On Being “Christian”. Or Not.

Thirteen percent of American citizens do not believe Barack Obama when he says he is a Christian. I’m hardly an apologist for the political status quo, but it seems like you might not have to look too hard to find thirteen percent of American citizens who wouldn’t believe Barack Obama if he said the Earth orbited the Sun instead of the other way around. While some of these folks are being rebutted, it still raises an issue worth thinking about: who gets to say who’s “Christian” and who’s not?

I’ve been surprised to be on the outside of that consideration before. My wife jokes that I’m a “heathen Protestant”, but that’s in good fun. I did have a professor remark that we were all Christians in a classroom, with the aside “or near enough to it” directed my way referencing my Quaker beliefs. Sure, I could have argued that George Fox was pretty thorough-going as a Christian and that the majority of Meetings worldwide are more likely to be mistaken for a Methodist Church than anything outside the umbrella of generally considered “Christian” belief, but frankly I’m tired of doing so. When I first started attending Meeting in the mid-1990s, I had to explain to my mother that yes: Quakers believe in Jesus Christ. Generally. We’re just not compelled to do so by authority. And that’s where it gets complicated.

To my reading of the Gospels, Jesus didn’t lay out too many dogmatic guidelines for a church to follow his teachings. Anything we have that we can turn to for such guidance comes from at least twenty to thirty years after the crucifixion: a very long time indeed in an oral culture. So without firm guidelines, we turn to a version of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy in defining the beliefs of others for them. For those unfamiliar, this circular argument runs as follows:

  • No Scotsman eats sugar in his porridge.
  • Angus from Glasgow eats sugar in his porridge.
  • OK, fine then. No TRUE Scotsman eats sugar in his porridge.

And we do this all the time in Christian communities. “No Christian would do or believe X” becomes “No TRUE Christian would do or believe X” when confronted with a Christian who has in fact done or believed X. So Billy Graham’s son has decided that no TRUE Christian can behave or believe as Barack Obama does. Thankfully, it’s not up to Franklin Graham to decide what does or does not constitute a true Christian. And quite frankly if being a TRUE Christian means following Franklin Graham, I’d rather be false.

Excommunicated for saving a life

When she took her vows years ago, I doubt Sister Margaret McBride ever thought that she would have to make a choice between remaining in the Roman Catholic Church and saving someone’s life. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. I share reporters Dan Harris and Claudia Morales in their incredulity over how quickly this happened. As we listen to news reports of pedophiles keeping their pulpits for years after their crimes have been discovered, we now hear about Sister Margaret. She’s been excommunicated because she allowed a medically-necessary abortion. Had she not allowed this procedure, both mother and fetus would have been lost. She saved one. She’s been thrown out of her church.

I can only think of one verse in the entire Hebrew and Christian scripture to speak to this situation. John 11:35:

Jesus wept.

Fort Hood

I was away at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting when news came through to Montreal that a United States soldier had opened fire on his fellows at Fort Hood in Texas. The initial media coverage was predictably scattered. Reports were coming in too fast to parse: the shooter was dead, the shooter wasn’t dead, we didn’t really know who it was, no–we know who it is.

It turns out that the man in custody for these shootings is a United States Army psychiatrist named Nadal Hasan. He is a Muslim. That’s about where the media coverage flew off the rails of discourse, crash landing in a smoking heap of polemic. Some bloggers have posited this indisputably tragic event in terms evocative of Armageddon. Other opinion pieces point out the thorny nature of the question posed by Hasan’s actions: namely, can we talk about one extremist’s beliefs without maligning an entire tradition?

I confess that I do not have an answer. I have known too many Muslims in my life to think that Maj. Hasan’s beliefs are normative. I want to assign him to a category analogous to Fred Phelps: a fringe figure who speaks for no-one but himself. Even this lets me too much off the hook. I need to think about a bigger issue raised by Maj. Hasan’s actions.

I want to know about the chickens coming home to roost. I want to know why the possibility of his being traumatized by exposure to war through his patients is not being explored any longer. This came up briefly in early news coverage. As soon as there was a simpler–dare I say reductionist–answer at hand, the complex and human picture was discarded. The news networks are no longer interested in interrogating the relationship between war and violence on one hand and the traumatized human psyche on the other. Now we just have a boogeyman to fear. Now we can just be thankful that he isn’t like “us”.

Isn’t he?

Further reading:

Re: Urine Trouble

I spent a bit of time combing through a lot of the commentary on the Fox News article referencing this particular episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. The discussion there seems to be dominated by the notion of Christians as a persecuted minority group. I’ll come back to that issue in a minute.

First, as you mentioned already Preston, anyone who is particularly surprised by this episode is not familiar with either this show or with Larry David’s work in general. Other things that have been used for comic fodder on “Curb” include: the KKK, fantasizing about a friend’s wife while masturbating, scrotal sprains, oral sex while driving, severing a relationship with a therapist after seeing him in a thong on the beach, apparent bestiality… I could go on for a long time, believe me. The point is that Larry David delights in making his viewers incredibly uncomfortable and that he himself is usually the butt of his jokes. Many posters at Fox are claiming that Jews and Muslims would never stand for such abuse. David is Jewish himself and really: if you think Jews ever get off easy on “Curb” then you definitely haven’t ever watched an episode all the way through.

I’m going to set Larry David aside now and focus on what I think is probably a bit more interesting: the meeting of art and religion and the people who cry heresy and blasphemy about it. This entire controversy brings to mind Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. When Serrano displayed a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of his own urine in 1989, the response was less measured than this. This episode will, ultimately, go down as another tempest-in-a-teapot scandal. Teeth will be gnashed and garments rent, but the cycle will be repeated.

Returning to the first issue I raised, we have a great example in both the Piss Christ controversy and this one of Christians presuming that we represent an unheard minority opinion. I do not think that the facts support this idea when it is impossible to even buy a soda from a vending machine without seeing the Christian name of God on the literal “coin of the realm”. Is it time for conservative Christianity to give up the “woe is us” rhetoric in the public square? Moreover, why is that line so seductive in the first place?