How Am I a Christian?

Photo by David Shankbone, via Wikimedia.

I recently found that some of the books at my local public library had a decal on the spine labeling them as “Christian Fiction.” That troubled me a bit, and I talked with the librarians about it. The library used other genre labels like “Mystery” and “Young Adult” that helped readers locate books of a sort they would like. So why object to this particular labeling? The cause is the kind of criteria that booksellers and librarians have come to accept for recognizing something as “Christian Fiction.”

What would count as Christian Fiction? Would Macbeth? Madame Bovary? No and no. How about Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the 2018 National Book Award. No again. All three are powerful tales of love, sin, forgiveness, and redemption, but none meet the criteria that publishers use in judging a work “Christian.”

Here is one list of criteria:

  • Accepts the infallible authority of the Bible.
  • Addresses life’s dilemmas through faith in Jesus.
  • Believes that Jesus is divine, died, and rose again for the sins of humankind and will return again.
  • No profanity, sex, or extraneous violence.
  • Characters do not have to be Christian in the beginning, but will be by the end.

These are criteria that have been actively promoted by publishers of Christian Fiction who claim to know what it means to be a Christian. Of course, it is not just publishers. There is a great phalanx of preachers, denominations, seminaries, theologians, and media outlets all promoting roughly the same understanding of Christian. Those criteria don’t capture for me what it means to be a Christian—far from it.

But as I say that, I’m surprised to notice that today I consider myself a Christian. How can that be? Two or three decades ago I would have recoiled from the thought. Quaker I might be, but that didn’t mean I was accepting the designation “Christian,” and I was just as happy when Jesus and the Bible were absent from worship.

Think of the litany of horrors in the name of Christianity. The worldwide roiling scandal of church-sanctioned sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is only a recent example, along with the denigration of women; condemnation of same-sex love; support for extermination of Indigenous cultures; affirmation of slavery; and promotion of wars, witch trials, corruption, the Inquisition, and the Crusades. What a parade of crimes against humanity, all committed in the name of being Christian. How could I throw in with that?

It still gives me pause. And yet, over the course of my spiritual journey, I’ve found I need to draw on spiritual understanding from sources other than my own personal wellsprings. Those sources, for me, are quite varied; they constitute a spiritual conversation that ranges over centuries and continents. Being immersed in that spiritual conversation has become essential for me.

One of the Advices in the New England Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice reads, “Make space in your daily life for communion with God and for spiritual nurture through prayer, reading, meditation, and other disciplines which open you to the Spirit.”

By no means do I confine this ongoing spiritual nurture to those who self-identify as Christian. I do not doubt that many who call themselves Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus are on roughly the same journey and have much to teach me. Still, I read more from those who have identified themselves as Christians, especially those that know at least as well as I do the whole catalog of horrors. I find myself part of a company of Christians over the ages; I have elected to join a tradition of spiritual nurture. At various times in my life, Rufus Jones, Thomas Kelly, C.S. Lewis, the Book of Common Prayer, Marilynne Robinson, Howard Thurman, Mary Rose O’Reilley, and Henri Nouwen (to name just a very few) have fueled my spiritual journey.

No sooner was there a community of Christians than there was disagreement about what it meant to be a Christian. Paul’s letters in the Bible tell of his unceasing efforts to answer the right view of what Jesus’s life, teachings, and death had meant. In the four gospels, we see four different accounts of whether and how Jesus was (a) God. Within a few decades, early Christians had a rich set of disagreements about important questions. For some (for too many), this led to charges of heresy with consequent edicts of excommunication, even sentences of death. The Reformation promised a clearer Christianity through a deeper grounding in the Bible, but just a dozen years after Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door, the leading figures in the new movement gathered at Marburg only to discover they had deeply antithetical understandings of the meaning of communion. Any proper church history is a plunge into these wrangles.

This is the understanding of Christianity that repels me: the insistent claim that there is one true understanding, that it is easily known, that those in authority already know all that needs to be known and obeyed, and that deviants are sinners who need to be cast aside. That exclusivist view of Christianity is not mine. The decals of Christian Fiction gesture toward that narrow, brittle understanding.

I now see that encountering Quakers as a young man began to point me toward a much different kind of spiritual life than this hard-shell affirmation of a true faith. I found seekers who saw some things well, other things more dimly, and who were not ashamed to say that still other questions were beyond them. They were willing to share what they could. No creed captured their beliefs.

No creed captures my beliefs today; they don’t encompass how I am a Christian. It was quite a revelation to me to realize that the common Christian creeds (the Nicene, the Apostles’) are all about a “true” understanding of Jesus’s birth and death but say nothing at all about his life and teachings. I turn often to those teachings, mostly given through parables. I find them rich, complex, and often elusive. I am glad to hear others wrestle with those same teachings.

The Bible is hardly the only thing I read for spiritual stimulation, but it has become a much richer source for me today than it once was. Rather than the one true source the decal-certified Christianity would have me take it to be, I find in the Bible a wealth of stories about people seeking to know God and seeking to learn what knowing God asks of us. Often they are stories of people blundering about, like me. It is much more a source book than the answer key that the exclusivists would make it.

There is a central teaching in the Bible as I have now come to value it, a breathtaking, difficult, common sense-denying teaching: that limitless love is to be at the center of our lives. It comes in a remarkable moment in the stories of Jesus’s life. He is asked a direct, hard question, and for once he answered it in Matthew 22:36–40:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

In 1966, Peter Scholtes (then a priest but soon to embrace a different vocation) wrote a lovely hymn titled “We Are One In the Spirit.” Its refrain runs: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Like many hymn writers, Scholtes was working from Bible verse, in this case John 13:35. In it Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We know we regularly fall short of that aspiration, and yet it points a direction, a better direction than a Christian Fiction decal on a book. What’s more, it recommends a practice—of learning from and with one another. As the hymn puts it, “We will walk with each other; we will walk hand in hand.”

It is from the best of those who have called themselves Christians; it is in their company that I find I learn the most. And that is why, today, I think of myself as a Christian.

Douglas C. Bennett

Douglas C. Bennett served as president of Earlham College from 1997 to 2011. Now retired, he is a member of Durham (Maine) Meeting.

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