Yesterday, the Barna Group, a Christian research firm, released a new study that said white Christians are even less motivated to address issues of racial injustice than they were a year ago.
I’m not going to lie, the past few years (and, more specifically, few months) have made it incredibly difficult for me to want to call myself a Christian.
This has nothing to do with being ashamed of Jesus or the Gospel. On the contrary, it’s the growing exasperation with a virulent strain of Americanized Christianity that uses its influence to justify thinly-veiled nationalism, spread baseless conspiracy theories, tolerate white supremacy, and sacrifice conviction in exchange for political power.
I was talking to a friend last night about how the political/social divides among Christians in America no longer feel like “differences in theological opinion.”
Instead, it feels as if we’re literally following different gods.
Scot Mcknight, a New Testament scholar and professor, has his first-year students fill out two questionnaires every fall semesters.
The first questionnaire — given at the beginning of the semester — asks the students to describe what they think Jesus is like — his passions, concerns, pet peeves, etc. Mcknight records their answers but doesn’t share the results with the class.
Halfway through the semester, McKnight has his students fill out the second questionnaire. Using slightly different language, the second survey asks the students to describe themselves, their personalities, and the values and issues they think are important.
Once again, McKnight records their answers but doesn’t share the results with the class.
At the end of the semester, McKnight compiles the results of both surveys and shares them with the class. Without fail, there is little to no deviation between how the students perceive Jesus and how they perceive themselves.
McKnight concludes, “The test results suggest that, even though we like to think we becoming like Jesus, the reverse is probably more the case: We try to make Jesus like ourselves.”
Or, to paraphrase the 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire,
“God created us in his own image, and we have more than returned the favor.”
Sociologists even have a word for this phenomenon: Totemism.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a test devised by Christian writer Skye Jethani: Name one strongly held opinion of yours that you know differs from that of God.
I’ll give you a minute. Think of one issue that you and God disagree on.
You’re probably struggling to think of a single thing. And that’s kinda strange, right? You and God have the exact same opinions about life, the universe, and everything? You align on every hot button issue tearing our country apart right now?
In Following Jesus, theologian N.T. Wright says,
“Plenty of people in the church and outside it have made up a ‘Jesus’ for themselves, and have found this invented character makes few real demands of them. He makes them feel happy from time to time but doesn’t challenge them, doesn’t suggest they get up and do something about the plight of the world. Which is, of course, what the real Jesus had an uncomfortable habit of doing.”
We naturally seek out faith communities that will cater to (or at least tolerate) our preferred version of Jesus. And thus, we surround ourselves with like-minded people who will rarely challenge our beliefs, values, and priorities.
As Anne Lamott says,
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”
Over time, these faith communities solidify into politically-powerful demographics with established social hierarchies that reward those who align with, don’t challenge, and/or vow to preserve the cultural norms of the community.
And this creates theological echo chambers and cultural feedback loops in which a person’s view of God is continuously reinforced while any valid criticism is interpreted as an attack on God Himself.
I know this all sounds terribly cynical, but it’s totally natural and just how people organize themselves within society. It’s not limited to Christianity (or religious belief, in general), and none of us (including me) are immune to evolutionary quirk.
But I think all of this helps explain why so many of us feel so spiritually and politically homeless.
The white capitalistic self-help guru Jesus who just wants you to be a good spouse/parent and grateful for all of your material blessings and privilege just isn’t going to cut it for a generation of young people who are far more concerned with making a difference in the world than preserving the white/hetero-normative-patriarchal status quo of generations past (or restoring some mythic fairy-tale version of America that only exists in the minds of the historically illiterate).
That god needs to die and stay dead.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28–30, The Message
However, this is not a call to let culture shape the direction of the Church.
But it is an invitation into the possibility that maybe the story God is telling is still cascading through the fabric of our reality and breaking down barriers we erected out of our misguided attempts to preserve our cultural dominance — and Christians have an opportunity to be ahead of the curve, rather than behind it.
If you’re struggling with this idea, consider the fact that in any other century of church history, everything from your church’s desegregated congregation to the woman onstage leading Sunday worship would’ve probably been considered antithetical to the established doctrine and cultural norms of the period.
At the same time, progressive iterations of Christianity run the risk of deconstructing themselves into oblivion. Reformations born solely out of frustration and disenchantment may flare brightly for a little bit, but they inevitably burn out. In order to survive, faith communities need unifying narratives that push them to deeper levels of spiritual awakening, trust, and compassion.
But, as we’ve seen with other more established forms of Christianity, it’s very easy for those unifying narratives to be hijacked by highly volatile and reactionary worldviews that perceive every slight and disagreement as partisan-driven persecution — a predisposition that inadvertently invites more animosity and ridicule.
In Where Goodness Still Grows, Amy Peterson writes,
“People of my generation aren’t leaving the church because their devious atheist professors got to them, but because they saw a church more interested in defending political positions than in loving their neighbors.”
From the private messages and emails I’ve received, I know I’m not alone in my existential angst and confusion. You are not alone.
But I think it’s also about time we stop endlessly deconstructing what we already know isn’t working and get to work on reconstructing something better.
“See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not see it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.”
For a better exploration on totemism and how it relates to Christianity, I recommend With by Skye Jethani; If you’re in dire need of a fresh perspective on your exhausted faith, I recommend, Where Goodness Still Grows by Amy Peterson and The Great Spiritual Migration by Brian McLaren; For racial conciliation, I recommend The Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew Hart; For more on human behavior and the pratfalls of modern society, read Tribe by Sebastian Junger; and for the best book on Christianity and politics, pick up Jesus For President by Shane Claiborne.