of the fact dramatized in the “West Wing” TV show: people feel entitled to pick and choose Bible passages, emphasizing those they like, and ignoring (or inventing alternate interpretations for) those they dislike.

Eberstadt is herself an example of this nontraditionalism among people who might claim to be traditional Christians. According to Family Life (Rainey, 2002), Eberstadt’s role as a married woman is supposed to be as follows:

  1. Be a helper to your husband.
  2. Respect your husband.
  3. Love your husband.
  4. Submit to the leadership of your husband.

Supporting such conclusions, Family Life quotes numerous Bible passages, starting with Genesis 2:18, in which God’s stated purpose in creating woman was “to make a ‘helper suitable for'” the man. But that is a gentle way of putting it. Valerie Tarico cites the Bible as the foundation upon which traditional theologians described woman as “the devil’s gateway” (Tertullian) and “an instrument of death leading to all perdition” and that this is “why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame” (Calvin). Tarico further cites Bible passages stating that a wife is a man’s property; a daughter can be sold, and a raped daughter can be sold to her rapist; menstruating women are spiritually unclean; and so forth.

Eberstadt is no doubt a good person in many ways. But her concept of tradition depends on the selective, self-serving style of interpretation commonly taught in Bible study. One hopes that, somewhere in her writings, she has honestly admitted that, historically speaking, she is a liberal, not traditional at all — that, traditionally, she would not be voting, would not be telling men what to think, and would not have had an opportunity for higher education. She apparently wants to wrap herself in the mantle of tradition, without doing the hard work of actually returning to where tradition has historically kept women, in this country and elsewhere.

So I think what Eberstadt really means is not “traditional” but rather “conservative.” She doesn’t seem dedicated to a return to traditional ways. She just prefers a go-slow approach. And that is not necessarily bad. There will always be a tension between those who leap at opportunities and those who urge us to look before we leap. The leapers and the lookers can produce a beneficial balance. But this doesn’t make either superior. There are risks and advantages in both directions. Some people are rich or successful because they were careful; some are poor or unsuccessful for the same reason.

Conservatism is particularly interesting in Eberstadt’s “culture war” context. Let us be clear: Christians of her type are not suddenly losing a culture war. The more accurate statement is that they are always losing the culture war, because they are always fearfully clinging onto past ways, afraid of losing the advantages that they have enjoyed as established members of a dominant community, looking down on minorities and outsiders. Conservative churches are often depicted (and in many cases deserve to be depicted) as narrowminded, hypocritical, judgmental places where “our type” of people pat each other on the back for helping to preserve their own advantages and fantasies.

Slavery is an example. As conservatives — that is, usually following rather than leading social, political, and economic trends — Christians have a history of widely accepting and supporting slavery. As another example, for some reason, “Thou shalt not kill” has not resonated against the wars, murders, and other horrific crimes recorded in the Bible and practiced by Christians down through the centuries.

But, whoa, same-sex marriage! Now that is evil. More to the point, it is a new thing and, to a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, that tends to mean it’s probably bad. Again, it’s not that the knee-jerk conservative reaction is intrinsically wrong; it’s that many conservatives don’t seem to want to stop and think about their own habit of stopping and thinking. Let’s just pull the brakes on everything, and then be dragged into it anyway, kicking and screaming and feeling wronged. Consider the criteria by which Wheaton College decided who would be eligible to join its faculty in the 1920s (Cole, 2008, pp. 252-253):

To prospective instructors a questionnaire is submitted bearing such interrogations as . . . “Do you dance, play cards, attend theatres, attend movies, or associate with worldly people in other amusements such as are indicated above?”

We, today, might find this absolutely bizarre — that God forgot to put in the Bible that he did not want people to play solitaire or even watch movies about Jesus. And yet that was the conservative Christian mindset a hundred years ago — culminating in (among other things) the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition. Not that anything was learned from that fiasco: conservatives needed to inflict it upon us again, once again at enormous cost to lives and nation, in the mindless War on Drugs. This is where conservatism becomes most dangerous: when it radically departs from tradition, in pursuit of a harsh and unrealistic dream.

Gay marriage is relatively new; we did not have it when the Constitution was written, 200+ years ago. But then, we did not have bicycles 200 years ago either. When the newfangled bicycle contraption did come into existence, it remained in the legal shadows: for seventy years, according to Wikipedia, cyclists were given “no legal right to use the roads or walkways.” In other words, the gay movement itself only started in the 1960s. We had gay people; we had marriage; we had gay people who wanted to marry. We just didn’t have a political environment in which that desire could be taken seriously. The question did not previously have political force. Now is the first time when it has become a real possibility on a national level. There is no golden past to go back to, other than the centuries when supposedly respectable Christians were comfortable with an arrangement in which gay people had to lie about who they were and what they wanted.

There is no legal right to force gays to endure a substandard existence. That’s what the courts have decided, now that the question has been squarely presented for consideration. But the more shocking fact is that there is no religious right to do that either. A growing number of mainline Christian denominations have concluded that the matter is not so simple. For one thing, if homosexuality were so terribly important, why would Jesus overlook it? In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said nary a word about homosexuality, but had strong words against adultery and divorce. Much the same is true throughout the Bible. So why aren’t Christians distinguishing themselves with a principled demand for laws forbidding adulterers or divorcees to remarry? Because that would be unpopular. Frankly speaking, it would cut too close to the collection plate.

Christianity purports to be following in Christ’s footsteps. But in fact it often does the opposite. Just like the Jews of Jesus’s time, so-called Christians like Eberstadt reject his concept of Messiah. In both cases, it was because he came as a savior, not as a conqueror. Specifically, Eberstadt wants victory in the cultural war. She cites abortion as an area in which Christians are losing. And yet what kind of “Christian” would be involved in such a struggle? Abortion was a reality in ancient Rome. Jesus himself was a survivor of Herod’s notorious Massacre of the Innocents. Jesus was eminently qualified and able to make abortion a big issue, if he considered it one. He didn’t. The abortion fight gets people upset and excited, but it doesn’t make them the least bit Christlike. Others have been trying to tell them this for the past forty years. But they just haven’t wanted to hear it. Being Christlike is not their priority; they would rather fight and attack people than seek the truth. And so we follow this twisted path to Eberstadt’s complaint about losing the culture war — to which the schoolyard retort is quite apt: if you can’t finish it, don’t start it. Stop inventing reasons to pick on people. Mind your own business. Or as Jesus put it, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Eberstadt cites “school prayer” as another front on which today’s alleged Christians are losing the cultural war. Some want to force kids of all denominations to pray together in public schools. The underlying fantasy appears to be that most Americans are Christians and, as such, are apt to construe prayer in approximately the same way. If that fantasy had any truth to it, we would see those schoolkids’ Catholic and Protestant parents praying together in their churches. These people want to bully teachers and school administrators into achieving an ideal unity that they, themselves, do not even hope to achieve. And so Eberstadt would return us to the mindset of the Dark Ages: if you can’t persuade the Jews, Muslims, pagans, and agnostics through the strength of your ideas, then hammer them with the force of your laws. Forward to the Crusades!

Alternately, there is the quest for voluntary school prayer opportunities — “voluntary” in the sense that the kids will supposedly not be browbeaten into participating in it when, in point of fact, their parents are being forced to accept it. Once again, we have a muscular, coercive, conquering concept of Christian faith that involves shoving one’s beliefs down another person’s throat. It is more the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition than of the New Testament. People who are mindful of the religion’s history can plainly see that such efforts besmirch the name of the God who gets dragged into it. But people who are willing to see the religion’s history in that light are not likely to remain within it. The ones who are left seem, too often, to be those who don’t want to know the truth.

Eberstadt’s article contains a remarkable number of borderline and just plain false statements. An example of the latter: “Religious expression is under attack,” she says, because of recent events, “including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics.” That Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with religious expression. According to Fox News, conservatives criticized that decision on grounds that it “erodes States’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost” (quoting Texas Governor Greg Abbott). There is not a single reference to “expression” in that Fox News writeup of the Supreme Court decision, nor in the writeup offered by the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Eberstadt complains that people like her can no longer count on receiving “civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs.” That complaint is disingenuous. What are a Christian’s most-cherished beliefs? A search leads to such topics as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, and salvation by grace. Eberstadt’s article is not about anything of the sort. Instead, she offers the example of a teacher in New Jersey who was suspended for giving a student a Bible. She doesn’t mention that the act violated a school policy against distributing religious literature on school grounds. (If necessary, think “Koran” or “porn” or “hand grenade,” instead of “Bible,” to be reminded of why a school district might try to discourage teachers from creating unnecessary controversies involving middle-school students and their parents.) In other words, there are multiple problems with Eberstadt’s example: it’s not about uncivil remarks, nor about anyone’s “most-cherished beliefs”; it is not a deliberate suppression of Christianity (suspension would have been equally appropriate for an atheist teacher giving a student a leaflet attacking the Bible); and all of these facts are left unmentioned, in hopes of tricking Eberstadt’s reader into believing something that is not true.

Eberstadt wants to bemoan the disappearance of “civil criticism” among those who question her beliefs. Let me offer a clue: lying for the Lord is not going to promote the desired civility. She is jumping into combat on some of the nation’s most contentious issues; she is firing at the enemy — sometimes making statements that, as shown here, are downright nonsense — and then she is complaining that the enemy shoots back. If Eberstadt were to completely rewrite her piece in a spirit of Christian humility, with a visible commitment to be honest and fair in her remarks about her own beliefs and those of others, then (a) Time probably wouldn’t publish it, because it wouldn’t contain all this posturing on behalf of the self-styled righteous, and (b) on the other hand, readers not similarly minded might find it more difficult to dismiss her as one more phony self-congratulator.

Eberstadt admits the great difference between “the horrors of ISIS-led genocide against Christians in the Middle East and what Pope Francis calls the ‘polite persecution’ of believers in the West.” Regrettably, she goes on to muddle that with a complaint that “some American citizens are fearful of expressing their religious views.” Well, yes, and some people are fearful of leaving their bedrooms. The fact of fear does not demonstrate the existence of a genuine threat. When 63% of us are absolutely certain God exists and an overwhelming 77% describe themselves as religiously affiliated (to cite the numbers quoted in her article), it is doubtful that most American Christians experience anywhere near the persecution experienced by American atheists (~3% of Americans). Moreover, among Christians who do fear ridicule, some deserve it: to varying degrees Christians themselves ridicule others.

Simply put, Christian belief per se is not being widely persecuted, politely or otherwise. What Eberstadt characterizes as persecution seems, for the most part, to be just the logical elimination of theories that do not stand up to scrutiny. There certainly are reasons why an intelligent person would doubt Christianity. It has had its share of high-profile fakes and frauds. It makes excessive and false claims about itself. When your religion conflates its most solemn holy events with the Easter Bunny and with one of ancient Rome’s biggest party times, you can expect people to wonder whether it is for real.

Eberstadt offers a separate set of examples in support of her claim that “Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology.” But that’s America. It is a secularist nation. We have never had a state religion. At times, the secular state and the religious preference are going to conflict. At those times, the secular state will tend to prevail, because the country does not exist to serve the religion. As a different example, some Jewish people treat the U.S. as if its purpose were to serve Israel. As with Eberstadt, their wish is not reality, nor should it be.

She offers the example of Gordon College, which came under fire for policies that seemed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So, OK, let us review: you aren’t supposed to discriminate in America. We are all supposed to be equals here. Christians may not like it — they may want to shove the gays back into the dark — but fortunately their attitudes do not control the law of this land. Even so, on the particular issues in the Gordon case, a Christian lawyer’s analysis concludes that Gordon’s position has enjoyed the support of law, right up to the Supreme Court. That hardly points toward what Eberstadt decries as “an insidious intolerance for religion.” Another article suggests that, in fact, it is the school’s LGBT students “who feel they can’t say anything out of fear about what that will do to their college experience.”

In America, Christians have enjoyed virtually limitless opportunities to organize their practices, research their claims, market their views, and attack their opponents. After all that, if they still cannot achieve anything like the growing popularity of the first-century Christian movement that began with Jesus, it is fair to suggest that perhaps they are not really very much in touch with Jesus after all. In that case, Jesus made clear what he would say to such people: “I never knew you. Depart from me!” As the Matthew Henry commentary says about that,

Christ here shows that it will not be enough to own him for our Master, only in word and tongue. It is necessary to our happiness that we believe in Christ, that we repent of sin, that we live a holy life, that we love one another.

This article demonstrates the falsehood of arguments by which Mary Eberstadt tries to engage would-be Christians in fights that detract from the message of Christ. Replace people like Eberstadt with genuinely Christ-seeking writers who are committed to finding the truth, humble about what they know, and loving of others, and then let us revisit the questions of whether there is really a problem of religious intolerance in today’s America, and of whether followers of Christ should be jumping into a war to control the nation’s culture.

What Is a “Christian”?

This item was originally posted on October 15, 2011 on my other blog.  It drew a few comments there.  I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

*  *  *  *  *

I had someone ask me, today, what a Christian is.  I decided to look it up.  I started with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); but when I boiled down its many meanings into those involving religion specifically (as distinct from e.g., a part of the historical titles of kings of France), I wound up with more or less the same list as I could get, from Dictionary.com, without a paid subscription:

  • a member of a particular church or denomination; or
  • a person who believes in Jesus Christ; an adherent of Christianity; or
  • a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ.

So, for example, some say “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved”; some say that “faith without works is dead” (i.e., if you don’t live a Christian life, your claim of belief is probably false); some say you have to be baptized or confirmed — in general, or into a particular denomination or sect.

In practice, these several different ways of being a Christian have produced tens of thousands of different Christian denominations, sects, and cults.  These varieties of Christianity have emerged for various reasons.  Some are due to historical developments (e.g., the split of the Roman Empire); some were formed by charismatic leaders who decided to break off and go their own way; many emerged from doctrinal disagreements.

As an example that may combine all three of those sources of dispute, it seems that Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant denomination in which I was raised, believed that the papacy was the Antichrist.  This can sound bizarre to people from some contemporary denominations who are forever running around, looking for reasons why Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, or other politicians are the Antichrist.  Either way, people have been playing the guess-who’s-the-Antichrist game throughout the history of Christianity, targeting individuals as diverse as Arius of Alexandria; an unspecified Jew from the biblical tribe of Dan; various individual popes; and Czar Peter the Great.

That example may illustrate how scriptures — intrepreted creatively by people with all sorts of different fears, hopes, ideas, and agendas — can give rise to an endless set of reasons why those who belong to one so-called Christian sect can violently disagree with other so-called Christians.  Violent warfare among Christians began in the early years of the various churches.  For example, starting within a few centuries after Jesus, the Arian variety of Christian belief was murderously suppressed.  Since those early centuries, wars about “true” Christian belief — wars in which one kind of so-called Christian killed another — have claimed countless lives.  The 16th and 17th centuries were especially notable for that, but they weren’t alone; it has continued right up through the horrific atrocities committed by “Christian” armies fighting each other in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  Of course, so-called Christians have also prayed and sung and quoted the Bible on behalf of the troops that they have sent off into non-religious wars down through the centuries, thus trying to implicate God in the outcomes of everything from the medieval Crusades to the American invasion of Iraq.

Murder in the name of Christ appears to be especially common among people who think they know exactly what they are talking about.  In other words, it’s more difficult to justify hating people for their failure to understand Christ in the “proper” way, if you approach faith from a humble and questioning perspective.  People cannot do that, unfortunately, when they fear that they would go to hell for honestly admitting and investigating their doubts.  This results in an regrettable situation in which many so-called Christians try to make the Bible — particularly the New Testament — into the Word of God, when it is very obvious that God, himself, made no such claim.  It is also hard to imagine any such thing about the New Testament when you learn a little about the ugly fights regarding the question of which books should be considered part of the Bible.  (That question remains unsettled.)  Calling the Bible “holy,” as these people often do, appears to represent willful blindness to the realities.  Once again, the supposedly good God is dragged into a process that has plainly been very human.

These remarks may begin to indicate that the three approaches to the definition of “Christian” listed above are only the most superficial summaries of the countless ways in which alleged Christians actually do define themselves.  These remarks have focused especially on the first and second of those approaches to definition.  Basically, someone can claim to believe almost anything, can cook up some reason to claim that their belief makes them “real” Christians, and can use that putative reasoning to justify horrible acts in God’s name.  It’s not just the random crackpot who shoots an abortion doctor, nor even the “Onward Christian Soldiers” mentality that imagines God playing a role in religious wars.  The same mindset appears in the average “Christian” suburbanite who thanks God for giving them a life in which they can buy things made by Asians earning pennies a day, in manufacturing processes that wreck the environment.

I haven’t yet said much about the third of those three briefly summarized approaches to the definition of a Christian.  In that third approach, the emphasis is not upon the lawyerly demand for a rigid text, contrary to Jesus’s own advice, nor upon the mystical notion that there is a magical thing called “faith” or “belief” that somehow rises above reality.  To clarify how the third approach to definition differs from the second one, consider the famous claim that there are no atheists in foxholes.  The concept is that, if you put someone in a situation where other people are trying to kill them, they’ll remember how to pray quickly enough.  In other words, what people say they believe is not necessarily what they really believe — and they, themselves, may not know the truth of the matter until they find themselves in a sufficiently harrowing situation.  But that knife cuts both ways.  Consider, for instance, the people who suddenly discover a belief in abortion when it is their own wife, sister, or daughter who was raped or at risk of dying in childbirth.  The point is, so-called “belief” — an idea held loosely in mind — it not necessarily what a person really believes.

In the third approach to defining “Christian,” as noted above, some people have been called Christian because they try, in some sense, to practice the teachings of Christ.  It is impossible to be exactly Christlike — not only because, supposedly unlike Jesus, we are all born sinful but, also, because Christ’s example doesn’t always fit.  Nobody is able to walk on water.  People can’t pay their taxes by pulling coins out of the mouths of fish.  In America, nobody is going to be able to die on a cross for preaching the coming of God’s kingdom.  Although the New Testament makes it sound easy, Christianity does not in fact seem to be a religion in which people can cure blindness by waving their hands around, much less raise the dead.  Another reason for the impossibility of Christlikeness is that it is self-contradictory — that in various regards it requires people to do or believe opposing things.  Moreover, in some ways it is not even desirable to be Christlike.  For example, Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no fruit, when figs weren’t even in season.  It can take centuries before humans are able to invent plausible explanations for such antics — explanations that God himself, supposedly involved in the writeup, didn’t see fit to provide — and there is no way of knowing whether such invented explanations correspond to what actually happened.

Defining a Christian in terms of Christlike behavior can bring endless quandaries.  Does a person become a Christian by trying to buy the SUV that Jesus would have bought?  That question, somewhat laughable in itself, does illustrate that the New Testament does not remotely contain enough material to provide meaningful insight on the many questions that have always complicated people’s lives, never mind the especially complex questions of current times.  If one must sell everything and give it to the poor and follow Jesus, as he reportedly advised one person to do, where does that leave the would-be follower who is responsible for looking after his/her own family?  Does Christlikeness really require people to treat their own mothers and siblings as strangers?  Some of these are the sorts of difficulties that one would expect, in any effort to convert first-century ideas and stories into meaningful guidance for very different lives two millennia later; some are pecularities about the message(s) of Jesus.

The usual response to this sort of concern, from people who really want to emulate Jesus, seems to be to treat him as a sort of early Gandhi or late Buddha — to extract, that is, those parts of his reported messages and stories that seem most readily convertible into vastly different current terms, more or less consistent with one’s personal inclination.  This appears to be a relatively philosophical approach to Christlikeness, where being Christlike is somewhat like being Aristotelian:  you find your guiding philosopher, you master his/her worldview, and then you reconfigure it into something that works for today.  It’s not necessarily a bad approach, though this, too, can wind up being quite remote from what others consider the real story of Jesus and from what it really means to be a Christian.

So I have at least provided some thoughts on what appear to be the three major ways of defining what a Christian is.  This is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed article.  I realize that there is much more to say, and also that there are probably errors of various sorts here.  Nonetheless, this post seems adequate for the basic purpose.  The ability to choose among several different ways of defining a Christian appears to mean that you can find some reason to call yourself a Christian, if you want to.  Like so many other terms, “Christian” seems to be a vague word that means what people want it to mean, for purposes of saying, believing, or doing what they wish to do.  It seems that the same person can even mean different things by the word, for assorted purposes arising at various times.  Under such circumstances, maybe the best one can do is to offer a very vague, general definition:  maybe a Christian is someone who tends to draw from a collection of linguistic strategies in order to cite Jesus, or some religious or political authority arguably derived from Jesus, as the justification for his/her inclinations.

%d bloggers like this: