Stained Glass, II: Why I Am a Christian
Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid. Believe in God; believe also in me. — John 14:1
To be Christian means to believe that Jesus of Nazareth, born to an unmarried peasant in an obscure corner of the Roman empire during the reign of Caesar Augustus and executed for sedition and blasphemy in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate roughly 30 years later, was the unique, definitive, and unrepeatable earthly appearance of the Creator who threw the whole show across the stage in the first place.
What Christians mean to say is that in Jesus of Nazareth, we encounter the reality and personality of God more intimately and transparently than any other place in the universe or any other moment in history.
But this passage from John is a little strident, isn’t it? “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” says Jesus to Thomas. “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you know my Father too. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Jesus is THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life. NO ONE comes to the Father but through him. Jesus almost sounds like Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Benedict XVI, when the former Cardinal said that all other religions but Christianity are “gravely deficient.”
Why do I subscribe to this extravagant hypothesis? Why do I cling to this excluding and strident Gospel text? Why am I a Christian?
There are some obvious but inferior reasons to be a Christian. There is, for example, The Genetic Reason. Maybe I believe because belief is native or endemic to my personality. Maybe I am genetically prone to excessive credulity. Maybe I believe whatever story you tell me: that babies are born to virgins, grow up to turn water into wine, heal the sick, raise the dead, and then walk out of the grave themselves after brutal execution.
Maybe faith is like left-handedness; you don’t learn it or earn it or discover it, you’re just born with it. Maybe I was born with the faith gene. And there are others born without the faith gene; maybe they grow up to be Agnostics.
One of the characters in a Woody Allen movie says, “Faith is like perfect pitch; either you have it or you don’t.” You see what he means; you can’t learn perfect pitch; either you have it or you don’t; faith is like that, maybe. Maybe I believe in God because I’m just natively, endemically, a credulous person.
But then, of course, when I look closer, I find that I am in fact not an incurably credulous person. I don’t believe in UFO’s; I don’t subscribe to The National Enquirer; I’ve never been to Lourdes and don’t want to go; I don’t believe the World Wrestling Federation is an honest sport; I don’t believe that the Virgin Mary pops up here and there with unnerving frequency to deliver private messages to a lucky few Catholics; I don’t believe the inauguration in January was the largest ever; I didn’t believe the Cubs could EVER come back from a 3-1 deficit in the World Series last fall until I saw it with my own eyes. I don’t believe a Major League baseball team can win 22 times in a row; I don’t even believe my wife when she tells me I’m cute, but I want you to know that she does. I’m actually quite skeptical. Yet I believe in God. So there has to be more to it than The Genetic Reason.
Then too there is The Accidental Reason. Maybe I’m a Christian because I was, by chance, raised in a Christian home, and if I had not been raised in a Christian home I would quite simply not be a Christian.
Maybe faith is like language. You speak English because it was the lingua franca of your household; you don’t choose it; you just absorb it, you inhale it, you ingest it, you never consider any alternative till they teach you Spanish in the sixth grade and by the time you’re twelve it’s too late to get English, or faith, out of your system, out of your head, so for the rest of your life you dream in English and your aspirations are Christian.
Maybe faith is like language. You absorb your religion from your home. I won’t argue with you on that point. I won’t dispute the point that for the vast majority of earthlings, religious faith is an accident of birth. I won’t dispute the point because I’m not much interested in this reason. It might be a popular reason to believe, it might be the only reason many of us believe, but it is an inferior reason, because, as it is often nicely put, “God has no grandchildren.”
That is to say, you aren’t related to God on your mother’s side. A secondary or derivative relationship with God is no relationship at all. You don’t really know God and you don’t really believe in God until in your maturity you make your parents’ faith your own.
That’s what confirmation is all about. That’s why Katie and Ben and Silvi work so hard with our ninth-graders. When they were six months old, their parents, without asking their permission, made a presumptive choice for them; they’ve been living with that choice by default for 14 years now, but next spring, some of them, most of them, will make their parents’ faith their own. They’ll cease being God’s grandchildren and become God’s children instead.
But WHY make this faith your own? There are more substantive reasons for being Christian. For instance, there is The Church Reason. That is to say, if the resurrection of Jesus is a hoax, a lie, or a mistake, how else to explain the enduring reality of the Christian Church?
The Roman Empire collapsed but the Church survived and thrived. The British Empire shrunk and disappeared, but the Church keeps growing bigger; today, there are two billion Christians in the world, all birthed from the thin, shaky, unverifiable testimony of a few eyewitnesses. The American Empire will shrink or collapse under pressures from within and without, but the Church, as halting and feeble and feckless as it surely most often proves to be, will survive, until the end of time; mark my words. Do you not see the hand of God in that?
First Methodist Church of Greenwich was one block from my last church. Ken Kieffer, the pastor there, was a friend of mine. He had the best sermon titles in town. Every day of my life to get to work I had to drive past his blasted sermon sign on the front lawn of his church and every time I did I suffered a daily crisis of professional self-confidence: I can never be as good as Ken at sermon titles.
One year the Sunday after Easter the sermon title on Ken’s sign read like a newspaper headline: Christ’s Body Found. Now, that’s a provocative headline; that’s a provocative sermon title. What, was Ken going to tell his congregation that Christ wasn’t really risen from the dead, that they’d found his desiccated remains? No, I’ll bet you anything that what Kieffer meant was that the world noticed the Church, the world has found Christ’s body. I’m a Christian partly because I’ve found Christ’s body, and it’s you, a reality inexplicable unless the resurrection is true.
And those early Christians built a robust, vigorous, life-giving institution into the teeth of the worst possible persecution: threats of prison, death, torture, humiliation, and banishment. Is it so outlandish to believe that they did it because they’d truly met the Risen Christ on their own Emmaus or Damascus Roads?
They might have been wrong, but they weren’t lying. People will die for a mistake, but not for a lie. As Pascal put it, “I prefer those witnesses who get their throats cut.” When witnesses are threatened with death, they don’t persist in their defense of a lie, or even an improbability. What did they see? Whom did they meet? I’m a Christian because Christ’s body has been found, and it is you. God’s hand is in that.
One more good reason to be a Christian. This reason is better than The Genetic Reason, better than The Accidental Reason, better than The Church Reason; you might be a Christian because of The Beautiful Reason. That is to say, you might be a Christian because when you read the Gospels you can’t in your wildest dreams imagine a more beautiful existence. I mean, if you can’t find divinity in Jesus, I just can’t imagine where else you might look.
The doctrine of the Incarnation is an extravagant hypothesis indeed, but maybe the Church ascribed divinity to this life because there was simply no other way to explain it. His life was so uncommon that it was terrestrially inexplicable. He simply must have come from some other place, some other world, and returned to the same when he’d lived his earthly life and delivered his heavenly message.
We don’t know that it’s true, but we know that it is good, and even if it isn’t true, even if Jesus is only a great man and a great teacher and not God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, as the creed puts it, even if he isn’t all of that, what other life deserves your most loyal allegiance?
Even if we’re wrong about that, isn’t his life the one you want to put on every day? Isn’t it Christ’s clothing you want to wear? That’s why I’m a Christian: because it’s what I want to wear, it’s what I want to put on. Oh, I know I don’t look very good wearing it. I know it doesn’t fit very well. It’s just that I hope that after putting him on every day, one day the clothing might fit a little better and I’ll begin more and more to look like him and live like him.
The young actor Hayden Christensen plays Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars films. Anakin Skywalker is the Jedi Knight who gives in to the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader.
In the early Star Wars films, an actor named David Prowse played Darth Vader, partly because David Prowse was 6’8″ tall, but for the sixth Star Wars movie, Revenge of the Sith, Hayden Christensen convinced George Lucas to construct a Darth Vader costume for him. “I’m Darth Vader,” he reasoned. “I want to be Darth Vader.” They put extensions into his costume so that he could stand 6’8″.
An interviewer once asked Mr. Christensen what it felt like every day to get into that menacing black armor and that sinister dark mask with the rasping, ominous breathing machine. Mr. Chistensen said that the costume itself emanates a dark and mysterious power. “You walk with a little more confidence,” he says. “You can see people on the set reacting to it. It’s hard to describe but after a little while, I thought, ‘I am Darth Vader.’” After a while, you are what you wear. After a while, you become what you pretend to be. What, whom, do you wear? What, whom, do you pretend to be?
You have to be at least 50 to remember this, but that describes many of you, so some of you will remember that spectacular television mini-series Holocaust from 1978. You might remember the actor Michael Moriarty playing the good-hearted young lawyer Erik Dorf who then turns into a mass murderer as a Nazi SS Commandant. After 475 minutes of pretending to be Erik Dorf, Michael Moriarty had had enough. It was just wrenching to put on that Nazi uniform every day on the set, and if it had gone on any longer, he says, he would have had to quit because he felt that he was becoming Erik Dorf. He lived into that part so fully that his whole being was, he says, being riven and corrupted by his pretending. What, whom, do you wear? What, whom, in your pretending, are you becoming? What do you want to be?
I want to wear Jesus. I am a Christian because that stupid little hackneyed question ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ can never lead me astray. I am a Christian because when I see other people asking themselves that stupid little hackneyed question, I want to be like that.
I know a captain of industry, a lifelong Baptist, who had the chance to make tens of millions of dollars but turned it down because it meant selling his company to strangers who’d let his loyal employees go.
I know an Episcopalian who takes the huge bonus his board awards him every year and doles it out to the 100 lowest-paid employees at his firm who don’t get a raise or a bonus most years.
I know a 12-year-old Catholic who rears up in scary but righteous indignation when his classmates make fun of the Down’s Syndrome child he sits next to in class.
I know a man who retired at 45 to work 50 hours a week for the Red Cross for free, for nothing, for everything. And I want to be like that.
I served my previous church for 17 years, and during a long tenure like that, staff members come and go, stay and are then gone, but for a brief, wonderful window of time, I had an all-star team—a Dream Team—maybe not as spectacular as my present staff, but pretty close. I had a Joan, a Judy, a Jim, and a Josh; and you know how much I love alliteration, so I used to boast to my congregation about my ministry team of Joan, Judy, Jim, Josh, and Jesus.
Except that Josh WAS Jesus. Josh was my Youth Minister, the Silvi Pirn of First Presbyterian Church Greenwich. He was infallibly honest, relentlessly kind, and self-giving to a fault. Josh was incorruptible. He refused to take credit for his multiple successes and then took the blame for other’s mistakes. I don’t know how many times Josh stepped in front of a colleague and took a verbal bullet for her or him.
I always reminded myself that that’s what Mother Mary called her firstborn son: Josh, because ‘Jesus’ is the Greek form for the Hebrew name ‘Joshua.’ I want to be like Josh, Josh of Greenwich and Josh of Nazareth.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” said Jesus to Thomas in that upper room the night before he died. “No one comes to the Father except through me.” I’m a little uncomfortable with that strident text from the Gospel of John, because of what it implies about the faith and life of people who discover God in other ways. It claims a monopoly on the knowledge of God and suggests a narrowness that is unbecoming and unhelpful in this tiny, crowded world where we live close by neighbors with alternative commitments. So my core confession might not be as confident as St. John’s. John says Jesus is THE Way, THE Truth, and THE life. My more modest confession is that Jesus is MY Way, MY Truth, and MY Life.
And then, once we’ve seen God’s glory precisely there, in Jesus of Nazareth, maybe we’ll know how to watch for God in other places. That’s how Barbara Brown Taylor talks about it. She says: “Having beheld God’s glory [in Jesus Christ], we might find ourselves better equipped to recognize God’s glory all over the place, including places where Christian doctrine says it should not be. I know Christians who’ve beheld God’s glory in a Lakota sweat lodge, in a sacred Celtic grove, at the edge of a Hawaiian volcano, and in a Hindu temple during the Festival of Lights.” Once we’ve learned from Jesus what God’s really like, you see, then we know what to watch for, and we might find God all over the place.
Blaise Pascal, quoted by C. Stephen Evans in Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 77.
Mike Snider, “Star Wars Universe Revolves Around Darth Vader,” USA Today, April 22, 2005, p. 2A.
I borrow this illustration from Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., in an unpublished lecture sometime during the 1990’s. I cannot recall when or where.
Slightly adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor in a lecture entitled “Way Beyond Belief: The Call to Behold,” at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, April 24, 2004.