Real Christianity?

BreakPoint | Stephen Reed | Jan. 13, 2009

More than any other world religion, Christianity asserts an intimate relationship with the divine, lifting human beings above their trying circumstances. So it is that oppressed peoples across the globe have found not only solace but genuine strength and purpose from Christianity, when brought to them in a positive fashion.

But today, with fewer Christian missionaries, Parris says a blanket of human passivity has fallen over the land. So in the most curious of politically incorrect comments, an atheist says that what nations like Malawi need most of all is more Christian missionaries. Kudos to Matthew Parris for seeing what other non-believers (and many believers) refuse to acknowledge, namely that belief in Christ has some powerful and positive effects.

BUT IS IT REAL?
Parris neatly sidesteps the issue as to whether the power Christians say is responsible for their change is from an actual divine source, even while he asserts that the transformation he saw among the Malawians of his youth itself is, indeed, real. Such subtle points naturally interest seminarians and other inquiring Christians, who enjoy thrashing around theological discussions the way others might pass a football.

But the questions such thinkers pose to one another are not flip, and many non-Christians also think about the same questions regularly. A recurring question that comes up often in such discussions is simple: Is God and His power for real? Or is faith merely a placebo? As one law school classmate joked with me about my political opinions before class one day, “Well, we all need our coping mechanisms to help us get through the day.”

Does even a robust Christian faith simply make us feel better in a purely physical and emotional way, or are Christians really in touch with an actual divinity that shapes our ends? In short, does a vital Christian faith correspond to the reality we live and see every day?

In the case of Jesus, we have what appears at first to be a mixed bag on the reality front. True, for much of the gospels, Jesus seems so earthy, His parables using images from nature. Yes, He does seem quite real, even modern, in those moments in the Scripture—and for every conundrum given to Him, He has a particularly good answer that we can relate to today. He chose His mini-dramas well, with characters we can see ourselves in: Peter, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Judas.

But on the other hand, we are presented in the gospels with occasions in which Jesus seems very much like someone from a different planet. He tells Peter he must forgive his neighbor 70 times seven if necessary. That seems rather extraordinary! He says nothing in defense of Himself when brought to Pilate, speaking instead of a kingdom but refusing to lead an armed struggle to secure it for himself. And then the forgiveness, the endless forgiveness. No one is really like that, right?

JESUS: UNREAL OR THE MOST REAL OF ALL?
Personally, I think it takes more faith to believe that such a man ever really existed than that He rose from the dead. For Jesus’ reactions to situation after situation go beyond what any good fiction writer could dream up. No religious teacher in ancient Judea would be caught dead talking alone to a woman, let alone one with as sketchy a background as the Samaritan woman at the well. His disciples might well wonder where His judgment was that day. Unreal!

The Pharisees who watched Mary Magdalene pour nard on her Lord’s feet in front of them, wiping them with her hair out of the joy of being forgiven much, were similarly floored. Doesn’t He know how this looks? Any real rabbi would know better, right? Moreover, a creative writer worth his salt would have at least presented Jesus, risen from the dead, as taking care of business with Pilate, the Pharisees, or His weak disciples. But no, Jesus is strong enough, big enough not to bother with such natural human reactions. Such an odd character, different than we expect from a human being! Is this real?

Yet please note the consistency of the character we are presented with in the gospel. Again, perhaps the most astonishing trait about Jesus is that, while being no man’s patsy, He really doesn’t seek revenge, consistent with his oft-stated ethic of forgiveness. Never is this more clear than in the accounts we are given about Jesus and His disciples following the resurrection. The man who predicted Peter’s betrayal before the crucifixion continues to understand and forgive His lead disciple after His resurrection. Any other man would have kicked Peter to the curb.

But not Jesus, who was the literal embodiment of His earlier admonition to His disciples, in which He told them to be both wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. The Jesus we interact with before the crucifixion and after the resurrection is consistent. To Christians everywhere, Jesus’ realness here is defined as His reliability, His strength in times of need, and His genuine love for us.

So what if this really is what God is like? Not weak—in fact, unbelievably strong—yet vulnerable, due to His willingness to enter into real relationships with real human beings. What if God came down and in one life showed us what love really looked like, up close and personal, then had it recorded for generations to come to understand, too?

If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite for more hope about this view of God, what if we added that this Jesus doesn’t expect you to become more like Him overnight but has left behind a Holy Spirit to build us up in the new, more joyful life He wants us to have?

GOOD NEWS, NOT MERELY A GOOD STORY
Yes, people are able to delude themselves into thinking any number of things in this life. A casual look at our own priorities as a culture certainly proves that. But when the gospels tell us of events like the man born blind, and how he and his parents testified about his transformation to the fearful Pharisees, it simply doesn’t read as a fairy tale. The story is presented almost like a news account, very matter of fact, like this miracle is simply the kind of thing that happens when you’re touched by God.

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