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Do you have to be crazy to be a real Christian?

April 5, 2012

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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jack Wirtz permalink
    April 6, 2012 1:44 pm

    Crazy to be a Christian? Not at all. Crazy to call yourself a Christian when you’re not? Pure insanity!

    Crazy because people abuse the name of Christ or because the name is not popular? Never!

    For there have always been “pretenders to the throne”, so to speak; the first being the devil himself who thought he was GOD and the Adam and Eve who wanted to be like GOD; and of the pretenders
    who claim HIS Son’s name, and call it church, they are legion.

    “For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of GOD. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to HIM who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20-23)

    “For who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good?
    But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be GOD’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:13-17)

    “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
    But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of GOD rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify GOD in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of GOD; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of GOD? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to GOD’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. (1 Peter 4:12-19)


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