Saturday, July 17, 2010

Christian or Christ Follower?

You are probably familiar with Apple's ad campaign wherein one character declares, "I'm a PC", and the others says, "I'm a Mac." The guy who says he's a Mac, of course, is young, hip, transparently self-assured, and comfortable with himself, while the man who represents the world of Windows is slightly older, a bit stodgy in his dress and demeanor, generally defensive and on edge. 

Imitation still being the sincerest form of flattery, there eventually appeared a video that is technically, I suppose, a spoof, but the intent behind the obvious humor was quite serious. Instead of a PC and a Mac, it featured a "Christian" and a "Christ follower, respectively. Just as the original was set up to make a Macintosh computer much more attractive than a PC, so the imitative spoof was set up to make being a "Christ follower" decidedly superior to being a "Christian." 

The implication is clearly that to be a Christ follower is to be accountable solely and directly to ... Christ. Simple. Transparent. Unaffected. Weighed down by nothing more substantive than the question mark at the end of "WWJD?". To be a Christian, by contrast, is to carry 2,000 years worth of baggage--controversies, councils, creeds, sacraments, orders, doctrines, dogmas, and institutional infrastructures. Why bother with all that? Why not just cut through it all and and just get on with following Jesus?

There are two angles (at least) from which to approach such a conclusion. One is the evangelical, ultra-low church, hyper-individualistic strain of piety and devotion that is fairly ubiquitous in the history of American Christianity. But another route to the same spot is the ultra-modern liberal deconstructionist school of thought represented by, inter alia, the Jesus Seminar. These two camps are pretty much mortal enemies, so I realize the irony of painting them with the same brush. But they both uphold, in differing ways, the notion that what we are accountable to is what the actual Jesus who got Palestinian dirt between his toes would want us to think an do. The fundamentalist would claim that such knowledge is unambiguously accessible on the pages of the New Testament. The modernist takes a more complex and sophisticated approach in proposing that the "historical Jesus" (a term coined about a century ago) is accessible by carefully combing through historical and literary artifacts with the disciplined and detached eye of a scholar. Importantly, however, both would contend that most, if not all, of what the generations succeeding Jesus' own said about him (for the modernist, this would include the way Paul theologized Jesus) ought to be taken with several grains of salt, if not tossed out completely. The two might come up with very different descriptions of what it looks like to be a "Christ follower," but they would both maintain a suspicious attitude toward the theological and institutional apparatus associated with being "Christian."

This is a pluralistic world and a free society, and I don't find myself particularly scandalized by these views. They are certainly nothing new. What utterly baffles me, however, is when someone who is personally implicated, by free choice, with institutional structures and commitments that are decidedly "Christian" takes the position of the cheeky "Christ follower." Yesterday, on the HoB/D listserv, there was a thread inspired by tomorrow's Epistle reading from Colossians that speaks of Christ being "pre-eminent." At one point, an Episcopal priest from Tennessee (his name is Peter Keese, which I share at his request), wrote this:
My thinking (still evolving, I hope) is that we misunderstand and misuse the notion - the reality, if you will - of incarnation. I'm suggesting that incarnation is a universal reality - Jesus being a symbol and example of what God is doing everywhere and all the time. It is not that I object to the notion of God incarnating in Jesus; what I object to is your (and my) reluctance to claim that God inhabits you (and me) no less fully.
I have heard such suggestions before--from Unitarians, other non-Christians, and from Episcopalian lay people who are poorly-catechized. But Peter (whom I know personally and with whom I have had a quite cordial relationship over the years) is a presbyter--an elder--who helps form candidates for ordained ministry and whose diocese has elected him to represent them at the last two General Conventions. So we're not talking about some crackpot on the margins of the institution.

In another part of the thread, another priest (again, someone I know personally, and who is in charge of a parish), gave voice to the modernist "Christ follower" position that traditional christology--from the language of "pre-eminence" in the New Testament to that of the creeds--represents the successful attempt to certain forces within the movement begun by the historical Jesus to exert political control over others. It's the shopworn "history is written by the winners" mantra.

I am grateful for occasional stark reminders of the very great theological divergence in our midst, not only on conclusions we draw on how to live faithfully and responsibly as Christians in our contemporary culture, not only on how best to apply the insights of our tradition, but on underlying core principles. Does it not seem that much of our talking past one another on issues du jour is a vain exercise when we're starting from such radically different places?

It all comes down to what we consider ourselves, both individually and as a "community of communities", accountable to. Is it the "Jesus of history" (per "Christ followers" of both the fundamentalist and modernist varieties)? Or is it the "Christ of faith" (per the catholic tradition, to which all the churches of the Anglican Communion are at least formally committed)? 

I am probably neither willing nor able to argue my case. All I can do is offer the observation that the underlying narrative of the "Christ follower" does not represent the "doctrine, discipline, and worship" of the Episcopal  Church. Rightly or wrongly, for better or for worse, we are Christians. I would contend that this does not prevent us from also being Christ-followers, but it does mean that we are committed to the notion that we see the path of discipleship through and with the community of all other Christ-followers, which is another way of speaking about the Church--with all of her scriptures, councils, creeds, orders, liturgies, and institutional infrastructure. There is no relationship with the (pre-eminent) Head without going through the Body (which is by nature something that can be seen and touched and has a "voice"). So, it is precisely in order to be followers of Christ that we are accountable to the Church--both as individuals and as local churches in respect to the Larger Whole.

I believe myself to be a Christ-follower. But the only way I know how to do that is by being a Christian.


Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

Your point is well taken. Unlike what I suspect was the custom at the time, Jesus did not simply take one disciple or apprentice, I called twelve to follow him, together. There has thus never been an individual Christ-follower: we all follow Christ in community. Which means that we not only have to deal with WWJD but with all of the other fallible and flawed co-followers of Christ.

Anonymous said...

As an Episcopal lay person, I'd just like to ask: If Fr. Keese is saying that God inhabits him (and us) as fully as he inhabited Jesus, isn't he either claiming that we are all divine, or that Jesus wasn't divine? And if Jesus wasn't divine, what's the point of celebrating the Eucharist on Sunday morning?

David Handy+ said...

I know you're on vacation, Dan, but I still want to commend you (for the record). You've come up with a fresh and memorable way of making the essential point that we can't safely leapfrog over all the (messy) centuries of church history between Christ and ourselves. And you're right that we Americans are peculiarly prone to fall for the notion that we can somehow recreate a pristine, "New Testament" Christianity unspoiled by later human traditions.

The New England Puritans thought they could start from scratch, and failed. Likewise the "restorationist" followers of Alexander Campbell in the mid 1800s, and the early Pentecostals in the early 1900s. Or the "Jesus People" in the 1960s and 70s.

But all analogies have their limitations. And the PC vs. Mac one breaks down when pushed to the point that we're assumed to have only two options: take all of church history (uncritically) or leave it behind; all or nothing.

Surely, there has got to be a Via Media option?

Daniel Martins said...

David, I certainly concur that we ought not to abstain from all criticism of tradition. But our critique must be deferential, which is to say that it is engaged in humbly by those who know themselves to be within that tradition, not "objective" outsiders. Valid critique is also dynamic and dialectical.

Cammie Novara said...

"Just as the original was set up to make a Macintosh computer much more attractive than a PC, so the imitative spoof was set up to make being a "Christ follower" decidedly superior to being a "Christian." Truer words you won't find on the internet.