Christianity is not Comcast, Cox, or FiOS

hacking-channelWhile having lunch with a friend, she told me of a recent trip with some new friends where she was “outed” as a church goer. As the trip progressed, her friends would make comments like:

  • So you think everyone else is hellbound, right?
  • But you don’t believe in evolution, right?
  • I can understand that you likely don’t accept gay marriage…
  • How can you be a woman and be Christian, much less Catholic?

My friend lamented that for many people, Christianity has become a package deal, and if you identify with one part of it, then that must mean you believe in all of it.

We know what package deals are. Comcast, Cox, FiOS, and other cable companies offer us cable tv but not individual channels: you have to buy a package (set of channels) from them. The basic package has 30 channels, the deluxe has 60, the ultra-deluxe has 120, the bachelor’s package has 120 channels plus 8 sports and 4 “late night” channels, the Vegetarian’s package has the Food Network, Cooking Channel (but no pigskin), the Lesbian package has all the women’s channels plus Rizzoli and Isles, and so on. You cannot purchase access to individual channels: you have to buy the whole package.

For Christianity in the internet age, I think a big challenge is getting past a perception that Christianity is a package deal. Christianity means that if you believe in Christ, then you must believe in the laundry list of things that my friend above encountered on her trip.

It’s not unreasonable. I think that many people who see Christians on cable TV or on interviews on 24-hour news networks think that “this is what Christians are like.” Or those hateful people who kicked you out because you were a little bit different in your childhood represent the whole of Christendom to you. It creates an uphill challenge for those of us on the more Progressive end of Christianity as we don’t share many of those beliefs.

It’s even harder to offer a more open-source faith to those coming from Fundamentalist backgrounds. Fred Clark on Patheos writes about the dangers of these package deals with fundamentalists:

But the problem isn’t just that those indoctrinated into fundamentalism are taught things like that the Earth is only 10,000 years old, or that homosexuality is a sinful choice, or that Noah hung out with dinosaurs before the flood, or that God hates you because you’re not perfectly holy. The larger problem is that according to fundamentalism, those falsehoods are inextricably linked to everything else. Everything. So if it turns out that the Earth is actually 4.5 billion years old, then, according to fundamentalism, life has no meaning, happiness is impossible, love is illusion, Jesus is dead, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins, and we are of all people most to be pitied. And that is cruel.

I don’t think faith is a package deal. To say someone is a Christian or part of a particular denomination doesn’t mean you are just like the version seen on TV. Even my friends who are as far away from me on faith issues often do not fit the package that culture has defined for us. I think we can point to the Creeds and the catechumenate processes of our past for instilling this idea that one must believe everything on a list to be a Christian (because that’s totally what Jesus said to the followers of the Law in Jerusalem). While helpful in tribal formulative stages of religion where one’s religious identity and culture were synonymous, in a pluralistic society as today, I wonder if they continue to be helpful.

I do think faith is more like a constellation. All the stars are in one place, and we pick and choose which stars align into the image of faith we hope for. When one star shines brighter, then perhaps the stars most like it or close by are activated as well. This is why progressive groups tend to work with each other: if one believes the church should be open to disabled folks, then likely they would extend that hospitality to LGBT activist groups, and share that concern for caring for everyone to environmental advocacy. Preaching and teaching theology should be more about describing what the channels are and how they relate rather than apologetics for why the packages are put together they way they are.

In short, I think a more open-source “hacked” faith doesn’t force people into packages or bundles. It gives them the ability to have values and directions informed by faith and gives them the tools to create their own constructive theology, using whatever channels fit the lineup. While some call this “picking and choosing” and “cafeteria Christians” that sort of derision has begun to diminish as more holes are poked in the packages that have been traditionally offered. My hope is that these folks with the hodge-podges of faith find faith communities to help them navigate through the channels and find the best lineup for their faith formation–and share that openness with others along the way.

Thoughts?

  • Should Christianity be a package deal? Is it important to have one long standard set of beliefs that all hold to?
  • Should Christianity become more open-source and open to custom ways of creating channels of faith. How is that dangerous?

Thanks for your comments!

(Photo Credit: “Watch Hacking History Tonight” by stevegarfield, shared under Creative Commons license from Flickr)
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Comments

  1. Pubilius says

    While I am a progressive Christian, burned by fundamentalist upbringing, even I admit there must be doctrinal standards and some common basics of the faith. These things ARE NOT condemnation due to God creating someone as a gay person, or holding a political viewpoint or another strong conviction, and certainly not going against God’s call for your life (ordination or otherwise) but ARE things like if you don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, you’re welcome to come to a Christian church, but you shouldn’t try to become a priest or bishop in a Christian church (noting at least one example in TEC). I know the creeds were created for specific times, place, and to combat schisms, but they should still be consider church teaching/law and, while not said every Sunday, there’s a reason why they’re part of the faith: they provide a litmus test to challenge individual beliefs against Scripture.

    • says

      I agree with you about basic tenets (mostly outlined in the Creeds), but the teaching style of the Creeds (one must hold all of these to be a Christian) has been expanded beyond the Creeds to social issues. That’s my difficulty.

  2. Patrick says

    Good words, Pubilius. Building on that:

    Jeremy, do you think there’s a “basic package” that defines Christianity?

    And, can you just hook up to the cable, and hope that it has a connection to the source without actually “contracting with” Christianity? (A contract which I believe cannot be broken – John 10:27-29)

    • says

      I have a hard time breaking my Comcast contract too ;-)

      I think each denomination chooses what defines their basic package. Some are more doctrinal, some are more traditional, and some are more by polity and practice. As soon as I pick out what is a basic package, someone else could point and say they don’t want those channels.

      • Patrick says

        But there are “must carry” laws about local stations, and every cableco has to abide by that, or they can’t be a cableco. You get the broadcast networks and local access. Even if there are competing cable companies in the same market, they carry the same basics – the absolute core stations. A cableco isn’t going to say, “we don’t believe that the people on our system need to get the NBC affiliate.” A higher authority chose what is and isn’t in the basic package.

  3. Gary Bebop says

    How many “progressives” do you know that oppose same-sex marriage and ordination for practicing LGBTQ? It seems progressives “package” their Christianity, as do the despised fundamentalists…

    • says

      Having worked in a progressive congregation that did outreach to the LGBT community, there is a wide variety among people in a traditionally progressive social group. Some came with deeply conservative theology even though their social issues understanding was more progressive. Not all progressives support reproductive rights (and not all conservatives oppose them).

      • Gary Bebop says

        So you are suggesting that progressives do not “package” their faith, but fundies do (as caricatured by Fred Clark above)? I live in a so-called “progressive” conference where certain shibboleths and talisman rule the roost. In other words, the packaging dominates, like totally.

  4. Krista says

    I think it can be a good thing for Christianity to be more open source by acknowleding that there is such a diversity within Christianity. It was incredible freeing for me to realize that even though I was raised with a certian view of the gospel, atonement, etc that I could believe something different and still be a Christian and that there are many views that have been around throughout church history. Allowing people to “pick and choose” can prevent people from throwing the baby out with the bathwater and leaving the church, becoming agnostic, or becoming an athiest just because they disagree with some things.

    On the other hand we do need boundaries, and where those boundaries are will continually be a source of argument. I’m not sure the boundaries need to be a list of beliefs though. Or at least not a long list. I think using scripture/reason/tradition/experience is useful for keeping us from getting too off track. And I think community is a part of it as well. By that I mean the important part is to agree enough that we can function together in a healthy community sharing God’s love. (By the way at my UMC when new members join the pastor emphasizes that they are not agreeing to a list of beliefs because we in fact don’t all share the same beliefs but that they are making a commitment to and covenant with our community.) I think people can be uncomfortable with this because we want things to be black and white but the reality is that none of us completely comprehends God, none of us has all the answers.

    I also see that being more open source is a way of overcoming divisions within the church. I’m thinking of people who are pro-life across the whole lifespan by being anti-abortion and anti-capital punishment. They are creatively defying the traditional “packages” in a way that moves us out of an us vs them mentality and focuses us on being the hands and feet of Christ in spite of different beliefs.

      • Krista says

        Last time I checked, there were Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Weslyans, a wide variety of evangelicals, Quakers, Amish, anabaptists, conservative fundamentalists, the UCC, many kinds of house churches, etc. Plus all the various theologians throughout church history who have argued about all sorts of things. If the Bible was so black and white, how come all the people who try to follow it don’t agree?

        Plus I think it is a serious sin of pride to assume that any one of us alone has every detail of the truth. Even the disciples who lived with Jesus often got it wrong, frequently. Who am I to assume that I am any better? Who am I to assume that God has nothing more to teach me?

  5. John P. says

    The story seems to be a huge opportunity to share her faith and testimony. Her friends asked 4 honest questions. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was at work here and an opportunity was lost. Problem; believers are tearful of what people think of them. Jesus said the world will hate you because of me. Seems Christians are more embarrassed about their faith than most folks ofbotherbfaiths.

    • says

      Good assumption but an incorrect one. She DID use the opportunity and to show that one can be Christian and not to necessarily hold to those beliefs.

  6. says

    Jeremy, I feel like this article and the following comments outline a very good question to answer, but once again you seem unwilling to really venture standing for something. I think you even agreed that there needs to be a “basic package,” but then you stepped back from articulating it because someone might not subscribe to it. That’s a problem, isn’t it? How can we stand for something if we can’t even articulate it?

    I also find it problematic that you state explicitly that theological stances shouldn’t correlate with denominations. Why not? If that’s not the role and function of denominations, then what is? Community? That seems to be what most of this boils down to for a couple commentators on this blog: Churches should function primarily as places where people stick together despite differences in confession. But in that case, how is that any different from any other faith group, or really any other covenant group altogether? And what’s the point, really? Why not just have everyone join the Grange again?

    I think we’re all agreed that Christianity should stand for something. But until you can put something forward, something that Christ himself and his people seem to have valued, something that we can say to others, “You are not a Christian if you don’t stand by this,” then this is just an exercise in postmodern deconstructionism, after which nothing of substance is left standing. And I don’t think that will ever be very compelling for the people who need Christ most.

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