(RNS) Labels can be helpful when, for instance, applied to cans of soup or barrels of toxic waste. But they are less so when affixed to human beings – particularly when labels are meant to summarize, indelibly, one’s spiritual identity.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Marcus Mumford, the 26-year-old lead singer of the wildly successful British band Mumford & Sons, raised the hackles of religious folks (in some quarters) when he declined to claim the “Christian” label as his own.
You see, Marcus is the son of John and Eleanor Mumford, who are the national leaders of the Vineyard Church in the U.K. and Ireland, an arm of the international evangelical Christian Vineyard Movement. Last year, he married actress Carey Mulligan, whom he’d met years earlier at a Christian youth camp.
And the music of Mumford & Sons, for which Mumford is the main lyricist, is laden with the themes and imagery of faith – often drawing specifically upon the Christian tradition. They explore relationships with God and others; fears and doubts; sin, redemption, and most of all, grace.
During an interview last month, the Rolling Stone reporter, Brian Hiatt, asked Mumford whether he “still consider(s) himself a Christian.”
Mumford gave the following answer:
“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.”
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.
Mumford’s answer didn’t give me pause either, although I am a Christian and was raised in a faith community similar to the Vineyard and self-identify today as an evangelical.
But when I was his age, I might have given a similar answer. He’s young and faith is a journey, not a destination. Cut Mumford some slack and thank him for his honesty.
That was not the reaction of many of my co-religionists, some of whom deemed his answer a cop-out, chastising him for being ashamed of the gospel of Christ and tossing his lot in with the booming spiritual-but-not-religious crowd that is so popular among his age demographic.
Not so fast, good Christian soldiers. Before we march off to war against young Mr. Mumford, perhaps we should consider why he chose to answer the way he did.
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 also heard echoes of another rock star whose own Christian faith has been a topic of controversy and debate for years: Bono of U2.
Some critics have called Bono “holier-than-thou” and mocked him as “St. Bono.” The most vicious attacks, however, came from other Christians who called Bono’s faith into question because of his day job.
For many years, beginning when Bono was the same age Mumford is now, he shied away from the Christian label and largely stopped talking about his faith publicly.
When asked about the role of religion in his life in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview, Bono said in part: “I am a Christian, but at times I feel very removed from Christianity. The Jesus Christ that I believe in was the man who turned over the tables in the temple and threw the money-changers out.”
Fifteen years later, in 2002 Bono and I spoke at length about his discomfort with “the church” and his reluctance to self-apply the “Christian” label. “By the way, I don’t set myself up to be any kind of Christian. I can’t live up to that. It’s something I aspire to, but I don’t feel comfortable with that badge,” he told me. “It’s a badge I want to wear. But I’m not a very good advertisement for God.”
It wasn’t a disavowal of faith or beliefs (although some thought it was). It was a statement from a humble believer who wants people to look to God – not him – for perfection and answers.
This reminds me of Pope Francis, who has accepted the label of “Holy Father” but prefers to refer to himself as the “Bishop of Rome.” He’s not denying his role as pontiff, but he is telegraphing the idea that he is much more comfortable with a more humble position. He is a shepherd who likes to, as he told crowds during Holy Week, be amid the “smell” of his sheep.
I don’t care what Mumford or Bono or the pope call themselves or don’t. Their actions and (other) words tell a story of faith that is much more nuanced, and therefore truer, than any label they might pin over their hearts or have thrust upon them.
(Cathleen Falsani is the Faith & Values columnist for the Orange County Register.)