I forced my Comp II students to labor through Bill McKibben's Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong last week. They're learning to read and parse extended arguments, and McKibben's is an excellent example of deconstructive analysis. The thesis matters very little for the sake of this post. If you care, read it. The conversation that followed was amazing. One of the things that I'm trying to overemphasize is that part of critical reading is ensuring words are clearly understoood in their context. With that in mind, we asked the question "what is the definition of Christian?" Oh dear.
About three-fourths of this class consider themselves Christian, by some definition. Answers to the question used the expected vocabulary: being saved, believing Jesus is savior, believing Jesus saved us from our sins, crucifixon, resurrection, etc. As the discussion progressed, most settled on a more understandable definition: follower of Jesus. So, perversely, I asked the simple question: what does it mean to follow Jesus? That led to no small degree of consternation. I've found that undefined phrases work far better for faith than defined ones.
Excursus: Reading The Magician King, Lev Grossman's follow-up to the amazing The Magicians. In one of the novel's more ironic scenes, Quentin and Elliot, Fillory's kings, have the following exchange:
Q: "What attitude is that?"
E: "I haven't got a clue. I guess we're supposed to have faith."
Q: "I never took you for the faith-having kind."
E: "I didn't either. But it's worked out so far. We've got five of the seven keys. You can't argue with results."
Q: "You can't, but that's actually not the same thing as having faith."
E: "Why do you always try to ruin everything?"
Q: "I'm not ruining it. I just want to understand it."
E: "If you had faith, you wouldn't have to understand."
Cue ironic laughter. But it's partly true. Most of what works at the level of faith is above (or below) rationality, and therefore somehow exempt from explicability. Phrases meant to explain the soteriological process are included. They are metaphors or analogies at best, as language about magical ontological processes seem utterly resistant to robust, defined vocabulary. All words about salvation are analogous or metaphorical. This was made apparent to another student recently who asked if I am saved. I replied, "I've been saved many times. Mainly from serious injury in traffic and skiing accidents. What did you mean?" Once the metaphor is flattened, as it should be in this case, the question becomes more plain.
Following Jesus becomes a matter of plain English (in the American case). So, the students seemed perplexed when forced to define it. Ambiguity suits faith far more than reason. The students were caught on the horns of a dilemma: how to talk about obedience and discipline without falling into legalism or (gasp) works righteousness. I finally grew weary of them avoiding the obvious answer: to do as Jesus did, including righteous acts and obedience to "the rules." I then asked how many people in their lives behaved like "true Christians," a qualifier offered by a man who was distressed that his fellow students seemed wishy-washy on the whole holiness thing. The most any student knew was five. Twenty students who are surrounded by church people confessed to knowing less than 100 people who acted in any way that was similar to Jesus. Excuse me: fucking fuck. Are you serious?
This led to the usual explanations. "We're all human. We struggle. Some are better in other areas than me and vice versa. We're trying to do what's right." I asked, "What's the Sermon on the Mount for? Are you supposed to follow those rules?" Of course not. They lead us to understand that we're hopeless without Christ. Excuse me again: fuck me in the face. Really?
Here's my speech. As an outsider I need you to know a couple things. Number one: I don't give a shit what you believe. I care what you do. I judge you based on what you do. This seems reasonable. Number two. If you're punching me in the face, I don't need you to try really hard to stop doing it. I need you to stop doing it. There is no reward in trying when it comes to ethical behavior. The goal is the goal. The journey may be the goal in progressive holiness, but when it comes to punching me in the face, trust me, the goal is the goal.