What is a Christian? Where do you fit?
Here on the last day of the year, I've just seen a good portion of a CNN special hosted by Anderson Cooper on "What is a Christian? and Where do you fit?"
It was a surprisingly thoughtful effort to examine in some depth the mutually irreconcilable presentations of Christianity that exist in the United States today; ranging from the prosperity gospels of Joel Osteen (noted pastor and author in Houston) and Crespo Dollar (pastor of a Black mega-church outside Atlanta) to John Hagee's bizarre end-times gospel celebrating an impending Rapture and the centrality of the Jewish State in the apocalyptic battle between good and evil in his interpretation of Revelation. Alongside these movements, other spokespersons were heard as well; a young couple from a Unitarian Church in Washington D.C., Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Church fame, and James Forbes from the Riverside Church in New York. Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals and Independents were all featured in this CNN special broadcast about Christianity in America today. It was a lively discussion and debate.
I listened to the profiles of these wildly divergent spiritualities and answers to the question, "What is a Christian?", and I thought; there is an epic struggle for the soul of faith taking place. And yet for those who make the effort to study the history of the church and faith there is a certain deja vu. We've seen epic struggles for the soul of faith in previous centuries as well. The books of the Bible were selected for the canon after intense battles over what should be included and what excluded by the rule of faith. Throughout the history of Chistianity, the core values of faith have been tested in controversy and in life and death circumstances. In Nazi Germany, the soul of faith was tested by Hitler and the corrupting forces of Aryan theology. The Confessing Church theology of prominent Swiss theologian Karl Barth and the heroic example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are a part of that struggle. Here in America, the beloved community of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. adds additional perspective to the contested meaning of faith and Christianity.
In each era of history; churches, reform leaders, theologians and common believers are all engaged in the question Jesus asked his first disciples (and Peter particulary in Mark 8) "Who do people say that I am" and "Who do you say that I am?"
(Mark 8: 27, 29) Not surprisingly, the answers have diverged and a spirited struggle for the essence of faith has ensued.
Personally, I find the crass materialism of the prosperity gospel and the end-times Rapture theology of proponents such as John Hagee and Pat Robertson especially troubling. Both are major distortions of the essence of Christian faith as defined by the person and work of Jesus Christ.
At the end of the show, Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourner's Community and editor of Sojourner's Magazine, Rev. Richard Land, a key Southern Baptist leader and Rev. Dwight Hopkins of the University of Chicago Divinity School summed up their reactions to a variety of brief segments profiling the wild diversity of responses to how Americans in particular are seeking the meaning of their faith.
Jim Wallis commented that prosperity isn't a bad thing, as long as we're generous in sharing what we have with those in need. Especially in a world where billions of people live on less than $2 a day, there is a moral imperative to share. As Wallis noted, the prophetic faith of the Bible stands against such selfish materialism. Jesus taught much about wealth and poverty in the gospels, and he advocated generosity as a mark of the Kingdom of God. Richard Land called the prosperity gospel a heresy, and I think he's right. Equally heretical, I believe, is the violent scenario of the End-times theology of Hagee and Robertson. To listen to these preachers and their theology is to sense that the Cross and Resurrection are peripheral to the book of Revelation in the New Testament. Hagee and others are advocating a violent action by God for the redemption of the world. What separates this view from the violent approach of Islamic fundamentalists? It's an abhorrent theology, and ultimately selfish, in picturing so-called "true believers" who are Raptured to some idyllic heaven while leaving everyone else behind. As a friend of mine says about those who drive fancy cars with bumper stickers that say "In Case of Rapture this vehicle will be empty", please go ahead and give me the keys now!
In the coming weeks and months, I plan to revisit the question posed by Anderson Cooper on CNN: What is a Christian? Where do any of us fit in? This question is controversial; it calls Christians and churches to step forward and state their faith; it's a question that demands an answer with how we live our lives. 2007 can be a good year to wrestle with such a question.