So What Does "Christian" Actually Mean?

I've been thinking about a series of conversations I had some time ago.  It was with a middle-aged Christian woman, a friend who became interested in my writing.  She was an aspiring writer, herself.   Knowing her background, I brushed off requests to read my stuff.  I eventually even tried to deter her, not interested in upsetting her with the sorts of things I was thinking about.  I knew it wasn't a "fit."

After a time, she convinced me to share a few samples.  She assured me she was trustworthy.  I gave her a few older pieces that were less theologically liberal/heretical than what I'm writing now, but focused more on removing cultural boundaries and engaging in deeper relationships with non-Christians.

I didn't hear from her for several weeks.  Finally, she e-mailed me: "You're a very good writer, but I can't understand why you even call yourself a Christian."


One of the pieces had been about visiting a gay bar with some friends, and thinking about how badly the church had treated the folks who were there.  I called it a "fallout shelter" from an intolerant religious culture.  The other piece was about going to an after-party, following a stage show I saw in Portland.  My best friend was an actor in the production, and afterward we went out and mingled at a bar with the rest of the cast and crew.  As usual, my conversations with strangers tended toward the spiritual, and I had some really great (and some painful) conversations with people who felt really betrayed by their church experiences.

Nowhere in either vignette did I question Christian orthodoxy (as I often do now), or profess outright liberalism (as I am guilty of today).  I was simply painting a picture of what the world really looks like, and I was doing it in a way that attempted to portray an ethos of nonjudgmentalism, and a lack of fear.

Apparently "Christians" can't do that.

Last Sunday I attended an Episcopal Church service.  In the circles I was raised in, Episcopalians aren't even considered "Christian."  The 3rd largest Christian sect in the world (Anglicans rank 3rd behind Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) somehow doesn't manage to rank "Christian" in the eyes of many conservative Evangelicals.  Frankly, the same circles wouldn't affirm Roman Catholics as Christian either.  Lutherans follow shortly after.  It's a dangerous cycle that ends with individual, local, sectarian microcosms digging theological trenches and machine-gunning everyone on the other side.

So what does "Christian" even mean?  And do I even care?


Eruesso said...

A label. A label which, for many, shapes their identity and for others helps to embrace and make sense of their identity as Christians. So how closely do we hold onto our identity as Christians, Sikh, SBNR, or Mandean?

Peter, have you ever noticed the options you have whenever you leave a comment on your own blog? It says in bold orange lettering Choose an identity. I could sign in with my Google account, Open ID, or even anonymous. Such freedom! But would I be lying if I said I was Edd Brown from North Dakota instead of Sam Morales (Eruesso) from Tennessee? But what does Sam Morales even mean? My friends and family know what Sam Morales means and even then I admit there are different versions of Sam. Regardless who I say I am, I am still the one writing this loooong comment.

So what does this garbled mess of words have to do with what "Christian" means? Probably nothing at all. I may be bored and rambling, but I, the I behind all my different online identities, love to ask questions. And your last (ok, second to last) question seems more and more like a koan the longer I ponder it.

Maybe we're meant to wrestle with the question until we SNAP! Snap out of the game of labels and tribes and into a new creature, a higher level of consciousness. Or maybe not.

Peter J Walker said...

You're absolutely right Euresso, it's just a label, and I'm not married to it - although I find rejecting it (at this present moment) more divisive than helpful.

I absolutely think we're meant to wrestle - and I like the word "koan!" Hadn't encountered it before.

Beyond broader conversations about what Christianity means, and whether that even matters to us personally, I think it SHOULD matter to us in terms of what good or evil a corporate organism is capable of.

It's a huge problem if we ALLOW Christianity to be defined in terms of what one does or does not do in the "world." It's devastating if we continue to let Christianity develop into a system identified by purity codes and cultural norms.

I'm no fan of Frank Viola, but his recent book co-authored by Len Sweet is about this very issue: that Christianity must be centrally defined by following Jesus. Jesus' life. Jesus' teachings. Jesus' model. I haven't read the book, so I can't tell you what all it says, but I know it stems from this problem of Christianity continually trending away from actually caring about Jesus. Campolo's Red Letter Christians is probably closer to my own views. The earthy, social aspects are underscored there.

In any case, it does matter what Christianity means, both to Christians and to the world, even for people who aren't Christians, it matters. Because what 2.2 BILLION people in the world believe about themselves and about God has an incredible impact on the universe.

Frightening to think how much good could be accomplished, isn't it? If we cared more about following the way of Jesus than about which bars someone hangs out in, or which expletives they use in casual conversation.

Thanks, friend. And you've revealed your true name, Sam!

Eruesso said...

"In any case, it does matter what Christianity means, both to Christians and to the world, even for people who aren't Christians, it matters. Because what 2.2 BILLION people in the world believe about themselves and about God has an incredible impact on the universe.

I share the same sentiment for all of the major world religions. Which is why I find it so disheartening that Americans are so fearful of Islam, especially with the rising tide of anti-Islamic rhetoric in the news. A PEW report came out last October stating that a quarter of the world is now Muslim (the report goes into detail by country, age, gender, etc. fascinating read). What do we do with this information? What does it tell us about our fellow man, and how do we connect with them without butting heads (theologically, I hope)?

These questions like most of the questions I pose are rhetorical, but you can answer them if you like. Although I rarely comment I read your blog religiously. Great post!

Oh and about my pen name-I hesitate because the following will reveal my inner nerdiness- Eruesso, a rough translation of "Samuel", is actually from a Quenya baby name book, Quenya being a fictional language created by J.R.R. Tolkien. I started using it in high school and it kind of stuck.

rainlillie said...

I was reading through your posts and I really enjoyed them.

Peter J Walker said...

Ha ha! Nerd shoutout Euresso. No worries. I was homeschooled till high school. I've got a freak flag that'll span a city block.

Also, I share your views about Islamophobia. It's sad, and ultimately, it's terribly dangerous. More dialogue, more friendships, more kindness, more understanding is needed. Not less.

RainLillie, thanks so much for the visit!

Chris Ledgerwood said...

Personally, I have a hard time calling myself as a Christian, simply because of all the baggage related to the word. I don't believe homosexuality is a sin. I actually think science is beneficial to mankind, and I don't believe in a place of eternal torture for those that don't agree with my point of view. So, I probably shouldn't call myself a Christian!

Existential Punk said...

Chris i so agree with you. There's so much baggage with "Christian" and Jesus didn't even consider himself one. i refer to myself as a Christ-follower. Although i also consider myself a Christian agnostic as i don't believe in many orthodox beliefs/dogmas anymore.

Peter J Walker said...

Chris, well put, but I believe those same things you do. I think, whether we take the title or not, we're in this thing.

My friend Irritable wrote here:

"Say you're quitting Christianity. Be a Jesus-follower, or a "follower of God in the way of Jesus." Call yourself "postchristian." Say you're "spiritual but not religious." Put "Jesus" down as your religious affiliation. Call yourself a heretic. Embrace theological non-realism. De-bunk everything orthodox Christianity believes about Jesus. Go on a life-long quest to systematically disbelieve each of the 5 fundamentals. Do what you have to do. But you might as well close that tent flap. You're not going anywhere."

He's probably right.

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