Feb 112012
 

One thing I find extremely interesting is how Jesus is most typically portrayed in Western religious art, and especially in previous generations.  He is soft, thin, gentle; our kind teacher and merciful healer.  According to our contemporary stereotypes, he is remarkably effeminate!

Jesus meek and mild 1 Jesus meek and mild 2 Jesus meek and mild 5

Granted these are ethnically inaccurate pictures, and they aren’t typical in the Orthodox tradition, but they are the norm in the West for both Protestants and Catholics.  In any case, this pacifist, inclusive, forgiving, emotional, penniless Jesus, apparently also without spouse or child, hardly provides a respectable role model for the stereotypical macho American male.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not saying this is the only way Jesus should ever be portrayed.   It’s important that we not ignore the Jesus who was a hardworking builder’s son, who stormed the temple, who boldly called people out for their hypocrisy, who didn’t run from his accusers.  Certainly there is a lot of dynamic and assertive strength in the Son of Man, not that those are uniquely masculine qualities.

What I mean to do is pose some questions: What has happened to that old iconic image in the mind of modern Americans, especially men?  How would most American Christians respond to a man like the traditional Jesus shown above appearing today and claiming to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life?  How have so many of us come to ignore the nobility of Jesus as a man who was heroic in large part because he refused the role of warrior?

It’s quite clear that many of us Christians prefer the vision of Christ portrayed in the Book of Revelation, the Divine warrior-king who comes to swing a sword (or pull a trigger, or drop a bomb) against all those who aren’t on the “right team.”  But is that image one we should emulate?

apocalyptic christ

That picture of Christ is as the Lord of Vengeance that many Christians have hoped and prayed would come in their lifetimes.  This is the Christ who seems prophesied to violently defeat all those who have not repented and accepted him as Master, and to extract even more than eye for eye and tooth for tooth from those who have opposed the faithful.   It’s not my purpose here to refute that vision of Christ’s return, but to point out that (even if its literal reading is an accurate portrayal of the Second Coming) intolerance, vengeance, hostility, and violence are nonetheless not what Jesus calls for in the meantime.  Instead, he teaches the exact opposite. (Matthew 5; Luke 6:17-49)  We are therefore not to make the warrior-king Christ of Armageddon a model for Christian life, let alone a model for masculinity.

So the last question I want to pose is this:  How would our society, and the world, be different if we fully celebrated and emulated the Jesus of the Gospels as a role model for masculinity?

Please do not consider these questions to be merely rhetorical.  I really am interested in your responses.

Agape

Dec 212010
 

For a few weeks I have been ruminating on what I would post for the Christmas season, and then it finally came to me: Who owns Christianity? Who has the authority to codify what it does or does not mean to be a Christian, or regulate who can or cannot call themselves Christian, let alone who is permitted to be Christian?

Recent discussions with dear friends have once again brought to my attention how easy, how seductive, how unconsciously reflexive it can be to think and speak with labels, such as “Christian” or “Christianity.”  As labels, these terms serve as a kind of shorthand conveying a wide range of assumptions and generalizations about the person or persons to whom they are attached.  Sometimes we even label ourselves in this way.  The use of labels also easily taps into my personal beliefs and value judgments that accompany those assumptions and generalizations, and thus stimulates emotional reactions and attitudes toward the person or persons I have labeled.   Almost invariably, these processes occur semi-consciously, and I do not realize that in the process I have dehumanized somebody.  I do not realize that I have started treating a person as an abstraction that I am judging as right or wrong, and thus about which I am either comfortable or uncomfortable.  I do not realize that I have forgotten she is a unique child of God, a one-of-a-kind gift of Love to this world, like that little child in Bethlehem.  I may not ever realize that I have missed an opportunity to welcome, understand, accept, value and coexist with her, to love him, as that precious gift.   One of the ironic things about this pattern is that I do it despite how much I dislike other people doing it, which reminds me of Paul in Romans 7:15.

I know what it feels like to be the object of someone’s labeling, their stereotyping, and how it can harm the potential for us to care for each other as two whole and fully present human beings.   Some of the most troubling labels I’ve experienced are “Christian” and “bad” or “false” Christian.  Even “good” or “true” Christian can be troubling, and perhaps even more so!  The baggage that comes along with identifying as Christian can be enormous.  Many non-Christians automatically assume I fit their stereotype, which seems to be an increasingly negative one that prevents them from being open to anything more than a superficial relationship.  At worst, it leads some people to instantly take a distrusting, defensive and hostile position with me because they are certain that I am going to be judgmental, narrow minded, prudish, condescending and proselytizing.  On the other hand, fellow Christians often automatically assume I share most if not all of their beliefs and attitudes about things, or fit their own stereotypes of “Christian”.   When it’s discovered that I don’t fit their expectations, it’s not unusual for them to act like they are shocked and offended or threatened, as though I have personally challenged their own sense of identity, and then they put me in some other box.  I know I am not alone in these things, and it’s probably safe to say that you have also been painfully aware of them at times.

Experiences with the Christian stereotypes, and having seen myself in all the roles, have repeatedly led me to wonder about the value in calling myself Christian.  Of course, I do it for a number of reasons:  It is my native religious culture, and its symbolism, ritual, lore and language were being poured into my psyche even before I was born.  Through childhood, adolescence and early young adulthood it remained the primary milieu in which my ideas about self, other human beings, and the world took shape.  As I explored other traditions in adulthood, and now well into middle age, despite my willingness and attempts to let it go, Christianity has remained a constant reference point.  These experiences, combined with a growing understanding of how the psyche works in general, and mine in particular, led me to realize that, of all the world’s spiritual traditions, Christianity has the greatest potential to serve as a bridge between the consciousness of my adult personality and the childlike presence deep in my heart.  I came to realize that I just can’t help it that Christ’s love is the spiritual ideal that most inspires me.  I, this adult named “Chuck”, didn’t choose for all of these things to happen, but I do choose to accept them.  I am a Christian because I embrace the reality that the spirit and traditional forms of Christianity permeate my being; it is my religious home.

No matter how much doctrinal testing, prooftexting or Bible thumping anyone might do, nobody can take away my Christian identity, and in that sense I own it.  I also own it to the extent that I accept responsibility for the never-ending process of determining what Christianity means to me, and what it means for me to be a Christian.  In these ways I own Christianity for myself, and in doing so I realize and respect the right of every other Christian to do the same.  But, as noted earlier, I must also admit that even I can’t take my Christian identity away from me.  In many ways it is bigger than me, not controlled or possessed by this personality named “Chuck”, and so I can no more own it than the air I breathe.

Yet I don’t think that is where this issue of ownership stops.  As you might have been expecting from the moment you read the title of this post, if anyone rightfully owns Christianity it must ultimately be God through Christ.  Furthermore, as all creatures are God’s children, I believe we are all heirs and co-trustees of Christianity, just as we are with the air we all share, whether we consider ourselves Christian or not.

And the messenger said to them, `Fear not, for lo, I bring you good news of great joy, that shall be to all the people — because there was born to you to-day a Saviour — who is Christ the Lord….  (Luke 2:10-11, my emphasis)

Emmanuel!

Merry Christmas!