The Idiot Christian: How to be Inconvenient to Classify

For better or worse now, my children go before me into the world, and for the most part they have brought some very good people into our lives. They’ve chosen good friends for themselves, and their friends’ parents’ have been trustworthy faithful people.

We’re on a bigger playing field now at the middle school, a huge one, actually, and the easiest way to approach it is to divide everyone into their appropriate tribes and deal with the people we’re likely to see most often.

Some of these tribes have been forming over generations. The hefty boys go to the football team. The tony boys go to tennis. The cross country team tends to be conscientious skinny kids. And that’s just sports. There’s still the marching band, the thespians, the robotics club…. Even if we don’t use these classifications formally, we use them pretty facilely in our heads.

In Simcha Fisher’s post this week at the Register, on The Unlabeled Life she discussed the need to live without labels to better observe what’s really going on around us.

“There are labels we attach to ourselves:  Attachment parent.  Homeschooler.  Classicist.  Progressive.  Introvert.  The creative type.  Feminist.  Conservative.  Marian Catholic.  And so on.  These labels are useful descriptors, up to a point, but none of these can describe a person in his entirety, and none should limit what we can expect out of ourselves.”

And yet, how does one avoid them? She rightly notes that these divisions have a way of forming even within the Church. There seems to be an inherent desire to moor ourselves publicly to particular outlooks and people–to define ourselves with the short-hand of our relationships, or even, in some cases, the websites we visit.

I’ve been reading Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, about a man whose innocence and honesty prevent him from fitting into society in any conventional way. All around him, people scheme for money and power, and just by being truthful and good, he confounds everyone, often changing people’s lives in radical ways. People take advantage of him. People insult him. He responds, always with truthfulness and charity–and all anyone can think to call him is an idiot (which in this case means someone who is a little “off” and perhaps slightly ill).

The Idiot, Myshkin is his name, is a Christ figure. He brings to light the reality that Christ himself is unclassifiable. He doesn’t fit neatly into any factions, though many factions have sought to claim him by amputating whatever characteristics do not correspond to their beliefs. Christ was not a liberal or a conservative. People like to call him a radical, but I’m not sure about that. It seems to be another way of casting him in an accessible modern light.

He was fully human, fully divine and utterly without sin. It’s the sinless part that allowed him to spend time with anyone,  Zacchaeus or Mary Magdalene, and while they could all declare themselves his followers, none of them could claim him as a member of their particular class or status.

Christ defies labeling, and if we imitate him, we also become difficult to define.

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“Hunger”: Interview with Jack Baumgartner, Part IV
Interview With Artist Jack Baumgartner, Part II
“Go On”: Interview with Jack Baumgartner, Part III
About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Julia at LotsaLaundry

    You’re getting at a mystery that has been knocking at my brain for a decade. So much of our faith is faith in the *idea* of who we think Jesus is, or an extrapolation of what we *think* he would probably sorta want us to do. So often we work on assumptions, on labels, on a trending of our faith instead of actually communicating with God and living out what we know.

    Labels are helpful, to a point; our brains are designed to detect patterns. Perhaps the challenge is seeing the patterns without resorting to labels?

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      I think there is much more freedom for believers to follow numerous different paths if they, as you say, communicate with God and live out what they know. It’s easy to get hung up on the current commonly held idea of what a Christian’s life should look like–a particular danger I think for women who compare themselves to one another.

      I think I”m getting better at discerning God’s plans for our family, but there is still a challenge when it comes to communicating those plans to others, especially when they diverge from the norm. We prejudge ourselves for the diversion and begin exculpating ourselves in self-conscious ways, rather than just owning the difference without apology.

      I guess I’m dealing with a particular situation where I’m diverging from our norm, and from a group of people who shared it. It “looks” like we’re compromising on something, and so we are, I guess, vulnerable to the inherent labels that go with it, but I believe we are on a path discerned in intimate communication with God.

  • TheReluctantWidow

    Like Julia, this is something that has nagged at the back of my mind for some time. I think the labels used to be much broader when I was growing up: Catholic, Christian, Non-Christian; athlete, non-athlete; Republican or Democrat; Rich and everyone else; and so on. Now you have within each category, further categories that more narrowly define a person. I think the reason for this has to do with the hyper-specialization that exists within our economy and culture. Being a “generalist” in any area is a sign of mediocrity and by golly we should constantly strive to be the best (see the Mommy Wars as one example). An inability to embrace any political party because your beliefs span multiple parties (I took an on-line quiz and according to it my beliefs align with the Green Party, Progressives, Republicans and Democrats – so how’s that for you?) or don’t fall into any classification at all. We now want our children to decide which sport they are going to focus on at the age of 7 or 8 because if they try out a few sports or wait until middle school/high school it will be too late for them. Someone getting a college degree in “Liberal Studies” with a broad range of courses in business, the arts, and humanities is practically unemployable (just ask my brother) even if they have cultivated a habit of being constant learners and a willingness to try anything. As a culture, we just want to be able to look at someone and immediately identify their label. As you rightly pointed out, Christ defied labeling (confounded it?), and as his followers, we are called to be like him. If any label at all could be placed on him, it would be that of “Love.” We, too, should carry that label.