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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.
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.