Let’s start off today with some thoughts (and these are thoughts that I personally have thought and no one else has ever thought before). And because I know these thoughts will be a big hit once they get out in the public, I’ve even put my thoughts in a form for easy quoting. Behold my thoughts. . . .
- A plagiarist should be made to copy the author a hundred times.
- Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.
- The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
- Anticipatory plagiarism occurs when someone steals your original idea and publishes it a hundred years before you were born.
- All work and no plagiarism make for dull sermons!
Okay, so maybe these weren’t quite my own thoughts. As Jonathan Swift once wrote: “Fine words! I wonder where you stole them.” So, time to come clean. I stole them. The first quote is from Karl Kraus (I don’t know who he is, but he must be a funny guy). The second quote is from Lionel Trilling. Albert Einstein said the third, Robert Merton the fourth and Henry the fifth (Henry Ward Beecher, that is). All of which leads me to this confession: The main ideas found in this blog series are stolen from Scot McKnight’s book, One Life. In fact, the preface of his book (a theological autobiography, of sorts) resonated so much with my story that I almost charged him with plagiarism (or of spying on me!). Now, the purpose of One Life is to answer a question, and this is the question that I want you to wrestle with in this blog: “What is a Christian?” Now, Scot didn’t have strange conversations about how one ought to define a chair; but if you read One Life and then read this series of posts, you will see many, many points where I am strongly influenced by Scot’s writing and wisdom. And so, even if I don’t footnote every time there is a reference or an allusion to Scot, assume that if it is good, wise, insightful and poignant, it is stolen from him. If it is silly, irrelevant, bordering on being ridiculous – well, that is some of my best work. Now, saying this should eliminate any charge of plagiarism against me. Besides, maybe, BB King was right: “I don’t think anybody steals anything, but all of us borrow.” So, thanks, Scot, I am about to borrow a few things.
Our previous blog post gave you some homework. It asked you to define what a Christian is. Now, if you are like me, you didn’t hesitate to answer such an easy question. A Christian is someone who believes in Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior and who, by grace through faith, is forgiven of their sins, made dearly-loved children of God and has eternal life. Nailed it! If you did, too, give yourself a gold star.
But there’s a problem. Over time, I’ve met people who had the same definition of a Christian as me, but they lived very different lives than me. Some acted like Jesus never said anything about loving your neighbor and doing good and dying to self. They lived any way they wanted; but because they said a prayer and accepted Jesus into their hearts, they claimed everything was fine. Others were closer to my way of living, but believed drastically different things. They said they were Christians but believed in such crazy things like, “you can lose your salvation” or “Isaiah didn’t write the entire book of Isaiah” or “there is no millennium,” or worse, “we’re in the millennium now!” And let’s not even get into how these people vote! And so, I decided my definition needed a bit more nuance so that I could differentiate between those who say they are Christians and those who truly are (me and mine).
Then, I went to Bible college, and they had a whole new list of things that would help me separate the wheat from the chaff. Their definition included things like church attendance (if the doors were open, I should be there), daily Bible reading (if the day was open for business, I should be reading), prayer and journaling (often and frequently), and witnessing to the lost (and don’t forget, restoring backsliders!). And although they would never say it out loud, it was quite clear they believed a true Christian had right theology. But all of that paled in comparison to what truly defined a Christian in this college environment, namely, by what they didn’t do. True Christians don’t swear, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t go to movies (above the rating of Disney) or in any way, shape or form engage in worldly (carnal) activities. And just like that, my definition of a Christian grew to be very long (even if we kept most of it hidden when we were witnessing to the lost or trying to restore those backsliders). And so, for years, I believed that you were a true Christian only if you accepted Jesus and did all the right things and rejected all the wrong things. Trust me, it was a very exhausting time.
But here’s the strange thing. Somewhere along the line, someone pointed out that when we read the gospels, we never see Jesus inviting people to make a decision by saying a prayer and backing that decision up with good deeds. Instead, he always said things like,
- “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Mt. 10:38)
- “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:24; Mark 8:34)
- “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Mt. 19:21)
- “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
- “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” (John 8:12)
And suddenly, it was very clear what a Christian was. In my earlier definitions, I made the mistake of focusing too much on the entry point and not what it means to be a Christian through all the stages of life. And I was focused on rules and regulations and oughts and obligations. But Jesus simplified everything. If we asked Jesus our question, “What is a Christian?” there is no doubt how he would answer. He would answer, “A Christian is someone who follows me.” Simple. Clear. Profound. Moving. A Christian is someone who follows Jesus.
This definition has the added benefit of quickly eliminating all sorts of confusion that comes as a result of common, but improper, usage. See, in the world today, the word “Christian” can mean all sorts of things. For instance, someone might use the word “Christian” to speak of . . .
- Someone who is not Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim (as in, the Christian religion).
- Someone who is not an atheist (anyone who believes in God has to be a Christian).
- Someone from America (because America is a Christian nation).
- Someone who goes to church (aren’t all churches, Christian churches?).
- A type of literature that meets a certain moral criterion (for example, a Christian romance novel).
- A specific type of music (do you listen to Christian music?).
- A specific type of radio or TV station (what do you see when you watch Christian TV?).
- A specific type of business (as in, a Christian gas station).
Now, we could go on (and on and on) because the word “Christian” is being used all over the place to mean absurd things like this. That’s why I don’t even like to use the word, “Christian,” anymore, because it is frequently ambiguous and potentially confusing and misleading. And that is why the words, “Christ follower,” are so very helpful. Now, I can quickly dispense with the cultural label by asking one question: “Is ____ following Jesus?” Try it. You’ll like it. For example, “Is this gas station following Jesus?” What do you think? I would argue that it is very hard for gas stations to follow Jesus. Furthermore, I want to say that my car can’t tell the difference between secular gas and sanctified gas! But when we apply this definition to people, it becomes extremely helpful. For example (again), “Don’t tell me what you believe. Show me how you are following Jesus.” I think you’ll agree. That puts everything in a whole new light.
We started off this blog post talking about plagiarism, but here’s the good news. Following Jesus and even copying his life to the best of our ability in a way that fits our day and time is never an act of plagiarism. Instead, it bestows glory and honor upon the One who lived the perfect life. As I have always said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” And don’t listen to anyone who says that Budgell, Colton or Wilde said it first!