One afternoon during my undergraduate years, I was sitting by the college library reading when two students walked by talking about the crucifixion of Christ. Naturally, my ears perked up. They were deeply critical of the whole idea. One of them summed up the nature of their complaint by exclaiming: "Dying on a cross for the sins of the worldthat is so sick!"
This was one of many moments at the University of California at Santa Cruz when the "scandal of the Cross" was evident. In the 1970s, "the establishment" was under fierce attack at all American universities, and Christianity, an upstanding member of that establishment, took its share of lumps. This was especially true at UC Santa Cruz, which had been founded only a few years earlier as a radical experiment in undergraduate education.
We Christians on campus spent a fair bit of time and energy trying to show our fellow students that Christians were not as stupid, moribund, irrelevant, and hypercritical as everyone had been led to believe. I've discovered all that damage control was for naught: After living another 35 years as a Christian, I've come to see that like my fellow believers, I really am stupid, moribund, irrelevant, and hypercritical, and that Jesus' death on a cross for sin is just one of many "sick" things I believe.
Both a recent conversation and a book resurrected those college memories. The conversation was with a 20-something Christian who told me a few anecdotes about other 20-something Christians who refuse to identify themselves with the word Christian. They feel it comes with too much baggage and only makes their non-Christian friends think of stuffy churches, televangelists, the Crusades, and witch trials.
The book was Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity (Baker, October 2007) by David Kinnaman. The book's opening line is "Christianity has an image problem," and it proceeds to describe the many problems secular "busters and mosaics" (also known as generations X and Y) have with the faith. Though the book is grounded on statistical research, the list of complaints will not surprise anyone who reads the newspaper or has attended church recently: The church is proselytistic, anti-homosexual, sheltered, politicized, and judgmental.
Unchristian's motive is praiseworthythe author implores us to take these generations' critiques seriously as we try to call them to follow Jesus. And the book's central assumption seems reasonable enough: If we could just get Christians to act like Christians, more people would be attracted to Jesus.
But the problem with the book, and with those who eschew the Christian label, is that they fail to take the sinfulness of the church seriously enough. They also fail to recognize how far the scandal of the Cross reaches. Simply put, Jesus not only died for but also chooses to associate with sheltered, judgmental, proselytizing hypocrites who have put their faith in him. In fact, he's willing to let them muck up his "brand," willing to let each collection of potential televangelists and crusaders be known as a "church of Jesus Christ."
Part of the scandal of the Cross is the scandal of grace. And part of the scandal of grace is that I am part and parcel of the company of the graced.
My being a Christian means I am a member of a brotherhood of sinners, some of the most embarrassing sort. Even worse, to be a Christian is to acknowledge that I have been, at heart, a televangelist, a crusader, a sheltered, judgmental, proselytizing hypocrite.
I do not mean to suggest that we should be indifferent to such sins. If books and conversations like the ones I've experienced prod Christians to change their ways, it will be all to the good. But the church is always in need of reform, and its behavior will always be a scandal to anyone with moral sensibilities.
When we invite people to follow Jesus, we're inviting them into the desperately sinful church that Jesus, for some odd reason, loves. To be a Christianor whatever term you'd preferis to identify not just with Jesus or with the healthy church of our imagination, but also with the tragically dysfunctional church, which is mercifully embraced, if not by us, then certainly by the One who was a scandal in his own day.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author ofJesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker). You are invited to comment below or on his blog.
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Christine Scheller wrote about the troubled, redemptive church in 'Sorrow But No Regrets," from the July 2007 issue. "The Company of Sinners" and an editorial also address dysfunction and grace in the church.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
We Are Not Pregnant | The glory of men and women lies in their unbridgeable differences. (July 12, 2007)
Seeker Unfriendly | We need more than worship that makes sense. (June 14, 2007)
The Cost of Christian Education | Getting schooled in the faith is more unnerving than I care to admit. (May 31, 2007)
Surviving a Family-Wrecking Economy | What the church can do about working mothers. (May 17, 2007)
The Real Secret of the Universe | Why we disdain feel-good spirituality but shouldn't. (May 3, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)
The Good Friday Life | We need something more than another moral imperative. (April 4, 2007)
I Love, Therefore You Are | Why the modern search for self ends in despair. (June 28, 2007)