A family member of mine shared this photo on Facebook a few days ago. This came as a shock, as I have known this person for most of my life and have never once heard her say anything even remotely religious – she has never used any religious language at all in my presence, not even the commonplaces of funerals or the casual apocalypticism of contemporary politics. Doesn’t attend church, doesn’t have anything in her home to suggest that she harbors any opinion of Jesus at all, actually, one way or the other. But confronted with the knotty challenge of the compulsory share (vile heir to the compulsory email forward, the chain letter, and whatever came before the chain letter) she could not ignore the child’s scrawl of Jesus’ name on notebook paper as a confession of faith, had to say that she loved Jesus if the only proffered alternative was to “keep scrolling” and say that she did not love Jesus.
How come? I have no intention of judging her sincerity – she may indeed have very strong feelings about Jesus of which I was just unaware – but the fact that this Facebook share is the first time it’s come up might reasonably suggest that she doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus or her love for him. What matters, I’d say, is the name: being associated with that name matters a great deal, even to people with no discernible religious convictions. My family member is a good person, a very good person, and I think that to her, saying that she loves Jesus is part of being a good person, or maybe that she equates being a good person with being a lover of Jesus – a Christian. The point is that whatever the name means, she wants to be associated with it.
The name matters so much, it always has. Justin Martyr complained about how much it mattered to Roman authorities in the second century – why, he wondered, was owning the name by itself enough to get you executed, when a mere label really meant nothing beyond the actions that it might indicate. “From a name neither praise nor punishment could reasonably spring, unless something excellent or base in action be proved.”
Justin wanted only to be able to claim the name without it leading to death; today the stakes aren’t quite as high and the social calculus is reversed – most anyone interested in who owns the name thinks that it brings praise rather than punishment, that it’s something to be earned rather than an accusation. Like a lot of evangelicals, Ben Witherington over at The Bible and Culture doesn’t think Mormons are Christian, doesn’t think they have a right to that name. The details of why he thinks that don’t really matter, because the “question” of whether or not Mormons are Christian is not about trinitarianism or canon or the details of how salvation operates – as an accomplished student of church history, Witherington surely knows that there are good arguments about historical variety on all of those points, that neither creed nor canon is as cut and dried as he makes it out to be. Likewise, the Mormon impulse to argue the point comes partly from the sense of insult to something precious (their relationship to Christ), but at the end of the day that’s not the main motivation, because no one, Mormons included, needs Ben Witherington to validate their personal Christianity. The question is about what one thinks is at stake in who gets to own the name, whatever it means.
What does Witherington think is at stake? He is concerned about “false assumptions” – that people in general and Christians in particular not operate under the false assumption that Mormons are Christian. This has immediately to do with voting, of course, but also to the burden that many evangelicals think they are under to combat “false religion” generally (a burden enunciated much more honestly with respect to Mormonism by Warren Cole Smith last year). Traditionally, various sorts of competing Christians have vilified each other for doing it wrong because the stakes are eternal – doing it wrong jeopardizes one’s soul, and talking about your way of doing it wrong jeopardizes everyone else’s.
It’s not clear to what extent Witherington thinks souls are in danger, though. While making the standard concession that Mormons are good people and all of that, he goes a step further and adds this: “It is of course true that there are Christians who are a part of the Mormon religion.” He calls these “confused Christians,” and as far as I can tell what he means is that there are people who are practicing Mormons who lack both a complete understanding of Mormonism (and therefore are not fully responsible for their heresy, not knowing what it is they are claiming to believe?) and a complete knowledge of the true teachings of the New Testament (which would lead them to get out of Mormonism). For one thing, the presence of “true” Christians among Mormons would seem to lower the eternal stakes on the “false” characteristics of Mormonism. For another, though he bases his definition of true Christianity on not just the Bible but also on knowledge of “what the historic creeds and confessions of the church have understood the Bible to say and mean,” here Witherington seems to define it by a lack of knowledge: not knowing enough about your own false religion or about true Christianity might leave one a Christian, it seems.1
If he doesn’t find souls to be in danger, exactly, then what seems to be at stake is protecting the name itself – a fetishization of both the word itself and of how the world might perceive it, concerns which Justin Martyr perceived in a rather different way than does Witherington. Witherington is emphatic that drawing boundaries around theological details is essential and that “to trivialize important theological issues” is “an insult to the earliest Christians, many of whom died for their monotheistic and Trinitarian beliefs,” which Justin might think is an odd thing to say, since he thought they were dying over a name they wanted to be associated with.
[If you think Jesus is a pretty swell guy, share this post on Facebook. If not, criticize me harshly below.]
1 Perhaps Witherington means that these “confused Christians” are people who have experienced grace: the truly converted who are caught up in the wrong outward expression of their salvation. This would seem to present its own problems from an evangelical perspective, and again begs the question whether or not he thinks souls are in danger.