Diana Butler Bass, is the author of a new book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. I have not read the book, but I did listen with great interest to a National Public Radio interview with her on the “On Point” program on Friday March 2nd here in Nashville and I did read an excerpt from the book. Diana Butler Bass seems to be a sincere author and has made some interesting observations – especially of the Christian church. She describes the decline of the established, traditional model of the organized Christian church and how many of the previous faithful are turning away from – rejecting the Christian religion to practice their Christianity differently, more practically and in their everyday lives.
I wrote the following comment for the NPR website as part of the post-show online discussion. It is no way a comment on the author or the book. Instead it is my response to the radio show I heard:
I listened with great interest to Diana Butler Bass on NPR and read the excerpt from her book. (Thank you for having her on the show). I get it. As a speaker and musician communicating and connecting primarily within the Christian church, I sense a great deal of what she is expressing. For the most part I agree, but perhaps she does not go far enough.
In my opinion, a lot of the problem here is with terminology. For example: I consider myself a follow of Jesus Christ, but I do not choose to call myself Christian. (To many these terms should be synonymous, but unfortunately they are not. Please read on). I find myself unable to relate with so much of what calls itself Christian. Much of it seems to me to stand at odds with my understanding of Jesus the Christ.
I am encouraged by this: The written record that we have of the life and teachings of Jesus (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in The Bible) never use the word Christian. You might be surprised to know that Jesus does not ask people to become Christian at all! Instead He asks people to follow Him. From the Biblical account, people hearing that call either chose to follow Jesus or they did not. The call is still being issued to this day. People are free to obey that call or not; to follow Him or not to follow. Thinking of myself as a Christian or not is, in my opinion, not a direct correlation and it is certainly not Biblical.
The word Christian is only used in the Bible three times and never by Jesus. Many theologians believe it was originally a derogatory term used by outsiders and not the early followers of Jesus. The three uses of the word Christian in the Bible (two in the book of Acts and one in second Peter) can support that position, depending on your interpretation.
I am concerned that the Christian religion is merely another cause, or a religion pretty much like any other. It was inspired by the story about Jesus. It has become loose adherence to some of the teachings of Jesus as a historical character where the Christian is able to pick and choose which teachings are adaptable to his lifestyle.
In my more cynical moments, I agree with this stark quotation. Other times it makes me feel sad:
“Christianity started out in Palestine as a fellowship;
it moved to Greece and became a philosophy;
it moved to Italy and became an institution;
it moved to Europe and became a culture;
it came to America and became a business.” – Sam Pascoe, (American scholar)
From my understanding of Jesus, Christianity – the Christian religion – was never what He intended for His followers, nor what He intends today. Yes, I am one of those weird people that actually believes that Jesus is who He claimed to be – God incarnate. I can’t explain it. It makes no logical sense. But I believe he died and rose from the dead. He is alive and I follow Him. We are in relationship with one another and He is showing me that the main problem with the world today is not the weakening of the Christian religion, nor the divide in American society along religious lines, nor that many people don’t think that He did rise from the grave and is God. The main problem in this world is my own selfishness – my desire to live life my way. He shows me this and demonstrates the alternative.
Still, I find community with other followers of Jesus primarily within the Christian Church. I have found many – not so much like-minded, or even like-living, but more like-being – people to connect with; people who are also in relationship with Him. In my experience, these sincere followers of Jesus seem most often, but not exclusively, to live as part of church community. But even if the institution of the Christian church – the Christian religion – dissolves completely, these followers of Jesus the Christ will continue to follow.
Butler Bass’s book and her discussion seemed to point to a throwing off of religion and a renewing of truly Christian values outside the four walls of church buildings and organized Christian practices. But deeper than that, I see the throwing off of the Christian religion and the revealing of Jesus the Christ in those who truly follow Him, evidenced by acts of costly, unconditional, self-less, self-sacrificing love.
So, to each of us, the question is, “Who is Jesus to me?” Is He a historical character to be ignored? Or one who gave good moral teaching worth applying to my life? Is His a story that compels me to join the Christian religion? Or is He Jesus the Christ, to whom I will gladly surrender all as His follower.