21 August, 2009

From Flat Bible Christianity to Red Letter Christianity

An old acquaintance describes herself as a "red words Christian". For those of you who don't know, this is a reference to "red letter editions" of the BIble with the words of Christ in a red typeface. Members of what I call the Flat Bible Society object to red letter editions because, they say, every word of the Bible is just as infallible and just as inspired as every other word so the words of Jesus shouldn't be treated like they are special.

You can't get a red letter edition of the "Reformation Study Bible" with notes and comments by conservative, R C Sproul.

My acquaintance's religious self-description must drive her family nuts. Her father is one of those Flat Bible Society radio preachers who have done such a good job convincing followers that there's nothing special about Jesus' words that many modern professing Christians no longer even recognize the words of Jesus because preachers don't preach from the "red words" much and professing Christians don't read them.

I think my acquaintance's turn from Flat Bible Christianity to Red Letter Christianity is a symptom of a "christian" diet deficient in those red words nobody preaches or reads anymore, a predictable overcorrection on the part of a girl raised in a home that knows more about Paul than about Jesus, a product of the kind of anemic Christianity that caused David Wenham to write Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?

A few years ago I started a deeply flawed, totally unpublishable novel whose main character often drove her car to some secluded place where she would read only the red letters of Jesus and come away deeply disturbed by Jesus' statements about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven and how the way is narrow and few find it.

People who have traded Jesus minority religion for a Moral Majority will find no comfort in those red letters. Jesus clearly didn't know anything about a day when professing your faith would make you rich or help you get elected to political office. He promised persecution, estrangement from friends and family, jail and even death to his followers.

So when I tune in to a conservative radio talk show and hear its pastor/talk show host using the terms "conservative" and "Christian" interchangeably or even "Republican" and "Christian" interchangeably to the delight and approval of his conservative callers, I know one thing for sure: that version of Christianity is not the one founded by Jesus. I don't have to know where this Christless Christianity stands on any issue or doctrine to know this: a christianity that has become so acceptable and so mainstream that you can't get elected dog catcher unless you belong to it is not the Christianity described by its nominal founder.

On the rare occasion when one of these modern, Flat Bible Society, faux Christians asks me if I am a Christian, my standard answer these days is "Well, let's see, I haven't sold all that I have and given the money to the poor, so, no, I guess I'm not. What about you?"

An alarming number of these Flat Bible Society Christians don't recognize my reference to Matthew 19:21. Those who do leave skid marks getting away from me.

Years ago, a small theological journal I wrote a few articles for ran a story about a group of Russian Baptists who were being persecuted by Kruschev. Year after year these persecuted Baptists sent letters to the Kremlin asking for a meeting and, at length, they got an audience with Kruschev. When the persecuted Baptists entered Kruschev's office they noticed that he seemed to be reading a book and as they described their grievances to him he glanced at the book occasionally. When he was tired of listening to them he read passages that promised followers of Jesus not peace but a sword, brothers betraying brothers to death, floggings and so on.

Then Kruschev looked up from the book and asked "Are not these the words of your Master?"

The persecuted Baptists admitted that they were.

"Then you are getting from me what your Master promised. Your grievance is not with me. Go talk to your Master."

I believe in religious liberty and if people want to practice a Christless, American Civil Religion that's a kind of unholy admixture of The Bible, the declaration of independence, The Federalist Papers, The US Constitution and talk radio, I have no beef with that. All I ask is truth in advertising. If your kind of Christianity is the kind that is more likely to land you in the White House than in prison, call it something else because it's not the Christianity of Jesus whatever your position on The Second Coming, abortion or whether God-fearing Americans should carry loaded guns to presidential and congressional events.

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