Sunday, March 2, 2008

Merest Christianity: A Correspondence

--T.H.L. on the Problem with my Christianity; E.M. on the Problem with American Christians--

Dear Eric:

Let me begin this letter by stating that I respect your faith in Jesus and your interest in Him. On the other hand, as a fellow Christian, I must tell you that I think your writing shows you are missing the forest for the trees. Your essays show a mind that is losing the focus that one needs for a true Christian faith.

Your essay about Guy Davenport's book will be my main example. I think modern Christians often come too much under the influence of scholars, and this seems to happen to you in your unbounded admiration for Davenport. Why does Guy Davenport have the right to neglect nearly all of the Gospels? Did you ever ask yourself this when reading his book? And why do you, as a Christian, decide to come out in support of him? Do you really think his tools of the trade as a scholar are so reliable?

To read Davenport's remarks, which you quote with approval, it would seem that Jesus was just a kind of smart aleck. That is about all the impression I can get of Jesus Christ from this supposedly poignant account.

Jesus was not a smart aleck or a tricky weaver of riddles, and you as a Christian should know this. He was who He said He was: the Son of God who died for the sins of the world. If this truth about Jesus Christ is not remembered, then all the rest of His words are misunderstood. They will become merely riddles or word games for scholars like Davenport to write their books on.

Thoughtful Christian writers have better models than Guy Davenport or Elaine Pagels. Have you ever read the writer C.S. Lewis? C.S. Lewis was a great scholar and a great Christian apologist for our modern age. He is the kind of writer who could inspire you in your own essays, and he is one who surely keeps the whole Christian truth in mind in everything he writes. If you haven't read Lewis, I would recommend starting with Mere Christianity. If you have read him, I hope you would write something about him. It would be more interesting for Christian readers than these writings about Gnosticism or Guy Davenport.

There is very much at stake in the paths we choose in modern times. I am an American Christian. I see from your webpage that you live in Taiwan. But even in Taiwan you must see how much the world is in need of the complete redemptive message of the Bible. In America there is more and more divorce, more and more violence and perversion and addiction of all kinds. It is all because people are lost: their values are mistaken. Many of them don't have any values at all. As a Christian, you should see that such people don't need these supposed fragments and riddles that Davenport tries to give us in his book. They need the real message of Jesus Christ. They need the complete message. They need to know why He really came into our world.

As I said in my opening words, I do respect your faith, but as a Christian I feel your writing needs more. I feel you have missed the forest for the trees.


Thomas H. L-----
* * *
Dear Thomas:

Thank you for your thoughtful response to my writings. I respect and understand your suggestions, and believe you touch on an important issue: What might it mean to be a Christian and a scholar? Your letter suggests some of the problems that immediately arise. Though I myself am not a scholar, I am interested in scholarship and how it illuminates Christian history, and so these problems are important to me.

As for your recommendation of C.S. Lewis, I will definitely take it up. I've read some of Lewis, but not Mere Christianity. I've wanted to read this book for some time, but haven't gotten around to it.

You say that in my faith or at least in my writing I am missing the forest for the trees. I will take a sapling from your idiom and watch it grow as follows. Consider how you might respond to my assertion:

Most American Christians believe they are wandering in a forest planted by Jesus Christ. But look! The forest they wander in is really one planted by American social conservatives and the Apostle Paul. Jesus and his teachings are hardly to be found there.

Here is how I see the crisis in American Christianity, or rather one of the main reasons for the crisis. Jesus' teachings are not acceptable to the churches. He is hidden behind a more palatable Paul and the neurotic social attitudes of the Religious Right. This situation has occupied my thoughts for a long time.

So let me ask you: Is this forest I've described the one you yourself prefer to wander in? I believe those trees planted by Paul are certainly very important, but why is it they tower so high over the few little shrubs of Jesus that are allowed to survive? And as for all those acres that come from the Religious Right--if it were up to me, I would cut them down. And you?

So let me ask you: What precisely is the Christian message you think I should be pressing? That Christ died for our sins? Yes, I could focus on this message, but it is perhaps the only authentic New Testament message that the American churches are good at preaching. And many of them stress it to the exclusion of everything else about Jesus. As a writer I don't feel the necessity of taking it up, of explaining it. It is explained repeatedly by firebrand preachers all over the world. And nowhere more so than in America.

You mention America's divorce rate. So should I focus on "Christian family values"? I hope you don't think so. Because although American preachers go on and on about family values, Jesus' statements show us that he thought of the family as a stumbling block: one should step over it, never bothering to look back. Here are two examples of Jesus' family values:

1) "Master, your mother and your brothers are waiting for you outside." Jesus: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? Those who hear and follow the words of God, these are my mother and my brothers." (I.e.: the accidents of birth do not determine any binding tie: it is only kinship in the spirit that counts. Jesus clearly rejects the traditional stress on family and lineage.)

2) "Master, I want to follow you, but let me go and bury my father first." Jesus: "Let the dead bury their own dead. Those who put their hand to the plow and turn back are not worthy of the Kingdom." (I.e.: your father is dead, and so what? Family ties mean nothing to me or my ministry. Until you recognize that the work of the Kingdom is more important than any respect for family ties, you are not worthy to be a disciple.)

And these two instances are not all. I could offer more quotations from Jesus that show contempt for the family as an institution. The conclusion is inescapable: for Jesus the family is irrelevant. The only relevant thing is the work of the Kingdom.

So what gives with the Bible belt and this "family values" song and dance? I can tell you one thing: it has nothing to do with Jesus or his teachings. Where then do they get it? From themselves, that's where. The same place they get most of their sordid preaching. Jesus was a radical, something the Bible belt cannot stomach.

And they rail on and on about sexual morality, as if they were all obsessed with sex sex sex, whereas Jesus almost never talked about sex (I can find only two instances in the Gospels: two sentences out of hundreds and hundreds). And they are so certain that homosexuality is un-Christian because, they insist, it is against nature, whereas there is no record of any reference to homosexuality ever coming from Jesus' mouth: not a single word. So given this repeated and hysterical concern with 1) family values and 2) sexuality, why don't they just call themselves The American Church of Social Conservatism because, to tell the truth, Jesus probably wouldn't recognize their movement as his, and he doesn't have a very large place in their movement in any case.

I'm sorry to quote Jesus in so "offensive" a manner on family values. It's just that I tend to stick with this annoying principle: If you want to teach something in Jesus' name, you should show that it goes back to Jesus himself. In other words, in trying to assess whether or not the family values movement in America is Christian or not, I think it's important to search out what Jesus himself said. Although Pat Robertson is respectable and all, I do think Jesus' words have precedence even over those of Pat Robertson.

Jesus preached a doctrine of open sharing of goods. The open sharing of goods was how one demonstrated that one understood the Kingdom; it was also a means of helping the Kingdom grow. This is one of the most oft-repeated of Jesus' themes: that one should not collect goods in preparation for the future and that one should share openly and always. This teaching, although repeated in all four Gospels, is never stressed in American churches. It is far easier for the churches to dwell on the abstract things offered by Paul. This is the route the churches chose long ago: it is an effective way of avoiding Jesus himself.

I hope I am not being misunderstood here. That I explain this core part of Jesus' doctrine, namely his teaching on property, isn't to imply that I claim myself to have the strength to follow it. I am not strong enough to follow it. But at least I recognize what this weakness of mine means: not strong enough to follow Jesus' teaching on property, I can hardly be righteous by Jesus' standards. By Jesus' standards, after all, anyone with a bank account is hardly righteous.

And another thing. Although I disparage parts of the stress put on Paul in American churches, I would not be confident asserting that Paul misrepresented Jesus' teachings. We cannot really be sure about this. All we can say with confidence is that the voice of Jesus we know from the Gospels and the voice of Paul have certain differences. Certainly that is in part a matter of the genre of the writings in question. But isn't it also possible that the sayings of Jesus preserved in the Gospels are more crucial than the letters of Paul? Wouldn't it be better for us, as Christians, to quote Jesus, say, three or four times as much as we quote Paul? I don't think I'd be exaggerating if I said that many Protestant churches give Paul just as much if not more space than they give the man Paul proclaimed as Messiah.

I believe I recognize much of the essential in Jesus' message. And what I see convinces me of the following: Those American Christians who think of sexual behavior or sexual orientation as a major Christian concern have not read the Gospels. Those Christians who feel so righteous that they give themselves the right to rail against their neighbors' sexual mores--but who still themselves have bank accounts--are hypocrites who have not read the Gospels. Those Christians who worry constantly about how the media is infecting youth but then teach their children to be materialistic and to judge success in life by income--such Christians have obviously not read the Gospels.

Jesus behaved like a vagabond and a hippy. He and his followers refused to settle down, refused to acquire property (he told them they must not) and preached among the outcasts and the marginal . If Jesus showed up in Texas or Utah or Florida or Alabama--if he showed up in any "good neighborhood" at least--I can assure you he'd be arrested within a few days. If he came to your door or my door with James and Peter in tow and asked to stay for the night it's more than likely neither you nor I would let him in. This is something a Christian should at least recognize: That we ourselves do not live up to what is expected, that we are far from the mark, that in fact many of our supposed Christian values would be scoffed at by Jesus himself if he were here to see us.

So, my friend, to conclude: You may believe that my interest in a writer like Guy Davenport shows that I can't see the forest for the trees. But I feel the truth of the situation may be quite different. The truth may be that you and I are not exactly in the same forest. I may be wrong about this, for I can't be quite sure from your letter just how you understand Jesus and his words. But this at least is my suspicion, given the tone and concerns I note in your letter.

Are you sure that you as a Christian have really taken Jesus' teachings into account in your remarks about America?

I will take up your suggestion to finally read C.S. Lewis' book. And I welcome any reply you may have to my remarks here.


Eric Mader

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