Newsweek’s “Christianity in Crisis”

It goes without saying that the Easter season is an opportunity for Christians to celebrate and reflect on the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Almost inevitably, however, it’s also the occasion for a major media outlet to offer a provocative piece somehow related to Jesus and Christianity.  This year, Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover story, (I’ve seen it titled both “Christianity and Crisis” and “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus”) certainly fits the bill. 

To be candid, I’ve gotten used to being disappointed with Newsweek’s reflections on Christianity (see, for example, here).  Unfortunately, the present article doesn’t do much to change that.  To his credit, Sullivan does attempt to address the relationship of the Christian faith with power, politics, and material wealth, as well as the often-apparent gap between belief and practice.  But in so doing, he makes a number of questionable assertions and, in the end, seemingly misidentifies the heart and character of Christianity itself. 

Rather than pedantically go through the article point by point, I’ll offer a couple of examples.  First, referencing Thomas Jefferson’s well known attempt to selectively edit his New Testament, Sullivan writes:

And what he grasped in his sacrilegious mutilation of a sacred text was the core simplicity of Jesus’ message of renunciation. He believed that stripped of the doctrines of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the various miracles, the message of Jesus was the deepest miracle. And that it was radically simple. It was explained in stories, parables, and metaphors—not theological doctrines of immense complexity. It was proven by his willingness to submit himself to an unjustified execution. The cross itself was not the point; nor was the intense physical suffering he endured. The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God.

As best as I can tell, Sullivan is treating these sentiments of Jefferson as something that will inspire needed reform.  But they reflect a serious misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and, consequently, the unique character of Christianity. 

Only with the greatest difficulty can someone read the gospels and suggest that Jesus’ message could be separated from his incarnation, miracles, death, and resurrection.  Each very much informed the other.  Moreover, divorced from the death and resurrection that offer payment for our sin and new, eternal life with him, it’s difficult to see how Jesus’ life and teaching can, in the end, be good news for us.  After all, who among us can live up to his standard?  No one should deny that Jesus is a good example for us.  But if he’s only a good example for us—if imitating him is our means “to truly transcend our world and be with God”—then surely we’re in trouble. 

That’s why, contrary to Jefferson and Sullivan, the cross, when coupled with the empty tomb, is exactly the point.  Without these historical realities and the grace they demonstrate, Christianity is reduced to simple moralism. 

Sullivan then follows the quote mentioned above almost immediately with this:

I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God.

A few things come to mind in response.  To begin with, one might legitimately ask if the supposed crisis of which Sullivan speaks is really any different than that of every generation of Christianity.  After all, there’s never been a time in which Christians haven’t had to wrestle with distractions, temptations, and “enmeshment with the things of this world.” 

More important, however, is again the picture of the Christian faith that Sullivan paints.  Here, he urges us to pay less attention to the beliefs and practices of others and more to liberating ourselves to what keeps us from God. 

But what if certain beliefs actually hide who God is and what he’s done on our behalf?  What if they distort how we’re to relate to him?  Both Jesus and his early followers spoke of this as a very real danger.  One needs only to read, say, Jesus’ conversations with the scribes and Pharisees or Paul’s letter to the Galatians to demonstrate the point.  Likewise, what if, by acting in certain ways—not only in the bedroom, but also in our family lives, our workplaces, and everywhere else, including our politics—we actually drive ourselves and others further from God, running against the grain of his will in the process?  Therefore shouldn’t Christians be concerned with beliefs as well as the ways in which we live them out?

To be sure, Jesus did have some strong words to those who would judge others in a condemning fashion (see Mat. 7:1-5).  But it’s a distortion of the Bible to maintain that Christians, with the humility that reflects their own profound sin, aren’t to exercise moral judgments or carefully discern and commend truth as opposed to falsehood.  In fact, some measure of this is necessary for us to appreciate the need for the gospel and the grace it offers.  It’s also instrumental in helping us shape the institutions and culture that best reflect our Creator’s purposes and, therefore, best promote human welfare. 

Yes, we’re to do all of this with love and respect even for those who disagree with us.  And certainly we’re bound to make mistakes in the enterprise (which only argues for our continuing need of God’s grace).  But to abdicate this responsibility is to act contrary to the example of Jesus that Sullivan elsewhere praises so highly.

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