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Forget Andrew Sullivan, follow the Church

The blogger’s programme for renewing the Church is wildly simplistic

By on Friday, 13 April 2012

Follow Jesus, not the Church, says Sullivan

Follow Jesus, not the Church, says Sullivan

In the world of religious journalism, which is to say not the real world, one of the big stories of Holy Week was a Newsweek cover essay by Andrew Sullivan entitled “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus”. Sullivan is a big deal, you see. He is a popular blogger and a complicated fellow – he’s gay, liberal, Christian and conservative. He was born in Surrey but has become an American. He is tolerant and angry about it. He is a voice of our time.

His Easter message, which prompted much excitement on the web, was clear enough: Christianity as we know it is corrupt and doomed. Humans must instead focus on the radical message of Jesus Christ, and we will find ourselves reborn. Easy-peasy.

Sullivan invokes the example of the American founding father Thomas Jefferson. As a young man Jefferson literally cut out and pasted together parts of the New Testament that he thought represented the authentic voice of Jesus. He removed anything that struck him as supernatural or superstitious. This left what Sullivan describes as the “purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who sought to use Jesus to advance their power”.

Sullivan wants similarly to expunge “bad religion” from 21st-century Christianity. He is referring here to the wilder parts of American evangelicalism: the prosperity preachers who tell followers that if they pray hard enough they will get rich, the “religious Right” windbags who preach consumerism, creationism and violence against terrorists. These are perversions of real faith, says Sullivan.Fair enough. But as a cradle Catholic, Sullivan also has Mother Church in his sights. “The Catholic Church’s hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI,” he pronounces. (Note the infallible voice.) “But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be – except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead they obsess about others’ sex lives and who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance.”

Steady, Andy. It’s a bit rich of you to attack others for their preoccupation with sex, when so much of your life has been spent writing about your own sexuality. As Rod Dreher pointed out on the American Conservative website, the day after the “Follow Jesus” article appeared, Sullivan posted on his blog a letter from a reader about hiring a male porn star as a prostitute for his birthday. Is it un-Christian to say that he probably ought not to preach about Jesus while publishing lurid sex gossip?

“In the grand scheme of Jesus’s teaching,” insists Sullivan, “sex is an extremely minor theme.” Maybe it is. But it seems silly to say that sex – which, done properly, has some relation to the transmission of life – and chastity are not central to any true Christian understanding. Our Saviour did not discuss civil partnerships and contraception. But he did say: “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” Sullivan argues that, with those words, Jesus is deliberately setting an impossibly high moral standard. What He is saying, says Andrew, is that since we all fall short and sin none of us, least of all a scandal-riddled institution such as the Catholic Church, should pass judgment. Well, yes, but let’s not ignore Andy’s hypocrisy, even if it is forgivable. In his sweeping condemnations of the Catholic hierarchy, he is judging others, too.

Sullivan’s fundamental problem is a Protestant one. He wants Christ without His Church. But he can’t have it. He doesn’t acknowledge even the possibility that the fringe evangelical sects he so despises are a consequence of the same strict liberal theology he espouses. Those churches have broken from all authority other than their own interpretation, and have become deranged as a result. Catholicism, thank God, spares us from that, even if it is impaired by scandal.

Sullivan writes admiringly of how his “barely literate” Irish grandmother used to pray the rosary at Mass. “She seemed to know God more deeply than I, with all my education and privilege, ever will,” he says, with, er, humility. Maybe one day he’ll see what his granny presumably saw: there’s a certain freedom in orthodoxy.

  • Mary O’Regan

    Great post!  Some of Sullivan’s opinions are very much that of a Brit reacting to American society where there is a very open, public approach to religious practice.
    Some expressions of faith from American Christian Evangelicals are misguided (e.g. praying to get rich / pictures of Obama with devil horns and tail) but the people are nonetheless very confident, perhaps brash about putting their message across.  When I lived in American, I did feel in culture shock when I saw preachers travelling on the New York subway and trying to find converts by preaching/singing to the people on the carriage. But it doesn’t give me the right to look down my nose on others.

    Sullivan is nauseatingly glib and imperious about ‘bad religion’, and uses examples from the more zany brands of Evangelical Christianity to demonstrate the contempt in which he holds them. But it is Sullivan’s way of establishing his intellectual superiority over the red-neck, not-as-sophisticated-as-he masses. They are a handy way for Sullivan to moralise that we-must-not-become-like-them.

    I can’t help comment on the irony – ‘Sullivan’ means ‘the man with one eye’ with connotations of blindness. So while Sullivan says that the Church’s teachings on sexuality are too hard, his own sur name evokes Jesus’ words that if your right eye causes you to sin, then gouge it.

    He really is the blind leading the blind.

  • Benedict Carter

    Another liberal apostate. 

  • Cestius

    Such people as Sullivan entirely miss the point. Parts of the church will always be corrupt or in error, any reading of the New Testament (particularly Acts) will reveal that it was having problems right from the start.  And yet it has survived 2000 years, and as Jesus predicted, the gates of hell have never prevailed against it. Of course the church is constantly under attack from the forces of darkness, that are constantly trying to cause error, confusion and schism. But they have never prevailed or stopped the church from its mission.  The church was responsible for putting together the Bible that such people as Sullivan rely on to nit-pick over, choosing the bits they like and rejecting the ones they don’t.  And yet you have to read it (particularly the New Testament) in its entirety to get the full message.  And Scripture is clear about the mission and function of the church.

  • Brian A. Cook

    Hasn’t
    the Church had to deal with all sorts of worldly baggage that has
    undermined her efforts to preach the Gospel?   Hasn’t the Faith been
    linked too closely to authoritarian earthly regimes and imperialistic
    forces?  Isn’t that what liberals are rightly getting at, even if they
    don’t acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God? (For the record, I do.) 
    Hasn’t the Church tried to get away from all that in recent decades?

  • ms Catholic state

    As someone said…..secularists love a bland, unthreatening, defanged Christianity.  That is the type of harmless Christianity that Anderw Sullivan recommends. 

    Here is another rebuttal to Sullivan’s article….http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2012/04/07/andrew_sullivans_non-threatening_jesus_106468.html

  • Benedict Carter

    See Cestius’ post below.

  • theroadmaster

    Christianity without the inconvenient bits and Church mandated to preach the Faith in it’s entirety, seems to be the recipe advocated by people like Sullivan to create their own version of the “radical” Jesus.  Privatized faith without religion, seems to be the flavor of today for a lot of people looking for their own subjective form of “spirituality” which makes no demands on their lifestyles.  Despite the human frailties and sinfulness of members of the Body of Christ as revealed in the present and past, the Church has been assigned by Jesus the task of disseminating the Good News of Jesus Christ to all corners of this earth.   Belief cannot be reduced to a DIY mentality, but rather must be seen in the context of a global communion of believers who are united by a common Faith and Baptism.

  • Honeybadger

    Oh, pur-leeease!  Not another nutjob hungry for 15 minutes of fame wanting a bespoke Jesus Christ!

    If he spent more time following his Irish granny’s example of praying the Holy Rosary and less time writing cr&p in favour of a bespoke Jesus, he’d be better off!

  • Honeybadger

    Missing the point? He wouldn’t make the grade in a pub darts team!

  • Parasum

    Having read the article, I agree with most of it. He is entirely right in his priorities: there is absolutely no way that the Church can ever trump Christ. To set the Church above Him, is a perfect example of idolatry. Absolutely nothing can ever justify that.

    Sullivan writes admiringly of how his “barely literate” Irish grandmother used to pray the rosary at Mass. “She seemed to know God more deeply than I, with all my education and privilege, ever will,” he says, with, er, humility. Maybe one day he’ll see what his granny presumably saw: there’s a certain freedom in orthodoxy.

    ## STM Sullivan is to be commended, not derided.

    It is not “orthodoxy” that is the problem, but idolatry of the Church and its authority, as though they could ever be final. Orthodoxy, the Church, its authority, only cease to be devils when they cease to be gods (to adapt some words quoted by C. S. Lewis from La Rochefoucauld, who was referring to love). The Church has immense power for evil if it forgets that it is accountable to Christ above all, & always, in all things - the blessings it receives for its mission, become curses instead. A totalitarian Church is the worst of tyrannies. This should no surprise no-one: because *corruptio optimi, pessima* – “the worst corruption of all, is the corruption of what is best”; *because of* the greatness of the graces bestowed upon the Church, a corrupted Church is far more ruinous & dangerous than a corrupted State. The devil is the most ruined of angels, because he once was the brightest. The Church is the same – she is more satanic in her corruption than any society founded by man, because she is nobler in origin & nature & end than they are. It’s dangerous to be Catholic, for that reason: those who have received most from God, will be more strictly judged than those who have not: a point Newman makes at length in one of his early Catholic sermons:

    http://www.newmanreader.org/works/discourses/discourse2.html

    Sullivan’s article – long, but well worth reading:  

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/04/01/andrew-sullivan-christianity-in-crisis.html

  • theroadmaster

    While the Church can never supplant Christ, one ignores the 2000 year old Church at his/her peril.  Christ directly mandated the Church to carry out the missionary activity that he started.  One has only to recall the commission given to St Peter as laid out in Matthew 16:18 when the symbolic keys of authority were handed over to Jesus’ beloved apostle  The Church is always in need of purification and the revelations in recent years amplify the necessity of this.  But when one individualizes one’s faith according to one’s palette and reckons that he/she can obviate the need for a well-defined body of believers whose beliefs are based on scripture, faith and tradition, established over a bi-millenial time-frame, it would be a recipe for disaster.   If this pattern became the general norm among those who professed Christian belief, there would be global disunity and fragmentation, and it would be at odds with Christ’s eternal hope that they “would be one”.