A year ago, I picked up a book entitled Goodbye Jesus. It is the first-person narrative of a Baptist minister who, after three decades as a pastor, gave it all up: church, Jesus, God—the whole thing!
I interviewed him for a podcast (and you can find that conversation on the Podcast page of the website).
This week I faced a double-barrel denial of the faith.
Joshua Harris is the one-time darling of the sexual purity movement within Evangelical Christianity. His book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, made him famous—I don’t know about the rich part.
This week he announced his separation and divorce from his wife of 20 years; then this: “I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is ‘deconstruction’, the biblical phrase is ‘falling away’. By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian.”
It is a good thing to let people define themselves, and if a person does not want to be known as a Christian, or a Democrat, or a Shriner, or a KA, or whatever, the best thing to do is let them be, let them be whatever they want to be.
But when a longtime friend of mine, Tom Wisdom, came out of his own religious closet, I stumbled.
He wrote on my Facebook page this summary statement, after reading an article I had posted about “The False and Idolatrous Narrative of American Christianity.” He wrote: “I no longer identify as a Christian.”
Tom and I go way back, to Hazelwood High School in St. Louis, where he and I and Tom Billings were widely known as the preacher boys in the school. We also sang in a gospel quartet (and I know some of you find his renouncing the faith easier to believe than me singing in a gospel quartet).
I stayed with my Baptist tradition, securing a seminary education and a ministerial ordination, and serving churches and institutions for 40 years. Tom went in another direction with his ministerial preparation and service, retiring just last year as a Presbyterian pastor in Texas.
I understand why church life would drive people out of religion: it is always tough and often cruel. We join up with Jesus because we encounter God, admire Jesus, and sense a call to change the world. “Now abides faith, hope, and love,” the apostle assures us about the religion we so gladly embrace, “and the greatest of these is love.” All we want to do is love everybody into the kingdom of God.
But then we are slowly immersed into congregational life and church history: petty, provincial, and frequently in the grasp of personalities that are narcissistic, narrowminded, or not at all interested in loving people after the manner of Jesus.
And then we learn about all that our ancestors have done in the name of Jesus: killing and enslaving, denouncing heretics and dunking witches, denying opportunity to women and devising ways to marginalize a wide range of people. It is an ugly record with few traces of faith, hope, and love and plenty narratives of power and oppression.
In our day, never-ending revelations of sexual abuse by religious leaders and unheard-of enthusiasm for ungodly political leaders leave us dumbfounded and despairing.
It doesn’t take long to resonate with the summary statement of Gandhi: “I love your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
A Christian said the same thing more than 150years ago, reflecting on his experience as a slave living under the whip of church-going masters:
“Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible different—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
That is the testimony of Frederick Douglass in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which I review this weekend in The Meetinghouse.
Then and now, I understand why people want to shed the word Christian, as Tom Krattenmacker did a few years back. The popular religion columnist for USA Today newspaper put it all in a book with the provocative title, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.
He told me in an interview, “I am not a Christian” but he wrote in his book of the Jesus solutions to just about every social problem in America. He wants to follow Jesus just not into a Christian church.
I have a great deal of sympathy for this parade of post-Christians confessions. Though I have never tempted to follow them, neither am I ever tempted to judge them. I just want to follow Jesus, which is what I mean by being a Christian.
copyright@2019 Dwight A. Moody