What does it mean to be a Christian?

Recently, Scott Walker got a great deal of media attention for how he answered a question about whether President Barack Obama was a Christian. This was his response:

“I don’t know. . . . I’ve actually never talked about it or I haven’t read about that. I’ve never asked him that. You’ve asked me to make statements about people that I haven’t had a conversation with about that. How [could] I say if I know either of you are a Christian? To me, this is a classic example of why people hate Washington and, increasingly, they dislike the press. The things they care about don’t even remotely come close to what you’re asking about.”

A wide variety of pundits jumped on Scott Walker for his answer and sharply criticized him. At least a few thoughtful pundits have considered his remarks in light of the theological perspective he brings as the son of a minister and a member of an evangelical church.

Tim Graham for instance pointed out that: “Walker, the son of a Protestant minister, hears the question very differently: asking if someone is a Christian is a very personal question, asking whether someone has committed themselves to Jesus in their heart. It’s like asking if he knows how often Obama prays. His reluctance to answer for someone he doesn’t know is not a “No.”

Over at New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig likewise echoed a similar thought: “And so Walker is probably right: Without knowing Obama personally and having enough of a relationship with him to both probe his convictions and develop an intuition of his beliefs, it is impossible to begin to forward an educated opinion about whether or not he is Christian. More to the point, it is not even possible to advance a litmus test for proving his Christianity that the general public can widely agree upon, and even if it were, there is no reason to presume one’s Christian-ness can or should be decided democratically. In short, we lack the public agreement necessary to begin to decide how we would even know whether or not Obama is truly a Christian.”

When I first read Walker’s answer, my immediate reaction, other than cheering for his willingness to take on the media who asks such irrelevant question, was that his answer was theologically consistent. Since joining the LDS Church, I have had conversations with many evangelical friends and we discussed the question of whether Mormons are Christian. The answer that I have most often heard from those who take their theology seriously is that while Mormonism as a religion is not in their mind Christian, Individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may be Christian. For them, being a Christian has more to do with one’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ. A Christian is one who has accepted Christ as his personal savior and is therefore saved. There are many many members of ostensibly Christian churches who are not Christian because they themselves have never accepted Jesus as Savior. Likewise, there may be members of Churches that teach falsely (such as ours in their mind) who nevertheless have come to know Jesus Christ and received a remission of their sins.

For someone like Scott Walker who comes from this background, the only proper answer when asked about whether another is Christian is “I Don’t Know,” This is especially true for someone that one has not had a religious or theological conversation with to asses whether that person truly knows Christ.

I think this goes to a deeper point about society and the role of religion. In popular culture, we like to treat religion as something like a hobby or a diversion. Religion is a social club that we belong to and attend sometimes. For the media, anyone who takes religion seriously is a fanatic and not to be taken seriously. Yet, this view is alien to the millions of religiously devout Americans who take their faith seriously. It is easy to grow somewhat cynical of those who attend church only periodically or seem to wear their religion solely as a social status symbol. Yet, Walker’s answer should remind us that we are not the one’s to judge the hearts and minds of others.

As for me, for me it is pretty easy to answer the question in the affirmative. In the Book of Mormon, we read about Individuals in the ancient Americas who were called Christian: “ For thus were all the true believers of Christ, who belonged to the church of God, called by those who did not belong to the church. And those who did belong to the church were faithful; yea, all those who were true believers in Christ took upon them, gladly, the name of Christ, or Christians as they were called, because of their belief in Christ who should come.” (Alma 46:14-15). While some might read these verses as suggesting that only members of the LDS Church are to be called Christians (those who belong to the Church of God), I think this is an inaccurate reading. At the time of Moroni, there was not the diversity of churches that exist today. Just as with the Church of Christ at the time of the Savior, there was one fold for all of those who believed. Moreover, the verse also speaks about “ALL true believers in Christ” taking upon themselves the name. Christian was a title that was at one point given derisively, and became a badge of honor for those who accepted Christ.

For me, these verses suggest that anyone who i willing to take upon themselves the name Christian and pledge to follow the savior is a Christian. This is true whether or not someone has some faulty theological ideas, or fully understands the savior. Christians are those who head the call of the Savior to “Come Follow Me.” They may do so imperfectly. The Apostles and Disciples of Christ who followed him did not fully understand him or his divine nature.

In the end, the wheat and the tares will be separated. Those who claim to follow Christ and yet do so without a sincere heart will be sifted like chaff and burned. Some of those who are burned will be those who claim to be members of Christ’s true Church. Yet, for this life all those who claim to be Christians are welcome to take upon themselves that badge. It is not my place to question them or to doubt their sincerity.

Finding My Corner of the Sky

This past weekend, I was in Minneapolis for a Moot Court competition (my team won third place and I got an award for being one of the best oralists so it was a very successful trip). While there, I bought a ticket to see the musical Pippin which I had never seen or heard before. I came into the musical completely not knowing what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised not only by the incredible direction and choreography of the revival, but by the Gospel friendly plot that unfolded.

For those who have not seen Pippin, the story is told by a narrator who is the head of (in the revival at least) a Circus troop. She tells the story of Pippin who is the son of the ancient king Charlamange. The narrator expressly describes this as a “miracle play” which suggests that ultimately it will teach a moral lesson about life. (“Magic to do”). As the story turns to Pippin, he is just graduating from University and seeking purpose in his life.

One of the most well known songs from the musical is called Corner of the Sky and has Pippin singing about his yearning for meaning in life. Pippin longs for greatness and for life to be “Something more than long….” He laments that “[s]o many men seem destined  To settle for something small” and declares “But I won’t rest until I know I’ll have it all. So don’t ask where I’m going. Just listen when I’m gone. And far away you’ll hear me singing [s]oftly to the dawn.” He longs “to be where my spirit can run free” and declares that he’s “[g]ot to find my corner of the sky.”

The narrator encourages Pippin to try a variety of activities in order to find meaning in life. He goes to war and engages in a bloody battle seeking “Jubilations!” and “a grateful nation’s Cheers!” but finds it horrific and empty. Encouraged by his grandmother, he begins to live a life of debauchery and sexuality, but feels empty as well. He tries music, and religion without success. Then, he becomes a political revolutionary and kills his father to take over the throne and bring justice to the kingdom, but finds that this only brings him greater troubles.

Depressed, Pippin wonders if he will ever find his happiness. The narrator urges him onward declaring that he is “on the right track” and that “each step’s indispensable.” Yet, Pippin despairs and ultimately collapses in a state of grief. He is revived by a widow who finds him on the road and puts him to bed and ensures “that he’s bathed and clothed and fed.” She is a self-described “everyday, customary kind of woman” who is “Practical as salt” and “Modest to a fault,” but Pippin develops a relationship with her. He helps around her farm, but yet longs for something more. Filled with delusions of grandeur Pippin declares that “When you’re extraordinary [y]ou gotta do extraordinary things.” In regard to the everyday tasks of life, Pippin declares “Well, I’m terribly sorry but I don’t care” he sees them as something that only those less extraordinary than him should be required to do: And don’t make me think about everyday things. They’re unnecessary To someone who is very Extraordinary Like me!”

Yet, Pippin and the widow (Catherine) fall in love as they talk until dawn and develop a strong relationship. Pippin however  is extremely moody and focused on his own happiness. As Catherine explains, “Some days he’d scowl and curse” and he had “His gloomy solitudes” and “His blunt abrasive style.” Ultimately, Pippin decides that he must leave to find his purpose in life.

The narrator urges Pippin to perform the finale act in the circus which would involve his death in a blaze of glory.  She taunts him by urging him to “Think about your life, Pippin . .  .Days are tame and nights the same . . . Now think about the beauty . . . In one perfect flame . . .And the angels of the morning . . . Are calling out your name.”

Pippin is tempted and yet finally realizes that “if I’m never tied to anything I’ll never be free.” Pippin declares his love for Catherine and explains “I wanted magic shows and miracles Mirages to touch I wanted such a little thing from life I wanted so much I never came close, my love We never came near It never was there I think it was here.”  Despite the seductiveness of the narrator’s offer of “crimson, gold and lavender: A shining parade” Pippin realizes that “there’s no color I can have on earth That won’t finally fade.”

The show ends on an interesting note, but showing that Catherine’s son for whom Pippin serves as a father figure has also begun to hear the seductive songs of the narrator and has begun to dream of grandeur and finding his corner of the sky. As such, the show suggests that Pippin’s indulgent focus on grandeur is a manifestation of youth that all of us must overcome or be overcome by.

The message of the show ultimately really resonated with me. In my youth in particular, I was filled with really strong delusions of grandeur. Everything seemed more important than the basic relationship and persons around me. I neglected people I cared about in order to spend time seeking to right a great political wrong or make a meaningful contribution to society. I saw myself as a great poet and writer. Yet, all of these desires didn’t truly bring happiness. From all of them, I only felt emptiness and a lack of ultimate meaning.

I am grateful for the role that the Gospel of Jesus Christ plays in giving me that higher purpose and direction that I had been missing. It truly helps me to focus on the things that do not finally fade.

Since being married, I have found that I still sometimes struggle with those same temptations to grandeur and to take upon myself more than I can handle. In law school, I feel the relentless drive to take on as much as I can. Having done really well in law school actually makes it harder to settle for anything other than the most prestigious position I can find. And yet, I also deep down know that these things cannot bring ultimate happiness. A job and a career can be incredibly satisfying and yet they must be means to an end. That end must be life eternal united with family and those we love. Diversions come and go, tasks and assignments fade but the relationships we form are ever lasting and significant.

When I now think of my Corner of the Sky, it is surrounded by those whom I love and filled with happiness and laughter. It will not be a piece of heaven because of the legal work I did during my life, but because of the work of salvation that I did in my own home.

Watching Pippin was for me a great reminder of the importance of setting proper priorities and focused on the things that truly matter most. Pippin drifted because he was tied to nothing. As members of Christ’s Church, we are tied to him and to each other with cords stronger than death.  May we always prioritize and place those things that matter most at the center of our lives.

The Voice of the Lord and D&C 1

One of my favorite things about the Doctrine and Covenants and especially Section 1 is how it democratizes revelation. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord makes it clear that he is speaking to the whole world and inviting every man to receive personal revelation, a knowledge of the truthfulness of the scriptures and the modern prophets.

In verse 2, the Lord emphasizes that “verily the voice of the Lord is unto all men, and there is none to escape; and there is no eye that shall not see, neither ear that shall not hear, neither heart that shall not be penetrated.” The message of God will come to every person whether or not the person is willing to receive it

Again in verse 4, the Lord emphasizes “ And the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days.”

In Verse 11 the lord focuses on the fact that all mankind has the agency to choose whether or not to listen to the Gospel message.  “Wherefore the voice of the Lord is unto the ends of the earth, that all that will hear may hear:”

The Lord desires each one of us to be personal witnesses of him and to speak in the name of the Lord. “ 20 But that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world;” The authority to speak on behalf of the lord is not limited only to those who are leaders in the Church but i given to all mankind in our own capacities and callings.

God also desires that each one of us have the opportunity to gain a personal witness of the truth of the restored gospel and the impending second coming:

 “34 And again, verily I say unto you, O inhabitants of the earth: I the Lord am willing to make these things known unto all flesh;

 35 For I am no respecter of persons, and will that all men shall know that the day speedily cometh. . . . “

For me, this is one of the most unique and powerful messages of the doctrine and covenants. While the New Testament is full of examples of God inviting individuals to pray for things, the invitation to truly pray for a witness is pretty extraordinary. Likewise, while the Book of Mormon also emphasis the centrality of personal revelation exemplified by Moroni’s promise, this is nowhere to powerful as in the D&C. Here, the lord is speaking in his own voice through a living and modern prophet. The message is clearly to all the earth and for all of us.