Christianity in Crisis: Response to Andrew Sullivan

Earlier this month, Newsweek magazine published its traditional pre-Easter issue with a cover story devoted to Christian things. (see my 4/9/2012 blog for a response to the pre-Easter cover story in Time magazine). This feature article, “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus” is written by Andrew Sullivan, a regular contributor to Newsweek‘s webzine, The Daily Beast. Sullivan’s article may be found here.

Sullivan is a complicated fellow: an openly gay Roman Catholic who considers himself to be politically conservative and who supported George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Knowing this, it is not a stretch to learn that one of Sullivan’s heroes in both religious and political matters is Thomas Jefferson. Sullivan begins his essay by invoking Jefferson’s famous cut-and-paste of the Gospels supposedly to produce the pure, unadulterated teachings of Jesus, untainted by the biases of Jesus’ followers or the later theologians of the church. This selective Jeffersonian reading of the New Testament allows Sullivan to assert that Jefferson considered “vast parts of the Bible as religious manure.” According to Sullivan, Jefferson claimed to be a “real Christian,” a “disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” This is what Sullivan wants (although Sullivan admits to believing in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus, things Jefferson would not have accepted).

Sullivan’s analysis is that the “sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching” is to accept and love of all other human beings. Sullivan paints a parody of Evangelical Christianity as characterized by a prosperity gospel, anti-scholarship biblical literalness, anti-science mindset, and support for government torture of 9/11 suspects. According to Sullivan, “It would make Jefferson shudder.”

Sullivan’s main contention: Christianity is in crisis. The fastest growing “segment of belief” among young people is atheism. Many have rejected the church for undefined personal spirituality. But Sullivan also despairs of these trends, for he admits that atheism or generic spirituality cannot answer the great questions of life:

  • “Why does the universe exist instead of nothing?”
  • “How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet?”
  • “What happens to us after death?”

Sullivan’s bottom line is that a reasoned Christianity, rooted in the moral teachings of Jesus, is a needed influence in the political arena. “When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all.”

My response: much of this seems to revolve around the ownership of the word “Christian.” The word itself is a transliteration (augh!) of the Greek word christianos, It does not mean “little Christ” as is sometimes taught, but “partisan of Christ.” A parallel in the New Testament is the term “Herodian” (see Mark 3:6), who were not “little Herods” but supporters of Herod Antipas, the quasi-king of Galilee. Christians were those who self-identified Christ as their leader. They were his disciples, his followers.

Sullivan is right that the term “Christian” has been highjacked in the media only to include a certain type of Christian: socially conservative, Republican or Libertarian, anti-government, anti-tax, angry white folks. But this is neither the fault of the church or of Christians in general. The term “Christian” could be applied to 2-3 billion people on planet earth, and this one slice of an American variety hardly constitutes the whole. The sloppiness of the media on both the right and the left has contributed to this, and has allowed a politically motivated extremism to seem to speak for all Christians.

I am proud to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. I am also proud to wear the label of an Evangelical Christian, one who cares deeply about spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am proud to be a member of a Christian Church, full of people I don’t agree with politically, but with whom I share a common faith and hope. I am proud to trust and follow the Bible, which will always need interpretation, but is never manure. I took my stand on these things many years ago, and I have not changed.

Side-notes: Other responses to Sullivan worth reading are by David Sessions, Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, and Dan White. Sullivan himself wrote a response to Sessions entitled “Which Jesus Do You Follow?” Also, to Mr. Sullivan (if you read this) on your phrase “threat of apocalyptic war,” see my blog on “Theological Mistakes: Apocalypse Now” from April 25.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College