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"What the hell happened to Christianity?" they ask

December 14, 2006

Jay Bakker, the son of preachers Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Messner and the minister of Revolution Church, along with Marc Brown, a Revolution Church staff member, submitted a commentary for CNN today. The question they ask, which is the title of their commentary, is: “What the hell happened to Christianity?” They offer to the world their concerns, troubles and advice in an attempt to begin a conversation among Christians. Here’s their commentary in full with my annotations in black:

What the hell happened? Where did we go wrong? How was Christianity co-opted by a political party? Why are Christians supporting laws that force others to live by their standards? The answers to these questions are integral to the survival of Christianity

The answers to these questions may be integral to the survival of your particular brand of Christianity in your particular country. Christianity is much larger, and much more substantive, then the small, reserved corner of the Christian landscape over which you preside. Perhaps your Christianity is on the endangered list within the context of a politically partisan Protestantism. But what is true of your tiny situation is hardly indicative of the reality of global Christianity.

While the current state of Christianity might seem normal and business-as-usual to some, most see through the judgment and hypocrisy that has permeated the church for so long. People witness this and say to themselves, “Why would I want to be a part of that?” They are turned off by Christians and eventually, to Christianity altogether. We can’t even count the number of times someone has given us a weird stare or completely brushed us off when they discover we work for a church.

So when did the focus of Christianity shift from the unconditional love and acceptance preached by Christ to the hate and condemnation spewed forth by certain groups today? Some say it was during the rise of Conservative Christianity in the early 1980s with political action groups like the Moral Majority. Others say it goes way back to the 300s, when Rome’s Christian Emperor Constantine initiated a set of laws limiting the rights of Roman non-Christians. Regardless of the origin, one thing is crystal clear: It’s not what Jesus stood for.

This is a very misleading question because Bakker and Messner do not distinguish an essential element of Christian faith from the manner in which the faith is appropriated and lived by individual Christians. What’s worse, they mischaracterize Christianity as “unconditional love and acceptance”. Such Victorian romanticism obfuscates the real core of Christianity: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). The first words uttered by Christ were a call to repentance, not a call to acceptance. If one demands the need to construe the commandment “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:37-39) into that sentimental hypertrophy that is glibly called “unconditional love,” I suppose that one can get away with it. But “acceptance” or “unconditional acceptance” as the focus of Christianity? Repentance, transformation, renunciation, agape, Christian community–these I can find the Bible. But “acceptance” is perhaps the most trite, banal and pliable term tossed around these days in affectively oriented American Christianity.

Bakker and Brown are correct in stating that Jesus did not stand for “hate and condemnation”, but he also didn’t stand for the other pole of their paradigm either. Jesus wasn’t an either/or kind of Messiah. Rather, he was a “sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34), to quote the prophet Simeon, because he defied this conventional dichotomy-plagued thinking. He had no problem declaring a generation of people “wicked” or “evil” (Mt 7:11), yet he demanded that none of us judge (Mt 7:1) and even whispered to the adulterous woman, “I do not condemn you” (Jn 8:11). He commanded his disciples not to retaliate against others who do harm or injustice to them (Mt 5:38-42), yet his holy wrath drove him to make a whip of cords and cleanse the Temple courtyard by force (Jn 2:13-16). He told us that his “yoke is easy” and his “burden light” (Mt 11:29-30), but then he told us “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24). Jesus challenges our intellectual simplicity that starves after viewing the world in black/white, right/wrong, or even as unconditional love/hate. That’s what Jesus stood for: challenging us to think not as man thinks, but as God thinks (cf. Mt 16:23).

His parables and lessons were focused on love and forgiveness, a message of “come as you are, not as you should be.” The bulk of his time was spent preaching about helping the poor and those who are unable to help themselves. At the very least, Christians should be counted on to lend a helping hand to the poor and others in need.

Again, Bakker and Brown are half-right. Love and forgiveness were the basis of many of his parables (consider the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan). But judgment and the urgency of preparedness were the basis of other parables (consider the Wheat and the Chaff and the Ten Virgins). And one thing is absolutely certain: Jesus never delivered, proclaimed or adumbrated at a message of “come as you are, not as you should be”. When Jesus called the multitude to himself, he did so to teach them the ways of God. When Jesus dealt with those who were condemned in sin under the Law, he forgave them…right before he commanded them to sin no more. In other words, Jesus is not apathetic toward sin and its remainders. Jesus issues demands, and perhaps none so great as: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Jesus makes the necessary distinction between the person and the sin, loving and affirming the former while shunning the latter. This is hardly the “come as you are” attitude that Bakker and Brown claim Jesus held.

If “come as you are, not as you should be” is, in fact, an authentic Christian attitude, on what grounds do Bakker and Brown make the claim that some Christians are guilty of judgment and hypocrisy? Unless Bakker and Brown are hypocrites themselves, shouldn’t they be opening wide the doors to judgmental and hypocritical Christians, telling them to “come as you are” and not pointing out what they “should be”? I suggest we stick with Jesus on this one.

This brings us to the big issues of American Christianity: Abortion and gay marriage. These two highly debatable topics will not be going away anytime soon. Obviously, the discussion centers around whether they are right or wrong, but is the screaming really necessary? After years of witnessing the dark side of religion, Marc and I think not.

Christians should be able to look past their differences and agree to disagree. This allows people to discuss issues with respect for one another. Christians are called to love others just as they are, without an agenda. Only then will Christianity see a return to its roots: Loving God with all of your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself.

Is apathy toward the social and moral implications of societal norms a true example of loving your neighbor as yourself ? Is abstaining from the work of transforming society and morality the path of Christian concern for humanity? And from a strictly rational standpoint, how do individuals have a discussion on controversial issues while “looking past their differences” in order to “agree to disagree”. Agreeing to disagree exiles discussion. Agreeing to disagree is a concession on all sides to let the matter terminate in impasse. I acknowledge and readily admit that “shouting” is counter-productive, but we need not toss conviction out with the irascible bathwater. Can you imagine how Bakker and Brown’s communication theory would have played out between Jesus and the Pharisees? We wouldn’t even have “Christianity” if Bakker and Brown were PR agents for the Messiah, and St. Paul most certainly would have been out of a job!

The Apostle Paul describes this idea of love beautifully in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

Indeed, Paul describes the idea of divine love beautifully in these four verses, and he provides a fine model for us to follow. In the same letter to the Corinthians, Paul says “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor 11:1), that is, speak out valiantly on behalf of the truth of God and humanity. Spread the the light of the Christian faith to every corner of the earth. Do not fear the misunderstandings of non-Christians, and do not soften your message for the sake of agreeing to disagree. Practice what you preach.

But don’t take our word for it; look at what Jesus and his followers stood for in his time and what Christianity stands for today. Then come to your own conclusion.

Looking at what Jesus and his followers stood for in his time, I see the following principles:

1. Love God and love your neighbor (Jesus)
2. Repent of your sins against God and man (John the Baptist and Jesus)
3. Believe in the Son of God (Jesus and Paul)
4. Make disciples of all nations (Jesus)
5. Beware of false teachers (Jesus, Paul and Jude)
6. Transform your minds from worldly ways (Paul)
7. Do not sin (Jesus, Paul, James and Peter)
8. Remain in perfect unity (Jesus, Paul and James)
9. Bring back sinners to the faith (James)
10. Be prepared to present your faith to all (Peter)

This is not an exhaustive list, but it nonetheless illustrates the point

I think Bakker’s and Brown’s dichotomies between shouting/indifference and acceptance/judgment present us not with the example and teaching of Jesus, but with a retreating Christianity that cowers from the most pressing issues of today’s American society. I get a sense that the space they are carving out for Christianity is one that abuts any other idea or trend in society, minimizing its radicality and romanticizing its message.

So, by way of response to the original question posed by Bakker and Brown (“What the hell happened to Christianity”?), I can only hazard the following guess: In response to what you perceive to be a mainstream Christianity (not the Christianity I practice) that is marked by political partisanship and socio-economic elitism, your counter-cultural Christianity (not the Christianity I practice) has turned into a synthesis between Gospel fragments, political disillusionment and overly romanticised discourse-pacifism. This either/or you both outline makes up two dying, disingenuous denominations that you mistakenly take for the whole of Christianity. The solution to your quandary, as I see it, is to abandon both options and look for the fullness of Jesus’ message elsewhere.

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