Back in college a fellow writer, named David Cohen, and I wrote an article about Elvis impersonator impersonators for the Harvard Lampoon‘s USA Today parody. The joke was that there were guys who idolized and impersonated not Elvis, but Elvis impersonators. Then we imagined Elvis impersonator impersonator impersonators, and then… well, you get the idea. In the article, each generation of impersonators, like a whispered message passed from person to person, strayed ever further from the original Elvis. The changes accumulated until the performers looked nothing like Elvis but instead like clowns who beat the ground with rubber sticks.
Christianity is like that.
Just look at how far the public face of “Christianity” in America has strayed from the person of Christ as he is portrayed in the Gospels (the only sources we have to go by). If we grant that people talk about what matters most to them, then what matters most to today’s high profile “Christians” has no connection to what mattered to Christ, for they each talk about completely different things.
Broadly speaking, Christians in our country are associated with the “conservative” values of tradition and family. But Christ flouted many traditional conventions, such as keeping the Sabbath, and took issue with the established religious officials of his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees. He also defied conventional expectations about how a person should behave, including dining with low-lifes and praising the woman who adoringly sat at his feet while her more responsible sister served the food. Aside from all this, Christ’s whole way of life was in no way traditional, wandering about as he did, performing alarming miracles and eating whatever he found from day to day.
And what of family? Well, he asked two of his apostles to follow him and leave their father in the middle of helping the old man work. When told that his mother and family had come to see him, he responded that those people gathered around him were his true family. In addition, we are told, he did few miracles in his hometown because the people there, those closest to him, saw him as merely the carpenter’s son they had grown up with—i.e. nothing special.
What did Christ talk about? Well, too many things to chronicle here, and anyone can read the Gospels and see for themselves (remembering that they were written a minimum of 60 or so years after Christ by those with their own agendas and biases). In an attempt at an overview, though, we can say he talked a lot about the kingdom of god. He said things like “whoever does not accept the kingdom of god like a little child shall not enter it,” and “the kingdom of god is within you.” He also told parables about paying equal wages to those who worked for an hour and those who worked all day, and about a father who forgives his profligate son for no good reason. He advised his disciples not to worry about tomorrow. In other words, Christ was startling, unconventional, and spontaneous and he preached irresponsibility in the commonly accepted sense of that word. I don’t hear any of this in the Christian message today.
But then, official Christianity has always been this way. It started with Paul, running around the Mediterranean telling early church members how to run their churches. Where Christ said nothing, Paul did his best to fill in the gaps. From that time on, as those with power attempted to organize, expand and explain Christ’s message, that message became increasingly beside the point, crowded out by the ideas and biases of those delivering the message. Tertullian is a powerful example of this. An influential writer whom some have called the founder of Western theology, he decided sometime around 200 AD that a person’s soul is stamped by human sin from birth. Never mind that there is no evidence Christ was at all concerned with this question, Tertullian decided it was Christian and added it to the church’s doctrines. Original sin, then, is not Christian but Tertullianist. Since then, of course, councils of church officials met periodically to decide what and whom they would deem Christian. Add to this official doctrine the informal mass of ideas and prejudices Christians have dreamed up, and you get a religious stew that tastes nothing like Christ’s original recipe.
Over the centuries, the practice continued: those who claimed to be followers of Christ have been largely preoccupied by issues that didn’t matter to Christ; they have nonetheless labeled the issues “Christian” and gone about their merry–and sometimes deadly–way. What we now call Christianity, then, is an unwieldy series of these accretions: layers and layers of attitudes and doctrine that have nothing to do with Christ.
This is not to say that a few figures imposed their views on the masses from on high. Influential ideas need to be accepted by the masses or they are not influential. Whether due to masochism or laziness, for example, people have to varying degrees believed in original sin. The idea took hold and got associated with Christianity and therefore with Christ.
This is also not to say that all these post-Christian ideas are bad. Many of them are, but that’s a different essay. My argument here is that it misleads the public and does Christ a disservice to associate these ideas with Christ. What we call things matters. It clarifies our thinking. I have no problem with people starting a church based on original sin. But call it Tertullianist, not Christian.