Saturday, July 31, 2010

Anne Rice and Harvey Cox and the Future of Christianity

Author Anne Rice has announced that she is leaving Christianity ten years after a much-ballyhooed conversion. According to comments reported by CNN, she found herself unable to be “anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science and anti-democrat.” She continues, “It is simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” I have a good deal of sympathy for Rice. Hardly a day goes by without my being humiliated by the words or actions of one of my erstwhile co-religionists. Consider the brutally hateful rhetoric of Fred Phelps and his minions of “God Hates Fags” (in)fame or the recently announced plan by an individual claiming to follow Jesus to burn the Koran. Week after week the word Christian is covered with slime by pedophile priests, hypocritical preachers, and the church’s own bruising internal battles. Epithets are hurled from the right and the left in battles over human sexuality, abortion, and, in local churches, how one worships God. Although some Christians loudly denounce the “liberal media” or “godless atheists” for our bad press, most of our wounds are self-inflicted.

In his recent book The Future of Faith theologian Harvey Cox argues that the church made a disastrously wrong turn within the first four centuries of its existence. The “age of faith”, characterized by creativity, energy, compassion, and expansion gave way to the “age of belief”. During the age of faith, “sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each others and ‘faith’ meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated. To be a Christian meant to live in his Spirit, embrace his hope, and to follow him in the work that he had begun.” (Cox pg. 5) It was a chaotic, theologically fecund, and breathtakingly diverse period. But it was not to last.

Cox argues that the need for the catechesis of new believers ultimately replaced “faith in Jesus with tenets about him.” (Cox pg. 5) This process was greatly enhanced when Christian leaders were seduced by the power and privilege of imperial patronage after the “conversion” of Constantine. Like all political elites the bishops wanted uniformity and stability. Above all they wanted to hang onto their own power. According to Cox the creeds and confessions of the church grew out of this desire for peace and stability. Margins were set. Heresy was defined. “From an energetic movement of faith,” Cox argues, “[Christianity] coagulated into a phalanx of required beliefs thereby laying the foundation for every succeeding Christian fundamentalist for centuries to come.” (Cox pg. 6)

In spite of much brutality and stupidity the “Age of Belief” was not totally bleak. Great works of beauty, wisdom, and compassion were produced. Saints that recalled the original spirit of Jesus operated at the margins of the church until they were co-opted by the center. Nevertheless, Cox remains hopeful that Christianity can recapture its founding ethos. He suggests we are entering a new “Age of the Spirit”. He sees hope for Christianity in the global south where “the Spirit, muted and muffled for centuries, is breaking its silence and staging a delayed ‘return of the repressed.’” (Cox 9, 10). The Spirit’s work will not be in a straight line: it blows where it will. It will be once again be messy, chaotic and uncontrollable. It will make ecclesiastical bureaucrats nervous and perhaps bring down the corrupt structures of the organized church. But out of the chaos the Spirit of Christ will brood over a new creation.

Some years ago my friend Dr. G. Timothy Johnson suggested to me that he no longer felt comfortable being labeled a “Christian”. Rather he wanted to be known as a “follower of Jesus.” I think Tim is onto something and, evidently, so does Anne Rice. “My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic, atheist, lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me,” she writes. “But following Christ does not mean following his followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been or might become.”

Evangelicalism was given birth by Pietism. The Pietists argued that following Jesus was more important the believing all the right things about him. To follow Jesus was to live the life of a disciple, preaching good news, healing the sick, caring for the poor—adhering to what Scot McKnight calls the Jesus Creed: loving God and neighbor. Evangelicals have always emphasized experience over creed and confession. Most evangelical churches, including my own Evangelical Covenant Church, were non-confessional. They respected the ancient creeds but did not canonize them. The modern attempt by some to turn Evangelicals into, say, confessional Calvinists violates not only the spirit of Evangelicalism but risks robbing it of its spirit and life. When Evangelicals harden their theology and practice they are not consolidating their future, but eroding the very life and health of the movement.

At our best we welcome Anne Rice and everyone like her. She does not have to be “anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science, and anti-democrat” to be a follower of Jesus! This is not to say every Jesus follower will agree with her—this seldom happens in Evangelicalism or anywhere else. But everyone should love her, include her, and engage her—and everyone like her. I am glad Anne Rice is still a follower of Jesus. But we need her voice within the Christian community reminding us of the irresponsibly loving presence of Jesus within the derelict structures of institutional Christianity. Perhaps even now the Spirit of God is preparing a fresh wind to sweep through the corruptions and stupidities the characterize Christianity. I trust that Evangelicals will put up their sails to catch this wind. I can’t say, however, I am optimistic.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Christian Jerks

Last week a popular blogger raised a pressing question: why are Christians such jerks online? He cited the sheer offensive nastiness of some and the whiney defensiveness of others. If you have visited the blogosphere on a regular basis you know what he is talking about. Some avowed followers of the Prince of Peace seem to relish violent, abusive attacks on their theological, political, and social opponents. Of course, Christian jerks are found everywhere: from the calculated anti-gay ugliness of Kansas’ Fred Phelps, to the anti-Obama screeds of fundamentalist preachers, to the borderline anti-Semitic rants against Israel by “social justice” Christians. Cringing at such misrepresentations of our faith, many of us resonated with the “Confessional Booth” story in Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. Like those Reed College students we would like to tell non-Christians we are sorry for the misbehavior of the church and many individual Christians.

All of this raises another question: Why aren’t we better? If we have been transformed by the Spirit of God and are to radiate the love of Christ, why are we so often characterized by foaming-at-the-mouth nastiness? It is too simple to say “Well those folks are not true Christians.” We are not the first generation to suffer from “Christian jerks.” We must acknowledge centuries of cruelty and violence, verbal and otherwise, done in the name of Christ. Recently Pope Benedict admitted, referring to the sexual abuse scandal, that the real “persecution” of the Catholic Church was from within. Or, as Pogo would put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Some years ago a North Park Theological Seminary student wrote a paper arguing for a “discipline of silence.” He argued that Christian mistreatment of Jews over the centuries was so horrendous and inexcusable that Christians had lost the right to speak to them of Christ. He suggested that Christians put a moratorium on evangelizing Jews until they had earned the right to speak through love, generosity of spirit and sheer humanity. Last week members of the Marin Foundation, a Christian organization ministering to the gay community, followed the example of those Reed College Christians. They donned t-shirts that read “I’m Sorry”. On behalf of the Christian community they expressed sorrow and shame at the shabby way the gay community has been treated by Christians, particularly Evangelical Christians.

Neither my student nor the Marin foundation would suggest we no longer bear witness to Christ. But perhaps both would suggest that we once more earn the right to speak of Jesus by living like him for a change. A Christian ideology (I chose the term advisedly) without a Christian identity is a potentially deadly thing. We are not called simply to believe things about Jesus, but to follow him.

John E. Phelan, Jr.