Way back when, when Yr. Loyal&Etc. was just a wee teenybopper Christian lass, I believed heart and soul in a concept that even today ensorcels Christians. That concept is Original Christianity. Let me walk you through the idea today, and show you how it completely fails even a cursory examination.
It’s such a pretty vision!
I’ll present you with the short-and-sappy version of the myth as you’ll find it in the wild:
Jesus, the firebrand revolutionary preaching love and unity, led his merry band of misfits across Jerusalem and its surrounding towns. They preached a shocking new twist on Judaism: a faith predicated upon values of love, acceptance, grace, and charity. After Jesus’ death, everyone totally wrecked his original vision. Only recently have today’s Christians begun the painstaking process of restoring what Jesus really meant Christianity to be. Hooray Team Jesus!
One can see the appeal. Christians who want to feel more-hardcore-than-thou feel drawn to it. I categorize it in the same box as it’s-a-relationship-not-a-religion types of Christians. They want a version of Christianity that flatters them, makes them feel special, and makes them feel superior to all those other Christians around themselves.
Unfortunately, it’s false. Nor is this revised history even a recent innovation. I got sucked up into it when I was Christian. That’s how old it is.
And it was old even by then.
The Cloud Had Moved.
I wrote about this idea more extensively some years ago, but I’ll sum up here. Back when I was Christian, I found myself suckered into more and more extremist versions of Christianity. I ached to discover Original Christianity. Surely, whatever we practiced currently wasn’t all there was. As far as I cared to look, all I saw was dishonesty and dysfunction springing up around the people in my religion.
Somewhere, somehow, I hoped to find a group of Christians who knew how to put Christian ideas into practice the right way. All I knew was that “the right way” would result in harmony, honesty, happiness, and integrity. Whatever I was seeing currently was not “the right way” by definition because it wasn’t resulting in those qualities.
Nor was I even the only Christian who felt that way. A lot of us–all young people, to use the Christianese–ached the same way and flailed around seeking that same goal. It’s exactly why I stumbled from Catholicism to the Southern Baptist Convention, and from there to Pentecostalism.
We thought we were Jesus-ing appropriately fervently. It didn’t even occur to us that we wouldn’t find what we sought.
In reality, we made ourselves easy prey for predators. In short order, one swooped in to cull our more vulnerable sheep from the flock.
Rasputin, the Mad Monk, Plunders.
Before our earthly shepherd could even stop it from happening, “Ezekiel” plundered his flock–our group–in an opportunistic recruitment attempt.
All lynx eyes and honeyed words, he spun stories for us about his group back home (situated very close to David Koresh’s compound in Waco, a fact which becomes painfully relevant soon). Everyone lived communally, worked on their farm–in fact, his compound was called “the Farm”–and shared in the fruits of their labors.
It sounded too good to be true.
And it was.
In the end, something about Ezekiel put me off so badly that I simply refused to entertain the idea of leaving with him. Biff really wanted to go, but in the end, our pastor (and my absolute refusal) cowed him. Most of the rest of our group similarly backed out. Instead, the two young men Ezekiel managed to ensnare, Big David and Little David, went back to Waco with him. They returned some months later, not too long after David Koresh’s compound had landed in national news, with stories that shocked us all and chilled us to the bone.
They told us of abuses without number–or limit. The two had barely escaped with their lives, and had required months of recuperation–physically, at least. Emotionally, they never recovered.
That vision of Original Christianity had always been, all along, a front. It concealed Ezekiel’s vast cruelty and control-lust. And it gave him a base of operations from which he could abuse people according to his whims.
To say I was rattled would be an understatement. Indeed, I felt shaken to my core.
That was when I realized that the closer people got to what they said was Original Christianity, the more abuses sprang up around those people.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s ascension to power, I’ve been seeing more of this nonsense. Last summer, I caught one of those hipster-type Christians spouting this tedious, self-important blather:
Notice how many likes and retweets it got–511 and 127 respectively. His comment section was filled with Christians hootin’ and hollerin’ their approval of his oh-so-brave-and-Jesus-y stance. I’m currently tangling with an extremely tetchy Christian lady on Twitter who clearly believes the same thing about a similar version of Jesus.
Right now, as we speak, Christians worship at least two completely different and diametrically-opposed visions of Jesus. One, Republican!Jesus, is the gun-totin’, racist, bigoted, misogynistic, nationalistic vision so cherished by toxic Christians. The other functions as a reaction to that grotesque vision, and it looks more like the one embodied by that tweet.
Alas, they are both fictional constructs. They both serve and advance the interests of the Christians subscribing to and peddling them.
Whatever the Bible tells us about Jesus himself, the facts are clear: immediately, Christian groups and leaders began squabbling with each other. And the religion–whatever passed for it anyway at that early stage–did absolutely nothing to stop them. It provided no objective way to evaluate any doctrines or people within the religion, and no objective way to stop destructive people from wreaking havoc.
Lambchop called it ages ago. Right in the Bible itself, we see what happened when people tried to turn this bizarre new hybrid-fusion religion into lived practice:
Now I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and obstacles that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Turn away from them. (Romans 16:17)
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from any brother who leads an undisciplined life that is not in keeping with the tradition you received from us. (2 Thessalonians 3:6)
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting. (2 John 1:10)
I’ll add to these a passage I didn’t even know existed when I was Christian: the so-called Incident at Antioch. Here, Paul confronted Peter (either the Peter, or some other early Christian with the same name) over a serious doctrinal difference. We see it outlined in Galatians 2:10-21. They failed to resolve their dispute, which concerned just how much of the Jewish laws and customs Christians should retain. (In fact, that dispute continues to this very day.)
We can add to it as well 2 Peter 3:15-17, written (apparently) by Peter concerning Paul. Here’s the middle of it.
16 He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
MROW! FSSS! HISS! RAWR!
Diverse: Yeah, That’s One Way to Put It.
So even in the Bible, Christians didn’t get along or see eye to eye. That may be why the Bible–even and especially the New Testament–is so terribly contradictory, with so many competing accounts of the same events.
Far from being some idyllic, harmonious time in the religion’s history before meaniepies came in and wrecked everything, early Christianity was a mess. PBS calls it “diverse.” That term might salve some consciences, but the reality looks more like a cafeteria food fight to me.
One of their experts, Helmut Koester, who is a professor of New Testament Studies, flatly begins his part of their examination this way:
Christianity did not start out as a unified movement.
Others on that PBS page talk about “early Christianities” as a plural rather than a singular. Those earliest Christians agreed about precisely nothing. Some of them bickered about just how divine Jesus was–or if he existed in the flesh at all. Others bickered about how much Judaism to retain (as Peter and Paul had). They argued about how important Jesus’ death and resurrection were (and what they even meant).
Nothing in the religion escaped their squabbling.
What Solved the Disunity.
Many of the Christians who believe so wholeheartedly in Original Christianity also tend to believe that the religion was forever wrecked by the time of the Edict of Milan. Issued in 313, the Edict legitimized Christianity as a recognized Imperial religion. The Council of Nicea soon followed. Convened in 325, its delegates codified the religion’s beliefs, stomped on the most challenging heresies, and firmly began tangling the religion into the governments of its day.
But these measures–and the ones that followed, giving Christian leaders enormous amounts of temporal power–ruined that gauzy vision modern Christians hold. Many of them recognize that giving religious leaders political power is a disastrous idea, as advantageous as that power exchange was for their baby religion way back when.
This standardization push is literally all that saved their religion from extinction. In addition, it’s literally all that brought Christianity close to the vision of One True Christianity. The moment Christian leaders lost that power, their religion began disintegrating at the seams like it was upholstery fabric used for an Elizabethan gown.1
Ironic, isn’t it, kinda?
Eclipsing What Is Most Important.
Wayne Meeks, another of PBS’s experts, mentions the vision of Original Christianity:
Now, this [historical reality] runs very contrary to the view… which the mainstream Christianity has always quite understandably wanted to convey. That is, that at the beginning, everything was unity, everything was clear, everything was understandable and only gradually, under outside influences, heresies arose and conflict resulted, so that we must get back somehow to that Golden Age, when everything was okay.
When Mr. Meeks later says he thinks that the harder Christians try to get back to that imaginary vision, the harder it becomes to achieve it, I felt this sigh of relief echo all through my bones. Yes, that’s what I found too.
In a way, I get this sudden feeling that the Quest for Original Christianity eclipses the religion’s best iteration. Maybe Christians get so focused on drawing this dividing line between themselves and what they view as unauthorized doctrinal and social stances that they’ve lost focus on all that boring stuff Jesus told them to do.
What is it Rev Miss Clancy said? I paraphrase: “If you draw a dividing line between yourself and others, Jesus is there on the other side.” We may (rightly) disagree some with the imagery, but I have been noticing of late that Christians–even the nicest ones–all seem eager to separate themselves from their embarrassing bunkmates. Like it or not, though, those bunkmates are their legacy, their history. They are the Skeksis to their Mystics. They are all one and always have been. Instead of being the deviation, they are the continuation. And they always have been.
Knowing that truth, I’m doubly glad I’m not one of them anymore.
The nice Christians trying so hard to distance themselves from those embarrassing bunkmates are really just pissing on their own shoes. They’re reminding us of something potent about their religion. And that potent truth is a doozy and a dealbreaker. It is this:
Nothing about Christianity stops terrible people from existing within it. None of those nice Christians can stop them from being there, nor protect others from them.
Hell, they can’t even convince those wingnuts that they’re wrong. The religion’s based entirely on subjective opinions that are completely untethered from reality. Nobody has any way whatsoever to convince anybody else that they’re wrong about anything.
Oh, but it gets worse. Christianity is based upon a deeply authoritarian hierarchy that we’ve seen–repeatedly–concentrates way too much power in the hands of people who should never be given that kind of power. It creates and grooms victims, then keeps them silent about the abuse they’ve suffered–while it glorifies their abusers. It’s entirely too easy for a terrible person to enter Christianity, learn to say all the right things, and run roughshod over those created and groomed victims. Worst of all, because of the hugely disproportionate power dynamics going on, nobody but those at the top of their pyramids can change anything. And none of those folks will do that, because it’d affect their own power base.
As the saying goes, if Christians don’t like what their fundamentalists look like, maybe they need to look to their religion’s fundamentals. It’s not the Bad Christians themselves who form the dealbreaker. It’s really how the rest of the religion responds to the existence of so many Bad Christians that destroys its credibility.
The nice ones can’t stop ’em, so instead they just try to gate-keep and police labels.
What I Wish Someone Had Said.
I dunno, maybe I’m just talking. Christians don’t listen to me.
But I wish someone had told me all this when I was a teenybopper Christian lass. Back then, I was running around with The Song That Shall Not Be Named running in a loop in my head. I spun my wheels, stuck on visions. Nobody told me. I never knew. So I’m telling everyone who needs it now. Original Christianity does not exist. It’s just something hipster and more-hardcore-than-thou Christians in every generation tell themselves. It makes them feel like they’re getting somewhere. They feel like they’re improving the religion in some tangible way.
Maybe they even feel like it explains why their religion seems to be splitting into a Time Machine-style double religion. On the one side, we see Eloi: beautiful, graceful, fragile. These beautiful people pursue the real truth. On the other, we find the detestable Morlocks: human spiders, vermin, inhuman beasts. And they debase that truth in every way. I can easily understand the temptation to paint one’s tribe in the one way, and its enemies in the other.
It’s a self-serving illusion to think Christianity ever looked like anything else than what it is. Nobody’s going to turn this howling banshee mess into that vision now, either.
Worse, pursuing this illusion can open someone up to predation and waste a lot of their finite resources. Certainly it makes the Christians doing it look like preening jackasses.
Today’s topic is just something I wish I’d known back then. It would have saved me a lot of effort. Certainly it would have spared me a lot of pain.
So now I give it to you. And in the immortal words of William Goldman, I say now: What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all.
NEXT UP: The Just World Hypothesis. See you next time!
1 I do indeed have second-hand knowledge of this whole situation. Way back when, a good friend of mine in the SCA lucked into a bolt of gorgeous stripey upholstery fabric for pennies on the yard. She decided to make an Elizabethan getup out of it and had enough fabric and skill to do it right. But she–and I–soon found out why you don’t make fiddly costumes out of any kind of upholstery (or bedding for that matter). It’s not designed to deal with stresses, especially hard stresses. It tears like tissue. And she wasn’t a big fan of reinforcing edges and seams anyway. Her first event wearing it, every seam in her bodice tore from stem to stern within one hour of her arrival onsite like she was Ursula shedding her disguise. It was a disaster! I French seam everything possible now. (Back to the post!)
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