Greg Garrett: The Problem of Contemporary Christianity, Part 2

[An excerpt used with permission from The Other Jesus: Rejecting a Religion of Fear for the God of Love (published by Westminster John Knox)]

From my new book The Other Jesus, beginning with challenges facing American Christianity: 

In an anecdotal observation, Biblical scholar and college professor Marcus Borg noted that half of his students who have been raised outside the Christian tradition have a "very negative stereotypical view of Christianity," finding the "most publicly visible form" of American Christianity literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgmental, and prejudiced. [i] Borg's anecdotal findings are borne out by more scientific studies. In their book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons present statistics from another longitudinal study that suggest Christianity's reputation among young people could hardly be lower. If you have the courage to identify yourself as a Christian to young people outside the faith, then statistically speaking they are likely to think that you loathe homosexuals (as 91 per cent of them believe), that you are judgmental (87 per cent), and that you are hypocritical (85 percent). [ii]  Other perceptions from Kinnaman and Lyons' polling also sting: young people (and certainly, some older ones as well) believe that Christianity is out of touch with reality, too concerned with temporal and political power, insensitive, intolerant, confusing-and boring. (Ouch! Although truth to tell, this is the very Church I recognize from my experiences in various denominations as a child, teenager, and young adult, if not my experience in the traditions I work within now.)

Young people also say that the Jesus that they're seeing lifted up by many American churches is not the Jesus of the Bible, but a manufactured Jesus-the Spiteful Jesus of Scott Cairns's poem-that Christians have created. So where is the Other Jesus, the one who taught and modeled love, inclusion, transformation, and a life of service? He is not to be found in many churches. The figure of Jesus has been warped almost beyond recognition by many American Christians to support agendas of intolerance, imperialism, political power, and self-congratulatory salvation.

These are, as Bishop Rickel says, harsh truths, but truths nonetheless. Taken together, they add up to a tremendously negative perception of a faith tradition whose founder, Jesus-as outsiders understand rightly-is supposed to have given his very life so that all of his followers might be transformed. That positive understanding seems to be all but lost as we look at the negative polling data. Why would anybody want to be a follower of Jesus, seeing the faith promoted by many churches? (Or as a woman I used to date once protested when I told her I had been admitted to seminary, "Why on earth would you want to be around Christians all day?")

I myself held these same opinions for most of my life, and I held them from direct understanding of these very kinds of Christianity. As a young man, I fled from the Christian traditions in which I was raised because the faithful seemed only concerned with three things: their own souls (we, in fact, polled our souls every Sunday to ascertain if we were still really and truly saved from eternal hellfire), dictating the behavior of others (I learned, for example, that God was supremely concerned that Oklahomans might bet on horse racing, the premier moral issue in the church of my youth), and the continued growth in membership and local prestige of our particular fellowship (God's preference for your way of belief was clear if you worshiped in a bigger sanctuary than the church down the street).

I fled this and other Christian traditions I had experienced because they proved themselves to be decidedly uncompassionate when life was hard, because they had no room in their theology for thinking and creativity, because they saw everything in black and white. I also fled because I witnessed how they brutalized my mother when she and my father divorced. That moment was an opportunity for them to minister to the brokenness of my family, to be the Church that heals and supports; instead, they magnified it by their judgment, hypocrisy, and bigotry toward one of the faithful who now didn't fit their norms.

I fled, in other words, because the church of my youth exactly matched the negative profile that Kinnaman and Lyon compiled in their polling some decades after my initial run-in with American Christianity. Judgmental. Hypocritical. Concerned with surface details.

And I fled to-well, to nothing. I attended church from time to time over the next few decades, but never felt interested enough to invest myself in Christian life. It seemed, honestly, even when the preaching was dynamic and the music pleasant, like a waste of time. Maybe it was.

So for almost twenty-five years, like many contemporary people seeking understanding, I looked for meaning outside the strictures of religious institutions; to paraphrase the title of a recent book, I liked Jesus, but I didn't like the Church. I read Christian and Jewish theology and religious history. I studied Buddhist works on contemplation and mindfulness. I sought God in the mountains and in the desert. And I was fortunate enough to be loved by a few people of authentic Christian faith who did not allow me to get completely disconnected from the tradition.

But mostly I just spun in futile search for something that would give my life some meaning, and, like many people, I never seriously considered that Christianity would ever be that place. Like those polled by Kinnaman and Lyons, I thought I had a pretty good read on what Christianity was. I had seen the Spiteful Jesus up close and personal.

And why would I want to want to be around Christians all day?


[i] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), 21.

[ii] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . And Why It Matters(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 28.