Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #049. First published in the St. Cloud Times Aug. 23, 2011

Fifteen years ago, on April 8, 1996, Jesus scored a publicity coup. He appeared simultaneously on the covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. This journalistic hat trick, at Easter, was prompted by media hype about biblical scholarship.

The Time cover superimposed these words on a “portrait” of Jesus (nobody has a clue what he actually looked like): “The Search for Jesus. Some scholars are debunking the Gospels. Now traditionalists are fighting back. What are Christians to believe?”

Since then, Jesus has not been front and center, though he got attention in late 1999 when George W. Bush was asked, “What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?” and responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.”

But these days Jesus is everywhere. Republican presidential candidates invoke him directly, and Christianity more generally, in what sounds like a riff on Annie Oakley’s song, “Anything you can do I can do better!” — “Any Christian appeal you can make I can make louder!”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry took temporary title to the territory with his sponsorship of the Aug. 6 “Response” rally in Houston, paid for by the American Family Association. Perry said, in advance of the gathering of 30,000 at Reliant Stadium, that its purpose was to “call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles.”

One participant, Starr Finn, gave this rationale for her attendance: “It says in 1 Peter that we should submit to governors. As true believers, as Christians, when the governor wants us to be here, we’re really required to be here.”

I will probably have much to say in the coming election season about the toxic mix of religion and politics, a brew that will generate its own form of climate change. But my point here is to challenge the claim of Perry and Michele Bachmann and their supporters that theirs is the only authentic Christianity. They are sure they know the answer to “What Would Jesus Do?” — exactly what they’re doing.

Our public discourse needs to be cleansed of the notion that what conservative Republicans call “Christian” exhausts the meaning of that term. There are two fundamental features of their Christianity — features with profound political implications — that I, as a Christian, challenge.

‘Jesus and me’

First is the notion that it’s about “Jesus and me.”

I don’t question the sincerity of a declaration, such as Bachmann’s, that there is a specific date (in her case, Nov. 1, 1972) on which Jesus came in to one’s life.

But when that claim is extended to a universal principle of salvation — only those who are “born again” in this precise sense are God’s friends, possessed in an instant of knowledge of God’s will for the world — I am reminded of a late friend of mine who said that his being born again took at least 99 months, not just nine. Christ sometimes cooks slow, doesn’t always zap with lightning. And some people know Christ in community, not in the privacy of their own hearts.

World view

Second in my list of Christian “not necessarilys” is a sharp distinction between “Christians” and “the world.”

In a 2006 speech, Bachmann said of her conversion, “Why would I ever want the world? I knew what that had to offer.”

One flavor of Christianity, to be sure, inspires its adherents to take God out there into the world where God isn’t. But another flavor, equally traditional and authentic, inspires its adherents to be alert to what God is doing out there in the world where God already is. Some Christians want to explore God’s world, not conquer the world for God.

Bachmann and Perry are steeped in a culture that declares, as the “philosophical statement” of the “Response” rally-bankrolling American Family Council puts it, “God has communicated absolute truth to mankind,” and their biblical world view explains everything.

Readers should know there are many of us Christians who think that the “biblical world view” is many-faceted, not monolithic, and that to claim exclusive access to “absolute truth” is to commit the sin of pride.

The political implications of this difference are profound.