In 2010, the bestselling author Anne Rice publicly announced that she no longer identified as a Christian. She wrote on social media, “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
While those words might be shocking to some, they resonated with many people. I certainly could sympathize with what she was saying. In truth, my own spiritual journey has been one of being totally inspired by some Christian communities, while grossly disappointed by others. So, as a Christian who is also a pastor and professor of religion, I am never offended when people tell me that much of Christianity has lost its way from Christ. Sadly, there’s evidence for such criticisms. Sometimes the loudest and most visible faces of Christianity are reactionary, politically partisan, harsh, judgmental, rigidly formulaic, anti-science; nationalistic, opposed to new ideas, and fearful of diversity. It’s hard to square all of that with the Jesus of scripture. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew alone, Jesus taught that the life of faith includes searching and knocking (7:7-8); that the ultimate religious laws are to love God and to show unconditional love for our neighbors (22:34-40); and that feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger are rewarded by eternal life (25:31-46).
The Jesus of scripture doesn’t go around demonizing people outside of his religion as heretics, nor does he accuse physicians of sorcery for learning the elements. The Jesus of scripture doesn’t target sex-workers as moral degenerates, but he does critique traditional definitions of marriage and family. The Jesus of scripture privately and mercifully engages with people caught in the complexities of life, but he rages publicly at self-righteous religious leaders who claim to have it all figured out.
So, when people see Christians (today) doing the opposite of what Jesus did, and teaching what Jesus didn’t, many see Christianity as a domain of hurt and tyranny, rather than a sanctuary of hope and liberating faith. In truth, one can sometimes find better fellowship, love, and support in a tavern than we can within a church.
But here’s the thing. None of this is new. Jesus Christ himself saw similar things happening in his time—and all before the rise of Christianity. Jesus saw that any religion can become a parody of itself when it cares more about tradition than it does about people. For Jesus, public religious identity and common moral prejudices have nothing to do with the ways of God. For example, it was Jesus who proclaimed that prostitutes and tax collectors were going into the kingdom of God ahead of self-righteous keepers of religious tradition (Matthew 21:31). Why? Because prostitutes and tax collectors (though often deplored) could embrace the path of mercy, and they knew the need of love. Jesus celebrated that. What is more, Jesus himself was accused of being a glutton, drunkard, and a friend of sinners for daring to associate authentically with people who didn’t fit a narrow religious mold (Luke 7:34). And while Jesus certainly practiced his faith in temple and synagogue, he also understood that the practice of faith is not limited to these locations.
As a result of the bold, disruptive way of Jesus, people began proclaiming a new faith: The kingdom of God has come near! The king of this kingdom is Jesus! And all who follow the path of Christ and walk in the way of love are citizens of the kingdom of God—on earth as it is in heaven!
That is what it means to be a Christian. It doesn’t mean our theology is always right. It doesn’t mean that we have achieved moral perfection (whatever that turns out to be). It doesn’t mean that we are unmoved by sadness, loss, or death just because we believe in supernatural possibilities. It doesn’t mean we’re anti-science, anti-LGBTQ, anti-women’s equality, anti-critical race theory, or anything like that. No! To be a Christian is to journey more deeply into the mystery of God through the ways and teachings of Christ, as empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that looks like worship, study, and prayer. But it also looks like sharing a meal or a drink with strangers and friends alike. It looks like serving humanity, celebrating the diversity of God’s creation, and delighting in wherever and in whomever the things of God manifest. And most certainly, it looks like finding assurance of God’s love and grace through Christ, especially when we think (or have been told) that we’re unlovable, condemned, or despised.
That’s a journey I believe is still worth making.
And I believe it is all the better when we make that journey together.
-Pastor Rich (November 10, 2021)