Andrew Sullivan’s personal Jesus

April 10, 2012

One of you asked me if I was going to blog about Newsweek‘s annual Jesus cover story, which gets published every Easter. Usually these stories get some aspect of Easter or Christianity spectacularly wrong—based on some controversial theory that a wide consensus of theologians, Bible scholars, and historians discredited years earlier, but which has only now filtered out to the general population.

These stories will often feature, for example, atheist Bart Ehrman, every skeptic’s go-to Bible scholar. His publicist stays very busy every Easter and Christmas. (As this story proves, however, even a broken clock is right twice a day.)

This year’s cover story isn’t nearly so bad. Once you get past the provocative cover headline (“Forget the Church; Follow Jesus”), it’s a rather humble opinion piece by a practicing Christian, center-right political columnist and blogger Andrew Sullivan.

I like Sullivan. He’s wrong about a lot of things, but there isn’t much to sink my teeth into here.

Christianity, he writes, is in crisis. What he really means is that the form of public religion known as “Christendom” no longer holds sway in the western world. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, but that’s beside the point: Christianity is, in fact, growing by leaps and bounds once you look outside the western and northern hemispheres.

Failing to look outside the western and northern hemispheres, however, is precisely Sullivan’s problem. He can’t see how captive his imagination is to post-Enlightenment thinking. Jesus, he argues, was apolitical. He advocated for a mostly private and ethics-based spirituality. The church, therefore, following his example, should only intervene in public life when it can do so in a non-sectarian way.

This is completely wrong, of course. Jesus was a far bigger threat to earthly principalities and powers than a mere insurrectionist like Barabbas, whose place Jesus took on the cross. When Pilate sentenced Jesus to death for sedition (falsely, he believed), he had no idea he was sowing the seeds of Rome’s destruction. As N.T. Wright and others have said, when the early Christians proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” they were also saying who wasn’t Lord. And if Caesar wasn’t Lord, then his empire was in trouble. The political ramifications were staggering, as Rome would soon learn.

In fact, it’s hard to see how Christianity, if it were being faithful to itself, wouldn’t be in conflict with any earthly kingdom, including the western liberal and capitalistic versions with which Sullivan is enamored.

Even though he denies it, it’s hard to see how Sullivan isn’t advocating for a “privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere.”

Finally, a word about his view of the church. To Sullivan’s great credit, he continues to be, as I said, a practicing Christian: he still goes to church. I like that. (Not that she ever asked for my opinion, but I was disappointed when author Anne Rice dropped out of church a while back because of its perceived failures.)

I agree with Sullivan that the church, in all its confessional and denominational manifestations, often fails to live up to its calling in the world. It’s embarrassing how badly it falls short of what Jesus wants his church to be.

But what are we supposed to do?

I’m an embarrassment to the church sometimes. How can I place myself above it? John and Charles Wesley themselves should disown me if they were alive today! Who am I to get on some high horse about “what’s wrong with the church.” I’m what’s wrong with the church. Not always, of course. I believe I’m getting better by God’s grace, and I’m trying to be part of the solution, but still… I should be glad that the church, this hospital for sinners, made room for one more.

3 Responses to “Andrew Sullivan’s personal Jesus”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Make room for me, too!

    I do think, though, that the “church” is in a crisis in the sense that the “church,” as in those who darken church building doors, has fallen far from biblical norms in many respects, particularly as relates to homosexuals, at least in the “Western World.” That goes a lot further than simply that each true Christian is still a sinner, so the world will always see “sinners” when they look at church-goers. Of course, I think you agree with that. Just wanted to point out that distinction.

  2. I particularly appreciate your phrase “I’m what’s wrong with the church!” It applies to all of us of course, and none of us would deny it outright. But we would be a much healthier church if we lived with this truth at the forefront of our consciousness.

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