red-letter Christian

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Has anyone ever recommended that you “read the red”? This is a Christianese way of saying you should read the things Jesus said in the New Testament, which are often printed in red ink. If you really get into reading the red, then who knows—you might be called a “red-letter Christian”!

Definition of red-letter ChristianJust to be clear, “reading the red” is quite a bit different from another English idiom “seeing red.” In fact, if you have a habit of seeing red (which means to “become very angry”), then perhaps you can introduce some peace and calm into your life by “reading the red” (which means “to read the words of Jesus”). It certainly couldn’t hurt!

The custom of printing Jesus’s words in red in Bibles goes back to medieval times. Even before the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1450, medieval monks were using red ink to call special attention to important words in their scrolls and hand-written books. As you can guess, the things that Jesus is actually quoted as saying rank pretty highly on the list of “important words.” So even in hand-copied medieval manuscripts we see monks switching out their black-stained quills for red ones so they could give a little special honor to the words of Jesus. The use of red ink for important words was used not only in Bibles but also in church calendars and other religious books. Do you know the term “red-letter date,” as in a very important date? That expression became popular because in medieval church calendars the dates of important church holidays such as Easter and Christmas and the birthdays of various saints were also written in red. All the ordinary dates were written in plain old black. This custom made it easy to see how many shopping days you had until the Feast of the Nativity.

These days red-letter Bibles are probably about as common as the “all black text” variety of Bibles. One kind of Bible isn’t holier than the other. It’s just a matter of preference.

Now when it comes to the term red-letter Christian, we have two somewhat different meanings to choose from. As you can see in the definition below, the term red-letter Christian can simply refer to a Christian who pays special attention to the words of Jesus in the New Testament. Hey, if you’re going to focus on a particular part of the Bible, then the stuff Jesus is directly quoted as saying is pretty much the clear winner!

The other meaning of red-letter Christian has less to do with Bible study and more to do with certain political and social values. As you can see in sense 2 of the definition, there are also red-letter Christians who have made social justice an important part of the way that they live out their Christians beliefs. If you look into some of the books about the “red-letter movement,” you’ll learn that they see themselves as a counterbalancing force to some of the other Christian movements that are prevalent, such as the so-called Religious Right. That’s not to say that the red-letter Christians are always way over on the left politically; they just want to make sure people know that when it comes to Christians, there are a wide variety of opinions and values, and no single televangelist or megachurch pastor can claim to speak for the entire church.

Have you heard of red-letter Christians? Did you learn about sense 1 before you heard of sense 2? Do you think there is such a thing as “black-letter Christians”?


red-letter Christian n. [from the red ink used in many Bibles to print the spoken words of Jesus] See various senses.
1. A Christian whose theology is based primarily on the words and deeds of Jesus in the gospels; a Christian who regards the oral teaching of Jesus as having more authority or importance than other parts of the Bible, such as the New Testament epistles.
See also *read the red.
1991 Price, Humphries Conversations with Reynolds Price 181 : “They rely for their ethic on the actual red-letter teachings of Jesus far more than on the more puritanical and tormented teachings of Paul, who as a matter of fact never knew Jesus.” “Are you a red-letter Christian in the same sense?” “I think of myself in that way.”
2. A Christian who believes that the words of Jesus in the gospels clearly direct the church to focus on social justice and the care of the poor and marginalized; a Christian who is critical of the church’s deep involvement in politically conservative issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
This sense of the term has been popularized by Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo (see citations for 2006ab, 2008).
2006 Wade (14 Jan.) : According to Wallis, the monologue of the religious right is over and the dialogue of the red-letter Christian is beginning to take hold in this country. 2006 Campolo (27 Feb.) : We decided not to call ourselves “progressive evangelicals.” We came up with a new name: Red-Letter Christians. Who first suggested the label? A secular Jewish Country-and-Western disc jockey in Nashville, Tennessee. During a radio interview he was conducting with Jim Wallis, he happened to say, “So, you’re one of those Red-Letter Christians—you know—who’s really into those verses in the New Testament that are in red letters!” 2006 Bansal (10 Sep.) : The Red Letter Christians, a “progressive” group, says it offers an alternative to the religious right in the discussion about moral values in American politics. The liberal group claims Christian conservatives focus too heavily on abortion and homosexuality. 2007 Jacobs The Year of Living Biblically 257 : The Red-letter Christians [are] a growing evangelical group that focuses on social justice, poverty, and the environment. 2008 Campolo Red Letter Christians: A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics 23 : What differentiates Red Letter Christians from other Christians is our passionate commitment to social justice—hence, our intense involvement in politics.
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