This is Part 1 of the series. Other parts (will be updated as I post them):
I have been turning the ideas I express in this post around in my head for a long time - many years in fact - but they were catalyzed by again recently by a quote of the “Great Commission.” For those who didn’t grow up in the Christian subculture, this was Christ’s command to go to every nation and make disciples.
For me, this has always been inseparable from its interpretation within the Evangelical subculture, which is in turn inseparable from certain theological assumptions that I have, over the years, increasingly rejected not merely as illogical, tribalistic, and often cruel, but as thoroughly contrary to the teachings of Christ. (In fact, I would say that I consider about 90% of Evangelical doctrine to be thoroughly unbiblical, and diametrically opposed to the teachings and example of Christ. It is every bit as heretical as Evangelicals accuse other Christian sects of being.)
All of this has led to a view of the meaning of “make disciples” which isn’t really about disciples at all, but about making converts, which is a very different thing. And, maybe even more than that, about reinforcing tribalism in order to sustain the Culture Wars.
At its core, the problem is about what it means to be a Christian.
Is a Christian someone who believes a particular set of doctrines, as Evangelicals teach? Or is it someone who actually follows Christ?
From there flows the question as to the meaning of what “making disciples” actually is. Is it getting people to believe the same sectarian doctrine? Or is it training people to follow Christ?
Part 1: A Musical Analogy
Let me tell you a story.
I am a violinist. (And a violist - and I play a few other instruments - but violin is my primary.)
I am a classical musician.
I am not a classical musician because I believe certain things about music. I am a classical musician because I play classical music.
I am not a violinist because I believe the violin is the greatest instrument ever invented. I am a violinist because I play the violin.
Before law and parenthood took over my life, I used to teach violin, both privately and in local high schools.
I was not a violin teacher because I believed in violin. I was not a violin teacher because I told people how to think about the violin. I was a violin teacher because I helped people learn how to play the violin.
Imagine if you will, the following scenario:
There was a group of people who called themselves classical musicians. Some of them even called themselves violinists, and truly believed that classical violin was the most pure and good expression of music possible.
They believed that everyone should be a classical musician, and preferably a violinist, and that they were called to bring that to pass.
The more they discussed their beliefs among themselves, the more they came to hold certain beliefs in common.
For example, classical music was the only true music, the only good music, and that everything else was rubbish.
Some of them - the violinists - started to suspect that wind, brass, and percussion players weren’t real classical musicians at all, even though the roots of those instruments - particularly percussion - went further back in human history than stringed instruments.
But they could certainly agree that djembes and shamisens were not real instruments, and could not make real music. Likewise, blues was not real music - it was probably evil too, just like the music you make on a djembe or a shamisen.
As time went on, they also discussed composers. Beethoven was, many of them asserted, the composer who best heard the One True Music™, and other composers were heretical in any way they differed from Beethoven. Others said Bach was the actual recipient of the One True Music™
Many of them came to view Stravinsky with suspicion, and decided that he was at best on the borderline of orthodoxy. And those movie composers - they weren’t even making true music.
They also fought to police the boundaries of music, working desperately to keep influences from “degenerate” forms of music from influencing classical music. In particular, music from “primitive” peoples - jazz, blues, world music - was suspect, diluting the One True Music™ with degenerate ideas.
In order to spread the true music of classical music, this group took a number of actions.
They got together in groups, during which they bemoaned the fact that some people liked other kinds of music. They commiserated over what they felt was persecution - having to actually let people make their own music without interference. They said insulting things about musicians who played other instruments (including, occasionally, the winds, brass, and percussion) or other kinds of music. They talked about what made classical music the best - indeed the only true form of music.
Sometimes, they would send a few of themselves out to knock on doors and try to convince people to become classical musicians (or violinists, perhaps), by which they meant believing certain things about music and the superiority of the string section and Beethoven.
They also took up collections to send some of their members overseas, to go make classical music converts. Sometimes this meant they tried to get shamisen players to believe that the violin was superior. But more often, it meant finding trombone players in other countries that already had orchestras and bands and trying to get them to switch to the string section.
But there is one thing they didn’t really do:
They never played their instruments.
Sure, they listened to great performances of the past - Karajan’s Beethoven Symphonies were particularly popular. Sure, they talked about technique sometimes. Maybe they even planned a few community concerts - and a few of them may even have participated.
But they found practicing boring and less central to their belief system than whining about other music styles and instruments and policing the boundaries of their musical doctrines.
And forget about playing together as a big orchestra. That meant perhaps getting some of those wind, brass, and percussion players to join them, and God knows those people often played jazz and blues and world music on the side. Probably, they didn’t even believe the violin was the greatest instrument ever.
Yeah, they had music teachers. But all they did was drill the students on the correct ideas about music.
And then one day:
Circumstances conspired to make a concert necessary. The hall was set, the music chosen, the lights came up, the audience waited with bated breath….
You can guess how it went.
It became apparent that the supposed classical musicians weren’t classical musicians at all. They weren’t even trombonists, let alone violinists. They were just a bunch of snobby assholes who got off on asserting the superiority of their beliefs.
If it weren’t clear already, while this is an allegory, it is pretty thinly veiled.
It represents my feelings on Evangelical Christianity in particular, but often on organized religion as a category.
I am as big a missionary for classical music as anyone, and I do indeed believe that string instruments are the most glorious expression of music humans have ever created. (While also acknowledging that I have a bias.)
But I am under no illusion that violin is the only true musical expression, or that classical music, as glorious as it is, is the only way to make music.
I also do not confuse arguments over music to be the same thing as actually being a musician.
Just like I do not confuse believing doctrine with actually following Christ.