On Being a Shitty Christian (warning–strong language follows)

In the aftermath of the 2016 General Election process, leading to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, I’ve lost a number of online friends. Some have “unfriended” me, others I’ve “unfriended.” I use this option particularly if a person with whom I need to maintain a face-to-face relationship behaves badly online. Yesterday, someone whose friend request I had accepted a few days prior became so belligerent and holier-than-thou, I decided not only to unfriend, but to block.

Those who know me, know how much I detest the “holier-than-thou” thing. (It’s funny how the holiest people I’ve known never pull it.) I especially bristle at people who pull the “some Christian you are” kind of thing, reminding me we both took (or renewed) the same baptismal and confirmation vows–but excoriating me for not interpreting them the way they do.

BAD Christian. BAD. I’m half expecting someone to roll up a newspaper and strike my snout.

I’ve decided I am not a bad Christian.  I am a shitty Christian.

I said this on Facebook last night. A few people seemed to “get it” right away, fully appreciating my Christian shittiness. Others, well-meaning, told me I should not worry about the way people judge my religious practice (thin though it currently is). I’m sure they meant to give comfort and encouragement, which I do appreciate.

But, truth is, I’m a shitty Christian, and I am wearing the title as a badge of honor.

A shitty Christian is not just  a bad Christian writ large. It is not (simply) a flawed human being who doesn’t follow the Law, Prophets, and Teachings of Christ perfectly, or who slips up more than she stands up. Although all of this is true of me as well.

A shitty Christian is a different kind of being. And after the exchange with friends where I declared myself a shitty Christian, I decided (since there is no real definition for this category) I would outline what I mean, and how, if I’m going to be Christian at all, I’ve got no choice but to be a shitty one.

A shitty Christian is not a newbie Christian who is just finding his or her way. S/he has more than likely been a Christian for some time, has probably been a seriously involved member of one or more congregations (serially or consecutively), and has engaged their tradition in greater detail than simply Sunday attendance, Bible study, and reading whatever books the ordained leadership mentions from the pulpit. (I’m an extremely shitty Christian, given my educational credentials and work history with churches.) It’s more than likely s/he is a lay person, or no longer serving as a public/ordained minister, because it would be hard to be a shitty Christian in such a capacity.

So, in no particular order, here is what I mean by shitty Christian. I hope it becomes clear why I see myself as one, and why I’m comfortable (even proud) of it.

  1. A shitty Christian has had significant involvements in one or more congregations. I’ve moved around a fair amount, and have been part of Episcopal churches in six of the United States, and two English counties. I’ve preached in five dioceses of the Episcopal Church, and three in the Church of England. I’ve been a lector, altar server, and adult educator in Episcopal churches. I’ve worked as an educator for prospective public ministers But always as a lay person.
  2. A shitty Christian has a deeper knowledge of and engagement with his or her tradition than the average person in the pew. I’m an extreme case here, I realize. I studied in an Episcopal seminary alongside people who were going to be ordained, matching their ability in most, if not all, of the academic disciplines required by the General Board of Examining Chaplains. I hold a doctorate in systematic theology. I spent two years researching changing roles and expectations of clergy in a Church of England diocese.

However, these things are prerequisites to being a shitty Christian–they are not in themselves enough. Obviously, being a shitty Christian is not amateur hour stuff. You actually have to be a reasonably proficient Christian before you can be a shitty one.

So, at least a few of the following must be present before one can claim being a shitty Christian. (NB: I possess all of them, which means I believe myself to be a perfectly shitty Christian.

3. A shitty Christian is not overly impressed with clerical authority. Partly, this comes from having spent a lot of time around people who either are ordained, or want to be. Between studying, teaching, and researching, I spent six years up close and personal with people who were priests, were training to be priests. Ordination does confer a church’s seal of approval to minister the Word and Sacraments, but no matter what anyone tells me, I don’t buy the ontological change thing. It reveals the whole person, more than it transforms. Those who have been ordained may want to argue differently, but the truth is, I don’t see it. I can respect the work of the ordained without thinking they are holier or in some way special or magical.

4. A shitty Christian gets frustrated with religious foppery. As much as I may love my ordained friends, I dread every Advent and Lent, and the nonsense about when one may wear the rose vestments (and believe me, there are people who fear lightning will strike should anyone refer to them as pink), or the argument about whether a cassock-alb is an abomination unto the LORD. I won’t go into whether the Advent wreath candles are properly called purple or violet, or the chills people seem to experience when it is suggested blue might be used. We won’t mention the im/permissibility of using “alleluia” (or “hallelujah”) during Lent, or the order in which the candles at the altar must be lit.

5. A shitty Christian may understand a lot of doctrinal niceties, but doesn’t necessarily buy into all of them. When I worked as Director of Studies for a Church of England ministry training program, I always had an internal smirk about how ordinands had to “subscribe” to the XXXIX Articles of Religion. Like any magazine, I tend to skim and pick out what I need at the moment.

6. A shitty Christian may actually love Jesus but have serious reservations about the Church and its leaders. Sometimes, to the point of stopping going to church. I got to a point where I would throw up in my mouth on receiving Communion (even my needed gluten-free). If I saw someone in a clerical collar in the supermarket, I’d move to another aisle and stay there for at least 10 minutes and pretend to be a very careful shopper. I think I now know the ingredient list on every canned soup my local store sells. But I think Jesus is a great moral, ethical, and political leader and teacher–even if I have questions about the divinity stuff.

7. A shitty Christian may not care much about being “spiritual.” Years ago, when I was a more conventional Christian, I “experienced” glossolalia (commonly called “speaking in tongues”). Twice. I write “experienced”, because it may not have really happened. I blatted along in something which was no language I spoke. But now, a quarter century on, I wonder if it wasn’t really a submission to peer pressure and wanting to fit in with more charismatic friends. I’ve had very few instances when I’ve felt God as a real, active presence in my life–almost none where I could say I got clear guidance or comfort or instruction. Never a “word from the LORD.” And do not even ask me about my “relationship with Christ.” It’s like a bad breakup where we’ve got a lot of mutual friends, but we’re wary of each other.

8. A shitty Christian may think a lot of God’s work on earth has nothing to do with the Church. Maybe the only part of the LORD’s prayer I really care about any more is “on earth, as in heaven.” Which means making earth a place God might want to spend some time. And a lot of how that happens may involve stuff which the Church has no expertise to help, and might be more harmful. Too many people have said to me, “the church needs to look around, see where God’s work is being done, and get involved.” No. The church needs to support and encourage, but there are a lot of things where it has no special expertise, and could do as much damage as good.

9. A shitty Christian’s committment may look somewhat inconsistent. This is where I had to delete a person from my Facebook. It was insinuated I was not a good Christian because I couldn’t “love” the people who I thought had committed a great evil. Because I made a vow to “respect the dignity of every human being”, I should just love and accept them as is. Fair enough, but there were also things in the baptismal covenant which said I was to renounce evil, and to strive for justice and peace. These are inconsistent with letting evil go unremarked. (And yes, this was political, because shitty Christians will often see their form of Christianity lived out in the political sphere.)

10. A shitty Christian may live more in their intellect than in their “heart”, or “spirit”, or “soul”. It doesn’t mean a shitty Christian is necessarily smarter than any non-shitty Christian. It just means we’re less likely to accept what we’re told without question, or to toe the line without investigating. We’re likely to argue back.

11. A shitty Christian will criticize his/her religion as fiercely, if not moreso, than s/he will criticize the faith of others. S/he knows it well, and despite any love and loyalty, understands its shortcomings and failures.

So, this is what it means to me to be a shitty Christian, and why I wear the title proudly. It’s something different from just being a supremely terrible Christian. It’s being the kind of Christian to whom more conventional Christians respond by saying, “Oh, SHIT.”