"Jesus was a rebel" is a favorite slogan of Christian pastors and authors trying to "reach twentysomethings," as they say. The logic? 1) Young people think Christianity is tired, boring, stale. 2) Young people are naturally rebellious and contrarian. Therefore … 3) Maybe Christianity will be fresh and exciting to them if it is framed in the context of subversion and rebellion.
But I'm not so sure that's a sound syllogism.
It's not a stretch to say that Jesus was a rebel. He was. He was bucking the system, turning over tables, and saying all sorts of subversive things in the days when he was walking the earth. It is perfectly appropriate, then, for Christians to call Jesus a rebel or a subversive. And it certainly fits neatly into any sort of a "Christianity is hip" PR ambition a church might be undertaking. Hipsters love rebels, and even if they loathe church or Christians, most of them still think Jesus is pretty dang cool.
When I asked Eric Bryant, a pastor at Mosaic in L.A., why Jesus is still considered cool in the eyes of young people, he said this:
They're intrigued by Jesus. They look to him. He is real, authentic, relevant. He spoke with honesty. He was a man on a mission. He was a radical, a revolutionary, yet tender and kind and loving. He was doing things completely against the rules of the day. He was a mix of justice, kindness, judgment and grace.
But one's man's rebel is another man's square. The phrase "Jesus was a rebel" means different things to different people. Some tend to play up the "judgment" side of things, imagining a warrior Jesus in the vein of Mark Driscoll's infamous "Jesus is a prizefighter with a tattoo down His leg" portrait. Others, like the Shane Claibornes of the world, emphasize the "turn the other cheek" peace-love-and-harmony Jesus. Both types are subversive; both are rebellious. Thankfully, Jesus is dynamic enough of a figure to be an icon of rebellion/activism/subversion for pretty much any type of person or cause—whether you're a hippie, a CEO, or an immigrant farmworker.
But there are dangers in getting too much mileage out of this rebel talk. Sure, Jesus was a rebel. Yes, Christianity is subversive. But that should not be the end goal of our faith. We shouldn't be enlisting young hipsters to join the cause because they think Jesus is a Che Guevara-esque revolutionary. They should be joining the cause because they need God's grace, not because they want to take down some system or join some romantic revolutionary cause. A faith built upon rebellion is, at the end of the day, not going to be very sustainable. We can't be a church primarily organized around fighting against things.
This is an idea that Donald Miller expressed in an article in the New York Times: that we have to be devoted followers of Christ first, and "rebels" second:
If you're a Christian, you need to obey God. And if you obey God, you're going to be seen as a rebel, both within American church culture and popular culture. But that's not the point. The point is to obey God.
Indeed, of all the marketing tactics wannabe hip churches might be engaged in, "Jesus was a rebel" is one of the more legitimate, but it also can backfire in the worst ways. Churches that focus too much on "Hey! The gospel is subversive!" may undercut the fact that the gospel is the gospel. It is the Good News—the best news—for the world, significant and life-changing in a way that mere "subversion" could never be. It's just a matter of misplaced emphasis. It's like if your child has a great singing voice but you spend more time telling people "my girl can sing!" rather than just letting her sing. We can get so caught up assigning descriptions and superlatives to the gospel that we forget to just let it sing. We forget to just live it.
Plus, I'm not sure that making Jesus into the world's most badass rebel is the best way to advance the cause of Christ. Will it really benefit the church to have an army of anarchists and anti-institutional young revolutionaries running around tipping over the tables of the world? Perhaps. But I'm certain that it will not benefit Christianity to make it primarily an exercise in rebellion. Christianity is an exercise in obedience. Maintaining a front of difference, counterculture, subversion, and rebellion simply distracts from the real call of Christ, which might look rebellious to the world but never seeks that as an end unto itself. If we obey Christ and follow his commands (to forsake our own lives in pursuit of him, for example), it may well be perceived as countercultural and maybe even "cool." But rebellion is only a virtue when it occurs as an unintended byproduct of obedience. If it has anything at all to do with our own image or pride ("I'm a martyr! I'm bucking the system!"), rebellion becomes at best a distraction and at worst, sin.
The reality of the situation is that Christ came to right the rebellion of man. All else but the gospel is rebellion. The cause of Christ is the one obedient cause.
Brett McCracken regularly reviews films for Christianity Today. His book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, will be published by Baker Books in August.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.
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Previous articles on Jesus include:
Still the Way, the Truth, and the Life | More people than ever doubt that anyone has a corner on truth. So why do Christians keep insisting on the incomparable uniqueness of Christ? (December 4, 2009)
Come, Lord Jesus | Oh, wait. He's already here. (October 12, 2009)
Jesus Is Not a Brand | Why it is dangerous to make evangelism another form of marketing. (January 2, 2009)
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