15 September 2017
Selective Christianity is seductively attractive because it offers simple answers for complex questions, comforts the anxious without dealing with their anxieties, and equates fidelity to Christ with unquestioned obedience to doctrinaire spokespersons.
Selective Christianity is a kind of pick-and-choose religion that makes people feel good by looking at life with a kind of self-stroking barrel vision. In the old days it was called heresy. The word “heresy” comes from the Greek word hairetikos meaning “choice.” Heresies are always a selective choice. They take one part of a reality and proclaim it as the whole thing. The old Christological heresies, for example, either denied Christ’s divinity (as in Arianism and Nestorianism) or denied his humanity (as in Docetism and Marcionism). The orthodox Christian understanding of course is that Jesus Christ is human and divine. And believers in every age ponder how to best understand and express this reality…
These days I prefer the term “selective Christianity.” People select what they like to hear and what makes them feel good and important. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister whom the Nazis executed by hanging on 9 April 1945, would have called it “cheap grace.”
Selective Christianity is powerful reality in contemporary America and found among Catholics as well as Protestants….and among Republicans as well as Democrats. I guess it is not surprising that, in a time of great socio-cultural polarization, we see increased Christian polarization and unhealthy distortion and disturbances in contemporary Christianity. I resonate strongly with the recent observation of the “progressive evangelical” David Gushee, who is Director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia:
“American Christians are as hopelessly divided as the rest of American culture, these conflicts are rooted in fundamentally different perspectives on the massive social changes that have taken place in our country since the 1960s, and there is little evidence that the fight will end anytime soon. This capitulation to America’s “red” and “blue,” and the vicious conflict between them, marks a profound failure of American Christianity, reflecting weaknesses in our identity and theology that require serious reflection.”
Evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, is a case in point and high on my list of unhealthy selective Christians. He distorts the Gospel by equating far-right US politics with God’s will for America. Graham sees a “satanic liberal conspiracy” that is working against President Trump. In an interview with Charisma magazine at the end of August, Graham junior proclaimed: “Trump has the might of God behind him and liberals will be hit by thunderbolts if they try to remove him.” In sync with Franklin, televangelist Paula White, one of President Trump’s key spiritual advisers, has now declared that opposition to the president is opposition to God. This is not just selective Christianity. It is perverted Christianity.
While Franklin warns of heavenly thunderbolts, his sister, Anne Graham Lotz, warns that God is punishing and speaking to America through record-breaking fires in the northwest, hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and even the earthquake in Mexico. According to Anne, God is punishing the United States for permissive homosexuality and transgender “silliness.” Earlier in August she had warned that the solar eclipse of August 21st was God’s early warning sign to Americans about impending disaster and destruction.
Minister Kevin Swanson, a Christian broadcaster from Colorado, said Houston had sinned by having a “very, very aggressively pro-homosexual mayor.” He told his radio audience “Jesus sends the message home, unless Americans repent, unless Houston repents, unless New Orleans repents, they will all likewise perish.” His comments came just a few days after Christian radio personality Rick Wiles linked Houston’s progressive sexual attitudes with the storm. “Here’s a city that has boasted of its LGBT devotion, its affinity for the sexual perversion movement in America,” he said, and then he added: “They’re underwater.”
Actually the idea of a punishing and vengeful God is nothing new in America. The Puritans brought it with them in the eighteenth century. Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” simply reaffirmed it. Can a vengeful God however be reconciled with the life and teaching of Jesus, who constantly reaffirmed God as “abba” his loving father? A vindictive and vengeful God, sending destructive storms, is a selective Christian aberration.
From a vindictive, hard-nosed, and angry god one moves easily to vindictive, hard-nosed, and angry people. People perceived as enemies of the “faithful” become God’s enemies and should be irradiated. We saw it a month ago in Charlottesville, but we see it in our daily news as well. The list of enemies is long: blacks, gays, “liberals,” “bad hombre” Mexicans, foreigners in general, Jews, Muslims, “intellectuals,” “losers” and other “lazy bums”…..The vindictive thrive on a warped version of Christianity. They create division and destruction in the family of God. Their in-group love thrives on out-group hatred. Sin becomes virtue. When this happens, we are approaching what happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
What to do?
All — which includes you and me of course — who strongly profess to be Christian have to examine their consciences about their beliefs and actions. To what degree are they consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? We also need to be critical and dialogical bridge-builders: to enter into serious head-the-head, eye-to-eye, and heart-to-hear dialogue with other Christians about our understanding of the Gospel and how it challenges us to speak and behave in contemporary society.
Some observations for reflection and dialogue:
(1) Caesaropapism: This is an exaggerated political understanding which sees the head of state as the key religious leader: God’s spokesperson. Variations on the theme are that the United States is (or should be) a Christian theocracy, or even a “white Christian America.” Perhaps the “America first” doctrine is pernicious and anti-Christian because it really asks Americans to replace worship of God with worship of the nation?
(2) A conflictual relationship between science and faith: This is a false conflict actually, because both science and faith pursue ultimate truth. Red flags begin to wave however when religious leaders begin to warn about the dangers of asking questions about God, Reality, and human nature. Our theological and ethical understandings do change and evolve – along with our understanding of what it means that be a human person with dignity and self-worth, regardless of race or gender.
(3) A conflict between a literal and an historical-critical understanding of Sacred Scripture: One of my favorite biblical scholars, John Dominic Crossan, summed it up this way: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
(4) Being pro-life: Being “pro-life” means being opposed to abortion but much more. Doesn’t being “pro-life” demand a consistent-ethic-of-life morality? For years I have been amazed by those once active anti-abortion pro-life people who seem to ignore human life once the fetus becomes a baby, a child dying of hunger, an impoverished person, the poor, the unemployed, even the criminal awaiting execution on death row. I agree wth Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich that being pro-life also means being pro-gun-control. Taking effect yesterday, Cardinal Cupich has issued a decree banning guns in all parishes, schools and other facilities across the Archdiocese of Chicago. Anyone found with a gun on archdiocesan property will be asked to remove it from the premises and will not be allowed to return until it’s gone. Clergy and Catholic institution staff members will also face disciplinary action if they fail to comply with Cupich’s directive.
(5) Taking the Incarnation seriously in today’s world: The Incarnation means that God is with us in our humanity — everyone’s humanity: black, white, every culture, every religion, every race and nationality. It is God’s amazing grace. Once we really begin to appreciate what this means and what it asks of us, we can all chant the lyrics of the old song: “I once was lost but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.”
4 thoughts on “Selective Christianity”
Excellent, Jack. Thank you!!
Thanks, Jack, for another learned, thought-provoking essay!
I thank my friend, Dave Rock, for sharing your blog. Totally resonate with your exposition. Reminds me of the epithet “cafeteria Catholics” used by the “administrators”–as Anthony Padovano terms the hierarchy–while they themselves would cling to selective christian doctrine in history and scripture.
Very happy to see acute analysis accompanied by useful and cogent thoughts about what to do. It’s easy to despair when the wheels are so evidently off.