We are home from a three day trip on one of the nation's “Wild and Scenic Rivers.” One night in a decrepit motel, but clean and functional. Two nights in tents. A wonderful adventure in every way. However, this article is not about life on the river. It’s about “I’m not a Christian.”
There were twenty of us on the trip. We got through one full day before someone finally asked, and I admitted to being an Episcopal priest. It created a little confusion. Some couldn’t pronounce Episcopal. Some had heard of such a thing but were unsure what it might be. One was proud to explain her non-denominational fundamentalist affiliation. No one was very interested in pursuing the matter, mostly for fear of being evangelized in a place where there was no escape. But that’s not what I want to talk about either.
“I’m not a Christian,” was said by one of us in a gentle but firm voice. It was neither offensive nor defensive. What he meant was that he was not a right wing religious bigot, and to him being Christian and being a right wing religious bigot were the same thing.
An evening gathered with others on the banks of a river is not the time or place to dig into it, but I got the impression that he had experienced some of that in his life, and had certainly been exposed to it in the town where he lived. No doubt he had also seen evidence of it on television or radio. How did we get to a place where being Christian could so easily be taken that way? Moreover, it’s not the only distortion popularly held to define Christianity. High on the list is the assumption that Christianity is a religious fairy tale with no more authenticity than any other made up religion. Or it is a set of beliefs contrary to and in denial of scientific fact and reason.
Stomping around like Rumplestiltskin asserting that the bible is the Word of God, literal or otherwise, only lends credence to the distortions already in evidence. I wish I knew what the solution might be, but I don’t. However, I do think that the Churches of the Reformation, including Roman Catholics and Anglicans, have to be more vigorous in publicly asserting the faith that has been inherited through two thousand years of success and failure yet working hard to follow where Christ and the Apostles have led.
That’s easier said than done. I was at a clergy meeting recently where a couple of seminarian summer interns spoke about their experience going door to door to share, if they could, the good news. What little success they had was minuscule. More often it was a slammed door or curt cold shoulder. Why? Probably for the same reason you behave that way when a couple of missionaries call at your door. And probably also because the reputation of Christians as right wing bigots who believe in fairy tales and deny reason has spread more broadly and deeply than we like to think possible.
I suspect that spread is aided and abetted by market driven media that understands that the more bizarre and abusive a representative of anything can be portrayed as being, the more appealing it can be to an audience that wants to be entertained and outraged at the same time. The calm, reasoned voice has so little going for it. It’s best left to PBS or C-Span. I think it is also aided and abetted by the lukewarm, weak tea that has been passed off as mainline Christianity for far too many recent decades.
The one bright spot, at least for the moment, appears to be Pope Francis. He may be the official leader of only a portion of the Church, a portion that is prone to claim more than it has a right to carry, but right now he is the de facto leader of us all, and more denominational heads would do well to be as bold.