So much of Christian identity is wrapped up in being “not” some other type of Christian. To shore up our identity, we locate an oppositional other and put distance between us. The sign that we are doing this is that little tweak of repugnance we feel towards another type of Christian. It can manifest, among other ways, with an inner monologue that we sometimes blurt out: “Don’t confuse me with Roman Catholics, I’m an Episcopalian!” Or, “Please – I’m Lutheran not Methodist.” I was especially aware of that type of identity formation when I became a Presbyterian as a young woman after having been raised in the Catholic Church. The panoply of different Protestant denominations was dizzying and I could not easily map the differences, though my new religious community seemed to see those differences as matters of extreme importance. When I joined a United Church of Christ congregation, for the life of me I couldn’t detect any difference on Sunday morning. The biggest difference between UCC and Presbyterian seemed to be in church governance and whether there was a creed. But those differences made no difference at all to how we worshipped, the shape of our mission, or our Christian education programs. And to further confuse my already muddled sense of what it meant to be a Christian today, I became aware that part of my Catholic identity had been engaged with being “not Protestant”.
In Chris Haw’s new book, From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism, he takes us on a journey beyond false difference. He chronicles his life journey from a childhood as a Roman Catholic, to teenage years spent at the Evangelical mega-church Willow Creek, to a radical ministry of presence in the violent city of Camden, NJ, and toward a deep commitment to Catholicism. As we travel with Chris he compels us to look beyond our quick and easy litany of differences to see the beauty and power of the one we had previously called other. If you have ever demonized Evangelicals or Roman Catholics, you must read this book. Whether you have constructed your Christian identity against that “other” or whether you have used your opposition to either or both of them as a way to renounce Christianity, this book will shine a light on what you have been missing. When it’s not so easy to turn our nose up at Evangelicals, we discover the incredible energy and commitment to radical Christian living that they embody and inspire. It was Willow Creek that gave Chris enough faith and hope to go to a place like Camden with a vision of helping to transform it. And it is the experience of attending Catholic mass that taught him that liturgy can transform our relationship to violence. By worshiping the victim of a state execution, by receiving the victim in the form of a “host”, we become aware of our complicity in creating more victims. As Chris writes, “I’ve begun to see the crucifix, the imagery of the Mass, and indeed the whole trajectory of the Bible conveying that we are so prone to blindness that, even if God were to come among us in the flesh, we would respond with torture and murder.”
As powerful and profound as that statement is, this is not a typical book of theology. Chris’ understanding of his faith is rooted in practice. This is as much a compelling memoir as it is a discourse in theology and the weaving of the two reveals that until we attempt to live our theology we don’t know what we truly believe. This is also a hopeful book. Facing the truth about the prevalence of violence in our world can be a recipe for despair. But Chris encourages us by saying, “Evil is contagious, so be cautious; but so is goodness, so take heart.” If you want to find your way into a deeper understanding of what a lived Christian identity is all about, dare to journey with Chris Haw.