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August 30th, 2010
02:10 PM ET

'Mutant' Christians?

Anne Havard, an Atlanta teen, is passionate and articulate about her faith – a rarity, according to an author.

“Mutant Christians."

The phrase sounds like the title of a 1950s science fiction B movie. I can even see the lurid movie poster showing disfigured churchgoers lumbering through panicked city streets.

But it’s actually a term invoked in a recent article I wrote that provoked at least 5,000 reader comments and 32,000 Facebook shares.

The article didn't just divide readers - it made me think as well.

It began as an examination of a book called “Almost Christian.” The author, a Methodist minister, said many parents and churches are teaching teens a "gospel of niceness" where faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers.

"If teenagers lack an articulate faith, it may be because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation," says the Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor of youth and church culture at Princeton Theological Seminary.

But ruffling feathers is not so easy for teens in today’s religious climate, says Elizabeth Corrie, who directs a program called the Youth Theological Initiative at Emory University in Georgia. YTI is designed to instill religious passion in teens.

Corrie says many teenagers aren’t anxious to draw theological lines in the sand because they’ve grown up in an era where religion has been used to divide people.

“They don’t want to debate homosexuality, abortion, or whether Christianity is the only way to salvation because they sit next someone who is Muslim or Jewish and they just want to be friends with them,” Corrie says.

Teens aren't the only ones who share this ambivalence.

Who could argue against religious tolerance? But if it is no longer acceptable to make exclusive claims of faith (“Islam is the only way; Only Jesus can save”), how does one maintain a distinctive religious identity?

If, for example, Christian missionaries traveled abroad to serve the poor without talking about their faith, how would they be different from UNICEF?

It’s a challenge I think people of varying faiths face. Many religions traditions teach followers that they have the “truth.” But it can be delicate trying to honor your truth without alienating people from other faiths.

One person who seems able to navigate this tension is Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions. His book, “World Religions” is now a standard college textbook.

Smith is  a passionate Christian, and the son of missionaries. Yet he has spent much of his life immersing himself in other religious practices.

Can you still call yourself a Christian, I asked Smith once, when you say other faiths offer salvation as well?

“God is defined by Jesus, but not confined to Jesus,” he answered.

Was Smith right, or was he also embracing a mutant form of Christianity?

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Culture wars • Faith • Mormonism • United States

soundoff (79 Responses)
  1. CM

    The biggest problem I see with this debate is that it rests on some faulty assumptions about Christianity. We live in a society that wants to value everyones opinion right up until that person starts claiming any sort of exclusivity about their opinion. As soon as someone tries to set their views in stone or ground them in something outside of themselves, people start pulling out the "intolerance" card and attempting to find ways to reconcile a religion that is centered around the exclusivity of Jesus, His teachings, and the teachings of HIs disciples (as seen in the New Testament letters) with their own assumptions.

    True Christianity (i.e. Christianity that takes the Bible at its word) demands an exclusivity that is very unpopular today. When a person begins to make accommodations in their religious world view for salvation by means other than Jesus and the teachings of the Bible, they have effectively denied one of the primary tenets of their faith. I don't know how a person can honestly claim the name of "Christian" while denying the very teachings necessary for being a Christian.

    Yes, mutant Christianity is rampant today. But I would argue that in many cases what people see as "mutant Christianity" is not Christianity at all.

    October 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm |
  2. Haze

    "If, for example, Christian missionaries traveled abroad to serve the poor without talking about their faith, how would they be different from UNICEF?"

    Why would a group, regardless of affiliation, NEED to differentiate themselves? Fact is they don't need to. Talk silently would be my advice. You can wear a T-shirt to distinguish yourself and help people without ever needing to speak a word about faith.
    Such actions can speak volumes more to people than the bible has to read.

    September 9, 2010 at 3:38 pm |
  3. Caleb

    As a Christian teen I laugh at the hypocrisy of the people who call us hypocrites. You say you encourage diversity and tolerance yet come around and slam us. I do agree with you that 90% of Christians here in America are self-righteous bigots and crooks but you can never say that all Christians are like that. The whole reason you think Christianity is so stupid is because you haven't ever seen the way its supposed to be lived out. And stop going back to stuff like the Crusades as "proof" for how violent and evil, radical Christianity is. Read up on your history. The only people who actually read the Bible back then were those that could. The corrupt priests and bishops who were only in the church for the money and who saw a chance to get more money. And the whole reason the crusades started was to stop Muslim raiders from killing Christian pilgrims. No I'm not saying that all Muslims are this way so don't go there.

    September 6, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
  4. Paul

    @Andrew

    I would be interested to see evidence supporting your belief that the wealthy came up with the entire concept of religion.

    September 4, 2010 at 10:08 am |
  5. Andrew

    I have to wonder, when the wealthy came up with the entire concept of religion to keep the masses ignorant, and stop them asking questions – did they ever realize how successful it would become?

    Anybody who has ever studied any of the religions will quickly see how it is a tool to divide and conquer, and nothing more. It's success is outright proof of evolution – because only a monkey, or someone slightly evolved from one could be stupid enough to believe in God.

    September 4, 2010 at 9:16 am |
    • James Swanson

      Andrew, I am guessing that you are talking about the Christian God and your evidence to support it is that there are many wealthy Jewish and Christian people in the U.S., but you can correct me if I am mistaken. Most history books, not religious ones, give evidence about how down trodden and poor the Israelites were until the later part of the 20th century. When the Romans or the Samarians ruled the area Israel occupies today, the people there were extremely poor and thought of as the least of all peoples in the world. They have been conquered by countless nations throughout history and still their (and my) God prevailed through that captivity. I would love an explanation as to how the "wealthy came up with the entire concept" of Christianity with all of this evidence and others that undisputed historical facts.

      September 4, 2010 at 11:32 am |
  6. James Swanson

    I would direct Dr. Smith to the New Testament where Jesus states "I am the way, the truth and the life. Noone comes to the Father except through me." I believe this exclusively confines Jesus as the way to Heaven. Now if he was trying to convey that the traditional American (or Anglo-Saxon) way of coming to Jesus is not the only way, then I completely agree with this assessment, because Jesus and God can be experienced through completely "un-Christian" activities, such as aboriginal festivals or rights of passage. There are Jesus-like heros in almost every culture and religion and they point the way toward the way to Heaven, but they are not a substitute for the real, life-giving, loving Jesus.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  7. ddubbya

    It is at times hard to tread the waters between passion and hostility. This isn't something that was taught or even demonstrated to us as teens when I was coming up in the church.

    It's a sad commentary that the actions of those that are set to lead many times act in the ways they preach against – and inturn the passion and love of the religion take a backseat to the "I'm right, you're wrong" attitudes that many many Christians have towards other religious people. This leads to people leaving the church.

    Passion is good. Jesus had plenty of it. That is one of the human aspects that still resonates with people today, even atheists. But, one should be cautioned that they are to live AS Jesus, but do not cross a line to self righteous indigniation that they are at any level as or have any responsiblity to BE Jesus.

    September 1, 2010 at 6:13 pm |
  8. UBetcha

    the Bible says jesus is the way, the truth and the light,and that no man cometh unto the father but by me...God has revealed his existence...Jesus is the link between man and God...he's the only way

    August 31, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
    • Reality

      Hmmm, "I am the Truth" i.e. John 14:6. This passage was, according to many contemporary NT exegetes, not said by the historical Jesus but was wishful thinking and an embellishment by John to make Jesus more like the ancient and local gods of first century Palestine.

      And John 18:36-38, " I have come to bear witness to the Truth" has the same problem.

      The names of some of the contemporary NT exegetes: Professors Crossan, Borg, Funk, Vermes, Pagels, Meyer, Mack, Doherty, Ehrman, Eisenman, Fredriksen, Ludemann, Macoby, Meier, Sanders, Horsley, Strauss, Holtzmann, Bultmann, Kasemann, Robinson and Albert Schweitzer. Add Thomas Jefferson for an extension of the time period.

      September 1, 2010 at 12:51 am |
    • NL

      The New Testament claiming that Jesus is the only way to get into heaven is like Tide claiming to be the only laundry soap that can clean all your clothes. Smart consumers would like to see an independent testing of all rival products. Actual results on getting into heaven are... unavailable, so we have to go to customer satisfaction. The folks who subscribe to the other ways of getting into heaven all appear to be at least as equally satisfied as the Jesus-only subscribers that they're going. So, all that the Jesus-only subscribers can do is claim that the other ways will ruin your chances of going.

      Nobody likes negative advertising, especially the kind that makes claims that can't be proven. Our consumer sense tends to see this kind of attack as proof positive that we're being sold something second-rate and cheap. That we're being tricked through fear. So, can you see why a lot of people are really turned off by claims that Jesus is the only way?

      September 1, 2010 at 11:26 am |
    • James Swanson

      This is where faith comes into the picture. Modern day scholars were not around to hear Jesus speaking and so it is a question as to whether you believe in the power of God to convey his story through human conduits (writers and translators of the Bible). I personally choose to believe that God has the power to dictate the translations of his word, if you do not choose to believe that then that is fine.
      Also faith is being able to believe without proof in advertising. You are completely correct saying that none of us can see the proof of the claims in the Bible or any religion here on the earth. That attitude leaves no room for a great purpose in anything that we as humans do. You are completely correct that Jesus-followers should be much more joyful than non-believers and that is something that needs to be explained by each individual. So I understand why modern Christians turn away many more people than we embrace. Christianity is about bringing Heaven to earth through our actions and that is completely non-apparent in most modern Christians, because they/we believe that it is about signing a ticket to Heaven. So I apologize for those who have given you a skewed view of who Christians are.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
  9. Raji the Green Witch

    Believe it or not what the writer has described is what Wicca is. We claim NO exclusivity on the "truth" nor do we think that OUR way is the ONLY way. We are all trying to get to the same place. There are as many different paths to get there as there are individuals who have ever existed and ever will exist. Just follow your own path and don't worry about which path anyone else is following. What's so hard to understand about that?

    August 31, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.