Not long ago, I read an article on BuzzFeed which caught the attention, once shared, of a large subset of my friends. Titled
Why I Miss Being a Born-Again Christian
, the op-ed related the Jessica Misener's journey from accepting Christ as her personal Lord and Savior at the age of 16, through high school youth group events, into college and its influx of both knowledge and doubt, etc. For some, the idea of reading about such a predictable "Jesus phase" might sound boring and tedious. For the rest of us, the article was like a walk down memory lane. Ms. Misener is also a gifted writer. A couple of my favorite lines:
To use the jargon of my former life, I became a "believer" in Christ shortly after my mom "got saved" -- the term evangelicals use to mean a conversion to a very specific kind of Christianity, the Billy Graham and gay Teletubbies kind that preaches Jesus as the only path to salvation.
Once at a college party, I tried to convince people not to drink by asking them to think deep existential thoughts about why they drank. (A beneficial thing to ponder, probably, but not one undergrads are dying to muse on between keg stands.)
Yeah. it's familiar. Which, after a chuckle or two could have been the end of it. But a friend of mine from high school sent me an email in response:
That Buzzfeed article you posted a few days ago about the girl who misses being an evangelical got me thinking. I also identified with much of her story, and lately I've been debating whether or not I still want to claim the "Christian" label. I've definitely distanced myself from evangelical culture and flat out reject a lot of the views typically associated with evangelical Christianity (inerrancy and divinity of all scripture, beliefs about gender and sex, etc), but since that's the brand of Christian I've grown up in, I'm not quite sure how to be a Christian without being an evangelical one. I know a lot of things I don't believe anymore; I'm not sure what exactly I do believe. I do know that I miss feeling connected to a church community, and the sense of purpose and belonging and connection to divine that comes with it.
So I'm curious: you said you would still call yourself a Christian, and I'm wondering what that means for you, or how that plays out.
A perfect set of questions. Stuff Christians should, in my opinion, always be asking themselves and each other. The following is my reply:
Do you remember the first time you heard that the word Christian translated to "little Christ"? Of everything else we learn as young Christians, this is one of the easiest things to understand. To be a Christian is to be like Christ. What would Jesus do? We all asked that question, and we all wore the bracelets.
Demonstrably, Jesus was the best possible human being. Earnest, curious, friendly, engaged, passionate, tender, humble, strong, kind, merciful, protective, quick to listen, slow to anger, full of love. There was no one he wouldn't embrace. No one he wouldn't speak with or listen to. Where there was a firmly rooted prejudice against a segment of the local population--based on gender, race, religion, disease--Jesus flouted it. He forgave before forgiveness was requested; sometimes, even before a trespass has been made.
When I call myself a Christian today, it's a promise. I am committing to the world that I will be as Christ-like as possible in my everyday dealings with it.
Like you, I have distanced myself from the Evangelical Church Machine, the one which sold all that WWJD merchandise to children in the name of salvation. The one which called Mormons evil and misled for decades, but then backed Mitt Romney as the true "Christian candidate" against Barack Obama in 2012. The one which mobilized billions of dollars and millions of voters to pass a law making same-sex marriage illegal, but fails to move an inch to help children from Central America running for their lives.
But I think you and I, coming from the same foundation of faith, need to be careful where we cast our disenchantment. Church with a big C is a fat, dangerous, manipulative, manmade phony. It's a hierarchy which serves those on high. Where men with power have been left alone too long with the tools to build and maintain a system, the result is always one which protects the status quo.
Church with a little c remains to be a potentially beautiful thing. We've seen it. We've had a hand in it. A healthy church community can be an incredible source of purpose, belonging, and connection. It also gives those inside it a sense of security. Lose your house? Someone will take you in. Lose someone you love? Someone will comfort you, bring you food, and assist you with the details of moving on. Scared? Worried? Confused? Someone will protect you and hold your hand as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Atheists laugh at Christians for being childlike in our belief that someone is watching over us. We don't want to be alone, they say. We can't handle the bigness and difficulty and unfairness of life on our own. They're right about that. Life is, in some capacity, too much for every one of us. We will all come up against a day too hard. But there is plenty of evidence in favor of our Christian faith. Just peek through the doors of a healthy church. One where no member will ever be asked or expected to weather the storm on his own. On the hardest days, the church steps in and shares the load. That's the fulfillment of every one of God's earthly promises. We do it for each other. As Christ would.
This is why one of my atheist friends asked me recently, "Why isn't there a church for atheists? We need all that stuff, too."
(Of course, there are churches for atheists . There are also governments, like those in Scandinavia, which attempt to meet those earthly needs for their citizens in an areligious fashion.)
I also miss being connected with a church in this way, but none of that stuff is salvational. Which brings us back to the Biblical definition of Christianity. If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Do I still believe this? I don't know.
It is equally as impossible to disprove the existence of God as it is to prove the existence of God. I wish the atheists luck at the former, but I'm not going to waste my energy on the latter. One more bit of evidence that I am no longer an evangelical Christian. I merely have hope, and I'm prepared to share this hope with anyone who asks about it.
Today, I think the Bible, as fractured and flawed as it absolutely is, remains a valuable book. A guide. A comfort. A set of proverbs and suggestions. Even, at times, a cautionary tale about what it happens to primitive societies founded on patriarchies and at the mercy of the whims of a wrathful, jealous God. Against all odds, some of it continues to make sense to me when I hold it up to the light of our troubled, modern times, and I cling to those parts. Like the boy with the sleigh bell at the end of The Polar Express , I take it out and shake it to make sure I can still hear the sound. And it's good to do this, because no set of beliefs should ever be left unexamined. Mold grows too fast in dark places.
I believe in God. I believe in heaven. I believe I'll see a LOT of people there. Possibly every person who has ever lived. I believe science is good, and often, at least in a practical sense, more helpful to the masses than religion has ever been or will ever be. (I watched and loved and learned so much from Neil de Grasse Tyson's Cosmos . Bereft that it's over.) I believe that any church that tells its congregants not to read or watch or ask questions about something is putting stumbling blocks in the path of believers. I believe sexual orientation is a question of biology, and that being born into a minority shouldn't limit anyone's human rights. I further believe that battles over same-sex marriage and the like only diminish the true purpose of the church on earth: to feed the hungry, clothe the destitute, house the homeless, and be kind to all. To be a place of meeting and fellowship for those who have promised to live in the world the way Christ would.
Dedicated to the victims of the July 22, 2011 bombing and massacre in Oslo and on Utøya. Be kind to one another.