There is No Pure Christianity

A long while back a friend of mine wrote on his twitter this remark:

There is no pure Christianity, it is all syncretist.

And I agree with this point, all Christianity today is influenced to a smaller or larger extent by outside forces. I’m not sure it’s ever been any different to tell the truth.

But I want to take this statement in a slightly different direction. What I have been thinking of lately is something more like:

There is no pure christianity, it is all interpretation.

And I don’t think this is necessarily a problem at all. Questions like “what is Christianity?” and “what does it mean to identify as a Quaker?” are ones that I’ve been thinking about a lot, partly because I’m currently preaching on Quaker testimonies and some of the more specific practices within our particular denomination, but it’s also because of the things I hear in general conversation and in the media.

It is not unusual for people to claim “Christianity is this,” “Christianity is that,” “I am a biblical Christian,” or “I am rooted in Christianity and then I go from there.” For many, all you have to do is assent to a couple value-free ideas about faith and everything is peachy-keen. But even to say something as basic as “Jesus is Lord,” is loaded with cultural, theological, spiritual, historical, and narrative significance that cannot be fully understood, appreciated or experienced outside of these things. And I suppose all of this is fine on the surface but what it betrays is that many of us still assume a Christendom culture, or a general understanding that there is one monolithic Christianity that everyone pretty much understands and accepts at some level. But this is just not the case. And for many the Christianity they understand is the Christianity of the 700 Club, the Christianity of the street preachers at the Saturday Market in downtown Portland hooting and hollering damnation at every passer-by. For many, there is no alternative to this, this is for them the only image of Christianity they have ever witnessed.

When people say “I am simply a Christian and that settles it,” or “the basics of Christianity are…” I always wonder, and sometimes ask, which Christianity are they talking about? It has never been a good idea to talk about the Christian faith within the abstract, or in the generic. But that is exactly what is happening today in a world where biblical language, theological imagery, and other Christian assumptions of the Reformation period can no longer be assumed. Today, when we share Christianity with people (I think) it always needs to be couched in our communities, our traditions, and the stories of people who are actually working this stuff out. The Bible is a part of this, but arguing from it alone as though a couple straight-forward ideas will remedy the problems is (IMO) fools-play and makes light of the transformative power of our Lord.

So when we talk about Christian faith are we talking about a Christianity that supports empire or creation? Are we talking about a Christian faith that is rooted in the life of Jesus, or one that simply focuses on his death and resurrection? Are we talking about Christianity of the creeds, or Christianity of the queries? Are we talking about the Christianity of George Fox, John Calvin, Dorothy Day, Lucretia Mott, or George Bush? And while it is possible that somewhere deep down inside the root of all this there is a common thread, but I think we are too far past a point where we can reach that common thread. And for some of this stuff it’s not an either or (for instance, we are all (at least us Americans) implicated in empire whether we like it or not), but what does it lean towards?

We are in a world of interpretations and not only should we not forget this, but we might try embracing it. In fact, I think that they are the very things that can help us discover something that is more meaningful and real than if we are left to simple generic forms of Christianity. So much of what passes as “church” these days is a rip off from a commercial on broadcast TV, a stolen play from a big-box store playbook, or a thinly cloaked politics borrowed from the latest town hall rally or social protest. The capitalist model of faith is one where choice is king. We pick and choose what we like, what feels right, what looks, acts, and talks like us and in the process everything is left bland and generic (both conservative and liberal camps are guilty of this). Another way is to assume for ourselves a tradition that is made up of practices, stories, characters, and particular filters (some helpful and some not) and become people who enter into the Christian faith through that corridor. We can offer an alternative to the street preacher/screamer, but that alternative will not on its own look at all like what passes as Christianity today.

So maybe the fact that there is no pure Christianity at this point is actually helpful if we think about it from the perspective of interpretations and traditions.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “There is No Pure Christianity”

  1. This reminds me of Shaye Cohen's claim that all second temple Judaism was hellenized. There was no "pure" Judaism (and, correspondingly, there was no pure early Christianity free of Greek thought).

Comments are closed.