It is OK not to call yourself a Christian

A great deal of attention is being paid right now to Marcus Mumford, lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons, and I’m sure Rolling Stone couldn’t be happier: religious controversy sells magazines. When interviewer Brian Hiatt asks Mumford point blank if he is a Christian, Mumford gives a long, somewhat rambling response that includes the sentence, “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.” USA Today has picked up this ‘breaking story,’ and so has the Christian press. I imagine that Rolling Stone’s webserver is lit up with people clicking through to the teaser for this upcoming cover article.  Selfishly, I have been feeling relieved that my mid-20s self was not (and had no chance of being) famous.

I would be seen as at least odd and possibly dangerous if I wanted to know all about my doctor’s personal life: his religious beliefs, his parents, his wedding anniversary, whether he gets along with the people he works with, where his house is. I personally interact with my doctors, but the boundaries in such relationships are clear. In contrast, it is totally normal in our culture to be interested in, knowledgable about, or even obsessed with people we will never meet, so long as we have deemed them celebrities. If I show up outside of my doctor’s house, he would do well to get a restraining order. But hop in a bus-load full of people driving slowly past Jennifer Anniston’s house? Just another typical American vacation. I would only be crossing a line if I broke into her house or sent her threatening letters.

Seriously? Sometimes I wonder if the whole culture hasn’t crossed some kind of line – from voyeurism into sub-clinical erotomanic delusion: if we are not convinced that someone famous is in love with us, we at least imagine that they probably would fall in love with us (or at least want to be our friends!) if we ran into them at some imaginary party thrown by – who knows who? This scenario is going nowhere. It’s never going to happen.

So now Marcus Mumford, a person I have nearly no chance of ever meeting, has said that he wouldn’t call himself a Christian. Through luck and musical talent he has become recognizable to millions of people, and so now that gives Rolling Stone the right to ask about his religious beliefs, and me and the rest of the world the right to have an opinion about it? And what exactly would I be hoping to achieve? I suppose if enough of us wrote sufficiently indignant responses, we could turn him off to Christianity even more. That’s possible. I don’t know that his fans will turn from Christianity because of his words, or that me saying they shouldn’t would give them pause. So…?

I can hear my father’s voice in my head now, chiding, “Where’s your evangelistic zeal?” If I care about Jesus, if I care about people caring about Jesus, then I should care that Marcus Mumford, whose lyrics are full of Christian ideas and imagery, made sweeping disparaging remarks about Christianity, right? All this “baggage” we Christians carry? As if no other faith, no other group has “baggage?” So why am I stifling a yawn?

I guess because I know that he is not talking about me. His words say “the culture of Christianity,” but I hear, “The Christians he has met so far in his short life, the majority of those years spent in a specific milleu defined by his family of origin.” So yes, he is uninformed about the full spectrum of possibilities within Christianity. That’s not unusual for someone who hasn’t the inclination or the energy to explore all of those options – which is almost anyone whose religious upbringing makes them tired and just needing a break while they process all that stuff internally (or with hundreds of thousands of fans. Whatever.) Which may or may not be him – again I don’t know him. But he doesn’t know me either, so I’m not getting offended by it.

Lillian Daniel is right: baggage isn’t unique to Christianity – dealing with baggage is part of dealing with people. You need to be in your own little blanket cave to escape all historical baggage other than your own. But telling someone that and having them suddenly get it and change their mind and give church a shot after all is about as likely as a dad changing his teenaged daughter’s mind about fashion by saying, “You aren’t going out of the house dressed like that, are you?”

Or maybe I’m not all bent out of shape about it because the Mumford quote could almost word for word have come out of my own mouth when I was 26. Or 24. Or 22. Or 20. I went into seminary not sure I wanted to claim the name “Christian.” I had some pretty deep wounds that were not healing well given all of the probing they were receiving: “But there are good Christians!” and “That’s not fair!” and “You should really read [Augustine, Simone Weil, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila]” and “Have you really explored all of your church options? I’m [Presbyterian, UCC, Unitarian, Unity, Episcopal, UMC, Pentecostal]…”

It was a painful time, wandering and exploring. Finding out pagans have problems too, and Buddhists have problems too, and New Agey people are as intolerant as anyone else, and finally feeling like I had nowhere to go that I hadn’t been before. Yeah, group dynamics are difficult everywhere. And for myself, wanting to be loving and open and welcoming, having grown up with poor boundaries… let’s just say “where are you going to go? It’s this bad everywhere!” were not exactly the words that were going to make me come running back to mother church. I EXPECTED MORE from the church because church had taught me to expect more of myself – because I grew up believing that Jesus actually meant all that stuff that he said about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and giving away your tunic. If I cast aspersions on the church, it wasn’t because I was more biased against Christians, but because I was more biased against everyone else. I didn’t want to know how people in general could be so petty and hurtful – well, ok, yes I did. But I was much more disturbed by pettiness and hurtfulness and selfishness in people who claimed to love Jesus.

Or, as I told my father later (when I was preparing to become a pastor), I have very evangelisitic reasons for saying and doing and believing the things I do: if the church doesn’t look any different than any other group of people, then we must forgive those who rightly reject a poor witness. I don’t know Mumford. Maybe he is a capricious ass. Or maybe he is just a guy who got hurt one (or six or twenty) too many times by people who claimed to be the chosen messengers of the God who is Love. I know that was my story.

Would I rather have such a popular singer/songwriter self-identify as a Christian?  Sure – it would be cool to not just have U2 holding the fort, as it were.  Would I rather not feel some trepidation every time I open my mouth to tell people that I am a Christian writer, that I attend church, that I have been a pastor? Would I rather that the whole “Christians are such hypocrites; [any other religion] is cool, though” narrative were not so compelling in our culture? Absolutely.  But countering that narrative is not Marcus Mumford’s job, because he is very much feeling that narrative right now.  Countering that narrative is the job of the Holy Spirit, a job that I (and every other self-identified Christian leader) have been invited to share.

I  can’t speak for Marcus Mumford, but our best hope for drawing people like my 20 year old self back into a supportive Christian community is to be that community – to keep listening, keep caring, keep insisting that none of us are perfect and that God loves each and every one of us better than any human every could. Our best hope is our love – not our indignation.


Wishing I had more time to post – but since I don’t, here’s some recommended reading in the meantime from my friend, Will Grady, who blogs at Ramblings from Red Rose, who writes about Jesus’ admonition not to throw our pearls before swine:

There is a sense in which who I am is not simply put out there for everyone to judge. Again this doesn’t mean keeping everything private: it means choosing carefully who I want my thoughts, feelings, past stories, etc., to be a part in helping me celebrate or heal, rather than risk just anyone trample over.

I’m sorry

On my 22nd birthday, I was in a car accident.  I was driving on an unfamiliar road, and I did not notice the stop sign until too late.  Swerving to avoid running into the side of a van, I was unable to turn back into my lane in time to avoid oncoming traffic.  The total force of the front-impact collision was in the ball park of 60mph.  My car was totaled, the other young woman’s car was totaled, and traffic was backed up in both directions for a very long time.  Thankfully, no one was injured.

When the police officer arrived and began taking statements, I started by saying, “It’s my fault.  I ran the stop sign…”

He was flabbergasted.  “You’ve just made my job so much easier,” he said.

“Well,” I replied, “there’s no denying it.  It would be obvious to anyone that I’m to blame – there’s my car on the wrong side of the road.”

“Still,” he said, “you didn’t have to admit it to me.  I am going to be sure to mention in my report how cooperative you have been.”

Now it was my turn to be dumbstruck.  I didn’t have to admit that I was to blame?  Why wouldn’t I? When the officer asked me what happened, how could I possibly have told the story in a truthful way without admitting fault?  I guess I could have refused to comment on the accident, but to what end?

At the time I was still in college, so my parents were paying for my insurance.  When I was older, and began receiving my own insurance bills, I began receiving the semi-annual reminders to “never admit you are at fault at the scene of an accident.”  The insurance companies are protecting themselves from lawsuits – they want to string along the injured parties as long as they can, refusing to pay their claims.  It is harder to do that if there is a police statement saying that one or another party admitted fault at the scene.  No wonder the police officer had so rarely heard someone take responsibility for their mistake at the scene of an accident – usually people are following the orders of their insurance companies – admit no fault.

This seems to be an ingrained part of our culture – in order to (possibly) avoid having to make some sort of financial or other restitution down the road, it is vital to never ever admit that you are wrong.  And some people take their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves (in part meant to be a protection against being tortured or otherwise coerced into making a false confession) as a positive responsibility.  Very philanthropic of them – they are doing it for the Constitution!

It is hard to raise children to take responsibility for their actions in this kind of environment.  Whose orders shall we follow?  Those given to us by the legal department of our car insurance agency?  Taking responsibility means admitting when we are wrong, and being specific as to how and what we did wrong, to the best of our ability.  Taking responsibility means being clear about the extent to which we are in fact responsible for wrongdoing we have been involved in.

I caught about 5 minutes of the Diane Rehm show this morning on NPR – it was about apologies – I am guessing in the context of the rather unsatisfying buck passing that has constituted most of the oil spill related communications from BP.  (Note: they care about the little people.)  Though they may also have been inspired by various spokesmen (using the gendered version of the word advisedly) for the Catholic Church, who – though they have made many gestures and statements that go in the right direction – have made too many remarks suggesting that those who are concerned about child sexual abuse by priests are over-reacting.  And while Diane and her guests were talking about apologies from individuals speaking on behalf of corporate entities (governments, companies, churches, and the like), a lot of what they said was good general advice for making an apology: use strong, direct language, cite specific damages, say “I’m sorry” (without the next word being “but”), and include at least a suggestion that you intend to do better next time, and are in a position to do so.

We are given many opportunities to take responsibility for our actions.  Our Jewish sisters and brothers are encouraged to make amends with those they have injured over the past year in the days leading up to Yom Kippur.  Those in 12 step programs know that steps 8, 9, and 10 are all about making amends and taking responsibility.  And for us Christians, there is the passing of the peace.

The passing of the peace? Really? That interruption to the service where we get into a little chat with our neighbor, and desperately descend upon newcomers?  Yes, that’s the one i mean:

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” – Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)

The passing of the peace is meant (in part) to be a last minute opportunity before offering, before eucharist, to reconcile ourselves to anyone from whom we are estranged within the fellowship.  So next time the pastor invites you to share “signs of peace and reconciliation with your neighbor…” remember Jesus’ broad interpretation of that word “neighbor” – not necessarily the person nearest us in the pew.  Instead, cross the sanctuary if you have to – step out and call someone on your cell phone if you have to – reach out to one you have been reluctant to embrace, to one you have wronged in thought, word, or deed.  (Admittedly, I have not been in the business of doing this myself.  Perhaps we can all try something new this Sunday.)

Not sure where to start?  Perhaps it is best to begin with that word that we love to say when we are announcing our accomplishments, and that we avoid whenever there is a question of who to blame for a breach – “I” – a word that begins those difficult phrases, “I am to blame…” “I am sorry…” “I was inconsiderate…”  “I failed to…”

One thing that makes all of this easier is the assurance of love and forgiveness.  God loves us so much that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!  We do not need to be mortified by our every mistake to the extent that we try to hide what we have done wrong.  God is not an abuser, and we are not playing some twisted, life-long game of “gotcha!” We are loved intimately by a God who knows every hair on our head and every thought inside of it.  Being so deeply and intimately loved is what gives us our freedom in Christ – freedom to admit our wrongdoing, and thus freedom to be reconciled to those whom we have wronged.

I wish that I could say that I have always admitted my mistakes as unselfconsciously as I did on my 22nd birthday, the day I totaled my beloved white manual transmission Mazda 626 with a moonroof.  (RIP, sweet Mazda.  Alas, I was her undoing!)   Too often I have tried to avoid taking responsibility for myself and my actions.  I’m sorry that I have tried to deflect blame, that I have fallen into the habit of first offering my excuses before even uttering the words, “I’m sorry.”  I hope that, as I come to more deeply and fully embrace God’s love and forgiveness for me, I will better be able to fearlessly admit my mistakes without trying to find someone else to blame for having made my mistake possible.  I want to do better – I hope I do better next time.