Whether it is the church I serve (Community of Christ) or any other, I’m troubled by how important identity is for Christians. There’s a perennial concern among Christians and other religious groups to define themselves. It’s an ongoing theological challenge. The easy way is to define yourself against other religions or against each other. Christians, it seems, get a lot of mileage defining themselves against Muslims and Mormons.
Some might argue that identity issues within Christianity aren’t as important anymore. They might say ecumenical movements over the last few decades have opened many doors to overcome the divisions of denominational identity among Christians. Plus, many Christians have moved away from denominational identity altogether. Some of America’s largest churches are non-denominational. Some go so far to say that we live in a post-denominational age. Christians have moved beyond denominational divisions and identity issues? Isn’t this all a sign that Christians have moved toward unity?
Maybe. Ecumenism and post-denominational movements are important. But, they’ve done little to curb our ongoing identity questions. I think they’ve only revealed a change in dynamics. Ecumenism, non-denominational churches and post-denominational sentiments indicate that Christianity is undergoing certain changes. But, ultimately, I think these changes simply displace our identity issues by rearranging them in new ways. As we move away from denominational definitions, there’s significant ferment around the personal and interreligious dimensions of Christian identity. For many, Christian life is a personal journey. For at least a generation, religious identity has moved from the traditional and religious to the spiritual. Faith less a matter of traditional upbringing, and instead something more personal, even psychological, and evolving. Christians are also increasingly aware of other world’s religions. Interaction with other world’s religions also raises huge questions about Christian faith and identity. All these factors redefine how and how much Christians concern themselves with issues of faith and identity.
Religious or spiritual or whatever, 90%+ of Americans still believe in some kind of God. Moreover, churches, both non-denominational and traditional, must concern themselves with defining or or recreating who they are. As Wade Clark Roof has documented, our religious lives have been infiltrated by a kind of spiritual marketplace. Whether a fundamental or nominal Christian…born once, born again, bored, or agnostic…religious identity has been freed up from the constraints of tradition and history. It has fallen into the hands of the consumer.
This, not post-denominationalism, ecumenism, or the emergent movement, has been the true revolution taking place in America’s churches. The freedom to create and recreate our religious identity – to pick a religion or amongst religions and construct our own spirituality – has redefined how Christian faith is received, perceived, and lived out all around us.
Scholars and theologians, especially denominational leaders and independent pastors, no longer dictate their faith to their flocks without these dynamics. Religious authorities, too, must learn to compete and cope with the spiritual marketplace and its influence. Some of the most successful Christian pastors in America are successful because they’ve adapted and shaped the Christian marketplace. Aware of it or not, they are aware we are producers and consumers of faith. Of course, some more one than the other.
This situation is not without its ironies. It’s often pastors and preachers who claim the Gospel stands firmly outside all worldly influences who thrive best in the Christian marketplace. Christians who feel spiritually adrift in the ‘willy-nilly’ logic of the marketplace are attracted to a faith that stands ‘outside’ cultural influences. It provides a secure sense of spiritual security and identity. Many of these Christians make the mistake of blaming liberalism and see the answer as getting involved with politics.
They’d do better to dig deep into the spiritual impact of our market economy.
This may all sound like I’m being terribly negative. But, that’s not my intention. This is just contextual theology. The implications of the spiritual marketplace are all around us. Just look at the Christian market: Christian music – rap, rock, country and ska – has exploded. Other examples: The Purpose Driven Life, T.D. Jakes, nationally televised worship serves, and the religious fiction section at Barnes and Noble. It even shapes the way we engage and read the bible: The Life Application Bible, Green Bible, and True Identity Bible for Women are all available on Amazon. I’m not picking on these people and products. They’re only the most visible examples. My point is, the impact of the marketplace on the way we receive and perceive Christian faith is almost immeasurable. For most Christians, it’s become transparent. The slow, long, but sure shift from doctrinal issues regarding traditional authority that brought us denominationalism to the search for identity in the spiritual marketplace has happened. Market-logic continues to shape and reshape Christian faith and set the stage for our search for faith and identity.
Forgive me for getting theological a minute. But, there’s something terribly revealing for me amidst all this. I don’t think it’s all negative. I just believe the Bible says something unique to us about all this, especially about our search for faith and identity.
Prayerfully consider: At the most basic level, God’s selflessness on the cross (cf Phil 2:5-11) just doesn’t jive with our deep and ongoing concerns about identity…or what it means to be a true Christian. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking denominationally or personally.
We cannot escape the identity trap by “freeing” ourselves from denominational affiliation and just spiritually trying to be ourselves. In the end, its our actions that reveal more about who we are than our religious identity issues. Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah, seem to be keenly aware of this (cf Isaiah 58). True worship – lived in the rhythm of devoted study and neighborly love – begets a life beyond ourselves. Beyond identity.
Faith is an action. (cf. James)
Christ is God’s example.
Think of God’s horrible identity issues.
If being truly God in antiquity meant your people never lost a war, then the God of Israel was no God at all. Followers of Jesus made it even worse. They claimed God became incarnate…only to die a humiliating and public death between two criminals. If we measure God’s true identity – true divinity, true power, true sovereignty – then the God in Christ just doesn’t measure up. That God would be no God at all.
In fact, this God would have to be either a real nobody or, in some way, the God of all gods. Now, to believe that would take faith. Imagine that guy on the cross: The King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
His true identity would have to remain a mystery.
Christians might take a hint?