Two Truths and a Lie: Andrew Sullivan’s Christianity

Andrew Sullivan,  blogger from TheDailyBeast.com, recently wrote an article for Newsweek that made the front page.  It is called, “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus”, and on his blog it falls under the heading, Christianity in Crisis.  I have read it three times through, and some paragraphs more than that, with the intention of discerning his main points of contention with Christianity in America.  Anyone who reads my blog knows that this is a topic that I like to focus on.  As a Christian living in America, I want to better understand both the culture that I inhabit and the faith that I profess.  So, I can’t help but read  Sullivan’s article with great interest and scrutiny.  In my analysis, his article hits on some major truths about the troubled state of the Christian faith in America, but it also declares something that is completely contrary to historical and biblical Christianity.

The first truth that I found in Sullivan’s article was the issue of using Christianity as a tool to acquire more political and worldly power.  He writes, “What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself?”  This is an excellent and timely point.  In a post I wrote recently, “On Gay Marriage” I identified the problem of Christians treating America like a church and trying to make those outside the body of Christ adopt their values.  It is foolish to look to the state of the world in the hope that it will reflect the truth of Jesus Christ.  What you get is a highly politicized religion that focuses on particular issues more than on living humans.  What you get is greater polarization.  Instead of Jesus being the central polarizing figure in the interactions between Christians and unbelievers, you have issues marking the divide.  And these issues do much to enrage people.  Now, let me wrap up this point by stating that I believe Christians should stand up for the issues that best reflect their values.  It’s a hard sell to say that abortion and gay marriage are condoned in the bible, so Christians shouldn’t pretend that they agree with them in the name of political correctness.  But, and this is important, Christians cannot alienate themselves from those who are on the wrong side of their politics.  If anything, Christians have to swallow their pride and lay down their judgement as an act of love toward one who lives in a way that is contrary to theirs.

The second truth of Sullivan’s article is simple, that Christians must practice what they preach.  He writes a great deal about Francis of Assisi, who lived as an “example of humility, service, and sanctity.”

A modern person would see such a man as crazy, and there were many at the time who thought so too. He sang sermons in the streets, sometimes just miming them. He suffered intense bouts of doubt, self-loathing, and depression. He had visions. You could have diagnosed his postwar conversion as an outgrowth of posttraumatic-stress disorder. Or you can simply observe what those around him testified to: something special, unique, mysterious, holy. To reduce one’s life to essentials, to ask merely for daily bread, forgiveness of others, and denial of self is, in many ways, a form of madness. It is also a form of liberation. It lets go of complexity and focuses on simplicity. Francis did not found an order designed to think or control. He insisted on the simplicity of manual labor, prayer, and the sacraments. That was enough for him.

Sullivan believes, as I and most Christians do, that it is essential to live according to what Christ taught.  In the Book of James it says, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!  But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” James 2:19-20.  It is not enough to just know what is right.  You must live according to it.  Follow the example of Jesus who didn’t seek worldly power and who didn’t seek revenge against those who hated him.  Unfortunately, Christians in America look very similar to the rest of society.  For example, the divorce rate is the same as non-Christians, which makes it hard to have authority in the gay marriage debate.  Jesus spoke harshly against divorce.  We also embrace, in large part, the entertainment, materialism, and quest for health, wealth, and influence.  Not to say that there are not many individuals who rise above these things by living more in accordance with Christ’s humility, charity, and righteousness.  I mean not to condemn all Christians, including myself, just a large portion of us who are either Christians in name only or living out a lukewarm existence defined by half-hearted commitment to God’s will.  It is apparent that it is harder to live a righteous life in the lap of luxury than it is in lowly poverty.  But in each case what is required is submission to God’s spirit and the constant renunciation of pride and power.

Christians in America must repent and submit to God, and not put the majority of their energy into fights for more political influence, since the former is the true way to see lives transformed.

Now, I have said a lot of good about Sullivan’s article.  But he gets something very wrong.  I saw it from the very beginning when he lifted up Thomas Jefferson’s gutting of the Bible as an example of a man who was searching for, “the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus’ death.”  Jefferson removed anything that didn’t fit his understanding of who Jesus was.  That included many of the supernatural claims and large portions of the New Testament.  In short, he was choosing which parts of the scriptures he wanted to accept.  And Sullivan doesn’t denounce this as heretical.  That’s a problem.

This type of radical redefining is something that I have seen before from current Christian leaders like Brian Mclaren and Rob Bell. (I have written on both men and you can find those articles, The Biblical Buffet of Brian Mclaren and What the Hell Bell? by clicking on the links)  In response to the pressures of modern society they have attempted to redefine what Christianity has been throughout history.  Mclaren throws the God of the Old Testament completely under the bus, and Bell throws out the doctrines of hell and diminishes the truth of God’s righteous wrath against sin.  Both shy away from the truth of Christ being the exclusive way to God, and therefore Heaven.  It sounds so judgmental and harsh.  But just because something in the Bible doesn’t feel right to you, it doesn’t give you the authority to toss it out or redefine it.  That is so arrogant and I see it as the result of a radically individualistic society.

Sullivan, as far as I’ve gathered, is a man who believes himself to be the “truer” version of both conservative and Christian.  He distances himself from the standard institutions, believing that they have left him, and not the other way around.  He believes the Christian church has abandoned the true teachings of Jesus, and that is why he included the “Forget the Church” in his title.  But though the church of Jesus Christ is imperfect, it is the body of Christ on Earth.  We are meant to live alongside other believers in a community setting.  Sullivan isn’t telling Christians to stop working together to spread the good news of Jesus, but I am confident that he is undermining the established church and its  doctrines.

In a society that is becoming more and more Bible illiterate, I do not see how undermining the authority of scripture and two-thousand years of church teaching is a positive step forward.  If anything, these modern tendencies toward rebelling against longstanding authority and shrinking from any uncomfortable Biblical truths are a sign of a people turned inward.  Andrew Sullivan says many good things about what needs to change with Christians living in America, but he has chosen to diminish the sacredness of scripture in the name of shaping Christianity to fit his mold.

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Posted on April 8, 2012, in Politics, Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Nice piece Dave! I would, however, like the opportunity to engage with you over your last point.

    Why does that community of believers need to be a “church”? Doesn’t the Bible say when “three or more are gathered in my name….”?

    Remember also that the Bible itself was political construction of Constantine, who picked and chose what he wanted included — his human interpretation of who God and Jesus were. Since then, the church has taken the Bible and used it for their own means – creating purgatory, and crafting traditions like the Apostles Creed and Maunday Thursday ritual, among many others.

    Luther said this was wrong, and according to his human logic, redefined what it meant to be a believer.

    I agree with Sullivan that the church is out of touch, and is no longer serving those it should – look at attendance at Mercy House – students of denominational backgrounds who shed their denominational upbringing for a much simpler faith. We are due for another reformation soon. It has, I believe, already begun.

    • This is now my new favorite post. Dave has expressed here in his response (far better than I ever could) the same thoughts I was trying to communicate in my discussion with you Steve. And I’m always eager to discuss more, I always enjoy talking to an educated man like yourself.

  2. Thanks Steve,
    I’ll respond to what you said about Constantine. From what I have read from Christian (I know, it doesn’t look good that they are biased toward Christianity, but they aren’t simply making up their research. They are interpreting it.) historians, the Bible books that would later make up the canon were already embraced by many, if not most Christians during the first centuries leading up to the Council of Nicaea. Basically, the Council did more to recognize which books already held a critical position in the early church (Body of believers). The belief that Constantine used the Council to form a canon for political benefits, I find alarming when considering the weight of authority placed on scripture. So much of what we have in the gospels draws directly from Old Testament scriptures. A large portion of what Jesus says comes directly from scripture. Scripture in both the Old and New testament has incredible power. And if God failed to get His Holy book in order by submitting to the will of an earthly ruler looking for political gain, I think we have a significant problem on our hands. It’s a very dangerous road to diminish the Word of God as it has been given to us. Jesus and the Jews of his day treated their holy writings with more reverence than many of us do today.

    Of course, the church throughout history has crafted many interesting doctrines loosely based on scripture. Purgatory is certainly one of them. Along with many traditions like infant baptism and prayers to saints. The medieval church had a big problem with placing spiritual value on physical objects. I think Luther and the Protestant reformation was about returning to the Christ-centered, very biblical view of Christianity. Luther certainly used his logic, but his beliefs were based on scripture, and any one of us today looking through the Bible can see that God desires intimacy on a level that the church at that time wasn’t offering. Luther never meant to break off from the church entirely, though. Christians need a community of brothers and sisters where they can worship together, serve each other and those outside the body, as well as receive teaching. That teaching comes from the Bible.

    I think that the church has become less relevant in our society. But I also believe that the answer to this problem isn’t found in denouncing the church itself or redefining what it means to be a Christian. It’s found in the same place Luther found it, a repentant and humble heart with an openness to the truth and power of the Word of God. In short, the gospel has remained the same for two-thousand years. People are lost and corrupt, and only when we surrender to the truth of God’s undying love will Christ have any significance for us and those around us.

  3. This is now my new favorite post. Dave has expressed here (far better than I ever could) the same thoughts I was trying to communicate in my discussion with you Steve. Always happy to discuss more.

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