Titles, “Christians,” and Shots in the Dark

One morning a coworker of mine, Kenneth, was expressing his vehement distaste for Christians when he suddenly turned to me and said, “Oxenham, you’re a Christian, right?” I replied, “I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘Christian,’ but I do love Jesus immensely.” Kenneth nodded his head in agreement, noting, “Mhmm you’re not like any of the Christians I’ve met. You don’t judge me, you’re kind to me, and more than that, you’re a good friend.” With that, the conversation moved to a new topic.

It’s crucial to notice that I never responded to Kenneth’s question with a direct “yes I’m a Christian.” Further, and here’s the real kicker, I do not think any Christian should ever answer that point blank question with a “yes.” Please set down the tar and feathers and hear me out for a second. In the fast paced metropolitan environment, the term ‘Christian’ is a broad one, a term that is unfortunately fraught with vagueness and misconceptions. If you don’t believe me go out to the street and ask ten people what it means to be a Christian. This vagueness allows people to import their own ideas of what Christianity is straight onto anyone professing to be a Christian. ‘Christian’ for one person might call to mind the oft-repeated revisionist historians’ picture of Christians as dogmatic murderers of non-believers.  To another, ‘Christian’ might recall horrid memories of a childhood relative who committed abuse towards them. Answering the question “are you a Christian?” is a blind shot in the dark. Answering this question presents a blank canvas for other people to import their misconceptions onto. This starts the believer off at a deficit, one he must first overcome before beginning to approach a conversation about faith. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it is an inefficient use of positioning because you’ve put yourself on the defensive from the get-go. What I’m not saying is that one must deny that they are in any way affiliated to Christ. What I am suggesting is that in order to wisely position oneself in regards to conversations of faith, one should always use first impressions sagaciously.

To the Christian I advocate not using undefined terms. Clearly define your terms and make sure the person you are speaking with is explicitly clear on what you mean when you use various titles, terms and isms. Be especially wary of words that carry immense amounts of connotations with them. Do not let your passion get the best of your savvy. Be both kind, be ardent about your faith, but be cautious. Remember, to brashly answer vague question is extremely foolish, but a simple clarification easily leads to much deeper and more productive conversations.

Image via Wikipedia.

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Andrew Oxenham

Having graduated from the Torrey Honors Instutitue in 2011, Andrew is currently working diligently to pay off his student loans. He spends his days as an editor in the social media universe, engrossed in a world of posts, tweets and +1s. With his free time he tweets frequently, blogs occasionally and spends more time than is healthy using the popular photo-sharing service known as Instagram.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    First off: You make some really good points here about the necessity of clarifying terms and eliminating unnecessary confusion and vagueness. Great thoughts.

    Second: The following is not AT ALL a personal attack on you or your post. There’s just something bugging me, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    This method works because, to an extent, it can initially distance Person A from Person B’s conception of “Christian.” Since B’s perception of Christianity is often flawed, this is a very good thing for A. He can operate free from all the “baggage” that the term has accumulated for B.

    However, it seems like it can easily become a bad thing for the Church overall. By our actions and words, we determine how others see us, and those affiliated with us. When A takes this method too far (as some do when they say, “I’m not a Christian, but I do follow Christ), A explicitly separates himself from the larger body of Christianity in the eyes of B.

    That means that while Person B may have a very good opinion of Person A, that good opinion doesn’t extend at all to the larger Church, because A made it a point to explicitly separate himself from it.

    In B’s view, then, Person A is a good person even though he’s a Christian, not because of it, and his opinion of the Church as a whole may drop still lower. It seems better, then, to actually attempt to reclaim the label of Christianity. Yes, this requires more effort up front, but instead of distancing ourselves (and Person B’s good opinion of us) from Christianity, we can then align ourselves with it and demonstrate two things:

    1. that in as much as we are Christ-like, we are, indeed, Christian and aligned with the Church (thus raising Person B’s opinion of it).

    2. that the abuse/tyranny/sin that Person B currently associates with Christianity is actually misplaced, and has nothing to do with Christianity and more to do with fallen humanity being fallen humanity.

    Like I said earlier, I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

  • jamesfarnold

    “It’s crucial to notice that I never responded to Kenneth’s question with a direct “yes I’m a Christian.” Further, and here’s the real kicker, I do not think any Christian should ever answer that point blank question with a “yes.””

    This, I think, is my primary point of contention. I’m not convinced we should so quickly abandon the term ‘Christian’ because people have abused it. I hold to this for a few reasons, however.

    First, the term has a lot of history. If memory serves, this term shows up within the first few hundred years of Christianity, and it is actually used as an insult. “Those crazy people who follow that dead Christ guy” sort of a term. But we’ve embraced it and run with it rather strongly. That history–coming up on two thousand years–seems worth preserving.

    Second, I find it difficult to divorce myself from a term that includes the name of Christ. While there are some terms that invoke the name of Jesus (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, for instance) that I would quickly run away from, it seems like we’re too quick to abandon the term “Christian” because some people think poorly of it. A lot of people think poorly of Christ, as well. If we act in such a way that we bear the fruit of the Spirit, and claim the name of Christ and the title of Christianity, I think we could do a lot of good for those historically named ‘Christians’ (think medieval artists, for instance).

    Third, this line of thinking (that we should qualify our interest in Jesus as not what people think of as “Christian”), while intended to move our associations away from the ‘crazy Christians’ and towards Jesus himself, often ends up communicating something different. When I hear “I’m not sure what you mean by Christian, but I love Jesus,” I usually hear something like “That whole Christianity and religion thing that Paul, Peter, James, and John talked about is kind of crazy, but Jesus himself is pretty great.” That strikes me as pretty problematic, to be honest.

    All that said, I understand the temptation to run from the term ‘Christian.’ But I’d rather fight the uphill battle of proving that Christianity can change a sinner deeply than attempt to prove that my Christianity is different than a vague belief in some powerful nice guy from a few thousand years ago.