Returning briefly to the "Spiritual But Not Religious" question, I notice that there's been some recent stir about Marcus Mumford's reluctance to own the label "Christian" in describing himself, despite a) coming from a strongly Christian background, b) clearly still believing in God and having some form of reverence for Jesus Christ and c) suffusing his music with strongly Christian themes, symbols and tropes.
His reticence seems clearly related to what I mentioned last week: The failure of Christianity to make itself attractive and credible in the contemporary context. As he says to Rolling Stone magazine, in answer to the question of whether he's a Christian:
“I don’t really like that word. It comes with so much baggage. So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. I think the word just conjures up all these religious images that I don’t really like. I have my personal views about the person of Jesus and who he was. … I’ve kind of separated myself from the culture of Christianity.”
Clearly what's being said here is not that he's separated himself from Christ, but that he's separated himself from a particular kind of cultural expression of Christianity, presumably one that is rooted in the kind of evangelical baggage that I've mentioned, which often trades in sexism, homophobia, and intolerant narrowness.
Refusal to be boxed into a definition of Christianity that is associated in the minds of many Rolling Stone readers with authoritarian ecclesial structures is understandable, and I give Mumford the credit he deserves for wanting to dissociate himself from that. At the same time, it's worth noting how he continues:
His spiritual journey is a “work in progress,” Mumford said, adding that he’s never doubted the existence of God and that his parents are unbothered by his ambivalence toward the Christian label.
There is something salutary in refusing to be rushed into a commitment to a particular way of expressing one's understanding of spiritual truth. To those who want to label him a Christian in order to dismiss him as well as those who want to label him so in order to claim him, Mumford refuses to accept the label.
Lillian Daniel, for whom I have exceptionally high regard, comments on this line of thought:
People will explain to me that without the Church, they are traveling light, without all that Christian baggage. But what exactly is this baggage? It’s people—who might actually be some of the best road companions there are.
Certainly, Marcus Mumford got one thing right—the Church is something you enter at your own risk.
Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you, and realize how small you are standing before such a legacy. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.
As I've mentioned before, I get exactly what Lillian is talking about, and largely agree with her on the merits. At the same time, I think that this is a conversation taking place within the Christian fold. It's not that Mumford has genuinely placed himself outside of it. Rather, as I read it, he is unhappy with what the word "Christian" has come to mean, and so refuses the label in order to be free to embrace what the label implies. He doesn't want to be a Christian because that makes it more difficult to embody Christ.
Cathleen Falsani says it very well:
I didn’t hear Mumford’s remarks as a wishy-washy equivocation about the precepts of Christianity or a capitalist concern about alienating non-Christian fans. Rather what I took away from his answer was a keen wariness about other Christians and our too-often brutal judgmentalism.
Growing up as a pastor’s kid, undoubtedly Mumford knows this all too well. And as someone who is newly accustomed to standing in the unforgiving glare of celebrity’s spotlight, he surely also understands our cultural obsession with putting people on pedestals and knocking them off with great glee and heaping doses of schadenfreude.
What I heard in his reticence to label himself a Christian was not a denial of faith, but instead something that falls between Dorothy Day’s famous “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily,” and Soren Kierkegaard’s, “Once you label me you negate me.”
I don't think one can listen to the lyrics of a Mumford & Sons song and not take very seriously Marcus Mumford's attempt to seriously interrogate what the elements of the faith he was raised in mean for him today. Doing that, for him, quite understandably means refusing to wear the uniform, but he still talks the talk through his music. As important as it is to understand the role that the Christian community plays in creating the possibility of following Christ in an authentic way, it is equally important to recognize how difficult the church can make that task as well. What's more, it is also crucial to recognize the authenticity of the honest search, after all, that's how this Grace thing works, too.