Why “Are you a Christian?” has Become My Least Favorite Question

If I have a least favorite question in the English language, it might be: “Are you a Christian?” It’s a question that gets thrown pretty quickly in the direction of any artist or thinker or politician that shows an openness toward or seriousness about God or spirituality. My dislike of the question is first of all about what the question does. What I mean is, asking it is often a way to peg people as in-or-out, loveable-or-dismissible. Unfortunately this question gets asked in this way by many who believe, some who don’t, and probably everywhere in-between. But it seems to me that if these kinds of distinctions and categories have to be made, perhaps it might be best to let God be the One to make them.

Another reason I don’t like the question is the whole problem of what the word “Christian” actually means. Words, after all, mean no more or less than the meanings we attach to them, and breakdowns in communication can often be attributed to differing connotations and understandings of the same word. One person may be saying “yes, I believe in Jesus Christ as my savior” and another person may be hearing “this person hates gay people.” Or the answerer might be saying “No, I don’t believe God created the earth in six days” while the asker may be hearing “This person wants to go to Hell.” The possibilities are almost endless. Even if both parties can somehow agree to use what I understand the original meaning of the word to be – “follower of Christ” – the problem still isn’t exactly solved. Then it simply becomes a question of, “Well, what’s a follower of Christ, then?” In other words, what does “following Christ” look like in practice, particularly long after the bodily Christ is no longer with us?

It seems to me that any thoughtful response to the question at hand will at least do some definitional work if not challenge the assumptions of the question altogether. As such, I kind of rolled my eyes at Marcus Mumford’s response to Brian Hiatt’s asking this question in a Rolling Stone interview a couple years ago. In Mumford’s defense, he may not have known at the time that his statement would make a bunch of headlines, but of course it did. His answer was essentially “No” with a few editorials added in. Here’s some of what Mumford actually said, according to Hiatt:

“I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. Like, you ask a Muslim and they’ll say, ‘Jesus was awesome.’ They’re not Christians, but they still love Jesus.”

Obviously Mumford was, like me, uncomfortable with the question and the tenuous meaning of the word, but my beef is with where he finishes. Mumford all but said Jesus was a rad dude, and that by a guy who almost always comes across way wiser than his age should allow him to be. In this instance, however, I think that most of us could do better than Mumford did, whether our answer is yes, no, or in-between. I could be wrong about this, but I sniffed cowardice in Mumford’s response, and I didn’t fully believe him, maybe because I knew too much about his background. Like that Mumford grew up in the charismatic Vineyard movement. Or that Mumford has so much affinity for the unapologetically Christian writer, G.K.Chesterton. If Mumford doesn’t identify as a Christian, why all the singing about how we were “made to meet (our) Maker”? Although to be fair, Hiatt did acknowledge in the article that Mumford doesn’t doubt the existence of God, which doesn’t necessarily have to mean he’s a Christian. But I still couldn’t help but wonder if Mumford simply had a “Peter moment.” Did he cave on himself in order to give the Rolling Stone readers what they wanted to hear?

Perhaps it’s time to bring C.S. Lewis into this discussion. Lewis, of course, did his own definitional work as to what a Christian might be in the series of radio talks that eventually became Mere Christianity. One of the most famous passages that came out of the book has also had an impact on my own thinking about Jesus:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone from saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”

When I was an undergrad, I remember deciding to read some of the New Atheists‘ work: Richard Dawkins’ The God DelusionSam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As I read, all three men seemed to me to be the worst kind of angry, which is to say that they were angry without knowing why or even that they were angry, probably because their anger was so cloaked in “Rationalism.” Indeed, all three have committed their lives to raging against a Being they swear doesn’t exist. But one of the things I remember from my reading was that Hitchens, when confronted with the above passage from Lewis, agreed that Lewis got the three intellectual options correct; he just chose the wrong one. Now I would add one possibility that both Lewis and Hitchens left out: either Jesus was liar, lunatic, Lord, or perhaps He was none of the above, and the texts that led us to believe those things were corrupt. The problem with this option, of course, is that it could become the easy “out” for those who don’t want to do the work, those who don’t want to engage. So it seems to me that one who concludes that the biblical gospels aren’t trustworthy are then burdened with the intellectual task of showing which texts are corrupt and why and who corrupted them when. This wouldn’t be easy to do! Note, though, that Mumford’s “choice” (Jesus is really cool!) isn’t really one of the options, and in fact it comes awful close to the choice that Lewis was critiquing.

I suppose I could have empathized more with Mumford if he had made a plea to an honest crises of faith. I believe doubt belongs on the journey with faith. As I see it, these two postures are friends more than enemies. That reality seems threaded throughout the Bible. There is Job with his finger finally pointed at God after all his suffering, and there is John the Baptist sending the message to Jesus, asking if He really is the One or whether he had mostly just wasted his life pointing others to Him. In this vein, Mumford could have said, as I have often felt, that he just didn’t know what’s true or that he didn’t feel God’s presence in his life or whatever. I could have totally respected a statement like, “I’m searching, but I’m not sure exactly where I stand at the minute.” But unfortunately that’s not what we got from him.

To be clear, my point is not to dismiss Mumford or his impressive career. Rolling Stone had, after all, put him in a difficult position of deciding which part of his audience he was going to alienate with his answer. I do have a deep respect for Mumford and love his band‘s music. I expect he’ll be around for a while, and I look forward to watching how he develops as both a person and as a singer. He seems to possess that all-too-rare quality of actually having something to say. Hiatt put it this way: “there’s something searching and vulnerable in his eyes.”

Plenty of others have had to deal with the dilemma that Mumford faced with Rolling Stone. After publishing David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell was shockingly straightforward in answering whether or not he was a Christian. Yes, he basically said, he was. His explanation focused on belief in God and also expressed some interest in joining a Christian community or church.

It will not come as a surprise to those who know me that I really prefer Wendell Berry’s treatment of the aforementioned question. In the fall of 2013, at a conference in Kentucky, when Bill Moyers interviewed the farmer, writer, and activist, my least favorite question came up. Berry responded by saying:

“I still consider myself a person who takes the Gospels very seriously. And I read in them and am sometimes shamed by them. And am sometimes utterly baffled by them. But there is a good bit of the Gospels that I do get…I’m hanging on for the parts that I don’t understand, and I’m willing to endure the shame of falling short as part of the price of admission. All that places a very heavy and exacting obligation on me as a writer. A lot of my writing has been – when it hasn’t been in defense of precious things – has been a giving of thanks for precious things…People of religious faith know that the world is maintained every day by the same Force that created it. It’s an article of my faith and belief that all creatures live by breathing God’s breath and participating in his Spirit. This means that the whole thing’s holy.”

What I love about Berry’s response is that he didn’t give a yes or no answer, and that in fact his response seems to succeed because he changed the question. Sometimes questions need to be changed before they can be answered well. Berry’s response also reminded me of a passage from his essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”:

“There is an enormous number of people, and I am one of them, whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams. We can turn away from it or against it, but that will only bind us tightly to a reduced version of it. A better possibility is that this, our native religion, should survive and renew itself, so that it may become as largely and truly instructive as we need it to be.”

Again, Berry reframed the conversation, and I think his instincts to do so were good ones. According to the four Gospels in the New Testament, Jesus had to deal with his own share of annoying questions thrown at him by the likes of Pharisees or even His disciples. It didn’t seem to be an accident that Jesus rarely answered “yes” or “no” to those questions, which were mostly asked for the purposes of trickery and pegging.

So where do I land on all this? Well, for now, with Lewis and the conviction that Jesus is Lord. And with Berry and the whole thing being holy. And with St. Paul, too, and the reality of working out my salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). But none of this is to say I haven’t experienced my fair share of soul-killing, performance-based Churchianity contexts and interactions. I abhor the Christian-secular false dichotomy that recent American fundamentalism seems to have drilled into our heads. Instead, I’ve noticed that – just like the world Jesus inhabited a couple thousand years ago – there seems to be a mysterious but intimate relationship between the profane and the sacred. We all get to live in one world, and perhaps our best-case scenario is taking our leaps of faith and then trying to learn from the mistakes that we will make. And this process of continually making mistakes and bumping into other mistake-makers will require so much grace if we want any chance at experiencing a love that’s deeper than merely “being nice” to people.

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