Sunday, May 14, 2006

"Christianism" and Andrew Sullivan

In common with many educated people I am apprehensive about the growing power of hardcore evangelical Christians in this country. They are seeking, many of them, to erase the boundaries between church and state, and to impose their own narrow concepts of morality. Following a half-baked version of medieval Millenarianism, millions seem to believe that they will shortly be swept up into the sky in the Rapture. Politicians increasingly cater to these people, some even claiming tbat their policies are authorized by God.

In a piece in Time Magazine, followed by discussion on his blog (available at the Time site), Andrew Sullivan has advocated that this vein of evangelicals be rebranded "Christianists." The term is modeled on Islamism. When one of his readers objected that, unlike radical, puritanical Muslims, Christianist do not go about chopping people's heads off and forcing women into purdah, Sullivan remarked that evangelicals would do so if they could.

Coming from a Catholic (Sullivan's faith) this remark is simply outrageous. It was not evangelical Christians who burned Joan of Arc for heresy. And it was not evangelical Christians who decreed the death penalty for sodomites. Some sense of humility, fortified by historical knowledge, is called for.

Sullivan's ploy is of course familiar in other realms. I remember having heated discussions with Marxists in the seventies who insisted that one must distinguish "genuine Marxism" (their version) from the "excesses" of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. What if, I answered, that it was the beliefs and practices of those three which actually constituted genuine Marxism. The general point is that such dichotomies are generally self-serving. Marxists need to take responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of their faith. So do Catholics. Inventing specious dichotomies is not the way to accomplish this.

Several years ago Sullivan's friend and fellow gay conservative, Bruce Bawer (who is not a Catholic) published a book called Stealing Jesus.This book contains some valuable information about liberal protestantism in the US in the 1920s, together with an analysis of the Dispensationalism currently rampant among evangelicals. However, the whole idea of "stealing Jesus" is ludicrous.

A hundred years ago, in his Quest for the Historical Jesus Albert Schweitzer showed that Jesus, in so far as we can apprehend him, was a shape-shifter who has meant many different things to many people. Such an individual cannot be the victim of identity theft--he has no single identity. (The fact that later Schweitzer backslid, claiming that HE had detected who the historical Jesus actually was, does not detract from the value of his scholarly demonstration.)

Since Schweitzer's time, the complex heritage has continued. And some new features have been added.

I note just a few of the interpretations that have been offered of this protean figure. There is the gentle Jesus who suffered little children to come to him so beloved of Victorian painters. There is Jesus the situational ethicist who found a legalistic reason to save the adulterous woman from being stoned to death. Contrasting with these is the stern eschatolical Jesus, who foresaw the Last Judgment, with sinners being consigned to eternal damnation. Then there is Jesus the zealot, leader of the Judaean Liberation Front. And it is hard to escape the conclusion that Jesus, a believing Jew, was not a rabbi.

The twentieth century has added some new themes. Bruce Bartlett opined that Jesus had created the finest business model that anyone could imagine. He took twelve uneducated trainees and made them the core of a bustling worldwide concern--in fact several such concerns. The sixties gave is Jesus the Hippy, with his band of scruffy followers. And Holy Blood, Holy Grail suggested (not for the first time) that Jesus was a family man, espoused to Mary Magdalene and the founder of a secret dynasty. Some gay Christians, not content with erasing the antihomosexual content of the notorious Clobber Passages in the Bible, have suggested that Jesus was homosexual. And so on.

Jesus can be all sorts of things. In this light it seems implausible to suggest that there is only one construction of his personality (the one embraced by the writer) and to suggest that other concepts are thievery. By the same token, Sullivan's ploy of trying to separate out the Christianity of other people by labeling it "Christianism" will not fly.



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