Letters to My Daughters #7: “What It Means to Be a Christian”

Letters to My Daughters #7: “What It Means to Be a Christian” December 28, 2013

girl_readingYour world so far has been pretty small. The people you see on a regular basis represent only a tiny sample of the world, but as you get older hopefully you will get to know a much wider range of people. There’s so much to learn from getting to know new people because you grow a little with each new friend you make. New friends add to who you are, so I hope you encounter a wide variety of them as you grow into the women you will become. If you do that you will be challenged to think about familiar things from unfamiliar angles, and you will learn to see old things in a new light. One of those things which will likely be challenged is your definition of what it means to be “Christian.”

At your age, people usually reduce that word to indicate a very narrow, prescribed set of do’s and don’ts: Don’t listen to that music or watch those movies; do listen to this music and watch these movies. Read this, not that. Say these things; don’t say those things, etc. It’s very shallow, but I suppose that’s what they think teens and preteens need: Rules to follow. Hopefully as you get older that will change, although I must admit that for some adults it seems to stay at that level. If you get to know a wide enough variety of believers in your life, however, you will come to see at least three major approaches to the Christian faith (there are many others, honestly, but for simplicity I’m going to describe just three right now): Some see it primarily in terms of a relationship to a book, some see it as a way of living, and some see it more mystically as an inward relationship to a person. And yes, of course many will say that it should ideally be all of the above, but I find that in practice one ends up taking precedence over the others because they often compete with each other for first place. You will eventually have to choose which you feel is the most important, the most central part of what it means to be a Christian.

I suppose it would be too much to expect you to take your dad’s opinion about something over Jesus’s. I mean, I don’t have a major world religion named after me…not yet, anyway :) so instead I’d like to point out where Jesus himself exemplified a more intelligent approach to his faith. The gospels tell us that during his lifetime there were people who fell into that first camp (and in a way, the second as well). They seemed to define their faith primarily in terms of following a book. For them it was all about holding their book in the highest respect, honoring it above all things. Jesus challenged those people most of all—more directly, in fact, and more vehemently than he did the prostitutes and the crooked businessmen. Like many of the prophets before him, he argued that making their religion all about the book wasn’t even being faithful to the book itself. If the book was primarily about living a certain way (e.g. loving compassionately, and pursuing justice for all kinds of people) then it becomes a misuse of and a dishonor to the book to make the book itself your focus.

But that’s precisely how many Christians define what it means to be a follower of Jesus today. They see it primarily as a certain kind of relationship to the Bible. For them, being a Christian is all about agreeing with the Bible no matter what any other source of information tells us (biology, geology, astronomy, sociology, psychology, economics, you name it). If the Bible says the Earth was made in six days, then by golly, that settles it! If it says people and animals were made independent of each other, then no amount of science will persuade them otherwise. If it says that two or more of every species on the planet once fit on a single wooden boat, then no true Christian will disagree with that. If it says a woman shouldn’t lead men, who are you to question what the Bible says? If Paul says that same-sex attraction is unnatural and wrong, then it doesn’t matter how many people you know tell you otherwise, if you want to be called a Christian you have to agree with the Bible no matter what. In other words, for some people, agreeing with the Bible is the most important thing. It’s what being a Christian is all about.

I think Jesus would scoff at this. I really do. If this version of Christianity had been the established religion into which he had been born, I think he would have challenged it. I think he would have argued that following a book—even one which features him—isn’t what life is about. I can’t say for sure what he would say because I’m not personally convinced the men who told his story always got it right. But I do believe that he would push back at this notion that the faith he championed could be defined by your relationship to a book. It seems to me that he majored on teaching a more compassionate way to live. I could be wrong. But it appears that he was preaching about a way of living which couldn’t be reduced to a mechanical list of do’s and don’ts. It seems to me that Jesus questioned the religious dogmas of his day. In fact, it was a defining characteristic for the man. It’s inseparable from his character as we find it in the gospels. So maybe my skepticism towards the religion into which I was born isn’t so non-Christian after all :) Incidentally, as for the third option—the one about emphasizing an inner relationship with a person—I’ll have to address that another time, except to say that it, too, will not share first priority with the worship of a book.

You will be presented with many versions of Christianity throughout your days. I believe I’ve said before that in the end it doesn’t matter to me what you girls believe; what matters to me is the kind of women you become. I want to see you approach whatever belief system you inhabit intelligently. I want to see you willing to ask why, and willing to think deeply about your beliefs. Don’t be afraid to question what you’ve been told (by anybody, including me) and consider the possibility that no book, not even the Bible, should be followed uncritically. Some would argue that’s not even the way Jesus approached his faith. So if you really want to be a follower of Jesus, don’t make a book the object of your worship. That’s not What Jesus Would Do.


If you’d like to read the previous letters, they are compiled here.

And if you haven’t yet taken the Godless Tour, click here for a catalog of previous posts.

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  • Reblogged this on suguangping.

  • Lurker111

    Very nice. How about also a letter about the enemies that you wind up collecting in your life (and, perhaps, guidance on avoiding the collection of enemies where possible)?

    Notes on dealing with difficult people, based on decades of experience, would be valuable to a teenager amenable to parental suggestions.

  • Garrett Glass

    Interesting concept you bring up: worshipping a book. Most Christians would say they reverence the Bible, but don’t worship it. This does not truly reflect a lot of people’s behavior, especially those who claim the Bible is inerrant (incapable of factual error) or infallible (incapable of doctrinal error). Inerrancy in particular leads the believer down a path of unthinking acceptance of Biblical statements and claims that are contrary to nature, or to common sense. The believer has to go to great contortions to defend inerrancy, such as using bogus science to prove the earth is only 6,000 years old. This is on top of the fact that contradictions within the Bible itself have to be ignored, glossed over, or simply denied. Preachers have traditionally cherry-picked statements from anywhere within the Bible, often because they need some theme for a sermon, but they ignore the context surrounding the quote and they compound problems by insisting the statement itself is inerrant. Even the Catholic church claims that everything in the Bible is not simply inspired by God, it is the Word of God. Putting all this together, it is hard not to see that more than reverencing the word is going on here. Worshipping the book is an entirely apt description of what most Christians do, and are in fact required to do by their preachers or church teaching. This is decidedly in contrast to Jesus’ message, since he said you could state the entirety of Jewish scriptures in two simple sentences. I wonder if some day Christianity won’t wake up to what is going on, which is not simply worshipping the Good Book, but practicing a form of idolatry over the written word.

  • Adam

    It always amazes me how people are able to be led into believing that the bible is infallible and in some sense the words of god. We know from history that the bible was written by men. Nothing in the bible was written by Jesus. Everything in the bible was mere interruption of some things he said and didn’t say. On top of all of this the bible has been translated so many times and reworked so many times its extremely difficult to understand what the writers were actually trying to get at. In addition to truly understand the bible you must put yourself into the mindset of an individual who lived at that time. These were people who were extremely superstitious and had only a rudimentary understanding of the world around them. People today try to relate the bible to the 21st century and you normally have to contort the bible so much that you are better of just leaving it in the waste bin of history. The bible is a book that has lost its usefulness and should be looked upon the same as a book about Ra or Zeus.

  • Not a bad idea, “Lurker.” I’m thinking between the two, it would need to be about dealing with rather than avoiding enemies, since I’ve found you can accumulate quite a few even if you do everything right. I’ll give it some thought, though.

  • Lurker111

    Thanks for the consideration. Related to this is the question, When to Lie. I try to avoid lying because it complicates life (too much to remember), diminishes me and diminishes the person or persons to whom I’d be lying.

    That said, there are those strange occurrences in life where someone attempts to use the truth against you in an unethical fashion. For those rare occurrences, one must be ready to lie, lie convincingly, and lie without guilt. For some weird reason, these events tend to occur in my life about once every 5-7 years, and usually involve a busybody whose energy would be put to better use elsewhere.

    Sometimes these things arise in job interviews, and the interviewee should be ready for the matter. Sometimes they arise when an old flame unexpectedly shows at a social event.

    More thoughts for the gray matter.

  • “I think Jesus would scoff at this. I really do. If this version of Christianity had been the established religion into which he had been born, I think he would have challenged it. I think he would have argued that following a book—even one which features him—isn’t what life is about.”

    That is how I see it too. Jesus probably would not at all approve the nonsense that goes on today. Jesus seemed to be the kind of person who told parables so people would think.

  • Depends on how believable the gospels are. The gospels report that Jesus told parables more to conceal and confound than to reveal or clarify.

  • I am not sure right now whether the gospels are believable but it would be nice if Jesus was real so he could put an end to Christianity.

  • Mike

    This is a nice posting that I’m sure many Christians would enjoy reading and promoting.