Do you have to be crazy to be a real Christian?
Lots of folks on Facebook were recently buzzing about this Andrew Sullivan essay in which he argues that Christianity is in crisis. Church leaders aren’t following the teachings of Jesus. Too many Christians have bought into the prosperity gospel instead of renouncing worldly possessions as Jesus instructed. Too many believers are hung up on gay marriage and birth control. Too many endorse torture. He makes some good points about hypocrisy, but he also manages to make “real” Christianity seem pretty unappealing.
True Christianity, he says, would look more like how St. Francis of Assisi lived (self-denial, homelessness, radical evangelism, etc.). Which is also how Jesus lived, as far as we know. Seems kind of extreme (although true believers should be down with embracing the extreme, right?). Here’s a passage describing Francis:
(Francis) simply opened the Gospels at random—as was often the custom at the time—and found three passages. They told him to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” to “take nothing for your journey,” not even a second tunic, and to “deny himself” and follow the path of Jesus. That was it. So Francis renounced his inheritance, becoming homeless and earning food by manual labor. When that wouldn’t feed him, he begged, just for food—with the indignity of begging part of his spiritual humbling.
His revulsion at even the hint of comfort or wealth could be extreme. As he lay dying and was offered a pillow to rest on, he slept through the night only to wake the next day in a rage, hitting the monk who had given him the pillow and recoiling in disgust at his own weakness in accepting its balm. One of his few commands was that his brothers never ride a horse; they had to walk or ride a donkey. What inspired his fellow Christians to rebuild and reform the church in his day was simply his own example of humility, service, and sanctity.
A modern person would see such a man as crazy, and there were many at the time who thought so too. He sang sermons in the streets, sometimes just miming them. He suffered intense bouts of doubt, self-loathing, and depression. He had visions.
Yeah, I think most modern folks would regard that behavior as crazy. And, while I’m sure Sullivan isn’t seriously saying you have to go THAT far to be a real Christian, I sort of got that impression from the piece. The thing is, there is a lot to be said for radical Christian living. Those who eschew comfort and possessions and self-indulgence surely have an easier time developing a deeper spirituality. But I’m reminded of the Buddha’s wisdom about finding the middle way. Buddha, too, attempted self-mortification, nearly dying of starvation before realizing a more moderate path made better sense.
And I see many Christians pursuing that path here in Austin. They’ve rid themselves of excess (high-tech toys, multiple cars, fancy homes, etc.) and live a much more modest existence. They’re not starving or wearing hair shirts. They’re just simplifying so they can focus on what matters to them — serving the “least of these” and worshipping God and making the world more pleasant. They’re not hung up on a lot of the sex issues Sullivan mentions. They’re not terribly interested in “institution.” But they also don’t seem cuh-raaaazy when you meet them on the street.
I think they fit this ideal that Sullivan puts forward toward the end of the essay:
This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever.