I apologize for the delay in posting the next part of the discussion started 2 weeks ago in my previous post. There were a lot of interesting points raised and some good dialogue-thanks to all who have been willing to engage these questions. Part of the reason for my slow posting is because I want to be careful and sensitive in furthering the conversation without being divisive or making judgments I am not willing (or trying) to make. By even answering the question “What does it mean to be a Christian” it is possible to be seen as “judgmental” or “exclusive” or “arrogant”–for who, indeed, am I to say what is written on the hearts of other people? God, of course, knows and judges all, and so from my perspective, this conversation is not in any way attempting to presume what others think or believe. I find the discussion crucial because it is important to help people realize 1)what they’ve signed up for when they declare themselves a Christian and 2) for those who look at Christianity from a distance to know what it is we’re about.
My personal realization has been that the church needs to be re-evangelized, both liberal and conservative. We need these dialogues because so much has been tossed to the side. No, we will not agree on everything, ever, but it’s for that very reason that we help each other to see the essentials that we must have unity on, in order to value and respect the points of difference.
For me, this is a very personal topic, not merely an exercise in theoretical abstraction. I care deeply about the church, and I want people who call themselves Christians to see both the liberating beauty and hope to which we’ve been called, as well as the no less serious, and no less liberating, death to which we’ve been called.
Instead of point by point answering some of the questions that were raised in the comments of the last post, and then furthering the dialogue that way, I thought I would propose one way to more succinctly talk about the core elements of Christianity. Christian tradition has long held a high view of Scripture, and (as demonstrated in the comments from the last post) even though people may disagree on what precisely that means, I suggest that if we’re committed to reading it faithfully and responsibly, many of the tensions and disagreements will not seem so significant. In other words, Christian Scripture (namely the NT) provides the best place for helping us answer the question, “What is a Christian,” not simply because “all the answers are there,” but rather because it has been the source for our tradition. Reading the Scripture well helps us to see why tradition has come to the conclusions it has. This is not to say there isn’t room for disagreement with tradition–I for one would strongly disagree with the branch of tradition that has embraced militarism and violence as means to bring about justice.
To read Scripture faithfully means to approach it recognizing the Holy Spirit at work in both the writer and the reader, to approach it with humility and allow it to change us, and to recognize that while written for a particular audience, it is also written to us.
To read Scripture responsibly is to recognize that it is a multi-voiced set of books, comprising various genres and purposes. To be responsible in our reading is to be diligent in understanding the conditions under which a particular book of the Bible was written (as best as we are able), and to not impose modern norms and assumptions on the text. Responsible reading reads the text in it’s appropriate genre, and also does not try to explain away tensions and contradictions, but rather lets them exist and speak for themselves.
The point at which responsible and faithful reading come together, I believe, is when we regard the Bible as beautiful literature that can be read, and can be read well. It is possible to read the Bible with a regard for it’s spiritual revelation without compromising the integrity of careful analysis.
With all that said, I turn now to my thesis.
In Richard Hays’ book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, he proposes that the three most significant images in the New Testament are cross, community, and new creation. Instead of providing my own lengthy analysis that supports such a reading of Scripture, I would just recommend the book itself, as Hays has done the work to show these images as crucial (pp 193-204, and then the rest of the book uses these images as lenses to interpret the Scripture).
My thought is that if these images are as prevalent in the NT as Hays has made them out to be, then they might also serve as corresponding focal points for our faith. Tradition has re-applied these images to become the creeds and values of the faith, but many people are skeptical of creeds. I would invite such skeptics to a reading of Scripture through the lens of these focal images. To be properly understood in the NT, however, they must also be understood as welcoming us into the symbolic world of Scripture, meaning that we are able to understand them best when we place ourselves in the eschatological worldview of the writers.
An objection could made to the last point; why must our interpretation of these terms be restricted by how the NT writers viewed God? Quite simply because Christianity is more than a matter of a few beliefs and following righteous teachings. To claim Christ is to join the mystical body of Christ that began thousands of years ago, and to be part of an other-cultured community of worshipers. Becoming a Christian has always meant adopting, as best we can, the cosmological view of those who passed along the faith to us from the beginning, and therefore gaining our understanding of Scripture from the community of those who have interpreted it long before us. In other words, as Stanley Hauerwas might say, individual Christians are not given the right or responsibility to interpret Scripture on our own. But I digress.
In the end, I think these three images are so crucial to what it means to be a Christian, that to deny them in word or practice is to place oneself outside of the narrative of Christianity. Herein lies the rub: what does it mean to deny these in word or practice? As far as “in word,” specifically, to deny the death and bodily resurrection of Christ, to refuse the community of saints by not being a part of a worshiping community, and to reduce the ultimate “not-yet” of God’s restoration of creation to human ability and progress places one in another category (it is indicative of a modern pressure to say things that are pleasing to all that I am plagued with feelings of guilt at asserting the tenets of Christianity that have been the same for thousands of years).
There are, I believe corresponding practices that one can engage in that deny these same images. Yet, the often over-emphasis on “salvation by grace and not works” has made it forbidden to dare declare specific practices as not Christian (unless they are things like sex, abortion, or gay marriage), even some that are in such contradiction to the essentials of the Gospel as to place the person outside of what can be called Christianity. I am here thinking specifically of violence and willful oppression of others. This is of course not to say that people cannot be redeemed from their actions; obviously the whole of the NT is under-girded by this truth. But we must take the people of “Reaction 2” (in the last post) seriously, that the practice of these core beliefs is as essential as the beliefs themselves. Why is it absurd to believe that those who call themselves Christians could live a life that gives strong testimony to their beliefs? Being a Christian is hard, not in a pride-yourself-on-a-job-well-done kind of hard, but in a this-requires-your-whole-being’s-involvement-and-change kind of hard. We are obviously all “works in progress” and I don’t claim to have “arrived,” but the “cheap grace” proselytized by so many gives a false illusion that is impossible to live the ideals of Jesus’ teachings and the fundamentals of Christianity.
I’m not trying to claim anything new here. I find that these three images are helpful in categorizing the themes of our faith. Behind each one of them is a deep theology and history, so I don’t mean to suggest that our faith can be reduced to these three words.
My hope and prayer for the church is that pastors and church leaders will be people who faithfully and responsibly read Scripture, and in turn lead their congregations and communities into healthy reading of Scripture that clearly illuminates the beauty and challenge of the Gospel. But I also think the notion of prophetic witness compels us to be bold and hold fast to the beliefs and practices that truly make us Christian and to be okay with calling out those who claim the name of Christ and violate these things–again, not in pronouncement of judgment but in celebration and “protestifying” (as Shane Claiborne might say) to the rich and unique aspects of our faith. And, as Chad Holtz has phrased it, ultimately we get to rejoice in what we get to believe and do as Christians, not what we have to do, or what others cannot do or believe and be a Christian.