I have been pondering the question of “Why Christianity?”
There is no doubt that you can be Christian and fundamentalist, using the Bible to justify and impose your sect’s beliefs on the world, much like the clerk who claimed her belief made it impossible to do her civic duty of issuing marriage licences under the law.
This kind of legalistic Christianity leads some denominations to mix belief and science in a way that feel helps smash “transgender confusion.” It appears to give permission to individuals to deny, mock and harass trans people because the concept of anything outside of clear binaries is purged from their belief system.
It is the very power which allows this abusive use of Christian belief, though, that makes Christianity so compelling.
There are also many Christian believers who are working to be more inclusive, more open, more compassionate and more tender. They see their Christian beliefs as orthodox and unapologetic while being diametrically opposed to fundamentalist belief.
I have many times about the difference between preachy preachers, those who stand for separation between us and them, explaining why followers are aligned against evil people, and teachy preachers, those who stand for connection between all, explaining why we have to do the hard work of letting go of the fear and evil inside of us.
Preachy preachers preach about enforcing rules that draw boundaries while teachy preachers teach about a path to become more open and engaged with those who struggle by getting connected with our own wounds.
Both of these groups, it seems to me, are drawn to the power of the same Christian texts because they provide a shared set of metaphors which are hard to challenge in this country. While they read the stories quite differently, the absolute centrality of the stories over so very many centuries have made them a shared ground.
Even the challenge of the anti-theists strengthens the power of Christianity, which has always been bolstered by tales of martyrdom, no matter what the facts are.
It is a joy to be able to stand up and preach to an energized choir, to a group of people who come together under a shared rubric.
Christianity is easy to assert in this country. Come out as Ba’hai or Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist and you can hear the sniffs of others who immediately reduce you to something foreign, something less than American.
Christianity, though, ripples with the flag, no matter how twisted the beliefs you apply to the Bible are. As long as you call yourself Christian, you are mainstream, with some obligation for others to accept you.
Anyone who has studied the centuries of Christianity before the canon was imposed, before the Bible was codified, understands that there has never been only one set of beliefs under the rubric of Christianity. Christian identity started in conflict and that conflict has always been hot and heavy with the challenge of who holds the real and true beliefs.
While this means that there will always be battles between people who identify as Christian, it also means that simply identifying as Christian will always make you more beliefs more protected easily accepted than any other label, at least in the English speaking world.
For me, it is this wide berth, this protected status that answers the question “Why Christian?”
Beliefs are just beliefs. They can exist in many, many different kinds of stories, as Joseph Campbell showed us in his comparisons of mythologies around the world. Would the tenets of Christianity under any other name still be as potent?
The key question here is powerful. Are we transformed simply because we believe Jesus Christ died for our sins, that Jesus is the one and only true son of God who brought salvation to the world? Or are we transformed because we walk in the steps of Jesus, working to follow our understanding of what he taught will save us?
Do we believe that our belief in the divinity of Jesus lets us draw lines between good and evil behavior, lines we can enforce through our churches?
For every Christian, on some level, their belief in the divinity of Jesus is the foundation of their authority to assert their beliefs in the world. “Jesus said this and I believe it meant what I believe is true!” they proclaim.
Having an unassailable pillar of authority to assert faith allows a kind of actualization and empowerment that is impossible when we just speak for our own experience.
Using a shared set of metaphors that people learned early adds credibility to your own assertions, even if you use those stories to defend your own parochial beliefs.
All of this cover makes the very term “Christian” very ambiguous; what does it stand for anyway? Sure, you are Christian, but are you the kind of Christian who believes that any who don’t follow your tenets are evil and worthy of smiting, or are you the kind of Christian who believes that you have a personal obligation to find the divinity in everyone?
Do you believe that everyone is saved, or do you believe that only hard compliance on earth can make you worthy of better?
The lovely thing about the term Christian, though, is that from a social perspective, it doesn’t matter. You have the cover of the Bible to wrap your beliefs, the standing of Christianity to give you authority to expound and evangelize your beliefs.
To me, that’s the best answer to “Why Christian?” Christian lets you stand under the shelter of normativity to assert whatever your reading of Biblical meaning is. It gives you and your followers a kind of respectable veneer, a social sheen that lets them dismiss critics with a wave of the phrase “Well, I am Christian, so….”
Good preaching — which, of course, to me, means good teaching, or at least the encouragement of learning, growth and healing — is empowering and transformative. I like powerful and deep preaching.
And if living under the banner marked “Christian” helps you do that in this culture, well, there is something to be said for that licence.