Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What's In A Name?

Words are freighted with all manner of cultural connotations. When I first became a Christian, or a follower of Jesus, or whatever it was that I became, I was surrounded by young men and women who called themselves "Jesus People." This was in contrast to "Christians," who, theoretically, were old, stodgy folks who hung out in the midst of stained glass and hardwood pews and whose faith didn't make much of a difference in their lives. In contrast, the Jesus People were totally sold out to Jesus. They understood and were committed to the gospel in ways that other people were not. They were going to change the world for Christ. One particularly virulent strain of Jesus People -- one that I hung out with and lived with (in communal homes, naturally; the biblical way) for eight years -- called themselves "a New Testament Church." After two thousand years, a group of brave, enlightened hippies in the inner city of Columbus, Ohio had finally got it right.

I am being sarcastic, of course, but I still understand the impetus behind such labels. There is always a fair amount of hubris behind such activities, but there is also a good and noble desire to reclaim lost territory. Now I am hanging out with second-generation Jesus People, and this time some of them call themselves "Followers of Christ." To them, "Christians" are warmongering Republicans who occasionally appear in pulpits and presidential offices, and who use and misuse the Bible to further their own ungodly ends. It is certainly possible to disagree with this view, of course. I'm merely noting it to convey the stereotype that the "Followers of Christ" are trying to combat. But it is a little like bearing the name "Judas" or "Adolf," two good, sturdy names with long histories in Jewish and German culture, respectively. Once the name is notoriously ruined, it is difficult to go back to it, and one longs to change one's name to "Dylan" or "Logan" or something else. And for some of the people I know, the "Christian" label is forever tainted with undesirable associations in the culture at large. It creates automatic barriers. Some of the barriers -- dying to self, and living for Christ, for example -- need to be there. They are part and parcel with the gospel. But others do not. And the impetus behind the label change is a desire for the stumbling block to be the gospel itself, not the cultural baggage that has come to accompany it.

The Church -- and by that I mean the historic group of Christians who have comprised it -- has always been in motion; always adapting, always correcting. I don't really care if people call themselves "Christians" or "Jesus People" or "Followers of Christ." I care that they live like Jesus. I see these label changes as relatively minor ripples in the bigger pond of dying to self and living for Christ. That's the hardest thing to do, regardless of what you call yourself. Certainly since the time of Constantine that living and difficult transformation has been readily subsumed under the easier but sometimes deadening impact of "the Christian culture." The label changes shake it up a little bit. They remind us of what we're supposed to be about. I think that's a good thing.


John McCollum said...

Complicating things even further (always a good thing, right?), Facebook asks me for my "Religious Views."

Not sure I can state those concisely. Growing up, I probably would have said something like, "God said it. I believe it. That's good enough for me." or "I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E." or "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passin' through."

None of those really cut it for me anymore.

In fact, when someone asked me to describe my religious profile recently, I tried to boil it down to a few words: evangelical, charismatic, liberation theology... and it all really started to unravel.

Perhaps I'll stick with "Christian."

Or maybe I'll just shrug and ask people what THEY think I believe.

Andy Whitman said...

It can't be boiled down, and the labels are always inadequate.

I also think there's a constant tendency to tame Christianity on the part of Christians, whether they call themselves "Christians" or "Jesus People" or "Followers of Jesus." It costs too much. Certainly there is that tendency on my part. But tame Christianity is pretty boring, and one would be better served by staying home or playing golf on Sunday mornings. One way it can be (and often has been) tamed is to domesticate it via cultural assimilation; make it nice and respectable, and that's what the "Jesus People" and "Followers of Jesus" are reacting to. Of course, it never has been respectable. It's crazy, and involves the belief that dead people come back to life. But people keep trying for respectability, including me some days.

roadkills-r-us said...

I don't always want to be called a Christian. Sometimes because I want to distance myself from some current silliness wrapped in God's name. But sometimes it's because I realize I've screwed up and hate adding to the baggage that goes with the name.

joshua said...

john, i think a good answer to "religious views" is "secret liberation invasion cult of death-defying Father worshipers"