BHT Fellow leif rigney abandons the name “Christian,” but holds onto the faith once delivered.
One of my finest friendships is with OBI graduate, former OBI teacher, former member of the church where I preach, current English professor and BHT fellow lief (eric) rigney. He’s a top ten friend who I was always honored to share my pulpit with during the years we worked together.
leif grew up in Baptist revivalism and endured six years of Baptist boarding school, so he knows the side of evangelicalism that produced the Internet Monk. For the first two years of the Internet Monk site, he was a co-author, writing some of the best pieces to appear in these spaces. His defenses of Harry Potter and Cussin’ are still popular essays.
A recent BHT discussion took up an unusual subject that proved to be of more than casual interest to leif. The topic was the usefulness of the term “Christian.” What would be the result of just giving up the term entirely? Not faith in Jesus, mind you, but the label “Christian.” leif found the suggestion more than intriguing. He’s taking the challenge and is blogging his experiences along the way.
I may interact with leif at different places. At this point, I’ll content myself with some preliminary comments.
For starters, leif has the Bible on his side. The term Christian is never commanded to be used in any way by scripture itself. The term occurs three times:
Acts 11:26 And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
Acts 26:28 28 And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?”
1 Peter 4:16 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
None of these occurrences bears any particular imperative of compulsory weight. The name Christian is, in fact, a derogatory term, given to the disciples of Jesus by their detractors. It is as Christians that some may suffer, because Christians are fit subjects for persecution. Agrippa is amazed that Paul would attempt to persuade him to join such as despised sect.
In no New Testament epistle does Paul assume or use the term Christian(s). There are many other terms with pedigrees that suggest common use: disciples, saints, followers of The Way. That Christians have adopted the term “Christian” is a bit of a historical accident. As that accident has unfolded, “Christian” has become a term applied to a wide variety of meanings and associations. Some of these are unfortunate, painful and embarrassing associations (which I feel leif has seriously undersold. Things are much worse than his brief post allows.)
Of course, the same historical accident has brought about many positive, fortunate and helpful associations. leif may be correct that sorting through the difference between Mother Theresa, Fred Phelps and rioters seeking revenge against Muslims is a lot of trouble.
I’m convinced that rigney’s interest in southern literature is a contributing factor to this experiment. Most of us who live in the south are aware that the name Christian has suffered the indignity of being equated with so many different aspects of southern culture that a person really has no idea if a Christian is a racist or a martyr against racism. Finding a path through this confusion may necessitate something like an abandonment of the abused and obscured term, in order to refocus the meaning of “Christ” in any meaningful way.
(I noticed today that Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown labels himself as a devoted Christian. Point…rigney.)
George Barna and others may be suggesting that what we are seeing with rigney is not particularly unusual. Are there many people who are Jesus-focused, Jesus-trusting, Jesus-inspired, Jesus-worshipping….but also intentionally standing outside the “boundaries” of official Christianity in ways such as this? I believe quite possibly so. Christian history would say there have always been Christians who avoided the name for varying reasons. Even as prominent a contemporary voice as Bono is reluctant to use the label Christian, quite probably for the same reasons as rigney.
Having said all of this, you may be surprised that I am going to be somewhere between neutral and critical on the entire experiment.
1. I have some experience with eschewing labels. I have abandoned the term “Calvinist.” Now if you run a checklist of what Calvinists believe, I would still be well above 80%, but I simply do not want to associate myself with what is called “Calvinism” in the real world. Even with my agreement with much of Calvinistic belief and practice, I am still NOT a Calvinist. At the core of the whole term is something that I cannot affirm; namely that God has organized truth in such a way that the best way to label it is Calvinism. I don’t believe that.
I even understand the impulse to avoid the label “Christian.” Since “Christian” is now an identifier with a whole subculture and market niche, I avoid saying that something I am listening to is “Christian” music, for example, as if that means something particularly helpful.
This discussion, however, frequently becomes quite irritating to knowledgeable persons. They understand what I am trying to do, and my refusal to allow some music to be labelled doesn’t move them to think differently about the music. It simply causes them to deal differently with me. The more knowledgable the conversation partner, the more annoyance.
I suspect this is where rigney’s experiment will go, at least in many instances. Because he is affirming Christianity, he won’t avoid the negative connotations as much as he will cause his conversation partners a minor bit of consternation for being the “Christian who says he’s not one.”
2. In a descriptive sense, rather than an associative sense, it seems perfectly reasonable to use a shorthand label. If rigney finds himself in a discussion with Muslims and Hindus, his refusal to use the label Christian will be both helpful (in disassociating Christ from the acts of Christians) and confusing (“What’s the difference between what you are and a Christian?”)
Is there a difference?
3. If the purpose is apologetic, I see possibilities in the creation of conversations, but the situation becomes more complicated as time goes on. For example, if someone who does not believe the essentials of Christianity hears rigney say, “I am not a Christian,” he is entitled to say “rigney is like me.” This would be inaccurate and misleading.
Eventually, the refusal to use the adjective Christian will simply necessitate the replacement of the term with a number of sentences that, while relieving rigney of the responsibility of associating his worldview with the negative aspects of Christianity, may obscure the relationship of what he believes to the positive aspects of Christianity.
I am not one of the Christians who is killing Indians, but am I one of the Christians who is feeding the hungry?
4. All of us who feel the need to deconstruct our evangelicalism can admire what rigney is seeking to do, but I am skeptical that demolition or abandonment of the term, rather than judicious use, clarification and vital connection to Jesus Christ, is the way to go.
Many in the Emerging Church would applaud rigney’s project, but I must wonder what happens in these communities when the avoidance of a term creates a void that is replaced byfar less useful terms or just confusion.
It is far better to place the focus on Jesus, and to clarify that focus so that the relation of Jesus to history and faith is fairly presented. I am not as concerned about whether my educated friends understand my Christianity as I am that they know the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus defines the “Christ” in Christian. The good, the bad and the ugly regarding Christians ought to be told, not avoided. The truth about Jesus is not “Christian.” Jesus is the only thing worth knowing about anything that is “Christian.” It is Jesus who judges and defines the term, and I would welcome that process.
I look forward to more posts from leif chronicling his experiment, and I hope IM commenters will share their thoughts here and at leif’s blog.