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In Which I Admit that I am an Elitist

September 17, 2012
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I would like to start this article off with a simple admission: I am a religious elitist. I do not believe that Christianity is easy or that most people will get it right. I believe that everyone will fail spectacularly and that only a few of the very best of us will ever even really get the point. The average church-going Joe is screwing it up in a colossal fashion. This is good news.

A lot of modern evangelical Christianity is deeply populist. There’s a lot that is good and true in this – Jesus loves everyone, Jesus is accessible to everyone, Jesus will not turn anyone away, and Jesus can work in anyone. However, there’s also a problem with this. If most people in the pews on Sunday morning have got Christianity mostly right, then Christianity, done right, looks like little more than being an average American with a peculiar set of beliefs about things that are basically impossible to prove either way. If that’s the case then atheists are correct to mock Christianity – it does nothing.

As I said, I’m an elitist. I do not believe that the average American Christian gets much of what Jesus is doing. Actually, I’d go much further and say no one really gets much of what God is doing because His ways are so far beyond our own that we lack the capacity to really get it. But I do believe that there are individuals who are doing a lot better than the average Christian and that it’s not really acceptable to settle for average.

I do not say that it is not acceptable to settle for average because I believe that the average Christian is going to Hell. I believe that the average Christian is going to heaven (and, from there, the resurrection of the dead in the age to come, even though the average Christian hasn’t read the New Testament carefully enough to notice that the hope offered is the resurrection of the dead much more so than heaven). I also believe that one of the unfortunate afflictions of the average Christian is that the average Christian is very concerned with the simple binary heaven/hell choice without any concern for the much wider body of Jesus’ teachings. Surely if Jesus were mostly concerned with the sort of minimal belief statements with which so many of us are concerned, then he would have focused more on those and less on “filler” like the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Sheep and the Goats, and all the other stuff that he spent his time talking about. I am rather fond of comparing the Christian life to boiling ice. To boil ice one must first melt it into water. There’s a distinct difference between ice and not-quite-freezing water but there’s a long way to go from cold water to boiling water. It’s easy as Christians to hear everything in terms of conversion – ice to water – and miss how much more remains. Within this analogy I would suggest that we have churches of cold water. Admitting that very few of us get warmer than that would help us a lot.

What would this realization actually do for us? Well, for starters it would push us to do better. We would be less inclined to look around and say, “I’m as good as them which means I’m doing fine.” But it would also provoke us to consider a more radical break with the world. We all live within large systems of “how things are” that run most of our lives. If these systems themselves need overturning, we might realize that best by observing those rare individuals who, by listening to God, have come to ignore some of the “rules” our world sets in place.

I believe that it is really best for us if we do not pretend that the riches of Christ are mostly grasped by everyone who comes to Christ. Yes, Christ showers his grace on all. But if we insist that those who have changed little are exhibiting all that Christ can do we are denigrating God’s power.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom/Susan permalink
    September 17, 2012 8:22 am

    Amen! Well put.

  2. September 17, 2012 5:17 pm

    “I also believe that one of the unfortunate afflictions of the average Christian is that the average Christian is very concerned with the simple binary heaven/hell choice without any concern for the much wider body of Jesus’ teachings. Surely if Jesus were mostly concerned with the sort of minimal belief statements with which so many of us are concerned, then he would have focused more on those and less on “filler” like the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, the Sheep and the Goats, and all the other stuff that he spent his time talking about.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I spend much of my time trying to get this across to people, often to deaf ears. In fact, with your permission, I’d like to steal/quote this in a future blog post. It’s gold!

    • Eric permalink
      September 17, 2012 7:52 pm

      Go right ahead.

      A friend of mine has been working on a related idea in his “What is the Gospel?” series. His blog is the Brick by Brick blog in our Friends list – you may be interested in his thoughts which focus extensively on why the Gospels don’t look much like “the gospel” as presented by the average evangelical, something I only touched on with one of those sentences.

      • September 17, 2012 9:16 pm

        Sounds right up my alley. I’ll definitely check it out. Thanks.

  3. Matthew Krachey permalink
    September 18, 2012 3:23 pm

    Nice. I would suggest most folks are just adding food coloring to cold water. It’s not helping anything, but it looks nice.

  4. September 21, 2012 12:41 pm

    Great post Eric. I agree with your position, and I would like to hear more of your thoughts on the subject. I think you should consider writing some posts that go into more detail about (a) the things that prevent the average Christian from really getting it, (b) what “really getting it” really means, and (c) how the average Christian can do better.

    As I see it, there are a number of doctrines that lie at the heart of Christianity, including the following: God is real; God is Triune; Christ is God; the Holy Spirit is God; the Holy Spirit indwells believers and the church; Christ freed us from sin; people are sinners; God is perfectly good; God is perfect love; and so on. I don’t think that these doctrines represent the totality of core orthodox doctrine – e.g., they leave out some important parts of the classic creeds, and they don’t challenge the standard reductionist accounts of the gospel – but I think they get a lot of it. (Incidentally, I think that the classic creeds leave out some of what counts as core orthodoxy, such as that God is perfect love. I also think that they fail to challenge the standard reductionist accounts of the gospel, such as that the gospel is largely or entirely about our individual salvation.) Anyway, I think that these doctrines are crucial to orthodox Christianity, but true Christianity does not consist in the mere intellectual assent to these doctrines. Rather, true, mature Christianity demands that these doctrines shape our understanding of the world at the deepest levels. A mature Christian is one whose way of understanding the world, himself, others, and God is saturated by these doctrines. A mature Christian is one who knows (or feels) these doctrines in her bones, not as mere articles of belief, but as a way of life that brings conversion in its train and influences experience at all levels. The mature Christian doesn’t merely have thoughts and feelings about Jesus – she walks with Jesus.

    But that’s not all. It’s not merely that these doctrines are experienced as living, breathing truths. There is more to the mature Christian life than that. The mature Christian truly strives to love God with her whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love people (including herself) as Jesus does. The mature Christian gives God true thanks and praise. She witnesses. And she has dedicated her life to obedience. She understands that God wants passages such as Matthew 5-7, Luke 14:12-14, John 13:1-20, Colossians 3:12-17, and 1 Peter 1:12-22 to set the pattern for the life of a Christian. She takes the demands of discipleship seriously and yearns to meet them. And – here is the kicker – she understands that all of this demands a lifelong commitment, and that this commitment must be the center of our lives if we are to have any chance of success, and that any success we may have really comes from God.

    This, in a nutshell, is how I understand the mature Christian life. What distinguishes it from the immature Christian life is not so much what is believed, but how it is believed and how it is lived. I think that even newly minted Christians who barely grasp the outlines of core Christian doctrine but affirm what they see, even if tentatively, have received an awesome gift. But Christian maturity comes only through long struggle and hard work. Mere intellectual assent becomes true inner conversion and a pattern of life. Christ moves from the periphery – or a shiny new thing at the center – to a stable presence that pervades everything.

    I expect that you may agree with at least some of this. But, if so, then one important question is why more people don’t see the Christian life in this way. Another important question would be how we can all help one another to embark upon and make progress on this journey. I think that some books might actually be a great help. I have learned a lot from NT Wright and Alister McGrath, but I have also learned a lot from older Christian writers such as Symeon the New Theologian. Perhaps Christians need to reconnect more with the spiritual masters of old; those men and women are quite clear about the challenges of Christian discipleship, though they may disagree on much else. But perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about. Please let me know if you disagree with any of this. And sorry for taking up so much space here – your post was very interesting, and it really got me thinking!

  5. Eric permalink
    September 21, 2012 3:07 pm

    I am in agreement with you. I think the reasons that people don’t get all of this are varied but mostly center around how hard it is – it’s not that people don’t comprehend it, it’s that their comprehension is limited because they don’t want it to be so. That’s my short answer. I intend to tackle some of these questions at more length in future posts.

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