Saying "Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists" is like saying that it once was better, as if there was a golden age of glorious Christianity at some point in the past. Was that golden age in the 80s when our most prominent spokespeople were Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jim Bakker? Or the 60s, when a girl would get pregnant and be shipped out of town? Or the 40s, when we imprisoned those who couldn't fight in the war without destroying their conscience? And we can go even further back and find terrible atrocities.
I am always a little hesitant to look at some point in the past as the golden age.
I'm encouraged by the church these days. What I see in the church today is a great thing, albeit mired at times and places by confusion. Not that the church being in a good place is exclusive to our era. People are going back to the Scriptures. People are trying to following Jesus no matter how radical those teachings might be. People are recognizing that the church is more about relationships than institution. And I see many churches who are living out their witness to their community and the world together. I think we are in good times for the church. Sullivan might just need to find a different, healthy church to be part of.
This is the first time that I have encountered the idea that Jefferson mutilating his Bible and picking and choosing what passages he wanted to follow was a positive thing. That twist is new to me. But there is this fad today of only following the teachings of Jesus. It's not the worst thing in the world. But comparing Jefferson to Jesus is strange. Jefferson cannot be lifted up as nonviolent, one of the tenets of the Gospel that Sullivan keeps bringing up as a good thing. Jefferson was one the key figures in the preparations for the Revolutionary War and was the governor of Virginia during it. When he became President, he initiated the Barbary Wars, which set the tone early on for American international military excursions. Jefferson might have done a lot of great things, but he didn't live by the teachings of Jesus as Sullivan decribes them. Actually, Jefferson was a man who claimed to be a follower of Jesus and then used politics to give Jesus a bad name, just like the people that are easy to criticize from the modern era. Stumbling, bumbling, modern-day followers of Jesus are easier to criticize than Jefferson because we have not yet made them into gods.
The idea that organized religion is in trouble is an American fallacy. Some of the mainline denominations have not made the transition into the modern era and are in trouble, dwindling in numbers. But church attendance appears to be steady throughout the land. There has been a great non-denomination surge. Now, I live in an area where that attendance is lower than the national average, but the national average is pretty impressive.
Sullivan really needs to read two articles. I find it hard to believe that he doesn't already know these things. Many evangelicals, like myself, are not Santorum supporters nor do we consider ourselves Republicans. Jim Wallis wrote Defining "Evangelicals" in an Election Year. I understand when secular writers have swallowed the talking points about who evangelicals are, but Sullivan should have known better.
And my brief article talking about church attendance through the years. Obsessing Over Oddities - The Focus of a Life in Jesus and The False Assumption that Church Attendance is Declining in America.
Sullivan has swallowed some teachings that are a little off. He writes, "He [Jesus] was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant." Jesus didn't expect an imminent End of the World. He expected an imminent arrival of the Kingdom. That is different than the end of the world. His followers were also not expecting an end of the world, but a resurgence of the kingdom of Israel. They didn't get what they wanted although the kingdom did arrive; it just looked and behaved differently. Now, one could argue that Paul misunderstood the imminence of the end of the world. I think that point could be made.
Sullivan also wrote, "He [Jesus] disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him." Really? Jesus gave some harsh statements about family, but His "disowned" mother was there with Him at the cross and He asked John to take care of her. Doesn't sound like the type of "disowned" Sullivan is going after.
Sullivan does hit the same points that I hit. We should care more about being like Jesus than attacking homosexuality. We spend our time attacking the world rather than examining ourselves and being the light of the world. I would echo what Paul said, "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you”
(1 Cor 5:12-13 ESV). But Paul is not en vogue and should apparently be discarded.
Sullivan's main point is right on. It's just convoluted getting there. "Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching."
And then Sullivan hits his stride when he tackles Francis (again, an illustration that the church is continually resisting the siren call of the world and its power).
"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. But it also means, at times, renouncing Caesar in favor of the Christ to whom Jefferson, Francis, my grandmother, and countless generations of believers have selflessly devoted themselves."Amen. Mostly. Jefferson became Caesar, so I still propose that Jefferson is not a good example of renouncing the ways of Caesar, but the point is great.
"I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God. What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends."This whole talk of Jesus being reasonalbe goes somewhere I wouldn't want to go. I would much rather follow Francis' life of self-sacrifice and refuse a pillow. Might be completely unreasonable, but there is something beautiful in it.
Christianity is in crisis. But this is nothing new. It has been in crisis as early as the conference in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15. Throughout the letters of Paul, we see him dealing with crisis after crisis that the church faced at that time. I would avoid discarding everything except the teachings of Jesus, for then we will eventually have a different crisis on our hands. But I would also avoid making complex systematic theologies that get us so focused on doctrine that we ignore the clear and simple teachings of Jesus.
Let's love the story of God. Let's live the story of God. Let's not imagine that it is contained only in the Gospels. Let's let it overflow from our lives.