Are Christians Escapists? Aliens? Crazy?

Antony and the Johnsons giving a concert at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2009. Photo credit: Fred von Lohmann (CC).
Antony and the Johnsons giving a concert at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in 2009. Photo credit: Fred von Lohmann (CC).

Before heading out of town for our  family vacation I picked up the most recent issue of The Believer which happened to be the yearly music issue. I’d forgotten how odd (to me, at least) this magazine is but I enjoyed the interviews and essays, especially the one about Rev. C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father and a force to be reckoned with. It was the interview with Antony Hegarty, the frontman for Antony and the Johnsons, that really caught my attention though. I’ve known of the band for a while, but knew almost nothing about Hegarty and was interested to read him explain, from a variety of angles, just how strongly he dislikes Christianity, the church, and Christians (“They’re just crazy.”).

Here’s a section from early in the interview where Hegarty makes a couple of points that, despite the hyperbole, are worth noticing.

AH: I’m not a Christian. I was raised Catholic, but I was really seduced by Christian imagery when I was younger… I don’t really feel like I’m in any kind of dialogue about the mythology of Jesus anymore. I don’t believe in the system that he was serving; I’m not hypnotized by it. I don’t believe that there’s somewhere to get to. These guys are so desperate to get out of Dodge- to get up to heaven as quickly as possible and pass through those pearly gates and be anointed and saved. I don’t have any wish to be saved. I’m perfectly happy being part of the natural world, and being an animal like the other mammals.

BLVR: That’s pretty healthy.

AH: I believe in that creation. But it’s not even about believing in it- I’m a part of it. I don’t want to be a part of that crazy male fantasy that they’ve superimposed on us and forced us to ingest like poison, covering us like filth. These horrible, constricting ideas, alienating ideas. Christianity and Catholicism are so noxious with alienation and trying so hard to separate us from what we are and where we are. If I believed in aliens, I would think, This must be some religion invented by aliens, because why are they so uncomfortable with being a part of the earth. What do they seek so desperately to divorce us from that?

Hegarty’s claims are worth noticing because he’s  not alone in the beliefs that Christianity alienates people from their physical surroundings and introduces a consuming escapists mentality. While he’s not especially clear about it, I assume Hegarty came to these convictions about Christianity from some firsthand experience- the Catholicism of his childhood perhaps, or maybe more recent interactions  with Christians of a certain confrontational variety. I don’t know, but it’s not hard to imagine how his opinions have come from real experiences.

Hegarty has a point about the tendency of some Christians to pull back from “the earth.” I’m not sure it’s fair to limit this to Christians, though the point remains that plenty of Christians have this reputation for good reasons. Some of us Christians are drawn toward the so-called spiritual in which we privilege certain religious activity and sentiment over, well, living. This isn’t a particularly sound expression of Christian theology. We are, after all, people whose Lord was raised to life bodily, who broke bread and ate fish after resurrecting. Likewise, we believe our ultimate future to be physical and not the unimaginative disembodied one so regularly portrayed.

I mean to say that Hegarty is incorrect in representing Christian theology even while he is, sadly, correct in describing some of our practice.

But then there is his lampooning charge about the pearly gates, about Christians being too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. As before, Hegarty is right to observe this tendency, though there is much he overlooks. (I don’t mean to be too critical; this was an interview after all and not a well-reasoned, nuanced arguement. However, his criticism of Christianity was especially biting and consumed a significant portion of the interview.) For one thing, Christians do look forward to heaven even if its not the version Hegarty imagines. As N.T. Wright has said in different places, Christians do believe in life after death, though we’re most interested in life after life after death. That is, we look forward to heavenly rest with our Savior even while anticipating Christ’s final victory in which the Kingdom of Heaven is brought fully to bear, relieving finally earth’s groans. We look forward to this day not as an escape but as a conviction of history’s direction and the belief that a time is coming when all will be right.

Also, there is the fact that many people – Christians and not – currently live under the most dehumanizing and oppressive of circumstances.  For Hegarty or anyone else to claim that such people’s longing for heaven is but a desire to “get out of Dodge” is to overlook the extent of this earth’s pain. It’s true that some Christians overlook the goodness of this earth, but it’s also true that Hegarty and those who share his perspective can overlook the same earth’s badness for many of its inhabitants. For these women and men the hope of heaven isn’t escapism but the promise of mercy, justice, and full humanity.

5 thoughts on “Are Christians Escapists? Aliens? Crazy?

  1. Without more context I cannot really discern where Hagarty is coming from. But I will say that if it is from a church that has pulled away from engaging with the culture around it, that is bad. However, if it is from a church that is unsatisfied with its own inability to live it to moral standards it can conceive of, but not implement, that is good – and it does not require a Christian worldview to see.

    More to the point, however, I may understand some of his frustrations – but I would argue that the Christian worldview is what allows people to engage the world in a fuller way than the average “animal” – to use his own words. The natural order is obsessed with its own survival; an irony in a world where everything is destined to die. And the secular world is not divorced from the natural order – on the scale of nations, Thucydides’ statement still holds true – that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” On the scale of the person, the goal is still to acquire, hoard, or what a Buddhist would consider “grasping.” Christianity of course turns this on its head (not that it is the only one to do so), and therefore assigns to self-sacrifice an eternal value, rather than an arbitrary one.

    That *should* facilitate a completely different way of living, but this is an age where it is hard to realize within one’s own life. I honestly wish that the Church (myself included) could really live as if we “desperate to get out of Dodge” – i.e., to have no fear of death, and to take no thought for one’s survival.

    Well, as for “crazy,” if we are doing ‘crazy’ right, it will be quite a compliment.
    “If we are ‘out of our minds,’ as some say, it is for God. And if we are in our right mind, it is for you.”

      1. That’s an interesting question, and a personal one as well. To be honest, and this answer may be unappetizing, I think one answer is persecution – that which forces you to finally confront whether you really believe in your own immortality, rather than living in a hazy kind of middle-ground. And if you find yourself choosing immortality in the face of a gun, a sword, a spear or a cross, I think that if you were to survive it, it would inform very seriously all subsequent choices – and it would be quite the example to your fellow believers. I know… it’s not a particularly helpful answer for Christianity in the United States.

  2. Set in the context of this fallen world’s denial of “mercy, justice and full humanity” to the greater share of humanity, the white privileged first world Christian’s longing for heaven can appear pale and selfish. And I think in many cases it’s true. I often find myself thinking not a new heaven and earth, but an extension of this earth where I can experience what I think in my jealousy I’ve missed out on here in terms of riches. What I forget is that the primary resident of heaven is not me.

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