What Do We Mean When We Say, “I am Christian?”

It was over ten years ago that I heard the startling comment: “I don’t think of myself as a Christian anymore,  but I do think of myself as a follower of Jesus.”

It was not the comment in itself that was so startling but rather the source. The individual who said those words was a well known professor of early Christianity and a biblical scholar. He was also a teacher in a seminary that was training students for the ministry. He had just finished a keynote on early Christianity at a conference that I was attending and had opened the microphone to questions from the audience. His talk had covered an overview of the first 350 years of Christianity with an emphasis on the political and economic powers that had influenced the development and nature of the Christian church. It was a fascinating and revealing lecture.

At one point someone from the audience had asked: “With all that you have covered here, do you still call yourself a Christian?”

It was interesting to listen to the comments on the professor’s response later that evening when several of my colleagues and I gathered for a dinner conversation. With a couple of exceptions we were all clergy. It was a gathering of self proclaimed progressive Christians, so there was a degree of selective process in those who were there. However, a couple of people were put off by the remarks, begging the question about the propriety of someone who did not consider himself a Christian preparing seminarians for work in the church. But for the most part, the vast majority of us found ourselves sympathetic with the professor and found ourselves struggling with some of same issues.

After a couple of glasses of wine we even began to question if we would call ourselves Christian when push came to shove. We admitted that we seldom did so in most of our secular settings and almost every one of us discovered that we at least hesitated telling a stranger that we were clergy when on vacations away from home or traveling on airplanes. We all seem to have funny stories about that.

We spent more than a few minutes wondering what we would call ourselves if we were free to change. We agreed that a “follower of Jesus” was a bit wordy and would probably give the wrong impression without a lot of explanation.  We pondered calling ourselves Jesuits for a moment but realized that would not work.  It seemed that “Christist” might work following the Buddhist tradition, but someone mentioned that there was already Christist sect that was very fundamental and conservative, so we let that go as well.

Although there was a lot of bantering and even levity throughout the evening, when we left that night we all agreed that it had been an interesting conversation. I would guess that over half of us turned our conversation into a sermon or two over the next few weeks. I believe it was a good exercise for most of us that led to deeper thinking about the faith we claimed to represent.

I also believe the world will be well served in the same way as the result of the very public statement by well known author, Anne Rice that she was “quitting ‘Christianity’ and renouncing any claim to the title ‘Christian.’” She added however, “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

Over the last fifteen years I listened to a growing number of troubled clergy who are in conflicted and or dying churches. (I believe there is a connection.) Sometimes the battles are over “LBGT” issues and other times it may be about politics. But far more often, the conflict is rooted in theology, Christology and ideology. Frankly, with rare exceptions, clergy cannot freely teach what they learned in seminary or more importantly, what they have come to believe about their own understanding of the Christian religion, the Bible or their faith.  The resultant message is often mixed or muddled and almost always without passion.

Maybe that is why, according to several recent polls, mainline churches continue to decline at an increasing rate and maybe that is why the number of people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious appears to be growing exponentially. Sadly, more and more of these individuals are leaving organized religion and are finding other ways to satisfy their spiritual needs.

Many of us who consider ourselves progressive have been frustrated over the years because it seemed as if the religious right had co-opted our perspective on Christianity. I often hear the comment that somehow our liberal, progressive Christianity was “stolen” from us. One colleague suggested that media attention of the religious right made him feel like a dog with a can on his tail.  He is not alone.

In his recent article published on the Huffington Post, Michael Rowe writes: “Like Rice, our belief in the purity of Christ’s teachings has chained us to a body of believers who no longer represent anything of what we believe, and indeed represent the very opposite of what Christ’s teachings are. There seems precious little Christ in Christianity as it’s understood in America today.”

It would be nice to blame it on “them,” whoever the “them” might be.  But at some point we must take some responsibility in this uncomfortable situation, and I suspect that it has a lot to do with courage of our convictions. I am afraid that too many pastors have tried to somehow stay in the middle of the road over the years in order to maintain peace in their respective congregations, and although they seem to know what they are against, pastors have had a hard time articulating what they believe. It appears that we are all being forced to confront that confusing weakness from many different directions.

A few months ago Richard Dawkins, a leader in the New Atheist movement wrote an article about some of the pain and confusion that Christianity continues to cause in our world. And he did not let us “mainline” folks off the hook. He writes:

“You nice, middle-of-the-road theologians and clergymen, be-frocked and bleating in your pulpits, you disclaim Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the Haitians are paying for a pact with the Devil. But you worship a god-man who — as you tell your congregations, even if you don’t believe it yourself –“cast out devils.” You even believe (or you don’t disabuse your flock when they believe) that Jesus cured a madman by causing the “devils” in him to fly into a herd of pigs and stampede them over a cliff. Charming story, well calculated to uplift
and inspire…”

It has been interesting to read some of the responses to the Anne Rice statements, both in articles and letters to the editors. Some people discount her comments because she is coming out of a Roman Catholic tradition. But the most frequent type of comment I have seen has been that “Anne Rice should have come to our church. We do not have those issues in our church.”

This may be a nice start and I am certain that someone felt better about their church by writing it. But real tough question remains: what do we really mean when we say I am a “Christian?” What about our worship of a “god-man” and our reliance on the Bible for the truth? What about substitutionary atonement?  How do we respond to those types of questions today… honestly?

The good news is that like my experience with the seminary professor and the critiques of the New Atheist movement, the Anne Rice event is stirring things up and people are reading, writing and hopefully having serious conversations in their homes and in their churches. Maybe this will be an opportunity for more church leaders and people in the pews to have honest dialogue about the meaning of Christianity in the 21st Century. It is about time.

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