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Christians as the light of the world

May 27, 2016

One of the interesting things about Klout is how it takes one’s posts across various social media and assigns a person expertise in different subject areas. For example, I am an expert at the 99.9% percentile of however-Klout-figures-things-out in Accounting — which is probably just a realization of my gaining an appreciable amount of likes on Facebook for posting funny comments and puns about accounting (get it…realizing gains on appreciation? …OK, that wasn’t good). For whatever it’s worth, I’m also an expert at the 99.9% percentile on Mormonism, which probably leads me to suspect that, I dunno, people who actually have a lot to say on Mormonism are too busy to be using social media?

And interestingly, I am at the 99.9% percentile of “religion” but only at the 99.1% percentile of “atheism”…which either means I’m slightly better at being religious than at being an atheist, or that there are a handful of atheists who are better at talking that up on social media than I am.


My Klout “Expert Topics”

But one of  the coolest things about Klout is that it allows you to explore blog posts and articles relating to your topics of expertise. I admit that I’m pretty good at keeping track of the best Mormon blogs, but I have to say that Klout has done a pretty good job of exposing me to interesting comment that I didn’t have any idea about. One thing I discovered somehow was a Plough interview between Peter Mommsen and Stanley Hauerwas. I could probably write a post on any number of the topics in this interview, but I wanted to address one subject, because it’s something I’ve seen discussed a bit before.

How appealing should a Christian life be?


At some point, the discussion turns to the role of the church. The interviewer and interviewee are both convinced that the role of the church isn’t merely to create community, but that Christians are to be ambassadors to the world. When Mommsen asks what mission the church has, Hauerwas corrects him:

The church doesn’t have a mission. The church is mission. Our fundamental being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses to a Christ who is known only through witnesses. To be a witness means you bear the marks of Christ so that your life gives life to others. I can’t imagine Christians who are not fundamentally in mission as constitutive of their very being – because you don’t know who Christ is except by someone else telling you who Christ is. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore it is the task of Christians to embody the joy that comes from being made part of the body of Christ. That joy should be infectious and pull other people toward it. How many of us have actually asked another person to follow Christ? In my experience, far too few.

Obviously, if you have any passing familiarity with Christianity, you should be aware of the idea that Christians are witnesses of Christ. And you should be aware that Christians believe they must embody the joy that comes from being such a witness.

(I will say that I liked the way this is phrased here: for Hauerwas to recognize that Christians are “witnesses to a Christ who is known only through witnesses” seems very different from the position I’ve thought was standard to most forms of Christianity — that one can and should somehow seek an independent relationship with Jesus outside of what anyone else has said or done. I’m sure I’m probably misunderstanding what he means here.)

Conceptually, though, this makes sense to me. That Christianity should be a religion whose effects shine through in the lives of its adherents. And I understand that this can be a bit more complicated (because the goals of Christianity may not be the same goals as secular philosophies, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect Christians to exemplify the life goals of any secular system.)

But it seems to me that there are problems.

How appealing are Christian lives?

It seems to me that most Christians do not live lives that are very distinctive to me. Maybe I only think that because I have lived in a thoroughly Christian-infused society so I don’t really know what a truly non-Christian society would look like. Or maybe nearly the opposite is true — maybe I don’t realize that my society is not very Christian at all, and really, I mostly engage with people who are only nominally or culturally Christian.

I don’t want to say that there aren’t any Christian folks whom I admire, because that’s not true. Those sorts of folks actually do lead me to suspect sometimes that maybe one or the other claims from my previous paragraph may be true.

…but then I think about people I know who claim to be (and seem to be) some of the most devoutly religious Christians I know, and I think that I don’t want to be like them.

I was raised in a conservative religion, and I have lived most of my life in states with conservative, highly religious people. And I can say that I don’t find that conservative religious value system all that appealing.


this is definitely joy i can feel

I mean, maybe that is to be expected from a not-so-religious, more liberal type of person.

But isn’t that a problem for a religion like Christianity? What if the thing they think should be infectious instead seems to be turning people away?

Why Christian lives might seem unappealing

I know that Christians have a few rebuttals for this state affairs. These rebuttals, quite frankly, seem like just-so stories. They are just too convenient. I’ll just address a couple of them.

  1. Christians aren’t perfect.
    While Christ indeed produces effects in people’s lives, ultimately, people are still (recovering) sinners, so one should expect Christians to have the same issues of sinful human nature as everyone else, even if they are enabled by the Spirit to try to work through these issues.
  2. Non-Christians aren’t perfect.
    Another argument would be that non-Christians, because we don’t see through a Christian lens, are not as capable of appreciating how awesome Christianity is. Here I think of the latter part of Romans 1 — we fester more in our sin, being given over to our shameful lusts. So how could we recognize what is good from such a state?

As I mention, these explanations both seem just too convenient to me. But sure, I guess they could work.

But isn’t that weird, one way or another? Christian lives should be full of infectious joy, and yet, many people don’t see it that way.

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  1. Agellius permalink

    (realizing gains on appreciation? …OK, that wasn’t good …”)

    Oh, yes it was! : )

  2. Agellius permalink

    I think the difference between Christians and non-Christians was a lot more apparent in the early days of the Church. Part of that was because there was a greater potential cost to being a Christian, and therefore you would only proclaim yourself a Christian if you really meant it. When being Christian became officially acceptable, the cost to calling yourself a Christian was greatly reduced, and therefore any schmuck could call himself one with nothing to lose.

    When the whole society became (at least nominally) Christian, you had everyone on the moral spectrum considering himself Christian and calling himself Christian, and there was little to distinguish the behavior and personalities of Christians and non-Christians. And yet the culture as a whole, over time, moved in a distinctly Christian direction, which is apparent when comparing European and American standards of civil and human rights to those of other cultures.

    What we have now is a post-Christian society, where even the non-Christians and anti-Christians are under Christian cultural influences, whether they realize it or not. Indeed I would argue (as I have before) that modern liberalism itself could not have arisen except within a Christian cultural context. So you end up with liberal atheists criticizing conservative Christians, in essence for not acting, well, Christian!

    My point is that there are a lot of Christians who act Christ-like, but the culture having become so thoroughly imbued with Christianity that even professed non-Christians judge according to Christian standards, they don’t stand out all that much; at least not in the way they would have stood out in pagan Rome, for example, or even in some places in modern times.

    Another issue is that most Christian churches don’t do “shunning”. In my opinion shunning is actually called for in the Bible: When someone is living sinfully (I’m talking about serious sins, not minor everyday sins), you’re supposed to admonish him privately, and if he refuses to repent then confront him with two or three others, and then have the whole church confront him, “and if he refuses to listen even to the church, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector”, that is, bar him from your company. (Mt. 18:15-18.) As it is, most churches take a “live and let live” approach to morality among their members, for fear of driving them away.

    But the fact is, even if churches did practice shunning, there are any number of other churches that a shunned member could join in order to continue calling himself a Christian. In our “how dare you judge me” society, any and all Christian heresies are allowed to set up shop and call themselves Christian churches, and anyone who joins any of them is entitled to the name “Christian”; and even some who don’t attend any church at all nevertheless claim the name.

    In summary, there is an issue with how “Christian” is defined. If you’re judging Christianity itself by the behavior of any given individual who calls himself a Christian, I’m not sure that’s fair, given that the Christian churches in our country really don’t have any control over who claims the name.

    The Catholic Church has a special problem, in that a large proportion of people who call themselves “Catholic” are Catholic in name only, that is, cultural Catholics, who are baptized and confirmed and attended Mass perhaps twice a year throughout their childhoods, are now twice divorced and using birth control on a regular basis, yet still feel entitled to the name “Catholic” every bit as much as those who attend 52 weeks out of the year, year in and year out, and actually believe and strive to live the Church’s moral teachings.

    I also don’t think that “Christian lives should be full of infectious joy” is a fair standard by which to judge. Some Christians surely are full of infectious joy, at least some of the time; some fortunate few, maybe even all the time. But I don’t think it’s a scriptural idea that all Christians should be feeling all joy, all the time. Christianity is about the salvation of souls through faith in Jesus Christ and repentance of sins. It’s not about how often and to what extent a given Christian is on an emotional high. My wife is, temperamentally, would you might call a joyful person. Another word for it is that she is of a sanguine temperament. My natural temperament tends more towards the melancholic. This was the case both before and after my conversion to Christianity. To be sure, I feel joy internally much more often now than I did before. But I’m just not built to radiate joy. I’m not the enthusiastic, “Praise the Lord!” type.

    I’m sure I didn’t hit your nail right on the head, but this is already long so I will let it go as is. I’m sure you will let me know where I’ve missed your point. : )

  3. haha, thanks for the approval on the pun!

    Great thoughts. While I definitely have heard the “post-Christian” argument before and I think there may be something to that, I still think: if that is so, then why is there precisely that much disagreement on certain issues? Like, if we take certain civil rights issues, it’s clear that, say, a pro-LGBT person disagrees with a conservative Christian…how can that be reconciled with the idea that both people are deriving their positions from a Christian background? Does that make sense?

    With respect to shunning, although Mormons don’t necessarily shun, they do excommunicate, and there aren’t a lot of credible alternatives for being Mormon outside of the LDS church. And yet, this doesn’t really seem to produce a population of super active, engaged Mormons who represent Mormonism in its best ideals, and excommunicated folks who don’t. To the contrary, I’d still say that some of the values that Mormonism prioritizes don’t seem that appealing, to the extent that getting excommunicated or resigning one’s membership will look to many as the more principled approach. In other words, the “best Mormons” aren’t necessarily living a life I would want to live, if that makes sense.

    If you’re judging Christianity itself by the behavior of any given individual who calls himself a Christian, I’m not sure that’s fair, given that the Christian churches in our country really don’t have any control over who claims the name.

    Bouncing off my previous part and applying it to Christianity in general, I’d go even further and say that the people who seem to be most involved and most devout as Christian (attend regularly, faithfully, read scriptures regularly, etc., etc.,) don’t really seem necessarily to be living lives that I would want. I want to emphasize here that I realize that there are nominal/cultural Christians, but it’s also not entirely too difficult to tell at least some difference between people who rarely go and people who attend multiple times each week…but my issue here is I’m not sure if that difference is necessarily a *good* thing.

    Also, with the whole “infectious joy” thing, I’m not sure if that’s precisely described, but I don’t think it’s necessarily meant to be about an “emotional high”…if that makes sense? I often see the word “joy” used in CONTRAST, to, say, “happy” or “comfortable”. Maybe something like “peace” also might apply? Like, I have heard/read that the idea is that your life may not be *easy*, and you certainly won’t be happy 100% of the time, but that despite the circumstances, you’re more grounded (or whatever) in the ability to deal with those circumstances.

    Maybe it’s complicated to describe it in words, but whatever it is, the idea is whatever that is can be seen by others, and those others would want to have that. Depending on how strong the person’s claim is, they might say that non-Christians will *lack* that (not meaning that non-Christians can’t be happy, but that they won’t be “grounded”. But again, that doesn’t feel like my experience, but maybe that’s just because I don’t know what I’m missing 😉 ).

    Yet, I am not really sure if that’s what’s happening. I mean, can I say that I know people who have that different sense about them? Absolutely? is it specific to a particular religion, or even religion itself? I can’t really say that.

  4. Agellius permalink

    For me it’s a good pun if you don’t see it coming, and I definitely didn’t see it coming.

    I’ll be back to argue more later … : )

  5. Agellius permalink

    In an effort to find a point of agreement, I will definitely agree that there are some people who are apparently devout, involved Christians, who nevertheless don’t lead joyful lives and some who are not particularly nice, generous, etc.

    The way I account for this is that Christianity doesn’t promise instant sainthood. People are at different stages on the road and have different obstacles to overcome. Some people have problems with lust, some with greed, some with unkindness, some with stinginess, some with dishonesty. Some people overcome their sinful habits right away, for some it takes years of prayer and effort, and some never do. The weeds are allowed to grow up with the wheat. (Mt. 13:30.)

    The question is asked, “But shouldn’t there be some observable difference between devout Christians and other people, if Christianity has any effect on people at all?”

    Yes, but again we encounter the difficulty of definitions. You are apparently lumping all types and varieties of Christians under the single term “Christian”. I am a Catholic myself, and therefore can’t help thinking that a lot of these groups have a seriously warped understanding of what Christianity is, or should be. I can’t help thinking that someone who is a devout Baptist or Mormon (just to name a couple examples) is missing some of the essential elements of authentic Christianity. My point being that I can’t be expected to account for the “failure” of Christianity to transform these people, when according to my beliefs their Christianity is seriously deficient to begin with.

    That being said, I have no hesitation in saying that some Baptists and Mormons are really, really good people, and they’re that way specifically because of their respective religions. I have seen people who were one way before becoming Christian (of whatever stripe), and were drastically transformed after becoming Christian.

    Have you known people who have converted to Christianity and been transformed by the experience? And not only those who converted per se, but also those who were raised Christian, but didn’t really take it seriously until after they grew up? I have seen it again and again, people whose lives were a mess, or who lived lives that they were ashamed of and tried to hide from friends and family, finally “waking up” to the wisdom and goodness of the Christian way of life, and changing their way of living, becoming sober, responsible, trustworthy people.

    Or again, people who were at one time bitter and angry or hopeless, taking no joy in life, suddenly becoming devout, and in the process, kind and generous and joyful, upon discovering faith. (For example the Catholic author Joseph Pearce [ ] )

    Talk to most Christians and they will say the same thing (though again, I’m not so sure the extent to which this happens among Mormons; I’m not saying it does and I’m not saying it doesn’t, I just don’t know).

    Even among Christians raised in the faith, there is often a “waking up” experience, like a conversion except that they would say they already believed in Christ; but nevertheless something like a conversion, where they suddenly realize how much God loves them and vice versa, and resolve to live accordingly. There may be a divide among “cradle Christians”, between those who have experienced this awakening of faith, and those who instead take their faith for granted and are therefore not affected by it — while, possibly, nevertheless professing themselves to be devout Christians.

    So in short there may be three things that cause the perception that the faith of Christians doesn’t seem to affect their lives:

    1. The wide variety of groups that call themselves Christian, while denying many of each other’s vital tenets — they can’t all be Christians in the most proper and authentic sense.

    2. Christians who sincerely believe but have great obstacles in the way of becoming more Christ-like, perhaps due to emotional or psychological problems.

    3. Christians who are raised in the faith, and consider themselves devout Christians, but have not yet experienced the “awakening” of faith and its transforming influence.

    Again I would insist that the “difference” Christianity makes would be more easily perceptible, if everyone raised in the culture were not already so much under its influence. Also, the effects of Christianity are not always externally observable: Some people make dramatic changes in their private lives that others don’t know about.

    And with that I will abruptly end. : )

  6. Agellius,

    Although I guess it is to not unusual that a Catholic would see other denominations as having a flawed understanding of Christianity, wouldn’t other denominations think similarly of Catholicism? I mean, I think that gets at something: even serious people grappling through scriptures, etc., don’t even agree about what Christianity is or what it should look like.

    Good point on sainthood being a process.

    I have known people who converted to Christian denominations and were transformed by the experience…but I think what I would say (relevant to this topic) is that the transformation hasn’t always been good, and that I have also known people who were transformed by the experience of converting to other religions, or leaving religion in general. So, I’m saying more than just, “Christianity doesn’t seem to affect some people’s lives”. I’m saying, “even when Christianity does affect some people’s lives, it is not always in a way that looks desirable to outsiders. In other words, it’s not something an outsider would want to be “infected” with”.

  7. Agellius permalink

    I don’t deny that you have this impression of Christianity, and that a lot of other people do too. But the fact is that a lot of people have converted to Christianity, and continue to do so, and a lot of people who are raised in it, and initially take it for granted, end up having their faith awakened at some point in their lives, and grow to love and appreciate it, and consider it the most important thing in their lives and the best thing that ever happened to them. So it must have some appeal to a good chunk of the population.

    Similarly, liberalism appeals to a broad spectrum of the population, but it doesn’t appeal to everyone. Should I say, “I have no desire to be like the liberals I’ve known, many of them are not the kind of people I want to spend time with, nor do they strike me as particularly good or happy people”? Am I justified in concluding that the fault must lie within liberalism itself, and has nothing to do with me and how I perceive it, and my subjective reasons for perceiving it that way?

    The fault could lie within Christianity itself (either its doctrine or its people), or it could like within yourself and likeminded people, or it could be a combination of the two; not to mention cultural influences one way or the other. Figuring out specifically what proportion of each factor accounts for the impressions you have formed would be extremely difficult.

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