The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. – G.K. Chesterton
The Original Christian Art Form
Rather than an institutionalized religious system that was established immediately in the wake of Jesus’ presence in the world, the term Christian was the name given to describe a fringe group of early adopters who caught Jesus’ third way of being in the world. They were given the name “Christians” because their thought, speech, and a behavior looked like Christ. This early community broke down the barriers between male and female, Jew and Samaritan, rich and poor, and identified with the outsider. Alexander Shaia (who elaborates on this in much greater detail) argues that communion and community in equal status before God and with each other is the original Christian art form. Shaia continues:
What is so sad today is that ministers, clergy, and people sitting in pews feel like they have to leave some part of their authenticity outside the door. And that’s absolutely against the original Christian art form. The original Christian art form is, “Come to our table as you are. Speak of your radiance. Speak of the truth of your life. By bringing the truth of your life, that makes us stronger. That makes us more true. That builds our harmony. We are not a tradition of uniformity. We are a tradition of a radiant diversity. We are a tradition of a diamond which has a thousand facets and as the radiance of those facets are reflected off, the radiance of our God becomes more clear.1
The term Christian does not translate as “little Christs” but that is the idea behind they way this term was used. It was used to describe the earliest Christian communities trying to practice a radical new way of inclusivity and love in the decades following Jesus’ life. Some of these early sects simply called this new form of being in the world The Way.
“We’re doing our best to practice and model the way of being in the world that Jesus demonstrated,” they might have said.
This is why I think the question, “Are you a Christian?” is a very strange one. Whether someone is Christian or not is probably best left as a public verdict rather than a self-description. I understand that what a person is getting at in asking this question is whether or not one ascribes to a particular set of religious tenets, whether they go to church, whether they believe in a certain set of beliefs, etc. But when someone asks me, “Are you a Christian?” I want to respond with, “I’m not so sure, am I?”
You cannot be a philosophical vegetarian. You become a vegetarian through the practice of not eating meat.
You cannot be a believe your way to being an electrician. You become an electrician actually performing tasks of electrical wiring and installation.
You cannot consider yourself a musician if you do not play an instrument.
You cannot be a comedian if you are not funny or never utilize humor.
You cannot call yourself a historian if you never study history.
You cannot be a Christian (in my understanding of the term) unless you are living, acting, and operating in the world in a way that resembles the incarnate Christ—just as one cannot be a vegetarian unless they cease eating meat. (I’m saying all of this a bit tongue-in-cheek, because merely saying “it’s a balance” between beliefs and action is too easy and too uninteresting—so don’t get too defensive. We exist under a large umbrella of mercy and grace.)
Now, you could argue that this is all splitting hairs over semantics, but sometimes you have to let the pendulum swing both ways before it settles nicely in the middle. What would happen if you saw someone going around calling themselves a magician but never performed illusions? Or if you met a self-proclaimed mathematician who never solved equations? You’d either consider them to very confused, or acknowledge that they are not yet living in a way that reflects their self-labeling—or both. It’s altogether different to say that one would like to be a magician or a mathematician someday and that is what one is working toward, but it’s not fitting to claim such titles when there is no expressed evidence of what those titles signify.
In many ways, the contemporary religion of Christianity is a complete reversal of the early use of the term used to describe the early adopters of a different way of being in the world. Modern Christian religion tends to concern itself more with whether or not one believes in a literal hell or if that person believes a particular sexual orientation is a sin than it does with whether or not that person is a loving husband, benevolent father, kind friend, or a good steward. The early Christians were not called as such because of their beliefs, but rather because of what they looked like, how they lived, and how they functioned in the world (though I do understand that actions and behavior can be an extension of belief). If the original Christian art form is one of radical diversity and identification with the marginalized (very subversive acts both politically and religiously) then we have certainly regressed today. In fact, modern religion is more apt to focus on one’s professed beliefs in spite of a person’s bigotry. It appears that religion and private beliefs have taken precedence over one’s way of being in the world. It seems that religion and private beliefs have taken precedence over the subversive practices of inclusiveness and identification with the marginalized—again, a complete reversal of the original community that responded to Jesus’ vision.
So what we have today is quite odd considering Jesus did a rather poor job at communicating exactly what should and shouldn’t be considered orthodox belief, perfect doctrine, official church positions, etc. In fact, Jesus seemed to focus on a certain way of being in the world in spite of beliefs. When people would outright ask him a question he would ask another question in return or tell a parable (quite a contrast to the glib and overly simplistic answers offered by many religious leaders today). The fact that parable was Jesus’ primary and most distinctive mode of communication is quite interesting and worth further comment.
Myth vs. Parable
Myth is often used to deepen meaning, but a parable blows the meaning wide open.
I’ll quote William H. Willimon from his book The Intrusive Word at length here because he summarizes this so well. Keep in mind that Jesus was in the business of telling parables.
Myth, says [John Dominic] Crossan, attempts to mediate opposites, explain mystery, reconcile polarities, to take the randomness out of life and weave it into a believable pattern. In myth, bad guys get what they deserve, and the good are rewarded. Through myth, there are explanations for the apparent incongruities of life, reasons given by the gods….
Myth explains, settles, closes the gaps in our consciousness.
Crossan says myth’s polar opposite is parable. “Parable brings not peace but the sword, . . . parable casts fire upon the earth.” Parable is meant to change us, not reassure us. Parable is always a somewhat unnerving experience. The standard reaction to parable is “I don’t know what you mean by that story, but I’m certain I don’t like it.”
Crossan argues that myth has as its function the creation of a belief in the possibility of permanent reconciliation between the polarities and contradictions that bedevil us. Parable hopes to create contradiction within our complacent securities. “You have built a lovely home, myth assures us; but, whispers parable, you are right above an earthquake fault.” Myth establishes the world. Parable subverts [the] world. Parable creates humility by reminding us of limits, by enticing us right up to the very edge of certitude, forcing us to peer over into the terrifying abyss of a world we do not know.2
So Jesus seemed more concerned with shattering assurances and rupturing securities than he did with making sure everyone agreed on theories of atonement or what exact behaviors or beliefs were sinful and heretical and what ones weren’t. Jesus was constantly breaking social barriers, challenging cultural customs, and subverting empire. So how does this Jesus fit into the modern Christian religious world that has become obsessed with determining who’s in and who’s out? Or with the religion that conspires with empire rather than subverting it? The religious gatekeepers of today are the same people who tried to pin Jesus down on particular questions, to which Jesus answered in parable—remember what parable does?
Christianity, I am arguing, is not so much a belief as it is a trajectory and a way of being. Wherever you find yourself in life, you have to keep making the choice to open yourself up more to love and grace. The sacred is not a thing, but a dimension of depth in all things.
Please note: I’m not trying to make a judgement on anyone or claim that I know who or what is or isn’t a Christian, as I know someone will inevitably accuse me of. I’m simply hoping to expand the conversation surrounding what it mean then to be a practitioner of The Way vs. institutionalized religion today—and draw attention to the fact that Jesus did not seem to be as concerned about many of the details that have become of primary concern in religious circles today.
1Episode 52 | Alexander Shaia & Our Gospel Journey 2: John (Podcast interview)
Photo by Lance Baker, Bar Harbor Maine