Christianity or Jesus?

A self-described pagan blogger provides a trenchant critique of Christianity:

Kind of an aside, but I’ve been noticing the nativity scenes being placed in peoples yards. Some of them–these white ones in particular–are quite beautiful. Others are quite ugly. They’re made of this thick plastic, the type that garden gnomes and pink flamingoes are made of. It seems kind of ironic to me, this sacred scene that serves to remind Christians of a gift that was sent to them by God, being represented by these figures that bear little to no human resemblence.

Doesn’t that seem strange to you? Wouldn’t you think that you would choose the most beautiful nativity scene possible?

Speaking of, I wonder about crosses. Now, I’ve read the Bible, I’ve seen The Passion of Christ, I was raised in a literalist Christian home. When I picture Jesus’ last days and hours it’s a pretty horrible picture. Terrible. My heart aches when I think of this man–be he Messiah, prophet, or simply a good teacher–and the suffering he endured. When I look at a cross (admittedly, I don’t do this often) I think about these things. If I were a Christian I doubt I would be able to even look at a cross without shedding a tear at the idea of such a sacrifice for me. I see crosses kind of tossed around–the people at my mom’s church, for example, want them plastered on every government building lawn along with the 10 Commandments and wear the symbol on various pieces of clothing–with this flippant disregard. It’s used more as a tool than a sacred symbol, a tool of control and manipulation. More a chain, really, for us non-Christians. Has that what the cross has become? How often do people meditate on what it was really for? A man–again, whom cross wearers generally believe was the Messiah–died on that cross. He was tortured and he was crucified. The Romans, in fact, later did away with crucifixion because it was so brutal and barbaric. The Romans were some brutal bastards, so that should tell you something. I would think (and I’m no authority, as I don’t really have many sacred symbols) that you wouldn’t want the nativity scene just anywhere, the cross just anywhere. I wouldn’t want to open such things, so dear to my heart, to public consumption and, possibly, disdain.

I wonder about symbols sometimes.

The only part of this that is difficult for me is the part about opening sacred things to public consumption and disdain. Jesus plainly expected his message and its accompanying symbols to become open to public consumption and disdain. Yet, somehow the modern marketing, commercializing, and politicizing of Jesus seems to dilute His message. Perhaps this is not the fault of the way it is spread as much as the fact that its meaning has been diluted beforehand by Christians.

A symbol or a text has value applied to it. They do not have intrinsic meanings. One could argue that they have intrinsic value or significance at the time they are created, in the form of the author’s final intention; but the further one travels, temporally or culturally, from the author, the more likely that meaning must be dug out and forensically reconstructed.

However, when a symbol or a text is used by someone not the author for a specific communicative purpose in the present, we can look to the present user for clues about their intentions. In the case of something that purports to present a worldview, a lifestyle, a relationship with the creator and sustainer of life, we must be allowed to look holistically at the user’s words and behavior overall, in order to interpret the meaning we should apply to the symbol or text.

I believe my pagan friend is implying that Christians seem to mesh their sacredness with the world in a way that diminishes the sacredness and enlarges the world. The intent of Christians seems to be to adulterate the spiritual things so that they are not as offensive to the world.

On a similar note, I am currently reading a book by “ordinary radical” Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution. The theme of this book could be summed up in the words of one of his friends, who told him, “I gave up Christianity to follow Jesus.”

Now then, I have very little in common with “a Waldorfy pagan homesteading family,” and I don’t think I could live in Claiborne’s “intentional community,” The Simple Way. Likewise, I have examined the Journal of George Fox (1624-1691), and I have concluded that being a persecuted Quaker was not pleasant. The Christians of his day repeatedly beat and imprisoned him for saying publicly what is plainly in the New Testament. Claiborne reports similar, though less violent, reactions when he speaks.

Nevertheless, I am struck by the radicalism, anticlericalism, and anti-institutionalism of these perspectives. It is the same viewpoint elucidated by Jacques Ellul in “Anarchy from a Christian Standpoint.” By radicalism, I mean exactly what Claiborne means: an attempt to reach to the root meaning.

The problem is, I think, that US Christians don’t really believe everything that the New Testament says about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Like most people, we want just enough God to get us by, but not too much. Then, because we are weak in our faith and out of fellowship with God, we need to have Christianity constantly mirrored back to us by the culture around us.

We are constantly seeking reassurance that God will really bring us unending prosperity, that He has really chosen the US as the site for the millenial kingdom, that Jesus will really bring peace and democracy to the world through our police actions, and that we are not going to be stoned or mocked for being Christian. Sometimes we falter and begin to doubt whether these doctrines are actually in the Bible. (They aren’t.)

That insecurity is behind the inane wailing about the War Against Christmas. The “Christmas” we see around us is very far away from having anything to do with Jesus Christ, but Christians have become so faithless, such anxious, quivering babies, that their whole identity rides on a culturally narrow, modern, secular understanding of ancient symbols that have mutated into corporate trademarks.

The proof that the idea of Christianity still drives the culture, is that simple-minded “scientific freethinkers” keep flailing at the superficial symbolism that simple-minded Christians cling to. What exactly is offensive about Christian symbolism, anyway? I think what offends the sensibilities of the freethinkers is the way artifacts of a supposedly dead ideology keep getting pulled out and reinserted into modern cultural contexts, as if they were archetypal symbols rather than discredited hypotheses.

The proof that the truth of Christ is ignored by the whole culture, Christians included, is that the “important” religious questions of the day concern whether nineteenth-century science proves Genesis to be true, whether to publicize the Mosaic laws as our own invention, whether God even exists, whether children belong to the State from the moment of conception, whether we need more self-righteous politicians, whether God likes music with stringed instruments and drums, and where to put the plastic Santa Claus.

Not surprisingly, Philip Jenkins and Spengler believe that the center of gravity of Christianity may soon move away from the Euro-Americans, who are too busy agitating for more Christian pop radio stations to worry about listening to the Holy Spirit.


2 thoughts on “Christianity or Jesus?

  1. Dave, you put in lots of interesting links. I could go off on massive tangents.

    I think, though, that what I saw from your link to Shane Claiborne represents some of my ideas about what you’re saying.

    I started reading the sample chapter from his book The Irresistible Revolution : Living as an Ordinary Radical, and when I got to where he says that Tony Compolo is his teacher, overall I immediately gave the guy the big reject, because I despise Tony Compolo.

    Okay, I didn’t research the guy, but based on your implication that he’s out doing some street preaching and taking heat for it represents what I see: people can’t seem to get it all right. There’s good theology and the willingness of a person to live sacrificially for Jesus. It seems most people can’t get both right.

    In San Diego there was a branch of the Church of Christ (not the United Church of Christ). They pushed a sheparding type thing and rejected the standard Church of Christ, and they were really committed. But entertainment wise they lived like most people. I gave up mainstream entertainment years ago, why would I want to get in tight with people who do things I loathe?

    You got the Mormans and the Jehovah Witnesses, and I like their form of local church government, which is not career preacher personality oriented. But, of course, their theology is bad.

    So, I try to take the good and leave the bad. However, it’s easy to use someone’s faults to excuse myself from taking the good when the good is going to require work or sacrifice on my part.

  2. I can’t say that I agree with Claiborne all around. Some of his interpretations of Scripture are colored by his association with politically and theologically liberal unbelievers and Christians. However, he is quite fair-minded in his book, and many of his claims pricked my conscience.

    All I know about Campolo is that Calvinists hate him and he’s associated with the “emergent church” movement. As to the movement itself, I’m ambivalent.

    I did think it was interesting, though, when Claiborne noted in the book that Willow Creek (a “seeker-sensitive” but not necessarily “emergent” church) doesn’t display a cross (because it offends some seekers) but does display an American flag (which offends him).

    The only ironically sarcastic part of this essay is the sentence, “Sometimes we falter and begin to doubt whether these doctrines are actually in the Bible.” None of those “doctrines” are in the Bible.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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