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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