The Individualist Code
What accounts for the popularity of "The Da Vinci Code" and other crackpot exposés of Christian history?
Part of it is the novelty factor: many people know so little about the history of any religion that even the oddest and dumbest falsehoods seem fresh and provocative to them. But there's another explanation too: People have an instinct for liberty, an instinct that urges them to rebel against institutions they regard as authoritarian and anti-individualistic. Rightly or wrongly, many people see Christianity in this way.
Alas, Christians have often provided support for that view. Like other well-intentioned folk, they have used their good intentions as an excuse to govern their neighbors' lives — either by imposing laws against liquor or sex or "usury" or by commissioning the government to implement a "social gospel" of modern-liberal regulations and welfare schemes. These efforts at "reform" have notably failed to produce the effects intended, but failure has not removed the common perception that Christianity is inherently opposed to individual freedom.
To decide whether that perception is true, we need to do more than notice what particular groups of Christians have done in particular times and places. We need to look at the earliest and most revered statement of Christian beliefs, the one source of evidence that can never be omitted from any discussion of Christianity: the New Testament. It doesn't take Tom Hanks to discover that the deep coding of the New Testament isn't authoritarian but radically individualist.
As a literary historian, I find some of the most convincing evidence of this code of individualism in the means that the New Testament uses to convey its message. Contrary to popular belief, the New Testament is not a collection of social rules. It consists largely of stories about people's relationships with God, stories that go out of their way to emphasize the importance of individuals and individual differences.
Jesus' own stories do this. In his parable of the Good Samaritan, the villains are the official religious leaders, and the hero is the despised outsider (Luke 10:30-37). In Jesus' great sequence of stories about loss and redemption (Luke 15), the man who loses one of his hundred sheep doesn't say, "Don't worry; I've got ninety-nine more"; he goes out looking for that one sheep, and rejoices when he finds it.
Then there's the story about the woman who's lost a coin. There are few things in this world that seem more alike than coins (unless they are sheep). But the woman in Jesus' story doesn't say, "Oh, it's too bad — but after all, I've got more coins in the cupboard." Instead, she urgently searches her house for the little lost object. She cares about it just as much (and this is Jesus' point) as God cares about the individual, irreplaceable human soul.
Most people remember the third story in the redemption sequence as the story of one person, the Prodigal Son. It isn't. It's the story of two sons, each of whom is spiritually lost, in his own way. To each of these two very different sons the Father responds with full recognition of his individuality — even though the second son, who provides the climax of the narrative, self-righteously assumes that only people like him are eligible for sympathy and recognition. That's not what his Father assumes; and that, again, is Jesus' point.
Sociologists and politicians often regard people as creatures of their upbringing or their social group, and expect them to act as such. The New Testament offers a different idea: it isn't your family or your community that determines who you are and how you behave: it's you. The gospels are especially fond of demonstrating the difference between the individual and the community. Jesus' own community is quick to reject him; he heals ten people of leprosy, but only one returns to thank him; Mary and Martha are sisters, and both are friends and followers of Jesus, but each has her own, firmly differentiated set of values and priorities (Mark 6:1-6, Luke 17:11-19, Luke 10:38-42).
The same is true of Jesus' twelve apostles. One of their differences, unfortunately, stems from the fact that some of them want to dominate the others. Jesus stops their lobbying campaign by telling them that the last thing he wants is for anyone to exercise "dominion" (Matthew 20:20-28). In the gospel of John, his final advice to Peter is to try minding his own business (John 21:20-22).
Jesus' disciple Paul is one of the greatest examples of New Testament individualism. No sociologist or political scientist could have predicted that a leading persecutor of Christianity would become its leading proponent — but that is what happened to Paul. In his letters, he constantly emphasizes the idea that God calls individuals for the work that is special to them. His letters to the Christian churches are never the memos of a bureaucrat, insisting that everyone should conform to the policy and procedures manual. They are the advice of an individual speaking to fellow-members of a voluntary community, fully acknowledging their individuality and addressing both their virtues and their vices in an inexhaustibly individual way (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).
Paul's model for church organization wasn't the one that anyone would expect to have "emerged" from his "social context." It wasn't the vast and intricate Roman bureaucracy, which dominated the political world of his time. No, it was the cooperative relationships that exist among the various parts of the human body (1 Corinthians 12). According to Paul, individuals have different roles and different challenges, and the principles of their association are those of a libertarian society: division of labor, voluntary exchange of values, spontaneous but intelligent order.
We may recall that on one occasion, and one occasion only, Jesus advised a wealthy would-be follower to give up all his possessions (Mark 10:17-22). That was a challenge for that particular individual. So far as we know, it was never posed to anyone else.
One interprets a code by noticing its patterns of inclusion and exclusion. What is included in the New Testament's code of individualism is a consistent emphasis on the value of personal decisions and personal characteristics. It is these individuating characteristics that Paul has in mind when he asks the members of the Corinthian church to honor people's "diversities of gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:4).
The drama of individual decisions is important throughout the New Testament. Christianity is presented, not as a set of social customs or a subject of legislation, but as a question for individuals to decide: Do you believe, or not? When Jesus' disciples ask him whether they should call fire down from heaven to punish a group of unbelievers, he reproves them sharply (Luke 9:52-56). When Paul encounters similar opposition, he says, in effect, "All right; I'll go preach somewhere else," and he proceeds to do so (Acts 19:8-10). Conversion, the central event in a Christian's life, is always an individual phenomenon.
As for what is excluded from the New Testament: imagine how Jesus' parables would read if they actually embodied some of the ideas associated with politicized Christianity, either of the "rightwing" or of the "leftwing" variety.
Take the story of the Good Samaritan. What if it went like this:
A traveler was mugged and left half-dead in a ditch beside the road. Immediately two government workers took him to a state-run facility and arranged for Medicaid payments, government housing assistance, and free psychological counseling.
Of course, that's not the way the story goes. Well, how about this:
Another traveler found the man, bound up his wounds, and took him to a hotel, where the rescuer promised to pay all his bills for the rest of his life.
But no, that's not the story, either.
In the authentic tale, Jesus says that a traveler is robbed and left half-dead, and that the official functionaries who find him render the aid that such people ordinarily render: none! Meanwhile, a private citizen, inspired by individual motives of love and good will, picks up the traveler, takes him to an inn, and arranges to pay his bills — not for the rest of his life, but while he's recovering. The giver and the receiver retain their individuality, and their independence.
Now try another story: Jesus' parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). A businessman entrusts several hundreds of thousands of dollars to each of three employees. They're supposed to manage his money while he's out of town. When he returns, he is happy to discover that two of them have made enormous profits — 100%! Naturally, he gives them promotions. Then he turns to the third, who informs him that he, the employee, was afraid to lose the money entrusted to him — so he didn't make any investments at all! What does the boss do?
If he were a "social gospel" Christian, he would give everyone a reward, for the sake of economic equality; and he would be sure to discuss the evils of selfish profit-seeking and the necessity of taxing large "unearned incomes" (what the King James translation calls "usury"). The boss in Jesus' story takes the opposite approach: he fires the employee who didn't have enough initiative to make the biggest profit he could, and he never says anything about the dangers of private enterprise. The boss, incidentally, symbolizes the Lord himself.
I'm not suggesting that the New Testament is a handbook of capitalist economics, or a guide to libertarian politics. Jesus said — contrary to the assumptions of all those religious people who have tried to use the government to put themselves in power — "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36). Jesus was concerned with individual souls, not individual bank accounts.
Neither does the New Testament endorse the kind of modern "individualism" which assures us that people are just fine, no matter what they do, so long as they succeed in being "true to themselves." The great religions always challenge people to be better than they are. That challenge is essential to New Testament teaching. Yet the emphasis remains on individual choice, individual effort, individual freedom.
This is the not-so-hidden code of the New Testament. It's the code that Isabel Paterson, the great twentieth-century libertarian, had in mind when she said that modern ideas of freedom are dependent on "the axiom of liberty" embedded in Christian teaching. Paterson was not a Christian, but she had read the New Testament. She had decoded its meaning. Try it yourself.
Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego, and author, most recently, of The New Testament and Literature (Open Court Publishing). Send him mail. Comment on the blog.