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Christian

Christian, the Adjective

Sometime during the last quarter of the 20th century the word "Christian" began to be applied to all kinds of human activity.  Of a sudden, or so it seemed, there were Christian schools, Christian bookstores, Christian rock bands, Christian body-builders, and Christian plumbers.  Heaven knows, the world can certainly use an infusion of grace in every area of human activity by people committed to following Christ.  But I discovered early on that Christian, the adjective, was mostly used to distinguish between who is and who isn't really a Christian.

Like the painter in Brooklyn, by name (would you believe?!) of Churchill, who was contracted to repaint the pulpit with a faux natural (wonderful oxymoron) wood stain.  He came highly recommended not just for his skill but for his religious fervor.  Which I experienced firsthand, as he proceeded to explain to me that "you Methodists are only playing at being Christian."  From his superior fundamentalist perspective he had detected a certain lack of stringency in my witness to Jesus and he, feeling it his necessity to right my wrong, told me how and what I should be teaching my flock.  Even at that young age I had grasped the futility of countering the argument of a knucklehead.  He was, to use a phrase pre-Vatican II Catholics used for me, "invincibly ignorant."   And, I would add, beyond the reach of reason and charity... mine, if not God's.

Consider Matthew 7:1, one of the few verses the pulpit painter failed to quote at me.  Aye, there's the rub, about not judging.  Except in the following instance (not really), judging the judgers.  "Christian," when an adjective, now conveys to me these attitudes: narrow-mindedness, self-righteousness, mean-spiritedness, prudishness, and arrogant moral superiority.  I might also add to this list dumbness, but that would be uncharitable of me.

Better to go with K. L. Hansen's ploy.  K. L. was the venerable churchgoer in Brooklyn with a world of experience, some of it fending off the outrages of local Pharisees who knew better than anyone else who the real Christians were.  He would tell the super-Christian that as far as he (K. L.) was concerned there was just one person whose sinfulness and lack of Christian fervor about whom he was concerned; that it took all of his energy and thought dealing with this guy, morning to night, and then, sometimes, even in his dreams.  "Who is he?" came the expected question.  "Me," K. L. reported, leaving his questioner feeling shortchanged.

Christian the adjective conveys qualities of character I never would associate with the first Christian (Jesus... and forgive me if you have already guessed whom I had in mind).  Sure, there are some who might portray him as a prig or a milktoast.  But to me he stands as the ultimate approachable one, full of courage and patience, more master sergeant than chaplain, the good shepherd when you understand that role, shepherd, in all of its grueling dimensions. That is, he would be far less offended by the language on HBO than by the prayers of the faithful that picture him principally as the guardian of family values.  This/my representation of Jesus owes more to the Biblical narrative, in which the Galilean preacher frequents bars and hobnobs with men and women of the street, than it does to the portrayals of him I've heard on TV programs featuring praise and prayers and preaching.

All right, the foregoing will identify me in the eyes of those I'm taking to task as an Eastern seaboard elitist, spiritual relativist, and moral equivocator, who thinks he's so damned (literally) smart but is just spiritually impoverished.

I can live with that misidentification.  After all, my theological enlightenment began with a high Christology (whatever that is... and what it is is a conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and with him lies the salvation of the world, a world which, for all its violence and treachery, is sorely in need of saving).  I learned early to be wary of syncretism (whatever that is... and what it is is the swallowing up and watering down of the Christian faith by a worldview that includes it but without its extraordinary claims).  At the outset of my professional witness to Christ no less than toward its end I declare that Jesus is the only realistic hope for the future of the planet. 

But, please, don't tell me that, if I don't see him the way you do, then I am only playing at being Christian. 

D. T. Niles, a Ceylonese (now Sri Lankan) Methodist theologian and a primal force in the ecumenical movement, toured the US during the 1960's when the civil rights ferment was in full swing.  He recounted several anecdotes I have repeated dozens of times through the years.  I'll spare you now.  Ask, if you are interested, and I'll pass them along.  Among the lessons I took from Niles's lectures was this definition of a Christian: a Christian is anyone who says he is.  Couldn't be simpler.  Like the stained glass window in Grace Church, the one in the southwest corner of the nave, picturing Jesus saying, at least in my imagination, "Come to me... and find rest for your souls," an invitation without precondition, into the company and attending graces of the one whose arms are ever open. 

Hold me to that vision.  I'll do the same for you... hard as it may be for me, if you have a predilection for using "Christian" as an adjective.   



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