My skin-deep Christianity

You get labeled.  Some of these labels are accurate, and some are not.  Some are helpful, and some are not. All labels are true: they accurately describe how the labeler sees the labeled one or how he wants the labeled one to see herself or be seen by others.  All labels are false: even the best ones tend to diminish the one labeled.  The finest eulogies diminish the dead.

Names are labels, too, though not as much these days, as a whole.  Still, though the name “Brandon” means nothing to me, because of her past experiences Victoria will attempt to put anyone named Brandon on the trading block any September she spots one on her class roster.  Like any words, names absorb connotations.

I am more than my name, and I am more than the sum of my most veracious labels.  Some labels go deeply into who I am – some more deeply than I realize – but none of them goes deeply enough to be fair enough, to touch or much less to capture who I am, or to do anything more than adumbrate some installment of me.

But labels and names have hurt deeply enough, and they have helped deeply enough, to confirm my belief that I have an ineffable, unknown name that my life may be obscurely moving toward that may in some sense capture who I am, at least to the extent that I am captured by Jesus.

Cats understand something like this about themselves, or at least T.S. Eliot thought they did.  Every cat must have three names (though I’ve never known a cat to answer to any): an everyday name, a unique name, and an unknown name.  Concerning the last:

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

(“The Naming of Cats” from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. (So all this “effan” talk (as in, “Man, that move was effanineffable!”) started with Eliot.))

One distinction between a cat and me is that, according to the poem, a cat already knows his ineffable name; it is unknown only to others.  But I attribute this difference to the cat’s higher spiritual attainments.

In Revelation, Jesus gives a new name, unknown to anyone but the person given it, to every person “who overcomes” (2:17).  How can I relate to such a gift?  Is it an hereditary title?  A term of endearment?   Since no one else would know the name besides the giver and the recipient, I think this name would constitute less of an honor than an expression of intimacy.

I never found this reward too appealing until recently.   Why would I want anyone – even God – to label or rename me?  As a teenager, I didn’t accept the rich identity my father offered me.  Instead, I pieced together my own identity.  The pieces that went down deep inside of me were of this order: “I am a Christian” and “I am better than you” and “I am a failure.”  I required my faith to support my ideas about myself, and challenges to my faith, whether intellectual or experiential in nature, felt deeply threatening.

A few hard knocks later, my identity is more wrapped up in another.  It is my experience – I can’t speak for others – that the deepest sense of self comes from being loved.  Jesus loves me after all.  “For the Bible tells me so” was never enough.  And, if things work out, he’ll call me by a new name no one else will know.

° ° °

Why do Christians see themselves as Christians?  It’s just another label.  In the Bible, Jesus never called anyone a Christian.  God didn’t, either.  And either did any apostle or New Testament writer or any other Christian.

I mean, it’s a fine label and all.  It’d be hard to replace it, even if we wanted to.  (Could you imagine Christians trying to agree on a new name for the religion?)  But is the name helpful as a means of seeing ourselves, of identifying ourselves to ourselves?  “First and foremost, I am a Christian.  That is, I’m a Christian before I’m a father, a husband, a doctor, an American, or a Republican.”  (I couldn’t resist that last one.)  Speak for yourself.

[book cover]More voices: “If someone accused you of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  I don’t know.  The criminal lawyer in me asks, what are the elements of the crime?  I’d have to find out what my accuser means since the label has picked up a lot of good and bad historical baggage.  It’s not even always clear in the Bible what people meant by “Christian.”  The word is used only thrice in the Bible, and on each occasion it’s a label used only by people outside of the church.

The Bible’s first two references to “Christian” are in the Book of Acts.  In one reference, the narrator explains the term’s origin (a label used by the people of Antioch for the disciples there), and in the other, King Agrippa refers to himself as a potential “Christian” when he came to Caesarea in order to judge Paul relative to the accusations made against him.

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord.  The news about them reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas off to Antioch.  Then when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord; for he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And considerable numbers were brought to the Lord.  And he left for Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.  (Acts 11:21-26)

Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.  And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds.  (Acts 26:28-29)

It’s interesting to me that, while Paul didn’t object to Agrippa’s term “Christian,” he went out of his way to refer to himself in another way – “such as I am” – and so to adopt no label for himself in this context at all.

The last use of the term Christian in the Bible is in one of Peter’s letters to the church, where the label is at the bottom of a list of otherwise negative labels his readers might have been subject to have been stuck with:

But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters.  Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf.  (1 Peter 4:15-16)

(I added the bold font in the above excerpts.  The italics, which are part of the King James translation, indicate words not directly translated from the original but added to make the text more understandable.)

It should be noted that, while Peter used the term “Christian” to refer to the disciples, he used it only to describe it as an accusation other people could have made against the disciples.  One gets the feeling that “Christian” may not have been as positive a label for the people Peter was writing to, or for the people those people lived among, anyway, as it had been for the Antiochans or for King Agrippa.  In his book The Early Church, Henry Chadwick points out that, for about two hundred years after Nero, many Romans considered Christians to be both incestuous and cannibalistic (26, 29).  Nevertheless, it seems clear from 1 Peter that, whatever the negative connotations were that the general public associated with the term at that time, the Christians were to understand them as false accusations that would make their suffering them akin to Christ’s suffering.

Chadwick notes that, after Anticoch, the term “Christian” “quickly spread as the popular term” among the communities where the disciples lived (16).  There were also other labels other Biblical characters outside of the church used for the disciples.  Many Jews first referred to the disciples as “the Nazarenes” (Chadwick 16, 21).  The word “sect” appears twice (Acts 24:5 and 28:22).  I like “sect” because it emphasizes the church’s roots as an offshoot of Judaism.  But I can understand why “sect,” unlike “Christian,” doesn’t show up as part of any church’s name today.  It carries a sort of illegitimate and narrow connotation at a time when many churches, even very small ones, wish to associate themselves with denominations or “apostolic streams” and include phrases like “World Outreach Center” in their names.

I’m fine with “Christian” as a label.  I’ll concede for the sake of argument that it’s a better label than “sect.”  But I think it’s unscriptural – unchristian, if you will – for a Christian to define himself first and foremost as a Christian – as something God never referred to him as.  Can’t a Christian’s most essential understanding of himself rest in something deeper?

Here’s a related and an even more disturbing proposition, perhaps.  Isn’t it unscriptural for us to see ourselves – deeply, I mean – at the level of who we are – as a member of a religion (i.e., Christian) or of a denomination or of a particular church?   In the Old Testament, people identified themselves to themselves and among themselves as members of families and tribes and nations, and the New Testament uses the same language of identity.  We are members of God’s family; we are children of God.  Heck, we’re made in God’s image.  It’s easy to go to war against the other team (“Christians” vs. “heathen,” for instance), but it’s hard to go to war against sisters and brothers of the same God, even if we believe those sisters and brothers have left, or have never found, their spiritual families.  And if persecution ever took away all of the nice buildings and titles and traditions, could we not hope to be left with spiritual and natural fathers and mothers, families and clans?

It isn’t popular today to define ourselves in terms of where we came from.  (E.g., I am of the house of Rollins or Jaworski.)  The displacement of war, the breakdown of families, and the wash left from waves of Western thought have made it impossible or undesirable for most, I guess.  Indeed, I have tended to see myself as what I do (e.g., I am a teacher), what I enjoy, or how I see the world, and not from whence I came.  Further, most church teaching isn’t oriented to this understanding of ourselves.  But in Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom, I am invited to see myself by where I’m from.  Like Jesus, we come from God and return to God.

The New Testament invites us to see ourselves in many ways: disciples and workers, ambassadors and prisoners, servants and kings, priests and stewards, saints and sinners, to name just ten.  While I would argue, perhaps not convincingly, that “children of God” or “beloved” might be the richest identity for Jesus’ disciples to inculcate with the help of the Holy Spirit, it is not to the exclusion of God’s other ways of seeing ourselves.

In an extremely helpful book, Paul S. Minear examines ninety-six analogies and labels the New Testament uses to explore the notion of Jesus’ followers and the church.1 “Christian,” however, isn’t one of those labels.

I’ll continue to call myself a Christian when the need arises, and I’ll accept that appellation from others when I think I understand it.  But I rank it, as Eliot’s cat might, as one my least effanineffable names.


Posted August 2, 2009.

  1. Minear, Paul S. Images of the Church in the New Testament. A list of the terms makes up an appendix on pages 268 – 269.