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Let’s Just Stop Calling It Christianity by Scott Culpepper

I experimented with chemistry in junior high. Not so much in the classroom as in the lunchroom. We did engage in a little curricular chemistry in class, though not nearly as much as we should have in our understaffed rural school district. The real chemical magic happened in the cafeteria when we had all finished eating the bits of the meal we cared to consume. Someone would place a beverage at the center of the table. It could be water, milk or soda. We dumped every conceivable edible material into this liquid that we could find among our scattered leftovers. Vegetables, a bit of mashed potato, an onion or two, maybe even a stray piece of hot dog that got left by some weak appetite tumbled into the mix. Additional flavoring arrived in the form of ketchup, a little salad dressing, and lots of salt and pepper.

We stirred it all up and then came the moment of truth. The dare went out from one of the table to the other for an intrepid soul with the courage and digestive fortitude to consume our creation. It was junior high, so, of course, there were volunteers. Their pained expressions as they downed the new concoction served as the payoff for our communal creativity. The original chemical composition of our liquid had been so transformed by all the additives that, by the time our hero or heroine actually took a drink, it was a completely different substance than the original.

Comparing both American politics and American Christianity to junior high seems par for the course in these ridiculous times. I have been preaching through Paul’s epistle to the Galatians when I have opportunities to share in our local churches. Paul’s fervent urgency struck me in the form of his frantic Greek style in the first chapters. That style is slightly different from Paul’s typically well-structured Greek prose. It bears the mark of being written in a hurry, as one of my professors used to say when he received a substandard research paper. Paul’s rush to write was fueled by his horror that the Gentile believers he had led to Christ were being told they were second class citizens of the Kingdom at best and possibly not true Christians at all because they were uncircumcised. Circumcision symbolized in physical form the reality that they had come from outside the tribe.

The tribe was resisting the eroding of its borders by the gospel of grace. Paul attacked the legalistic views of these new teachers with all the force of his heart and intellect. He asserts in chapter one, verses 1-12, that their teachings are not just a different spin on the gospel. They were presenting a pseudo-gospel. Paul goes so far as to call for the harshest condemnation on those who would dilute the gospel of grace and God’s unconditional acceptance through Christ. Too many additives were thrown into the mix. A rule here, a human-crafted tradition there, and a paranoid belief for good measure were added until the product bore no noticeable resemblance to its parent substance.

The syncretistic mix of Christian ideas, American nationalism, racism, misogyny, and corporatist greed being peddled as “Christian” in our current culture wars is not Christianity. We should stop calling it Christianity. The ideology can claim roots in several Christian traditions. It continues to be supported, to their everlasting shame, by many American Christian leaders. The overwhelming majority of popular Christian media outlets either openly or tacitly promote it. None of that makes it Christianity. For as long as I can remember, the evangelical subcultures in which I was raised have motivated people through fear rather than grace. You avoided premarital sex not because of its serious relational implications or out of a desire to honor God with your body, but rather because you feared pregnancy and ostracism. Playing with “Masters of the Universe” toys or watching horror movies, and later reading Harry Potter, was forbidden because they exalted the “powers of darkness.” “Secular Humanists” were stealing the country from “us,” even though most of us had no idea what humanism was or that the country had never belonged exclusively to Christians in the first place. The syncretistic witches’ brew of paranoia, prejudice, and pride lies at the heart of legalism in all of its forms.

Paul deplored the destructive potential of unfettered license as much as anyone. Look at his strong reaction against the accusation that he was teaching grace permitted moral license in Romans 6:1-5. Paul, a recovering legalist himself, also knew that the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. Coerced faith is no faith at all. Legalism fosters the outward appearance of obedience while corroding the heart and the spirit until there is no true life at all.

The syncretistic ideology of Court Evangelicals, to use Messiah College historian John Fea’s term, advances a form of “Christianity” that is content with outward appearances and legislated morality. The substance of true faith and love for Christ lies buried in their system under a mountain of additives designed to protect their power and privilege. It’s time that we called their bluff. They can promote this Frankenstein’s monster of Christianity, American nationalism, patriarchal misogyny, and Stepford-style corporatism all they want. Our constitution gives them that freedom. What they do not have is the right to claim against all reason and revelation that their ideology alone faithfully represents the essence of the Christian gospel.

They also do not have the right to declare other Christians outside the fold based on their invented criteria. We could call it Religio-Americanism, Duck Dynasticism, Cruz Control or Jeffress Jive. Given the disturbing revelations this year among groups like the Southern Baptist Convention, these intrepid nostalgia hounds might even want to pay homage to the “Little Rascals” and call their new religion the “He-Man Woman Haters Club.” What they can’t call it with any historical or theological credibility is true Christianity.

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Scott Culpepper enjoys life as an historian, a storyteller, speaker, and author exploring the history and mystery of the human experience. He serves as professor of history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

 

 

Scott Culpepper

Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

26 Comments

  • James R. Payton, Jr. says:

    A sharp, incisive, pained, and passionate assessment, Scott. Thank you for your boldness … much to ponder and appreciate here. Your take on this rings all too true.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    I agree completely!

    But… who’s calling what Christianity?

    Do some people (like me) support the current Administration because I believe that, given our choice, we would be better off supporting limited government, free markets, and a renewed respect for the Constitution and federalism? Yes. Of course, being human, the people currently in power often fall short of the above ideals.

    But we are not calling it Christianity. We just think it’s a better option for human flourishing, a more virtuous society, and, most importantly, creating conditions for the family unit to be the basis for society and the Church to act like the Church.

    What is not Christian? A political philosophy that has an obsession with abortion (are there any pro-life Democrats left in Congress? Lipinski… crickets). That also believes the State is the center and source of power in the culture, to the detriment of both the family structure and the Church. And, finally, a political party that is now embracing socialism, which always ends in human misery, economic ruin, and religious oppression.

    I understand that most people here on this site like to run in secular humanist crowds (I know what that term means), and still maintain that they are Christians first and foremost. I sincerely believe them. But, if their secular humanist friends (I still know what that term means) ever get complete control of the reins of power in this country, the persecution of the Church will occur. Human history confirms this. Of course, the Church will survive, and even thrive. It can’t be stopped. But, those who put their faith in the State will, in many ways, be disappointed.

    • Scott Culpepper says:

      Marty,
      Thanks for your comment. You do have a valid point that progressive Christian have sometimes been guilty of conflating their political or social programs with the essential gospel as well. I am more critical of the conservative crowd in this piece because they are the ones who are most visibly engaged in this behavior on the public stage right now and also because I know them better, having been raised in that culture and served several churches that could be classified as “conservative” on the spectrum. The colleges I have served have also been fairly conservative. So where I am coming from may be a little different from what you assume above. I am harder on conservatives because I expect them to at least try to live up to the ideals they taught me and which they are insisting that everyone else pursue. My piece is not about whether you pursue one political platform or another, I think the right path is somewhere in between the two extremes you described above, but rather what conflating political identities and our Christian identity does to the church. If we define who is part of the body of Christ because on political affiliation or platform, we have fallen into the same trap as the legalists Paul challenged by adding a new criteria for membership to the gospel of grace. The conservative goals you mentioned above are not going to be achieved by the current strategies of the Court Evangelicals. Those strategies, not maintaining dialogue withe people outside the church, are what threaten to bring persecution on the church because each compromise of the gospel for political power cements the idea in the minds of the American people that Christianity can be identified with repression, public dishonesty, and ruthless pragmatism. I appreciate your comments and wish you the best.

      Scott

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Fair answer, I think.

        I will put Dordt back on my list of Approved Colleges. It’s a short list.

      • George E says:

        ” If we define who is part of the body of Christ because on political affiliation or platform, we have fallen into the same trap ….” Uhhhh, yeah, Scott. Because otherwise “Christianity can be identified with repression, public dishonesty, and ruthless” ideology.

    • From the very sacred place of where God give’s birth to human life… your leader will literally grab women and use them for his own sexual pleasure. You lost me as someone who wants to bear witness to the gospel. The rooster is crowing. But since I am thoughtful and progressive, you don’t care. May God forgive us.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        Ok! There it is right up above! A perfect example of a progressive Christian (or whatever he calls himself) who finishes up his attack on me (which he has every right to do) with “May God forgive us.”

        You don’t mean “us”. You really mean “you” (as in Marty Wondaal). Just say that, if that is what you believe. It is quite easy to see through the passive-aggressiveness (passiveness-aggressiveness?) and know what you really feel.

        So, if I may, allow me to formally state The Marty Wondaal List of Irritating Things that Progressive Leftist Christians Do:

        1. Ask God for corporate forgiveness of sins that only their political adversaries allegedly commit.

        2. Use the word “body” instead of “person” when referring to black and brown persons.

        This list is subject to change. I also know that nobody reading this really cares. But, for me, it was cathartic. Thank you.

  • Mary Ann Harkema says:

    Amen to Marty!

  • Paul Janssen says:

    On the one hand, I’ll throw in and agree with Marty Wondaal, asking “who’s calling what Christianity?” I get that the pundits on all sides tend to throw around phrases like “evangelical Christianity” without much knowing what they’re talking about or trying to define it. I also get that many people who call THEMSELVES Christians are supporting all manner of non-Christlike attitudes and behaviors. However, a citation thrown in here and there would buttress your case. (So long as you are willing to be fair about it and entertain criticism that non-Christlike attitudes and behaviors can be found among the ‘progressive’ crowd as well.)
    What I find ironic about Marty’s response is when he says “We just think it’s a better option for human flourishing, a more virtuous society, and, most importantly, creating conditions for the family unit to be the basis for society and the Church to act like the Church.” On the one hand, increasing options for “human flourishing” and the creation of a “more virtuous society” are rather precisely the agenda of the secular humanism he later decries. And on the other, Christian humanists of the reformed stripe will claim that their agenda is the same – human flourishing and a virtuous society. And as for the latter part of that statement – “creating conditions for the family unit to be the basis for society and the Church to act like the Church”, while one isn’t likely to find Christ-following progressives putting things quite that way, the vast majority of them would indeed support the family – albeit with a broader definition of what constitutes a family – and would indeed want the Church to act like the Church, by their definition of the Church as (among other things) a continuing prophetic witness that speaks gospel truth to power, by virtue of its ministry of Word and Sacrament.
    In sum, Mr. Wondaal’s critique has the unfortunate ring of a playground argument, answering assertion with assertion (“we would be better off supporting limited government, free markets, and a renewed respect for the Constitution and federalism” – that’s an assertion without proof), and answering an argument using heavily moral categories by attempt to claim yet higher moral ground (I have yet to meet anyone who has “an obsession with abortion;” that sideswipe is an example of the attempt to claim higher moral ground).
    Sadly, IMO there’s more heat than light in this exchange.

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      Rev. Jansen,

      You should have stopped after your first point. You show much wisdom when you agree with me.

      As for my “playground arguments”, well, they are, I guess, if that is the level at which you read them. I referenced “human history” as my assertion to back up my contention. A simple argument, I confess, but quite verifiable.

    • Scott Culpepper says:

      Paul,
      Thanks for your comments. i readily acknowledge that progressive Christians can also have issues melding their own programs with gospel essentials. What I have not seen as often are progressives dismissing those who disagree with them as legitimately Christian. But that may be because I know the conservative cultures better than I know the progressives ones having been raised and served churches in those contexts. I am not so much talking about the elevation of one political platform over the other as I am the conflation of faith and political ambition to the extent that political ideology rather than ambition starts defining who is or is not a “good Christian.” Examples abound and I think you do raise a good point that a few more specific ones would strengthen the article.

      Scott

      • George E says:

        Scott, wasn’t the point of your essay that conservative or national populists aren’t really legitimate Christians?

        • Scott Culpepper says:

          Not at all, George. I said the ideology was not a purely Christian ideology. But I also said that it was often promoted by people who are Christians. Legitimate Christians can push ideas that are not legitimately Christian.

  • Helen Phillips says:

    Spot on!

    Those advancing the ideas you so succinctly call out do indeed call themselves “Christian” and express stridently a vision of Christianity that is unrecognizable from the gospel with which I was raised…a gospel of peace, grace and love.

    They also are the only ones trumpeting – while the rest of us remain either silent or speak so softly we can’t be heard above the din.

    Thank you for raising your voice.

  • RLG says:

    Yes, indeed, your Jr. High concoction sounds like what many today would claim to be Christian. Someone, on the Twelve, recently claimed there are over three hundred different Protestant denominations. That sounds like a pretty ugly concoction. John Calvin, if I remember correctly, discounted the Roman Catholics as Christian. Their sacramental system of salvation just didn’t cut it. They are out. Calvin also discounted the Arminian based church as falling short of Christianity, as Arminians (in Calvin’s mind) hold to a human involvement in salvation, meeting God halfway. They are out too. Since then, the church has splintered in hundreds of directions, each splinter making the claim for the true church. Differences vary, whether as to theology or to issues. Each seems to know who is in and who is out. All I know, is that mine is true Christianity. I’m not sure about yours.

  • David Stravers says:

    I agree. Does this mean I stop calling myself a “Christian”? There is precedent for that. After the 2016 election, I have stopped calling myself “evangelical.” I now refer to myself as a “follower of Jesus.” Is that right? How far do we go in permitting the circumstances of our culture to determine what labels we apply to ourselves?

    • Scott Culpepper says:

      David,
      Your comment reminds me of C. S. Lewis’ discussion of how to define Christianity in “Mere Christianity.” When is a word used so many different ways it ceases to have any real fixed meaning? Not an easy thing to decide. I’m also reminded of Jesus’ reluctance to use the word “Messiah,” not because he did not identify as the Messiah, but because he wanted to avoid the political baggage that had grown around the Jewish expectations for the Messiah. My impulse at this point is to say let’s try to rescue terms like “evangelical” and “Christian” rather than discard them, but I have to admit I tend to say with the most confidence on good days. 🙂

      Scott

    • Mr. David Stravers,
      I have good friends in a progressive city in CA who stopped using the label of ‘Christian’ twenty years ago. They wanted to live and breathe and speak the ways of Jesus rather than defend a set of ideas/religious rules. He and his family have done amazing things to call people into the light of the gospel, and they speak of being ‘followers of Jesus.’ Virtually nobody has issues with Jesus.

      Keep the faith – and keep living the ways of the goodness of the kingdom.

      Grace & peace in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • William Harris says:

    Can we speak of Christianity without speaking of its embodied form, the Church? To paraphrase Cyprian, you cannot have God as Father if you have not the Church as your mother.

  • RLG says:

    Are you kidding William? It’s the church that has gotten Christianity into so much trouble, from the beginning to the present. The Jewish mentality was, you weren’t a true Jew unless you belonged to the Jewish community. And Jesus, certainly, did not support such a concept. How many verses can we quote that suggests that a Christian believe and be a member of the church and he/she will be saved? How many can we quote that suggests, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved? It’s kinda like saying, you need a marriage certificate to really be married.

    • William Harris says:

      The question, RLG, would be whether we can live separately, apart from each other. Or is it the case (as I believe) that we are constituted as social beings? If the latter, then any individual commitment must stand as part of an ongoing life of the community. Not only are we linked to each other in the present, but we are those who also remember; memory and imagination connects us across time. So we read a Calvin, an Aquinas, an Augustine in part as our contemporary even as we understand them to be distant — this is what empathy, imagination and memory produce. And if we’re honest, we also understand how our current life has been shaped by this remembered past.

      Christianity then is not some sort of free-floating, perhaps Kantian entity, but an embodied reality. We start there.

      Here’s where Scot is correct. The Christianity is always deeply permeated by cultural assumptions. Always. The Church, tacitly or explicitly functions as a counterbalance to this cultural capture; thus, we cannot speak about Christianity without speaking about the form that Christianity takes. (Note also, the idea that we can drop the label — apart from its rhetorical impossibility — belies the fact that even in disobedience we remain with our identity; it’s much stickier than that.)

      Last, Scripture? Vine and branches in John. Psalms: “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the House of the Lord” (and all the Psalms of ascent). Hebrews: do not forsake the gathering together. Or simply consider the plural when Paul addresses his letters. It’s all there. We belong together, and that shared life informs and on occasion challenges the cultural form of faith we understand as Christianity.

  • Jug says:

    Great article. Refreshing to see different perspectives expressed in comments designed for clarification and understanding, not beratement.

  • […] began with Scott Culpepper attacking the American syncretism of “Christianity”. An important discussion but one that left […]

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