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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

"Red-Letter Christians": A Bad Idea with a Bad Name, Alas

Being a “red-letter Christian” sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University, activist, pundit, and provocateur, tells us that he wants to obey the very words of Jesus, those words that in previous generations of Bible publishing were printed in red.

His comrade Jim Wallis of the Sojourners Fellowship, also known as an activist, pundit, and provocateur, shares this self-designation and thinks that such an approach to Christian discipleship will transcend the division of American political culture between the left and right, Democrat and Republican.

So isn’t being a red-letter Christian (RLC) a good thing?

Well, first, let’s agree that Christians should try to follow Jesus. No problem there. But the trouble with the RLC concept begins immediately afterward.

For one thing, “red-letter Christian” is a terrible name. Outside of certain Christian communities that remember the old Bibles, it communicates nothing. It’s very odd that people who enjoy being au courant would pick a name so embedded in a subcultural past.

More substantially, the RLC project fails to fulfill its promise of transcending the left and right–or, at least, it has failed so far. Stan Guthrie of Christianity Today points out that the red-letter Christians seem awfully “blue”–in the colour-coding of American political life (red states, blue states) that seems exactly backward to us Canadians, who see “red” as “liberal” and “blue” as “conservative.” Guthrie remarks on the not-surprising coincidence of what RLCs understand Jesus to be saying and the agenda of the religious left.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of no political party. But in the last several provincial and federal elections, I have voted Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic Party–Canada’s democratic socialist party–depending on the issues, the situation, and the candidates.)

For another thing, however, the whole idea of being a red-letter Christian is simply awful theology. There are lots of reasons to call it that, but for a blog entry (rather than a book), I’ll pick just a few.

1. Why privilege the gospels over other books of the Bible? They are not the earliest testimonies to Jesus. Some of Paul’s letters likely are. And “earlier” isn’t necessarily “better” anyway, as any historian will tell you. Later accounts of an event or a life can profit from earlier accounts and enjoy the more refined interpretative perspective that distance can bring.

Furthermore, epistolary teaching is not necessarily inferior to narrative teaching, so to prefer the gospels is simply a matter of genre, not spiritual authority.

2. The gospels are, indeed, interpretations, not stenographical accounts or chronicles. What we know of Jesus’ words and deeds comes to us via the (divinely inspired) renditions of the evangelists–who were no more or less inspired than other Biblical writers. One of the weird things about the RLCs is that they are acting as if they know nothing about Biblical criticism and are reading the gospels in this naïve way–when they certainly do know better.

3. Jesus’ earthly career is the hinge of history, yes, but we’re not on it with him. We don’t live in the first-century Levant, tramping about Galilee or Judea with Jesus and trying to imitate him. We are 2000 years downstream of his life on earth: downstream of his cross, resurrection, and ascension; downstream of Pentecost; downstream of the conversion of the Roman Empire; downstream of lots of other things that materially affect the calling of Christians here and now, rather than there and then.

There is a weird nostalgia at work here, and it must be repudiated. Our calling as Christians is not to “just” read what Jesus “said” and “did” and then “just” do it (so to speak). It is to ascertain from the whole counsel of God, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what Jesus wants us to do in our particular (and quite changed) time and place.

We are not, that is, to cut the Bible down to size, but to accept the whole Bible as the Word of God written. We are to compose our worship, our churches, our lives, and, indeed, our politics in the light of all it teaches, not just the parts that are attributed to Jesus during his earthly career long ago.

Are Christians to follow Jesus? Yes, of course. Are we to believe what he said, obey his commands, trust his promises, and follow his example? Yes, of course.

But let’s follow all the advice Jesus gave us, all the examples he set for us, and all the commands and promises and warnings and blessings he left us in his Word.

No “red letters” versus “black letters”–and then maybe we’ll get past “red” versus “blue.”


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