In the Fall of 2017 Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater produced a play called “The Christians.” It was set in a successful evangelical mega-church, one with all the usual trappings. One Sunday morning, the beloved pastor tells the congregation in his sermon he has come to the conclusion that accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior is not essential for eternal salvation—that eternal life is open to all. This, of course, angers many in the congregation, including the charismatic youth pastor who adheres to the belief that faith in Christ is essential for salvation, while unbelief leads to eternal damnation. The congregation shrinks and ultimately divides.
Throughout the play there was a substantial amount of argumentative dialogue that sounded as though it had been written after the playwright had taken one semester of intro to historical-critical biblical scholarship. To me, however, the crux (pun somewhat intended) of the play was when a congregant in crisis over the situation, a woman of very limited resources who nonetheless tithed away most of her livelihood (think of the widow in Luke 21:1–4), asked, “What is the point of religion if you don’t get to condemn other people?”
When I recently encountered the “Reclaiming Jesus” movement in the news, I found myself circling back to this play. The organization’s mission statement is a strongly, thoughtfully-worded support for equality, mutuality, and diversity, along with advocacy for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed in our society—following the teachings of Jesus as contained in the gospels and Christian identity as expressed in other scriptural writings. There are a number of high-profile Christian signatories on the homepage, though I found only one Roman Catholic (Fr. Richard Rohr) among them.
While I think their work is an important corrective to much of what is being purveyed in the U.S. as Christian teaching, and I acknowledge that the organization’s primary work is not evangelization, their emphasis on ethical teaching and action along with a focus on the person of Jesus/Christ as an ethical teacher and/or role model still struck me as emblematic of what seems to be a crisis in contemporary Christology. The group’s homepage doesn’t refer to salvation or eternal life, and only uses the terms “heaven,” “kingdom” and “divine/ly” twice each. The divine Sonship of Jesus is not referred to. This gives the group’s statement a nearly-exclusive here-and-now focus.
The reason “The Christians” makes me think of the “Reclaiming Jesus” movement is my continued wondering about reasons to be Christian. Both the play and the organization present clear statements about the different kinds of lives that flow from different kinds of Christian identity. Neither, in my view, presents a persuasive reason to become, or continue to be, Christian. Again, I do think “Reclaiming Jesus” is a necessary corrective to the “un-welcome table” approach of many Christian churches, and I truly do believe that “[t]he vision of a table at which EVERYBODY sits together is one that explodes worlds” (William D. Lindsey). Yet even the social justice vision of Reclaiming Jesus does not contain anything that can’t be pursued or accomplished outside of or in ways other than Christianity.
A particularly Roman Catholic focus on this crisis in Christology was further focused for me in an interview with Cardinal Schönborn on the PrayTell blog. The Cardinal was asked how he would explain to a young person that Jesus is risen. His reply, as I noted in my own reply to that blog post, contained no reference to Jesus, or to the Resurrection per se. He didn’t explain why Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, and/or regular practice of the Christian faith is essential or normative, much less mandatory. Discussing this matter with a faithful/dutiful Roman Catholic friend, he asked, “Do our bishops even believe in Christ?”
I’ve long thought that the “hope for heaven/fear of hell” dynamic that bound so many generations of Roman Catholics to the institutional church has largely (though not completely) vanished in the U.S. It does not seem that anything equally compelling has replaced it. As Andrew Sullivan noted recently, “neither Benedict’s retrenchment nor Francis’s outreach seems successful in stopping the slow slide of institutional and cultural decline, and the emptying of the pews, especially among the young[.]”
We have just passed through the festal triumvirate of Pentecost-Trinity-Body and Blood, a series of Sundays whose liturgies forge our missional nature for the remaining stretch of the liturgical year. In our surrounding culture of diversity—especially of religious diversity—and the growing belief in or practice of unmediated divinity, it seems that our missional nature has to be concrete, one that truly attracts others, points to Christ, and brings them to Christ. There is nothing that Christianity has to offer that can’t be found, experienced, or gotten in any number of other places—nothing except Christ. We have but one question to answer:
“Who do you say that I am?”