I find myself relating less and less to fellow Christians, sometimes when I survey the comprehension level of those around me I start to wonder if we even belong to the same religion. Among Evangelicals in particular, I see Christians more aligned with American folk wisdom than with anything resembling Biblical Christianity–even when they’re quoting from the Bible!
American Christianity seems to have become as predictable as the the Republican Party agenda: a few rehearsed talking points on some controversial wedge issues, gut feelings, and a lot of denial. Difficult situations are met with common canned responses like “God is in control”, “Everything happens for a reason”, or when stumped by a theological question that they can’t explain, they defer to Isaiah 55:9 (“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways”). It doesn’t matter to them if the context in Isaiah has nothing to do with the divine nature of Christ or the destruction of the Canaanites, it’s a catch-all stock answer for anything they don’t understand. They know little of the sophisticated philosophy presented in Job, Ecclesiastes, or the prophets, and favor catchy sound bites instead. Ignorant of centuries of complex theological development within the Judeo-Christian traditions, they reduce Christian thought to a dumbed-down catechism of clichés, a phenomenon that I’ve coined as “Cliché-anity.” While this might be expected among lay adherents of any faith, it troubles me to see it prevalent even among the clergy and church leaders.
Too often, Evangelical Christians view the Bible as a revelation in itself. This is problematic, because it dilutes the claims of the Bible to the level of any other religion claiming its scriptures as direct revelation from God, such as the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon. While this approach may not be as noticeable a problem among believers in the Bible, or even between believers of other religions, it’s absolutely meaningless for nonbelievers. In this manner, the Bible is only authoritative to those who already believe it, therefore expecting anyone outside of a Christian worldview to accept it as truth just because it says so is a logical fallacy, and goes completely against why the Bible was written!
A prime example of this is how Evangelicals generally seem unable to express Christian exclusivism except by reciting John 14:6’s “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is so ingrained in the Evangelical mindset that I can already hear some readers starting the fire to burn me at the stake just for criticizing it, as if I’m denying the Bible is true or promoting universalism. However, this reliance on textual citations for truth claims is actually a greater disservice to absolute truth. Atheists, for instance, are prone to compare this statement with any of Muhammad’s claims in the Qur’an, and dismiss them both as competing fairytales. After all, if Jesus can be the only way to heaven just because he says so, then Muhammad’s requirements to believe in him as God’s prophet would have to at least be equally considered, if not equally valid. This usually forces the Christian into the unnecessary position of having to discredit Islam to prove Christianity true. It becomes even sillier when Christians try to use this prooftext methodology to refute the faith of Catholics, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also accept Biblical authority.
Probably the best expression of Christian exclusivism that I’ve heard in the last decade came from Asia Bibi, an illiterate peasant Catholic in Pakistan, who has been sentenced to death under her Islamic country’s draconian blasphemy laws simply for defending her beliefs in saying, “My Jesus died for me what has Muhammed done for you?” No chapter and verse citation, no verbatim memorization, yet she demonstrates the essence of the gospel’s exclusive claim to salvation better than any of the learned Evangelicals, who would probably dismiss her just for being Catholic. Perhaps she would have been accused of blasphemy either way, or even if she had said nothing at all, but I can’t help but think her accusers were more offended by this statement because it cannot be cancelled out by a competing Islamic claim: if Christ is indeed the Savior, then no claim Muhammad could make can trump that.
I wouldn’t say that all Christians who use this canned response don’t really understand the concept of salvation in their religion, but it does leave me wondering. If their grasp of truth is entirely dependent on the claims of a text and nothing more, then their religion could easily be changed simply with the introduction of a new text. This helps explain why Mormons and Muslims are so successful at converting today’s Evangelicals.
Unfortunately, there is no quick remedy for this problem. Actively learning or re-learning one’s religion more thoroughly is certainly harder than it was to acquire a set of clichés. My first suggestion would be a complete overhaul of the way Christians perceive the Bible as God’s Word. Too often the doctrine of divine inspiration is mistaken for divine revelation, which the Judeo-Christian scriptures are not. Unlike Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i scriptures, etc. that claim to be directly revealed, the revelation of Christianity is not in a book but rather the revealing of God himself. The Christian concept of inspiration is not what gives the scriptures their authority, they would still be true even without that doctrine. There were no Muslims until Muhammad started to recite the Qur’an, there were no Mormons until after Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, but there were Christians before any of the New Testament was committed to writing. The revelation of God in Christ and the truth of Christianity are indeed recorded in the Bible (in case you were doubting my faith in the written word), however both would still exist without it. Nothing is true just because the Bible says so, as is the common misconception, but rather the Bible is true because of what it contains.
Make no mistake, I am not proposing that Christians abandon the Bible, since (as I hope to explore in greater detail) many of the common Cliché-anity catch-phrases have no connection whatsoever to Biblical Christianity anyway. But this over-used method of reducing the Bible to a collection of proof-texts can certainly turn believers into doubters if they miss the overall point of scripture because they’re unable to pinpoint a specific text to support a doctrine. Ultimately, it leads to losing battles with outsiders about the absolute truth of Christ, and major and minor doctrinal squabbles within the church.