Hannah Peckham

Hannah is a writer and teacher from Arizona. You can find her on twitter at @hannah_peckham

Reckoning with the Past

In his farewell address at Duke Divinity School, recently adapted into an essay for Christianity Today, professor Grant Wacker articulated his understanding of what it means to be a Christian historian. He argues that historians who are Christian, and who study history in a Christian institution, have an additional obligation beyond their usual professional requirements: to articulate the work of the hand of God in history. Historians will all see God’s presence differently, Wacker says, but the church has a responsibility to look backward as well as forward.

Wacker says, “Honesty means we admit up front, without hedging, that Christianity, like all cultural artifacts, has been embedded in time and place and change. Every shred of Christian doctrine and practice has been mediated to us through mundane experience.” Christianity is never delivered to people without context. The Bible itself has to be interpreted to be understood, and interpretations will be informed by a person’s religious background, race, gender, financial status, and country of origin.

Having an eye for context is all the more important in light of ways in which information, histories, and narratives are shared in our present time. We live in an era where social media facilitates self-expression, as well as an inclination towards succinct, easily sharable ideas. Quotations on the internet, for example, often take on a life of their own, becoming attributed to people who never said them, or transformed into pithy statements that are an inadequate reflection of the author’s intent. Ripped from their contexts, these quotations become interesting and illustrative examples of how statements that seem clear on their face can be adapted and changed as their cultural environment changes. Likewise, a quotation that resonates with a diverse spectrum of Christians will demonstrate the changes that have taken place in American Christianity over the last hundred years.

One such quotation has been attributed to G.K. Chesterton, Joyce Meyer, Laurence J. Peter, Billy Sunday, and, with some tweaks, Keith Green: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car!” With some minor Googling adjustments, you also can learn that going to church does not make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger, a pizza joint makes you a pizza, a farm makes you a cow, or a rodeo makes you a cowboy.

In his seminal 1989 historical study of British evangelicalism, historian David Bebbington attempted to define one of the more nebulous of Christian terms: evangelical. His model has subsequently been used in the United States as well. He identified four qualities that characterized British evangelicalism: activism, typically missionary activity and acts of service; biblicism, which he termed “a particular regard for the Bible;” crucicentrism, an emphasis on the atoning death of Christ on the cross; and, finally, conversionism.

It is the last of these four that is relevant when examining the quotation above. This element of the quadrilateral is also particularly tricky, given that the conversionism Bebbington refers to is not simply the conversion moment, or justification, but in fact the lifelong process that Christians refer to as sanctification. Evangelicals are interested in experiencing some sort of personal conversion moment, followed by lifelong transformation that proves the genuine nature of the initial conversion. If standing in your garage does not make you a car, why not? The evangelical reply would likely be that you have not been converted, or transformed, into a car, and that the mere act of standing there seems reasonably unlikely to make that happen.

When trying to track down the origin of this misattributed quotation, it is easy to dismiss at least one of the attributions immediately. A passing familiarity with G.K. Chesterton’s prose should make you suspicious that this quotation is attributed to him: it is more sincere than witty. Basic understanding of the use of the word “garage” in British English makes it implausible.

The earliest source of this quotation appears to be Billy Sunday, the storied, and controversial revivalist and evangelist who reached the height of his fame around the turn of the 20th century. He is famous for his preaching style and for his support of prohibition. He preached a tough kind of evangelical Christianity that called for firm adherence in the traditional beliefs of the church (the virgin birth and resurrection, for example) at a time when higher criticism and skepticism towards the miraculous were on the rise.

 

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In a sermon entitled “Old Time Religion,” Sunday says the following:

“A man isn’t a soldier because he wears a uniform, or carries a gun, or carries a canteen. He is a soldier when he makes a definite enlistment. All of the others can be bought without enlisting. When a man becomes a soldier he goes out on muster day and takes an oath to defend his country. It’s the oath that makes him a soldier. Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile, but public definite enlistment for Christ makes you a Christian.

Simply going to church cannot make you a Christian, Sunday argues, because the step that brings you from damned to saved is the public declaration of your faith. Soldiers become soldiers when they take an oath to defend their country. Likewise, a person becomes a Christian when they commit themselves to Christ. The pithy quotation that makes its way through evangelical self-help literature, sermons, and Facebook lacks the militaristic tones of the paragraph above, but preserves the gist of Sunday’s argument: some kind of public avowal is necessary.

The reason this avowal is necessary, Sunday claims in the same sermon, is because “M-o-u-t-h doesn’t spell intellect. It spells mouth and you must confess with your mouth. The mouth is the biggest part about most people, anyhow.” Conversion is not an intellectual process, and so the evangelical emphasis on conversionism, as Sunday understands it, is that a public declaration of your belief in the atoning nature of Jesus on the cross leads to true possibility for sanctification.

The transformation that this quotation has taken since the beginning of the 1900s is striking. There is the linguistic shift from “automobile” to “car,” indicating the increased informality of American speech. Further, the proliferation of variations – cowboys, pizza, hamburgers – points to changes in popular culture. Naked quotations flourish because they appeal to the people who share them with their friends or on their blogs, so the analogy must carry some emotional weight.

For example, Keith Green, a Christian singer and evangelist who died in a tragic plane crash in 1982, used almost the exact same formulation as Sunday: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.” In his only biography written to date, his widow credits this line of thinking to his study of Charles Finney, an influential evangelist in the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. The use of a popular fast-food chain updates the quotation to be immediately familiar to Green’s audience.

One of the earliest success stories in Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), Green practiced a form of concert-evangelism that should be familiar to anyone raised in an evangelical home. Green’s songs tended to be simple, easy for audiences to learn and sing along to. In between songs, he would pray, or offer mini-sermons, usually on the topics of sin and redemption. You can hear him say the hamburger line on his Greatest Hits album, at the end of Jesus Commands Us to Go, a song urging a renewed evangelical focus on missionary activity, as part of a correct understanding of the nature of conversion.

What role, then, does making a habit of regular church attendance play in the life of a Christian? The popularity of this quotation could indicate one of two trends. People might be taking the analogy in the spirit in which Sunday clearly intended it and emphasize the importance of internal change instead of a set of approved behaviors. On the other hand, the growing trend towards spirituality and away from organized religion appears to suggest an increased emphasis on the individual as the arbiter of belief, rather than the Christian community.

On the surface, stripping quotations from the people who said them and situating them in a new context seems like a natural and largely harmless act. Does one quotation posted on someone’s Tumblr blog or Facebook profile really have overtly negative consequences? In the grand scheme of things, it does not – except that Christians have a responsibility to narrate themselves and their faith through the larger historical context of their religion. Christianity in the 21st century – indeed, Christianity in every century – is mediated through the experience and history of its followers.

Dr. Wacker’s farewell address interrogates the phrase “reckoning with the past,” particularly the three dimensions of reckoning: counting, interpreting, and evaluating. Counting simply refers to the ‘facts’ of history, the raw data of the past. These historical details are then interpreted by historians, who extract relevant details to answer particular historical questions. The final element of reckoning is the act of evaluating, hearing the voices of the past with humility and charity.

Reckoning  necessitates listening well and understanding the complexity of history, both of which are challenging acts. Christians are not alone in the need to listen well, to wrestle with the question of how to understand the past. It is often easier to cite nuggets of historical wisdom than to do the critical work necessary to engage with the darker parts of American history. Not everyone is called to be a historian, but being members of a community, whether in the United States or a Christian context, requires that people be honest about the past, and engage seriously with voices from history.

Photo Credit: Cliff (of Bill Woodrow, Listening to History, 1995)