The Christian Life: What is Christianity?
Introduction-A Few Brief Portraits:
- …the father who sits contently church beside his wife and children, singing songs of praise to Jesus. On Monday, instead of waking late with a hangover from the night before as he used to do, he sets to work before the sun even rises, digging potatoes out of the burning dust because he finally understands that the more he sweats, the more likely it is that his son and daughter won’t have to.
- …the soft cries of a young woman, still almost a child, who collapses into the arms of an officer of the International Justice Mission, knowing, finally, that she is free—her days of sexual slavery are finally at an end.
- …the teenage boy, his body wracked and thin from drug addiction, who falls to his knees in silent struggle. Finally, like the scorching heat of a bursting volcano, a desperate cry rises from his soul, “No!” Then, in quiet prayer, staring down that next hit that lay on the bed before him, he says, “No. I have seen the truth. I matter. I matter more than this.”
But is it also…
- …the father who sits contently in church beside his wife and children, singing songs of praise to Jesus who then stays at work late on Monday to be with his mistress instead of going to his son’s basketball game.
- ...the rich, red blood of an Arabian child, flowing like a gentle stream, released by shining blade of a sword held by a Templar Knight, purging the heretics of the Crusades.
- …the desperate cries of a mother who has just watched her daughter fall dead before her, the victim of a bomb planted inside an abortion clinic by one fanatically defending his belief in the “Right to Life.”
In one way or another, Christianity is woven into each of these situations. With such tremendous disparity in the emotional tone and timbre of these images, however, how is one supposed to understand where to find the essence of what defines Christianity?
Seen from one side, it is not difficult to imagine how there are those who view the Christian world as an abusive social structure of religious superstition that those in power have used to manipulate the masses for the benefit of the few, both in the present and throughout history. Yet, seen from the other side, it is also easy to imagine how there are those who view the Christian world as a source of hope and strength and salvation in a brutal and uncaring world. Where is the truth in the midst of such polar opposites?
Reconciling the Differences:
If one looks across the spectrum of Christian belief, one can find many, many details that are vastly different from one belief system to the next. One denomination will claim homosexuality is a mortal sin where another will regularly ordain homosexual ministers. One speaker will emphasize how God warns us against the dangerous seductive power of material things while another suggests that God very intentionally moves to provide his followers with material wealth. Opposites are everywhere.
For this reason, Christians argue endlessly about which interpretation represents Christian “truth.” Of course, all of them lay claim to it, but, to openly and honestly recognize the whole of Christianity, one must accept the historical events of the Spanish Inquisition just as readily as one accepts the truth of the life of Mother Theresa. Those who reach out to homeless orphans are as much a part of Christian reality as are the priests who abuse their alter boys, leaving them scarred for life. Good or bad, all of it together defines the human reality of Christianity.
What, then, holds all of this together? However disparate their actions and their belief systems might be, the only common factor shared among all Christians is the claim to Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible as the ultimate source of truth.
On Interpreting Truth:
If all of these people, both past and present, claim the same source for their actions and beliefs, then how is it that all of these manifestations of Christianity are so vastly different? The answer is found in the human condition. The abuse of power, manipulation of the less fortunate, lying, stealing and hypocrisy stand along side humility, self sacrifice, honesty, philanthropy and integrity as natural outgrowths of both human nature and human social structures. Given time, all of these eventually emerge in one way or another. This holds true both in the present time and throughout history.
Christianity, for good or for evil, is a religion—a gathering of people come together for the worship of God. As a gathering of people, it requires a large organizational structure and is, therefore, subject to the same natural strengths and weaknesses of all human organizations. The same human elements of both beauty and ugliness will eventually emerge, and, sadly, simply claiming Jesus as one’s savior and reading the Bible occasionally does not inoculate one against natural human failings. Thus, human darkness seeps in to places where it does not appear to belong.
Yet, Jesus is quite clear about the fact that faith in God has transformational power. In the Gospel of John, Jesus states to his disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5 NIV) Quite simply, if you follow him then you are, in some measure, capable of becoming like him—generous and kind and loving to your neighbor, free from the ugliness of human failing. But, if Jesus speaks the truth, then why are there so many who claim him as their savior who are deceitful and manipulative?”
There must be something more to the puzzle.
Will the Real Christian Please Rise?
How, then, can one define “true” Christianity apart from all of these complications? That is, where can one find Christian “truth” instead of Christian smoke and mirrors? As mentioned earlier, Jesus of Nazareth is always at the center. The problem is that it is so very easy to lose sight of him amidst the business of living life.
Even so, Jesus was—and still is—the only true “Christian” to ever walk the Earth. He is the only consistent measure of all things that claim Christianity as their motivation. Take any Christian action or any Christian event and hold it up beside him. His light will illuminate the truth and the darkness will be revealed. There are no “true” Christians other than Jesus. All others are just trying their best given what they have, and, in some way, big or small, they all fall short. None of them are him.
So, for those who truly seek to discern where Jesus is at work in the world, then do not make the mistake of getting caught up in the great works or the great travesties of the Christian church or even those who call themselves Christians. Instead, get to know him. Study his life. Pray. And, yes, join a church; join in faithful fellowship with other believers who consider, question and challenge one another to grow in their understanding of who Jesus really was and what he really intended for the people of this world.
Jesus—and Jesus alone—is true Christianity. If you wish to understand it, get to know him and decide for yourself. For Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 NIV) He meant it.