Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ana Marie Cox and Fanny Crosby: Love and Mercy Found Me

Fanny Crosby in 1872

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:14-15

Longtime blogger and political commentator Ana Marie Cox recently wrote a column called, “Why I’m Coming Out as a Christian.” In her introduction she said that she was not worried that non-believers would want to disown her, she was worried about what Christians would say if she publicly embraced “the punk-rockness of being a progressive, feminist, tattooed, pro-choice, graduate-educated believer.”

Turns out she was worried about the wrong group.

The response from self-identified Christians was generally characterized by a warm acceptance. Many noted that the still disagreed with her views on public policy, but they were generally pleased to embrace her as a sister in Christ. On the other hand, the response from self-identified atheists was overwhelmingly judgmental and condemning. A short summary would be, “That’s just stupid.” Some hoped she would be happy with her imaginary friend.

Cox says that she has made her life over. She is happier, healthier and freer. And, she says, it shows:

“When people ask me, ‘What changed?’ or, ‘How did you do it?’ or, sometimes, with nervous humor, ‘Tell me your secret!’ I have a litany of concrete lifestyle changes I can give them—simply leaving Washington is near the top of the list—but the honest answer would be this: I try, every day, to give my will and my life over to God. I try to be like Christ. I get down on my knees and pray.”

Just to make sure we know she has not completely given up the persona we have come to know and love, she followed her testimony by recalling that the last time she gave that answer, “it stopped conversation as surely as a fart, and generated the same kind of throat-clearing discomfort.”

To be fair, self-righteousness and judgmentalism never seem to be in short supply on all sides of any Internet commentary. Sometimes it seems like no one has any filter at all. And they do all of their thinking out loud in CAPITAL LETTERS. It is also apparent that lots of folks comment on articles without actually reading them first.

One of the complaints about the column is that the reasons Cox gave for her new-found Christian faith were not really reasons at all. And they quoted the offending paragraph:

“Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.”

Of course, if you read it closely, you can see that she isn’t trying to give reasons for her faith. She is only explaining to those who might not think that she is a “real” Christian, why she believes she is. She is stating what she believes. She isn’t making an argument for it.

For the most part the article is a warm and inviting witness to her faith.

Two things bother me.

First, the theology seems fresh out of Fanny Crosby. And maybe that has a certain poetic logic to it, since Crosby was a fiercely committed abolitionist. Cox seems to espouse an essentially personal faith. It’s all about her connection to Jesus, and her personal salvation.

That’s not an uncommon view.

When I read that passage from Mark’s Gospel as a young person, I assumed that the “Gospel” or “good news” that Jesus announced was about himself. Even when I developed a much broader and deeper understanding of salvation as wholeness and healing and new life, I still thought that Jesus was announcing the good news about himself and the New Life we might have in and through him. In spite of my commitment to social justice (thank you, Dr. King!), I did not really connect that to the announcement Jesus was making.

When I read the passage more carefully and realized that the good news he was announcing was about the Kingdom of God on earth, I was initially baffled by it. It took me a long time to grow into an acceptance that maybe (in spite of what I had learned) Jesus meant exactly what he said.

And second, she seems to assume an implicit dissonance between progressive politics and Christianity. This reflects a very common historical misunderstanding.

Today most commentators in the media seem to assume that progressive Christianity is an oxymoron. At the very least, it is something that needs to be explained. But a century ago it was a tautology. Progressives were overwhelmingly Christian (and Protestant) and the strongest Christian voices were also progressives.

The word and the movement had a religious connotation. Of course, a century ago the Progressives were also mostly Republicans.

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