My husband and I have a library. Actually, it’s a spare bedroom with no bed. It’s really an unattractive room, except for the hodgepodgery of books, which we find extremely attractive.
There is no “décor” to speak of, unless you count my Edgar A. Poe painting and Hubby’s collection of swords bought on Amazon. Other than the books, it’s a rather colorless room with two desktop computers on cheap desks, a ginormous cat condo, and wall-to-wall His and Her over-stuffed bookcases. (At least one is a leaner.) We’re both quite territorial and can be grumpy about encroachment. ( “Why is this on my shelf?”) Nonetheless, we’re downright giddy about calling it “The Library.” (“Where’s the Scotch tape?” Neither of us would say it’s in a desk drawer. No, “It’s in The Library. “)
We call it that because we can. No one would dare tell us that it isn’t really a library. Words are weird like that. There are official definitions and then there are words we personally define.
Take “Christian” and “Christianity,” for example.
Christianity is the largest of the religions and, supposedly, there are nearly 2.5 billion Christians in the world. Seventy percent of U.S. Americans claim to be Christian. Seven out of ten? Whaaaaat? Well I don’t buy it. Not by a long shot. We’ll get into that later but first, let’s define a Christian by process of elimination. Let’s talk about what a Christian is not.
A Christian is NOT:
- Someone who goes to church once a year
- Someone who goes to church 52 times a year
- Someone who says, “I’m Christian”
- Someone who believes in God
- Someone who believes in Jesus
- Someone who prays the “born again prayer”
- Someone who is baptized (sprinkled or dunked)
- Someone who is a member of clergy of any kind
- Someone who wrote bestselling books about Christianity
- Someone who founded a mega church and/or has a TV show
- Someone who donates 10% of their income to . . . whatever
- Someone who believes in the Golden Rule / karma
- Someone who is BFFs with Jesus
- Someone who “isn’t ashamed” to share memes about Jesus (and knows which of their friends “will hit share, too!”)
Ok. It could be a never-ending list and I’m losing focus. Let’s simplify it.
What a Christian IS:
- A disciple of Christ
- That’s all
Why didn’t I just start there? It would have been so much more efficient!
The “name it and claim it” brand of Christianity applies this Marketing for God slogan to the false doctrine of the “prosperity gospel.” But it seems like some –maybe a bunch– of the seven out of ten U.S. Americans also use it to name themselves Christians, therefore, claim the identity Christian. But unlike Hubby’s and my library, “Christian” isn’t a matter of interpretation and “Christianity” is not, itself, The Way.
The 1st-century Christ followers were called “Christians” by non-Jews as an insult, a derogatory moniker. Like “the religious Right,” “the liberal Left,” and “Trumpsters” today are not used as close-end pronouns but as open-end adjectives, full of unspoken meaning sneering within the words. Eventually, however, as words often do, “Christian” transformed from its original insult to what Christ followers started calling themselves.
The first Christians were followers of The Way that Jesus showed them. Seriously. That’s what it was called: The Way. Jesus talked more about “the way” to the kingdom of heaven, aka the kingdom of God, than anything else and he said it was here and now if we want to be part of it. This kingdom is not in the afterlife; it’s “at hand”; “within”; and “here.” It’s God’s kingdom on earth –God’s ideal governance and social laws– and it’s already here if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We create it or we ignore it.
Self-identifying as a Christian person is almost always confused with Christianity the religion.
Christianity is a particular religion with particular tenets, particular sacraments, and particular holy days that evolved over centuries –and in many ways– complicated and corrupted The Way taught by Jesus. Under these terms, I think it’s possible to be a Christian without adhering to the institutional religion called Christianity. And, of course, vice versa.
Bear in mind (ergo, reader beware) that I am not a theologian, so there’s that important disclaimer. I am just a Mad Servant. But I think it’s a fair observation that:
- The early People of the Way were disorganized and unsure what the rules were for this new sect of Judaism, but they focused on the Messenger’s message.
- As things often do when egos get involved, different messages emerged, and
- beginning 300 years later, the Messenger’s message was buried beneath hardcore definitions of Christianity The Religion that cite specific doctrines as its hallmarks.
Members of the club explicitly or implicitly agreed to these regulations in order to identify as Christian. These days, however, it’s rather like the Terms of Agreement we all click but don’t read. Anyone can self-identify as Christian without knowing what they’re signing up for. And that’s the problem.
It pretty much stopped being gospel (good news) and became the authority of man. The result: it’s an embarrassment.
The apostle Paul warned that there was another gospel being preached, another Christianity, if you will, by those whom he called “super apostles.” (I always picture types like today’s televangelists and YouTube and Vimeo celebs.) Even in Paul’s day, in the waaaay back and immediately after Jesus, a religion emerged that was already fracturing from disagreement. Se la vie.
The Roman Emperor Constantine was instrumental in organizing the myriad of Christian rituals, creeds, holy days, and sacred writings into a government-sanctioned religion three centuries after the first apostles started spreading the Messenger’s message.
Since religion is a sociocultural system, it reflects the values and existing beliefs at any given time in history, which means it is subject to evolution along with society. For example: in the 1st century, there were hundreds of sects, some Jewish-based, some Pagan-based. Even after Constantine unified the official religion, there still followed the Great Schism, which of course brought us Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, the latter which dominated Europe through the Middle Ages. Next was the 16th century Protestant Reformation, Anglicism, Presbyterianism, and the eventual establishment of 20,000 new Protestant denominations. Some today, myself included, believe we are in the middle of another shift as we reject the judgmental, pious, ego-driven, power-based, selfish, greedy . . . (ok, I’ll stop) for the loving acceptance of The Way.
Look at the social conditions and cultural beliefs during each evolution of Christianity and you will see a religion in constant flux, not the stable, solid ground that many Christians assume it is.
Remember our own American history? When slave owners used Biblical Christianity to defend their right to own the “sub-humans”? Yeah. That was a thing. And it only scratches the surface of wrongs done in “right’s” name.
While Christianity will continue to be manipulated and weaponized for the benefit of those who do wrong, there are those who will genuinely follow Jesus — sacrificing, serving, helping, advocating, and loving. May we always center our faith on Jesus rather than any political party, politician, or false rhetoric. God help us. –Stephen Mattson, The False and Idolatrous Narrative of ‘American Christianity’
The timeline of Christianity’s evolution runs from those first apostles secretly gathering in Jewish homes, to selecting from today’s smorgasbord the Christianity that suits an individual’s disposition. It’s the evolution from the original one-size-fits-all gospel to a customizable “gospel” tailor-made expressly for the religious consumer.
“What kind of Christianity do you want? If we don’t have it, we’ll make it!”
Again, understand the sociocultural conditions during each evolution of Christianity and you will see a religion in constant flux. However, what is not in flux, what is not customizable, is the message of Jesus Christ.
One foot religion
A non-Jew, thinking himself clever, challenged Rabbi Shammai that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai chased the smart aleck away with a big stick. The man then went to Shammai’s competitor, Rabbi Hillel, who ran another Jewish school. He offered Hillel the same challenge, to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. While the man stood on one foot, Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.”
Interestingly, the historical Hillel was living in Jerusalem when Jesus was a twelve year-old boy and his parents took him to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. They lost track of him and eventually found him conversing with the rabbis at the temple. I like to imagine this scene with Hillel himself sitting among the rabbis who were impressed by the knowledge of the boy Jesus, who grew up to say that “the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and the second is equal to it: love your neighbor as yourself.”
All the rest is commentary.
What do you think?