I Don’t Know What Being a Christian Means Anymore

Right & WrongI have been part of church life for a long time now, I was a preacher’s kid since the day I was born and suffered all the usual militant rules you’d expect. Sit up on the front pew, behave, don’t fart, don’t pick your nose, look attentive, close your eyes when you pray, stop looking at cute girls, raise your hands when asked, don’t drink too much communion and don’t eat all the left over bread after the service etc. Despite the hypocrisy of those around me and my own hypocrisy, Jesus has been the only thing that has kept me interested in church other than social connection and friends. Even when I was old enough to get the hell out of church I still kept going. Some would say I was programmed and was just following a habitual path. They might be right, but I sincerely think it is because Jesus means something to me and up until a few years ago I felt the church was the best way to experience Jesus.

I have pondered questions of faith and Christianity for four decades now and I still have days where I wonder what being a Christian actually means. Some days I am an agnostic and other days I feel confident in my belief – but that is the true reflection of faith isn’t it? For there to be a choice, you have to have doubt lingering like a leach on your leg to give faith any substance – otherwise it is what I affectionately call, ‘stupid faith’. I shouldn’t be too alarmed because the church has struggled with what it means to express a Christian faith and the interpretation of the bible for over 2000 years. Anything I think up is just a regurgitation of the same old ‘same old’.

Did you know that Wikipedia (font of all knowledge) suggests there are over 35,000 registered Christian denominations? So lets just half that for the cynics reading this blog. That means Christian leaders feel there is enough of a difference theologically to justify starting 15,000 new Christian movements all with a slightly different emphasis. These denominations have a different angle ranging from the theology of suffering – to the theology of extreme prosperity and they all have significant implications to how we interpret what Jesus said. That is shocking to me and causes my heart to race! But then I have an opinion too… if I am honest there are things about the bible that disturb me greatly. Passages like Leviticus Chapter 21 vs 16 where God is telling Moses to keep the so called ‘unclean’ away from making an offering to himself – just in case Moses misunderstood what God was saying he gets very specific and clarifies: anyone who is blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, crippled in the foot or hand, hunchbacked or dwarfed – then strangely, God even tells Moses that anyone with broken testicles must not make an offering to him. I am tempted to start my own church protesting God’s barbaric and careless antics and make it 35000 plus 1 on Wikipedia!

The God who people worship today is the same God of the Old Testament who condoned and even commanded barbaric behaviour. Disturbingly for me, the scripture in Leviticus 21 about disability is still there in the bible amongst other terrible passages, God didn’t have it amended, the words haven’t changed – it is still God speaking. So when I talk to God I am mindful that he was comfortable with killing innocent babies to eradicate sin – which by the way didn’t work. I rarely feel the inclination to call him my father and talk gooey about his love for me like so many of my friends do. If he is real, he is dangerous and acts more like a vacant and dysfunctional father who has enormous powers. He is either all-powerful and chooses to let terrible things happen to the innocent or he is limited in his power and can’t do anything about it. Both scenarios don’t elicit any affection from me.

Of course those who know me also know I have a special needs daughter. She is a beautiful creation and single handily changed my life for the better. But it was not that long ago some in the Christian community would lean into scriptures like the Leviticus scripture I quoted to justify their views on people with a disability as being second-class, some would even say cursed. In my early church experience I associated with congregants convinced that people like my daughter had demons or the family had sinned somewhere to attract God’s wrath. Thankfully the church grew up and changed. Now the Christian contingent are strident advocates on behalf of the disabled, poor and displaced and families like us are the beneficiaries of that.

What is culturally acceptable in society has forced Christians to reconsider some of their theological views on many things over the centuries. I know it is true to say that in the churches best moments, it has been reciprocated as well. Imagine how hard it would have been for me as a father with a disabled child to make sure she wasn’t discriminated against if some Christians didn’t change their view and allow contemporary culture to influence what is acceptable behaviour? Imagine if it was still ok to suggest that my daughter was cursed and second class? I find Gods request to keep people with a disability away from him as incredibly offensive. If you are a theologian and reading this you may offer the view that this was included in the bible as a symbol to express Gods purity – I get that. As a father of a special needs child and for the poor people around the globe – it still offends me and it’s difficult to defend in any meaningful way. Contemporary thinking and science has brought clarity to superstitious theology. Although people will still believe that God will find them a car park or a better job without thinking about what it means if God meets their superficial need but won’t meet the need of the refugee who probably has more sincere and desperate prayers. Something doesn’t add up.

Even after 2000 years of studying the scriptures there is still not a definitive understanding to many aspects of the bible. This is ironic to me as many Christians like to call the bible ‘a letter from God’ in order to do life. If God really intended to share with us a book on how to do life, why would he write something so cryptic, difficult to understand and open to interpretation? Some Christians believe the flood actually happened and others question how arctic animals could survive the trip to a warm climate to even get on the boat in the first place. Some academic Christians profess undeniable evidence laced through DNA that proves evolution, but still comfortable that evolution and faith can coexist. Other Christians are appalled at the suggestion that our decedents are apes as it questions whether Adam and Eve are simply symbolic or factual. Some Christian theologians suggest that hell doesn’t exist and some think heaven is not a place we go to but simply a new and improved earth. Some Christian theologians believe that healing is a promise for everyone in this life and others think it was simply an expression specifically in the time of Jesus to prove his divinity.

All of these differences have big implications and highlight the diverse views – where is the truth and who holds it? The interpretation of the bible (particularly the Old Testament) has changed over the past 2000 years. Most would agree that stoning a woman for having an affair should never have been acceptable even though the religious of the day justified it through scripture. Additionally; stopping women having leadership roles in society or people not allowed to get married again after a divorce or stopping people with a disability from making an offering to God or the affirmation of slavery have all been tempered by the changing of cultural norms forcing Christians to review what they thought was truth at the time. This should sober any Christian community that wants to assert a moral value as history clearly tells us we have got it wrong – sometimes very wrong. Society has affected the interpretation of the bible. It is safe to say this will continue happing based the last 2000 years of trend. Every generation probably felt they had cracked the code and held the keys to the correct interpretation.

For one theologians view on a particular matter there will be another just as learned proposing a different view – this is why I don’t know what being a Christian means anymore except for one common theme… and that is Jesus, he turned everything upside down and challenged the teaching of the day despite the priests conviction that they understood the old testament. Is it possible that modern theologians or preachers have got it wrong also? Why would we humans be any less fallible today? Any moral or legalistic argument will continue way after the flowers push through the dirt from on top of our caskets. What this says to me is we are in great danger if we think the right to interpret the subtleties of morality completely independent from cultural norms. Christianity expresses Jesus’ teaching best when we humbly serve each other without trumpets blazing. Fortunately the church has had many moments of greatness. In fact historically the Church has had far more successes than failures – thank God.

Recently an organisation that I work for was caught up in a volcano of conflict when its counterpart in the USA decided gay people could be a part of the workforce despite its deep fundamental Christian roots. But then the organisation surprised everybody by reneging because of pressure from the evangelical movement. I was stunned at the verbosity of the conversation in the Christian sector and how quickly the issue of Gay relationships became a so-called ‘values conversation’, superseding the humanity of the people it was about. The conversation was a legalistic moral one, rather than one about real living breathing people.

Despite some Christians crucifying the gay community over the issue of employment, I found guidance in the life of Jesus and how I should respond to my gay brothers and sisters – many who work where I do. If I had to figure out what the ‘Christian’ response should be and the inclusivity of what all that means, I’d still be trying to figure out how to respond months later and by then it would be too late to express love in a meaningful way. Love means we take risks – you can’t love with caution or suspicion, that’s not what Jesus demonstrated. He taught that love required much from us, to cross cultural lines, to put aside personal beliefs like the Good Samaritan did. Jesus taught us to do things that made no sense when it came to love. Adopting the label of being a ‘Christian’ encourages me to over think my response and I come dangerously close to being irrelevant – Christians over think and over moralise. Being a Christ follower isn’t completely clear to me either but it is easier than being a modern Christian. Too many times the evangelical church is more drawn to the conversation about a certain view on morality than simply doing the work of Jesus. Some Christians want to have things as black and white because living in the tension of the grey can often bring insecurities and questions about God’s sovereignty. Well… in the context of the day Jesus swam in the grey, he painted with grey and he deliberately lead people into the colour grey.

It is very difficult to articulate what being a Christian is but interestingly we attribute acts of kindness to Christian behaviour. I think that is because at our core we understand it should be that simple, and the bible or at least the interpretation of it has made it much more difficult than it should be. Christianity should be simple, not divisive. Hell… Christianity even divides Christians!

We recognise the spirit of Jesus when an aid worker negotiates with a money lender on behalf of a child sitting at a grind stone to attend school – that’s when being a Christian makes sense. When we look deep into the eyes of sorrow and see the humanity of God in a place we didn’t expect penetrating our own veneer of indifference, that’s when being a Christian makes sense. When we have that honest conversation and ask for forgiveness – that’s when being a Christian makes sense. When someone speaks the uncomfortable truth and expresses the elephant in the room with grace – that’s when being a Christian makes sense. When an issue like gay relationships challenges your core beliefs but you go back to the scriptures to humbly relook at the text considerate of your gay friends, that’s when being a Christian makes sense. When someone advocates for you behind the scenes and gives you another chance – that’s when being a Christian makes sense.

Do you know what? I think Christians should stop being Christian because it is too bloody confusing! The theologian or the pastor at your church, or a televangelist, or a visiting speaker should not be the people we attribute all the wisdom to, those people are flawed, corrupted by bias and broken just like you. We need to take being a Christian away from a theoretical conversation and simply put some action to it and let it mess with us to prompt an act of love. Let it force us to ask the question, what would Jesus do in this moment? The wrong question to ask is “what would a Christian do?”

I think we in the Christian community need to spend less time defining morality and more time refining love – less time on divisive discussions, and more time on inclusive discussions. Less time thinking and more time acting. I sincerely pray that we can embrace the beautiful life that Jesus showed us by responding quickly, unceremoniously, controversially, non-judgmentally, respectfully, but most of all – lovingly.

11 thoughts on “I Don’t Know What Being a Christian Means Anymore

  1. Thanks again Jay. You’ve covered so many disquietening things that I read and feel great pain about in that part of the Bible I love to read. I then struggle to reconcile that with the words and acts of Jesus but I know that this is one and the same God. In the midst of that, following Jesus and enjoying the fact that it’s possible to relate to this God who lived life on earth and was scarred for his trouble is the main game. I delve into theology but I hope it never gets in the way of faith and relationship. I agree, we need to get a whole lot better at love as a priority!

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  2. Great work Jay. I have to say that my personal theology leaves much of the Old Testament behind altogether. Living by the New is hard enough. Does having a mental illness disqualify me? What is it disqualifying me from anyway? We don’t have an altar, nor do we offer food to God. Does it mean I don’t have to tithe? That I’m not allowed to give my money to my local church? I don’t think it means any of that. Alan Myer said many years ago that the the Old Testament needs to be viewed using the New Testament as a lens. I like that metaphor.
    Be awesome.

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    • Thank Mark. Interesting thing to consider how to cross reference the old testament to the new testament. It is a tough one to know when to stop. But unfortunately for me I understand that God is the same today and forever and that includes the old testament God… not sure what to do with that.

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  3. Jay, very thought-provoking, especially given the work that I do! I suspect most of the denominational differences aren’t theological – but a product of power; everyone wants to do their own thing and be in charge (pastors and theologians alike. I certainly think, though, that theology is a major problem, because people who claim to be experts can be dogmatic. I certainly am of the opinion that people should think as I do!

    Of course, what you’re arguing for is hopelessly idealistic. In fact, your concluding desires for us to embrace the beautiful life that Jesus showed us by being nonjudgemental, respectful, and loving is itself a theological conclusion that you’ve arrived at. Whether we like it or not, action and thought go together.

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  4. By the way, I’ve been doing some writing on the problem of pain – why does God allow evil. I’m intrigued by your comments above: “when I talk to God I am mindful that he was comfortable with killing innocent babies to eradicate sin – which by the way didn’t work. I rarely feel the inclination to call him my father and talk gooey about his love for me like so many of my friends do. If he is real, he is dangerous and acts more like a vacant and dysfunctional father who has enormous powers. He is either all-powerful and chooses to let terrible things happen to the innocent or he is limited in his power and can’t do anything about it. Both scenarios don’t elicit any affection from me.”

    I really appreciate the honesty of this statement. Is it a throwaway line, or a conclusion you’ve arrived at? Does that leave you as an agnostic? If the latter, I’m curious about your thoughts on Jesus. Second person of the Trinity, or politically/religiously radical human – or both? I’m not saying this in any attempt to trip you up, or to demand orthodoxy. I’m genuinely interested. Does real suffering force us to deny the picture of a good God that has been given us through Christian tradition?

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  5. Having many of the same thoughts and concerns, I resonate strongly with what you write here. I appreciate your honest, heart-felt exploration of questions and contradictions that are part of our faith and those who practice it. I like your distinction between “Christian” and “Christ follower.” Because of all the negative associations, I too have a hard time referring to myself as a “Christian”. (I haven’t called myself an “evangelical” for a long time.) But I am a Christ follower! Thank you for boldly stating your convictions. Know that many are in your camp. Blessings to you and your beautiful family.

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  6. Brilliantly said Jay, as usual. I hear your pain with the church and your hanging onto Jesus as the only voice of reason. Richard Rohr says that we don’t think our way into new ways of acting, we act our way into new ways of thinking. Matches with what your wisdom above.

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