The Myth of the Genuine Christian (and a lesson for children)
Posted on March 22, 2017
Years ago when I was a teaching assistant at Duke University Divinity School, I noticed a recurring theme in student papers: the search for the ideal conditions to form a genuine Christian.
Real Christians might be formed with special polity or liturgy or study groups or music, the seminarians proposed. Maybe if an entire civilization were Christian and devout, the odds of being a real Christian would be higher. Maybe if we preach better or teach better or build our houses and streets differently, we can find real Christians among us.
My favorite course to TA was on the Rwandan genocide, not because of the immense suffering we explored but because it wrecked every fantasy of the genuine Christian. Chief among the horrors of the genocide was that it was committed by Christians on Christians. People slaughtered their fellow church members, in the churches. There was no sanctuary.
We asked very tough questions in that class: What forms our ideas on the purpose of our bodies? Why wasn’t the Body of Christ as powerful on the imagination as the racist propaganda that led people to see their bodies and their neighbors’ bodies as enemies? What if…(whispered the awed students on the precipice)…the people who committed these atrocities had been good Christians, real Christians, who got caught up in a set of lies that led them to unspeakable acts of evil? How can we avoid falling into the same trap?
Because my primary field of study is the early Christian Church, I had a historic compass in navigating these tough waters. In short, I knew that the struggle with the Enemy is not primarily external. Whenever we begin to accuse anyone outside ourselves for our sinfulness, we have fallen into the trap of an evil question.
It’s with this context in mind that I have watched the furor unfolding in the Christian world over the so-called “Benedict Option.” Not to be confused with actually becoming a monastic or a lay monastic such as a Third Order Benedictine, the Benedict Option purports to call Christians to a higher form of holy living by withdrawing from the world into intentional communities centered around Christ.
Look, I’m a homeschooler and work at home mom who is part of an ancient faith (Greek Orthodoxy) that is frankly weird by American standards. I’ve been studying monasticism and the home as a little church for decades. We have a scriptorium in our home. We write holy icons here and burn incense and light candles and sing prayers.
I get the appeal of intentionally filling one’s life with the beauty of holiness. But I can’t help but see, in all of the back and forth about the Benedict Option, the same old misleading search for the genuine Christian.
Lay aside for the moment the many faithful Christians whose political leanings are deeply at odds with those of Rod Dreher. The problem is much deeper.
Real Christians can’t be made through social engineering or exclusions. They are not known by their residence in a utopia or their associations with pious friends.
You can’t spot a real Christian in a crowd of righteous people.
Real Christians navigate the waters of the world not in a self-contained ark, but by clinging stubbornly to the Cross as their only boat. They are inspired not by righteousness, but by mercy. They have met the merciful God and love Him and cling to Him and show mercy as they have been shown mercy.
Here’s how I teach my kids about this. What do people look like when they’re defending a claim they’ve staked?
What do they look like when they have taken up their cross?
What makes a difference is not where you live, but in whether you’ve pulled up your stake (tou stavrou) in the world and taken up your cross (tou stavrou).
Here’s a little video summary of a lesson I teach the children.
Notice how our relationships to others are formed. Are we kicking people on and off our territory? No. We’re mutually embracing God, and that means we go together.
The only real Christians are those who love God and daily choose to cling to Christ over and above any and every other form of identity. We might not know what they look like or be able to recognize them by their addresses or where they work or send their kids to school or how they vote, but we will know them by their love.
If you give an exceedingly charitable reading of the Benedict Option, you might say I’ve simply restated the thesis here, the broad call to fidelity (which I find too obvious to warrant the attention and controversy). But there’s a major problem with the Benedict Option, and that’s in its assumptions about who is out and who is in.
If we say that faithful Christian living aligns with one political party or philosophy, we have gone back to staking our claims in the world’s systems rather than taking up the cross.
We have sought to find genuine Christians apart from Christ.
The moments of truth are not so garish as election cycles and polemics (fighting words). Clinging to the Cross doesn’t make us rich or famous or interesting or even righteous. It makes us loving.
They will know we are Christians by our love.
Find my other Hands-On Sunday School Lessons here (affiliate link). This series of lessons is accessible to concrete thinkers (such as those with autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities). Hands-On Sunday School Lessons Volume Two: Parables will be out later this spring.