This year in anticipation of Halloween, a joke post was circulating on Facebook about appropriate costumes Christians could wear instead of the usual zombie and demon outfits. Offering selections from a glowering Calvinist to an ultra-hip, goateed youth pastor, the site offered an interesting take on how people perceive Christians.
If a person’s Christian faith was like a costume, what would it look like? Based on the press that the religion gets in the media, some people might assume that any costume of a faithful Christian woman would have to come with a long denim skirt, even longer hair, and at least a dozen or so children. Others might envision a Christian costume which comes with picketing signs with homophobic messages to be used to torment grieving families at funerals. Still others might envision a mask where the nose was permanently pointing to the sky in holier-than-thou scorn, or one in which the heart has been papered over with messages of hate. This is how Christianity is often portrayed in the media. Believers are frequently depicted as culturally backwards, emotionally poisonous, or educationally-challenged. No wonder so many Millennials think of Christians as hypocrites and haters, not bearers of the good news of God’s love.
But this is not the kind of Christian that I am, nor is it the kind of Christianity most of the Christians I interact with each day embrace. Our attire is unremarkable and contemporary. We strive to be gracious and loving if at all possible. If our approach to the Gospel were reduced to a costume, at the very least it would need to include a biblical commentary and science book in one hand, (because we believe in an informed understanding of the Bible and the world), and a casserole for the hungry in the other (because we believe that we are supposed to help the poor, not condemn them). The costume would need a rainbow on the back proclaiming the breadth of God’s love and a petition on the front about some kind of social justice cause. There will never be a costume like this, however, because our kind of Christianity rarely makes the headlines.
“Are you a Christian?” the gunman in the Oregon school shooting asked those he encountered a month ago, and then shot them if the answer was “yes.” I am still haunted by this thought. I have made my life’s work proclaiming and trying to follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet my inclination, if I were not paralyzed by fear in those circumstances, would still be to want to answer, “What do you mean by Christian?” because he clearly objected to some form of the faith.
I’m not proud of this. I know that the apostle Paul thought it was sinful for Christians to want to distinguish themselves from each other. I also believe in ecumenism, reconciliation and the “Church universal”, and do not want to be stuck wearing the holier-than-thou mask myself. But even knowing and believing all of that, I still can’t help thinking that at least some of the differences which distinguish one approach to the Gospel from another are so great that we really are not the same religious species. Is it helpful therefore that we go by the same name? The differences aren’t simply denominational anymore, since denominational loyalty is really a thing of the past. They are fundamental differences about who God is, how we approach the Bible, and what following Christ requires.
Maybe Christians have never been united in agreement about these things. But then why do we assume one kind of Christian speaks for them all? Why do we call all kinds of believers by the same name? What do you call yourself and why?