Last time we met up, we explored the authoritarian urge to control how people use language. Today, we dive into a specific example of that urge. One of the biggest power plays in the religion is occurring right now as we speak, and it concerns who exactly gets to define what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ is. And that fight’s getting ugly. We’re taking it to the streets here–and maybe finding out why that fight exists, and why it must.
But first, we have to wonder what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ even is. Even Christians themselves, as a group, can’t find
their rumps with both hands a consensus on that one. As with everything else Christians do, there’s a reason for this weird oversight.
An Increasingly Common Accusation.
Nothing brings out a Christian’s inner authoritarian like policing the label of Christian. Even the most progressive, evolved, liberal Christians dabble in a wee little bit of control-grabbing around their label.
And incidentally, I got both the preceding two paragraphs’ links from the first couple of pages of the exact same Google search. Yes, it does seem like a lot more Christians were accusing Trumpers of being fake Christians than the other way around. But we can’t call it an exclusive behavior to one or the other end of the religion.
There’s a reason why it’s such a universal accusation, of course.
Of Ketchup and Christians.
Both ends of Christianity fight for the future of the very word and image of “Christian.” They both know what will happen if their enemies finally wrest control of the word away from them. Whichever group wins that fight, the other loses far more than just another Christian squabble.
After all, ever since tomato ketchup became the only kind of ketchup recognized as authoritative, who even encounters other kinds anymore? Pretty much every umami-rich foodstuff under the sun used to star in these recipes. Now, however, as delicious as variants like plum ketchup may sound, these other varieties barely exist as a niche artisanal product nowadays. One company seized the definition for its own recipe for tomato-based ketchup, and nobody else has successfully challenged them for ownership of that definition.
The ketchup gate got closed forever, and how!
And y’all, I can’t help but think that bunches of Christians in every flavor of the religion really wish they could do the same thing with Christianity’s definition.
TRUE CHRISTIANITY™: An Apologetics Staple.
Anyone sincerely seeking a simple definition of what a Christian is and how Christians should behave figures out quickly that the task is impossible.
To be sure, ever since Catholicism’s stranglehold on the religion began to falter, apologists have been trying to crack that nut.
- Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. (I mentally classify him as a “wishful thinker” apologist.)
- Basic Christianity, by John R.W. Stott. Offers “the fundamental claims of Christianity.”
- Simply Christian, by N.T. Wright. Claims to walk readers “step-by-step and question by question” through the basic ideas behind Christianity.
- The Reason for God, by Tim Keller. Offers a bunch of broken, fractured logic and fallacies to support a genericized form of his religion.
- Essential Christianity, by Walter R. Martin.
It’s also a strikingly common trope in apologetics.
All of these authors have in mind some essential, base form of Christianity. In their view, all flavors of it start with a single base. Different would-be leaders add their own takes on other doctrines onto that base, thus ending up with their own differentiated flavor. It’s like getting an ice-cream cone from Cold Stone Creamery, except the only flavor they have is Wasabi (and YES, that was a real flavor they briefly offered) and their mixers are all different sizes of coral chunks and roadside gravel.
The situation worsens, however. As someone said once, one Christian’s foundational doctrine is another Christian’s worst heresy.
Very quickly we discover that these authors aren’t really trying to define the essential beliefs of the religion. Instead, they’re just preaching to their own tribe’s choir.
If an outsider (like me) can spot the many logical fallacies in these works, that’s a potent signal that their creators don’t speak to a truly universal audience. Instead, these Christian leaders aim for an audience that already completely–or at least almost entirely–agrees with them.
Those pretending to offer a generalized definition of the religion simply seek to make their own definition of Christianity sound like the default one. And that’s a damned easy sell with today’s Christians, almost all of whom believe that they belong to the most correct flavor imaginable of the religion out of many tens of thousands of competing flavors.
The Sorting Beanie.
Christians of all kinds tend to carry around in their heads their own definition of a properly-observant Christian. Almost always, that definition will resemble themselves–at least in optimal or idealized form. They self-sort into whatever flavor works best with that definition.
This internal definition peeks out from its hiding place whenever some other Christians embarrass them or threaten their label’s credibility. They also trot it out whenever they need to borrow a little extra authority. Then for extra flair, they whip out their
penises Bibles for some magical Bible verses. Maybe they even reach for some “original Greek or Hebrew“. They might also compare their definition of Christianity to whatever they conceptualize as “original Christianity.”
And here’s the kicker! This is the truly hilarious part! —
Their opponents deploy exactly the same tactics on them in turn, and in the exact same way, and for the exact same reasons.
The only variations might be the Bible verses–but that’s no guarantee. Sometimes dueling Christians use the same verses, just with differing interpretations of their meaning.
Nothing, nothing, nothing looks as hilarious as two Christians going at it like this. They sound exactly like Star Wars fans at a convention arguing about who shot first.
But this squabbling causes some distinctly uncomfortable problems for Christians.
Once upon a time, I myself was a very fervent, faithful, observant Christian. Until I got to college, everybody I knew was Christian. They overwhelmingly tended to be Catholic or Southern Baptist, which was “evangelical lite” at the time in my community. A few went in for fundamentalism, which is where I ended up in junior year.
Then, in college, I met lots of fundamentalists outside of my flavor.
These other fundamentalists also claimed to be believers in a literally-true, inerrant Bible. But astonishingly, they had strikingly different positions on almost every single doctrine than I did. Every one of us took that variance in beliefs as a personal challenge, just as Christians tend to do today.
We didn’t realize that when it’s okay for one Christian to question another’s correctness, then it’s equally okay for someone else to question our own. And we didn’t yet realize that NONE of us had any firmer basis for assuming our own beliefs’ correctness than anyone else had. We all assumed that we could easily demonstrate our beliefs’ superiority.
But these other Christians believed exactly the same things about us.
That War With Eastasia.
Cue months and months of constant, tedious, ponderous, pedantic, grueling, hours-long squabbles held in our dorm rooms. OH MY DOG, I just cringe at the memory of them. None of these squabbles ended with anybody changing their mind. Nobody even questioned their position on anything as a result.
We all did what Christians always do in these cases, too.
In addition to the more generalized tactics already described, in these arguments we all pointed to Bible verses and types and shadows and translations and the spirit of the law. Of course, we all demanded (when all else failed) that our opponents pray for divine guidance. Inevitably, we all received some, too! (I know, right?) And it all took the form of a divine recommendation to all of us that our existing beliefs were totes the right ones. (Wild! What are the odds?)
And in response to being told this by those we’d advised so condescendingly to pray, we all hinted that the prayers must not have been sincere enough, or the praying person must have been hard-hearted or close-minded, or, well, something that blocked divine wisdom from reaching them, cuz if they’d really prayed correctly, they’d now believe exactly as we did.
Eventually, I noticed what was happening every time we argued about doctrines. And y’all, this infighting confused and alarmed me like almost nothing else could. In a very real sense, I now consider this squabbling to be far more detrimental to Christianity than even Christian hypocrisy.
The Real Definition of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
Recently, LeekSoup put words to the best definition of Christianity’s most basic and essential form that I have ever encountered:
This was a long-ranging discussion on the website Ship of Fools that basically boiled it down to 2 doctrinal statements:
- There might be a God.
- Jesus is important.
That was the conclusion of months of arguing and wrangling.
It’s a purely brilliant summation. I’ve never met any Christians who believed, for example, that their mattress was the One True God, that he required worship in the form of a Marshmallow Peep milkshake drunk at exactly 4:20 p.m. every day (with two on Tuesdays), and that his followers would, after death, bodily transubstantiate into the boxes Peeps get sold in.
Consequently, if I run into someone who claims to be a Christian, I maintain a strict policy of taking their word for it. And HOO BOY that bothers the Christians trying to seize ownership of the word itself!
And the Diagnosis by Exclusion.
Now, that elegant little definition is not how most Christians define Christianity. In fact, they tend to avoid defining exactly what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ even is. A solid definition of terms would spoil everything about this quintessentially Christian reindeer game.
So I’ll rain on their parade here.
A TRUE CHRISTIAN™:
- Believes about the same claims the judging Christian does and at about the same level of fervor;
- Hasn’t been caught doing anything completely out of bounds according to the judge; and
- Dies a fervent believer.
This definition is also the reason why judgmental Christians accuse ex-Christians of having been fake Christians, by the way. The accusation redirects attention away from the reasons we rejected their religion to irrelevant wild-goose chases about sincerity and correctness. In Christian-Land, that’s a perfectly valid strategy for evaluating other Christians’ claims. They lack that tether to reality that would allow them to use objective, legitimate methods to differentiate between true and false claims.
And accusations of fakeness function as a potent insult, too. Fervent Christians idolize that label. To authoritarian Christians in particular, their identification as Christians unlocks the treasure-chest of power. So naturally, they attack other Christians’ very right to use the label.
Hooray Team Jesus!
The Other Backfire Results of Policing the Label.
This laser focus on the validity of someone’s identification as Christian assumes that a meaningful definition of “Christian” a) exists, and b) can be accurately ascertained by believers. And that’s not the only place where that focus backfires spectacularly.
An attack on other Christians’ labels raises their defenses and lowers their ability to think rationally. The person getting their label ripped away won’t be happy about it. Once that person gets defensive, they won’t listen further.
When their credibility is attacked, very often Christians only drill down harder on their beliefs. When a person that Christian doesn’t care about or respect says they’re a fake Christian, they welcome that denunciation. Obviously, fake Christians will accuse TRUE CHRISTIANS™ of being fake Christians. Obviously.
These attacks waste time on sidequests. Whatever the Christian wants to do, be it supporting Donald Trump or Planned Parenthood, policing other Christians’ labels does the opposite of accomplishing their goal.
Observers know a distancing tactic when they see one. This accusation obviously feels good for Christians to make. But they look like they care a lot more about their own image and credibility than about whatever they’re denouncing the other Christians for doing.
Ultimately, nobody cares what any Christian thinks about any other Christian’s religious beliefs. People lost their patience years ago with this bickering. We figured out long ago that the louder someone is about their religious affiliation or beliefs, the more likely that person is to be a raging hypocrite.
The Christian God: Incompetent vs. Nonexistent.
The Christians denouncing other Christians assume authority over them. They seek to invalidate the beliefs and power of those enemies. However, their control-grabs remind us that no Christians actually have any firm idea of what they’re supposed to be doing.
It bothered me, 20-odd years ago, to see that Christians could be as sincere as I was and read the same Bible I read, and still come out believing totally different things about what our god wanted of us. My leaders had taught me that sincerity + studying the Bible equaled correct beliefs and behavior. But my fellow Christians showed me every single day that this formula was incorrect.
Those leaders had taught me, as well, that our god desperately wanted to communicate with us. Moreover, they taught me that believers could know for sure if they were hearing accurately from this god. But I could see that someone here wasn’t hearing his voice accurately. Was it me? Was it my peers? We all thought we were hearing him correctly. We could not all be correct, unless our god was cruel or incompetent—
The Backfire of Authoritarianism.
And that’s the real backfire of authoritarianism in a nutshell, isn’t it? It seems to me that most Christians think there’s some authoritative, essential, One Ring to Rule Them All in Christianity. And they seek to dominate other Christians who think exactly the same things about competing beliefs. But lacking some legitimate way to persuade, all they have is blunt force coercive tactics–like their idolization of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
When a Christian presents these accusations, of course we can remind them that they commit a No True Scotsman fallacy. Yes. We might accomplish more, though, by reminding them that their opponents would say exactly the same things about them, and have exactly the same justification for saying that as they do.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate seeing Christians denounce things like bigotry-for-Jesus. I do. I just won’t let them distance themselves from their religious bunkmates that way. For better or for worse, their enemies read the same exact Bible. And their interpretation gave them permission to behave like this. “Jesus” sure ain’t stopping them from harming others. If they’re going to distract themselves from the harmfulness of bigotry-for-Jesus to indulge in a little no-true-Christianing, then I’ll be happy to remind them of why their religion contains so many bigots-for-Jesus in the first place.
As long as people use their beliefs as a justification for behaving in good or harmful ways, and as long as those beliefs function as a substitute for truth and being a decent human being, religion will remain an ultimately malevolent force in our world. We must get away from that kind of thinking if we are to progress as individuals and as a species.
And it seems to me that we’re starting to take those first few steps away from that piss-poor substitute and, perhaps, toward something better.
NEXT UP: Why authoritarian Christians hate mockery so much. It’s one of the most powerful weapons we have against extremist religion. And it’s arguably the one they hate most. I’ll show you why–next time! See you soon!
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