In his autobiography Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell recalls how his friend P. D. East had badgered him for a succinct definition of Christianity. East did not want a long or fancy explanation. “I’m not too bright,” he told Campbell. “Keep it simple. In ten words or less, what’s the Christian message?”
Campbell obliged his friend: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,” he said. To which East replied, “If you want to try again, you have two words left.”
Campbell and East eventually had an extended conversation provoked by Campbell’s summary. It had stuck in East’s mind. He wasn’t sure he bought it, but it gave him something to think about.
The Century invited some authors to try their hand at summarizing the Christian message. We instructed them to proclaim the gospel in a maximum of seven words and expand on their statement in a few sentences. It’s instructive to see what Christian proclamation boils down to when someone is put on the spot and has only a few words. What is the essence of the essence of Christianity?
The exercise can have practical benefits. Christian leaders often need to have what business consultants call an “elevator speech”—a quick way to sum up what’s distinctive and compelling about Christianity. When asked to sum up the Christian message, one must do better than, “Ah, well, it’s complicated, but . . . ”
Campbell clearly thought that a pithy version of the good news needed to begin with some account of the bad news. It’s the bad news, after all, that occasions a longing for the good news. Campbell and East were friends in the midst of the civil rights struggle in the South in the late 1950s. Their lives had been defined by the racism, violence and moral evasions that pervaded that segregated society. Campbell did not exempt himself or his friend from that reality. Indeed, he thought that naming the dark side of humanity is an essential part of the Christian message: “We’re all bastards . . . ”
Our respondents were not so blunt in diagnosing the human condition. Many seem determined to make grace, not sin, the prominent feature. Nevertheless, sin is acknowledged in some way.
In the incarnation, life,
death and resurrection of Christ we see that God is so for us and with us that
we can no longer be defined according to death, a religion-based worthiness
system or even the categories of late-stage capitalism.
Among Gospel epitomes I
especially love the Jesus prayer, the Agnus Dei and "When he ascended on high,
he led captivity captive"--the good news as I first heard it from Paul
(Ephesians 4:8) and Christ's Jubilee proclamation (Luke 4:18).
Christ "has broken down
the dividing wall. . . . that he might create in himself one new humanity in
place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in
one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it."