The art world, like the Christian world, is full of ‘isms’. There is impressionism, realism, surrealism and so on, most of which are recognised as ‘art’. Occasionally, of course, someone like Damien Hirst or Marcel Duchamp come along — the latter exhibiting an upside-down urinal in a Paris art exhibition — who challenge our understanding of what art is. Christianity’s ‘isms’ are similarly sets of rules, beliefs, creeds, philosophies and so on that consider themselves sub-sets of the genre ‘Christianity’, and, as in the art world, some of the more orthodox ‘isms’ are considered Christian, others of the fringe are considered — like Duchamp’s urinal — somewhat suspect, or perhaps even a joke. Most ‘isms’ develop when a group of people coalesce around shared values, often with a charismatic personality at the centre and, as in the world of art, often result when someone surfaces who challenges the status quo.
Whilst some people take their art very seriously, it is generally not considered a life-and-death issue. Religion (or the lack of it), however, strikes at the core of our understanding of reality and determines how we live our lives, and therefore we like to think that we are right — that we believe the right things. The danger is that we then consider those who do not share our core beliefs wrong.
Now does this mean that you or I cannot say that — in our opinion — a certain belief is wrong? Are there such things as right and wrong beliefs? Some of you are thinking, ‘Well, of course there are. The bible makes this very clear.’ But the problem we then face is the multiplicity of conflicting ways that the bible is interpreted. In my work I have adopted the familiar slogan of the Moravian Brothers, often attributed to Augustine (but apparently not by him), which goes: ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, tolerance; over all things, love,’ but this begs the question: What is essential?
So, following on from my last blog, I would like to ask: Where is your home? Where do you — as they say — hang up your hat? Where do you put your feet up and relax? Indeed, are you able to relax there, or do you feel a bit on edge at times? Who do you share your house with? What ‘ism’ are you part of?
I’ve felt on edge at times; a bit like those rabbits in Watership Down who, on their pilgrimage to find new pastures, come across a colony that has wonderful food and great burrows to live in, and yet something doesn’t feel quite right — it’s all a bit too good to be true: even food — carrots! — magically arrive on the doorstep. It turns out that the local farmer kills one of them every so often for Sunday dinner, but it’s an area they don’t want to talk about; the pretence of normality is better than facing up to the dark secret of random death. There is a lesson here which I will save for another time.
Where we live determines how we live. And now I will be a little provocative — forgive me for being blunt, but I refuse to live like a deluded rabbit. Many of us who call ourselves Christians are not. Rather, we subscribe to a set of beliefs that we think make us a Christian; beliefs about God and Jesus; beliefs considered essential by some ancient hero of the faith such as Calvin, or those of a modern hero such as John Wimber; beliefs drilled into us at weekly services (which make Christianity sometimes feel like a moral exam that we never pass); beliefs about how we should live. Even if we believe the right things, does that make us a Christian? To use the analogy from my last blog: are you (or I) living in Calvinshire, Evangelicaland or Charismaville?
Now some of you are thinking: ‘Well of course I am! — you have to live somewhere don’t you? And my beliefs matter to me. I’m hungry for the truth, and I really want to live by it.’
Now, as I’ve said, where you live determines how you live. So if you live in the first of the three places mentioned (and I could have chosen a hundred more — there are 20,000 Christian denominations in North America and Canada alone) you will no doubt consider evangelism as a primary activity, and will spend a lot of time trying to convert people, preaching, or listening to preaching. If from the latter, you will no doubt consider it your duty to pray for healing and be prophetic. Don’t get me wrong, these are good things — but are we supposed to live in these places?
There is a chilling verse in Matthew (7:22) where Jesus says that many people who called him ‘Lord’ on earth — and even cast out demons (fairly high on the ‘I’m a good Christian’ scale) — are unrecognisable to him. They present their visiting cards to him after death, and he says: ‘Who are you? I don’t think we’ve met?’ The phase he uses is ‘I never knew you’. The point is this: we are not supposed to live in any ‘ism’ — Anglicanism, Catholicism, Evangelicalism, Calvinism… — but in Christ. We are not supposed to do Christianity but to be Christians. He is our rock, our refuge, our home. You may even believe in the saving grace of Jesus as evidenced in the Cross; but even this is not enough: there is a big difference between believing in the words or works of Jesus, and believing in him. Christianity is not a monument, its a movement. It’s not a fixed set of beliefs, it’s a relationship with Jesus. It’s not about following theories, however ‘biblical’ or ‘spiritual’, it’s about following Jesus, living in him, and doing what he says.
No set of beliefs, however orthodox according to your tradition or the traditions of the ‘elders’ of the Christian world, can substitute for the person who said ‘I am the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ Paul says that in him we live and move and breathe and have our being. (Acts 17:25,28) So I renounce Evangelicalism, Catholicism, Anglicanism, Calvinism, Charismatism (is that a word?), or any other ‘ism’ you care to mention, because I choose to be a Christian, to follow my Master to the best of my ability, to obey him and give my life for those around me, as he did. On the basis that his sheep know his voice, I am trusting that if I am in error he will lead me to the truth, but to be in error is not a sin.
So does this mean that I will keep silent and not speak about what I see as error? On the contrary — like Job, listening to his friends talking nonsense — there are times when someone must speak out. Let me illustrate this: I have a son that I love deeply. I do not care if you get the facts wrong about what work he is doing at the moment, or what university he went to, or what he had for breakfast. But if you said that he was evil and was doing all sorts of unspeakable things, I would speak out passionately on his behalf. Why? Because he is not like that — he is good and I love him deeply. So — for example — if your theology suggests that God only chooses some people for salvation and the rest are tossed into an everlasting torture-chamber, I will speak out against it because you are maligning the character of God. We will talk more about this in a later article (too long for a blog).
There is no life in theories and philosophies or ‘isms’ except insofar as they lead us towards the source of life: if you make your home in these places you will live with death and, therefore, smell of death. Life is only found in the author of life who said: ‘Because I live, you also will live.’ (John 14:19)
John de Jong, 28 September 2010.