Thursday, May 23, 2013

Individualism and Christian Identity

So, way back a few months ago, there was an article in Relevant Magazine in response to an interview given by the one and only Marcus Mumford, in which he distances himself from the label "Christian" because of the difficult connotations it brings in today's society. He's a big fan of Jesus, but the idea of labeling himself a "Christian" was a bridge too far.

As one who's said the same thing myself from time to time, it's easy to sympathize. It's also easy to be hurt by those, like the author of the article, who imply if not openly state, that such a claim is disloyal or inappropriate for a follower of Christ.

I find myself agreeing with both statements.

I've been mulling this quandary for quite some time now. It's come back to the forefront of my mind in recent weeks with both Fred Phelps and Mark Driscoll making headlines for difficult statements (again). I wrote about the idea of Christian identity earlier this year, name-checking both gentlemen in the process. There's no need to go back there.

I call myself a "follower of Christ" which is essentially what Mumford says in the interview and what the word "Christian" really means anyway. I'm not sure that's the issue. The issue is about disassociating one's self from God's people (Christians), something that's really not OK to do. If God trusts God's people, as cowardly, heretical, and wart-riddled as we are, it doesn't look so good if I can't trust in the same way.

Still, at some point we have to make a judgment as to who is authentically claiming Christ and who isn't. Without a unified body, that is very difficult to do.

We can claim the historic creeds all we want, but there are plenty of Christians who would affirm them and still say all kinds of troublesome rubbish (or write them off entirely because of the compromising influence of Catholicism*).

Martin Luther made the big break, reacting to overreaches by Church leaders. His "sola scriptura" has been turned into a clarion call for individualism. Really, it gets trotted out to allow any person to claim or deny any religious claim based on their understanding of interpretation.

Of course in Luther's time, most people couldn't read, let alone possess a bible. I'm not sure he ever intended for people to "decided for themselves" or ask "what does this scripture mean to me." He just wanted to make sure you didn't need an advanced degree to ask informed questions or participate in accountability.

Most everyone has moderated their position pretty well since then. Protestants, for the most part, recognize the need for authority, while catholics have developed better accountability and openness. I think everyone has sensed a need for at least some chain of authority from scripture to our ethical/theological proclamations.

We're just not in this alone. That becomes no more apparent than when someone spouts off. We decry their claims and denounce them as part of "our faith." In the end, though, without some authoritative body, we lack credibility. Majority doesn't rule when it comes to right and wrong.

What I see from Marcus Mumford (see, it all came back around eventually) is a real and honorable desire to avoid the pitfalls of the past (and present). "Christian" doesn't mean much to people for whom it's just a label. Only those of us who have our identity partially or entirely wrapped up in Christ, really value the label as significant. Mumford is saying that Christ is about more than a label. That's true.

At the same time, we have to recognize that Christ is also more than willing to absorb our failures and prejudices and sins. He's done it before and it hasn't seemed to phase him at all. We can wear the badge "Christian" proudly because it doesn't end with our worst; it promises our best.

Sometimes we react so defensively when people question what it means to be a Christian because we're stuck in our individualism. Who is to say what's wrong with Fred Phelps? Well, he doesn't represent me! Great, but that doesn't mean anything if you both claim to be Christian.

Whether we like it or not, there is an anchor, a root, a tradition, that binds us together. Not just people of faith or people of Christian faith, but all humanity. We do have the individual right and responsibility to figure out what we believe. It just doesn't end there.

*I was going to say "we can deal with that historical anachronism later," but really, it doesn't deserve dealing with, unless you're part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

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