If you’re of a certain vintage, you might remember the time Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, called Christianity “a religion for losers.”
He took a lot of heat for that, not surprisingly, and apologized. But his longtime, underlying antipathy toward the faith seemed to remain.
When Turner and Jane Fonda divorced, her recent conversion to Christianity was often cited by observers as the main reason for their split, although the truth was — as in most divorces — likely more complicated.
Is Christianity for losers? Turner was neither first nor the last to think so.
The ancient Romans certainly thought it was.
More recently, a fascinating article on Vox.com by Sean Illing, originally published in 2017 and updated this past December, explores the influence of 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche on the contemporary alt-right white supremacist movement.
To Nietzsche, Christianity — in Illing’s words — “overturned classical Roman values like strength, will and nobility of spirit. These were replaced with egalitarianism, community, humility, charity and pity.”
Christianity favored the weak over the strong, the good of the many over the individual.
Nietzsche’s writings — like, perhaps, Turner and Fonda’s divorce — defy simple explanations and are easily mischaracterized.
Still, he has become a philosophical lodestar for some 21st century alt-right leaders, Illing says.
These alt-righters give lip-service to championing Christianity, but only in the sense that Christianity helped bind together disparate white, Western civilizations.
The same supremacists reject out of hand the teachings of Christ that created the faith.
“It’s a paradox,” Illing writes. “They believe the West has grown degenerate and weak because it internalized Christian values, but they find themselves defending Christendom because they believe it’s the glue that binds European culture together.”
They, too, think that Christianity — to the extent it’s actually believed and practiced as intended — is for losers.
And they’re correct.
All of them are correct on that point: Turner, the Romans, Nietzsche, the alt-right.
From the outset, Christianity was a bastion of hope and help for the weary, the outcast, the broken.
Here are the First Century words of St. Paul, writing to the church at Corinth:
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
Yep, Christianity was a faith for losers.
It still is. In St. Paul’s telling, God’s intended it to be that.
The sad miscalculation of Turner, the Romans and the rest is that, in their hubris, they imagine they aren’t losers.
Which is, of course, where they’re blind.
Humanity is made up of losers. It’s just that some people realize what they are and the rest delude themselves.
In researching this column, I happened across a profile of Turner from 2013 on CNN’s website. It’s well done and, to my mind, poignant.
Turner’s life has been marked by triumphs, to be sure, as the profile makes clear. But then there’s that other side: his lonely and brutal upbringing, his alcoholic father’s suicide, the multiple failed marriages and his inability to find the lasting relationship he’s long craved, his mental illness, his declining business fortunes, his ouster from the network he founded.
After their divorce, Fonda said Turner finally just wore her out, dragging her along as he ceaselessly tried to outrun his demons.
What we’re left with is a portrait of a lonely, tormented, ultimately unhappy man.
I hesitate to put words in St. Paul’s mouth. But somehow I imagine that if in a sci-fi time warp Paul and Turner came face to face, Paul would tell him, “Ted, look in the mirror, son. You’ve done a lot of good things. You’ve done a few great things. But at the end of the day, you’re just another loser. Like me. Like all of us.”
That was — and is — a foundational insight of Christianity.
We’re all losers, even the most successful among us.
We’re all broken. We all need love. We all need help. We’re all going to die sooner than we’d like to imagine and be forgotten.
We try to medicate ourselves in one manner or another to avoid the pain of this seeming futility. We pursue money or fame or power or sex or drugs or frivolity or wonder diets.
These things only distract us; they never cure us.
The only lasting answer, Christianity says, is to face ourselves head-on. To not only see our weakness, but embrace it. To throw ourselves headlong into the mercy of the only one who truly loves us, the only one who can make us whole — then let him work his magic in our soul.