I have found that people want those things which are near and dear to them to be well-understood and well-represented in public discourse. When people are talking about your favorite sports team, or travel location, or musical artist, you don’t care so much that they love that thing as much as you do—although certainly you want that—as much as you simply want them to have their facts straight when opining on the matter at hand. It’s one thing if someone says they don’t like travelling to Paris. It’s another altogether if they say they don’t like travelling to Paris because there’s no cultural history.
With that sentiment in mind, I wanted to address eight widely circulated misconceptions regarding Christianity. I’ve chosen to contest these misconceptions primarily through writing “pop philosophy.” That is, you won’t see deep engagement with leading scholars on these matters; rather, I hope that you’ll trust that I’ve done some of that legwork in the preceding months and years and what you have in front of you is a distillation of that research written with an eye toward clarity and simplicity. Without further ado, the misconceptions.
The practice of Christianity is primarily about becoming a better person
This one has a ring of truth to it. But what I am reacting against is principally the notion that Christianity is a program for moral improvement, a list of divine rules one agrees (often reluctantly) to follow in exchange for the promise of the afterlife. In my best moments, this bears no semblance to the daily practice of my faith. To reduce Christianity to do’s and don’ts is commensurate with reducing marriage to honey-do lists. There’s just so much more.
When marriage is healthy (and I speak from over 1,000 days of experience), it is the relationship—the mutual affection and shared dreams and intimacy—that in turn motivates the little acts of service, the desire to be better for the other, to love selflessly.
And it is much the same in Christianity. Christians are called to first and foremost love God, and though it may sound strange, the Bible actually uses the metaphor of two lovers in marriage as one of its many pictures of the relationship between God and man. Christianity then promises that as we try our best to love God and to love others, God actually works on our hearts, perhaps like a potter tinkering with clay, so that we can be better people.
I don’t think that you have to believe in God to change or to become a better person. I don’t think that Christians are better people on the whole than non-Christians. I speak only for myself and those that I know, and I see changes in myself and in others that I can only attribute to God.
Christians are a group of people wholly certain of God’s existence
There is a sense in which Christianity looks foolish according to common convention. It is a faith built on the idea of being weak so that you can be strong and dying so that you can live. There’s a lot about Christianity that cannot be understood through wisdom or reason. At junctures it is paradoxical. In short, it is something that you enter into by faith and not by logic.
Now, there are some Christians who talk as though knowing God is like knowing the answer to a remedial math problem. That’s never been my experience. If God were reducible to knowledge, He would be no God at all. And, in any result, acknowledging existence has never been the primary goal anyway. Would my wife be satisfied that I merely believed her to be a real person?
No, instead Christians follow God with the inward subjectivity of faith and we appropriate our beliefs with the inward subjectivity of faith. In other words, we don’t uncover the universal formula that illuminates God’s existence and then follow another formula to navigate life. Rather, each person’s life as a follower of Jesus will be as unique as that person.
This does not mean that we check our reason at the door when we choose to believe. Rather, it means that we need something more than reason, and that something is faith.
Christianity is a crutch
I won’t spend much time on this one, but I address it because I have heard many people tell me that they either currently regard or once regarded religion as a crutch for weak people—that it was something that allowed people who were losing in life to feel good about themselves.
I’ll say merely this: if I was looking for comfort I would have abandoned Christianity long ago. My life is much harder because I have chosen to follow Jesus. It’s true: Jesus did say, “Take my way of life upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” But he also said, “Whoever wants to be my follower must deny themselves.” My experience has been a little of each. But I will say, in my life following God has been harder than not following God in the same way that being an employee is harder than being self-employed. My choices are no longer wholly my own and sometimes surrendering the “my way or the highway” mentality can sting a little bit when the rubber meets the road.
The Old Testament had all kinds of strange laws, like don’t eat shellfish or don’t mix the fabric in your clothes, so we can throw out its other moral imperatives as well
The first thing we need to know to address this question is the relationship between the Christian, living after Jesus, and the Old Testament law. Christians believe that Jesus “fulfilled the law”, in much the same way that a benefactor might “fulfill” our obligation to a school to which we owe student loans. The benefactor does not cancel the student loans or argue that they should not have to be paid. Similarly, Jesus does not say that the Old Testament laws were invalid or worthless.
Now, theologians tend to divide the laws (there are 613, by the way) into three types: moral, ritual, and judicial. Ritual laws govern the way that Jews enter into relationship with God (as in statutes concerning sacrifices and temple practices); Christians believe that Jesus is like a new temple and that all we have to do to have relationship with God is to put our trust in him. Judicial laws govern interactions between people. They were designed to differentiate the Jewish people from surrounding nations in hopes of bringing attention to the uniqueness of their God. Again, this principle still exists in Christianity but now, instead of our lives pointing to God by our dress or our eating practices, our lives point to God by our conduct. Moral laws are self-explanatory, things like “don’t be jealous of your neighbor’s stuff” or “honor your parents.”
Let’s examine the difference between a law telling you not to mix two kinds of fabric and a law telling you not to desire your neighbor’s stuff. Did you know that the high priest of the Israelites wore an ephod made with two different kinds of fabric? The principle behind the law, then, was that there should be some distance or means of differentiation between the high priest and the people. Since Jesus is the high priest of Christianity, we might contextualize this law to the practice of Christianity basically by saying, “You’re not Jesus.” But what’s the principle behind “don’t be jealous of your neighbor’s stuff”? It’s “don’t be jealous of your neighbor’s stuff,” isn’t it? The principle is intransigent and therefore still applicable today. The only difference is, the punishment associated with not fulfilling the moral laws has been assumed by Jesus when he died on the cross. We do not follow moral laws in order to enter into relationship with God; rather, we do out of our love for God and one another.
There are hundreds of books about Jesus’ life that say very different things than the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but the early church deliberately excluded those to bring unity to the religion
I will be very brief here because in my experience, the people who make this argument have generally not read the four Gospels in comparison to some of these other books (like the Gospel of Thomas). First, the four Gospels were all written between 60 AD and 90 AD. The Gospel of Thomas was written sometime between 110 AD and 250 AD. Long before the canon of Scripture was established (around 350 AD), bishops like Eusebius were calling the Gospel of Thomas and others like it heretical.
Picking out the four Gospels from amongst the other accounts of Jesus’ life is like picking out the four beachballs in a sea of tennis balls. The Gospel of Luke starts off like this: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you.”
Now, this is how the Gospel of Thomas begins: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Pretty different, huh?
Jesus was a great leader and person but had no interest in being the foundation of a religion
At one juncture Jesus says, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” The Greek word for church here is ἐκκλησίαν (ecclesian) and it comes from the words ek, meaning ‘out from’ and kaléō, meaning ‘to call’. So the word ‘church’, in this context, refers to an assembly of people who have been called out from the world. I have to conclude from this that Jesus was definitely interested in starting a movement, a movement that involved inviting people to be a part of something different than the traditional structures and practices of the world.
Christianity is aligned with a political tradition
To understand this we first have to understand the cultural context into which Jesus was born. At that time, there were four dominant social groups within Judaism. Not everyone formally belonged to these form groups, but just about everyone identified with the ideology of one of these groups. They were:
–The Sadducees: The Sadducees were the aristocracy of the day, closely aligned with Roman authorities. They wanted to maintain the political status quo because the status quo had been good to them, affording them much wealth.
–The Pharisees: The Pharisees were the religious elite, admired by many Jews for their strict adherence to the law. They were resentful of the Roman government because they believed it was not authorized by God and infringed on their ability to truly practice Judaism.
–The Essenes: The Essenes were a separatist movement and lived largely “off the grid.” The saw themselves as religiously holy and the rest of Judaism as corrupted by the influence of the world. More than anyone, the expected a Messiah that would reward them for their righteousness and judge the compromises of everyone else.
–The Zealots: The Zealots were the social mischief-makers of the day. They hated Roman captivity and wanted to hatch a revolution to overthrow the government. They hoped for a political Messiah that would take his rightful place as the literal King of the Jews and restore the Israelites as a ruling people. During Jesus’ life, there were many Zealot uprisings and, consequently, many jailed and executed Zealots.
Each of these groups expected a Messiah who would exalt the things that they were doing and judge everyone else. And yet Jesus didn’t align with any of these groups. The reason that I am confident in saying that Jesus wouldn’t be a part of any political movement today is because he wouldn’t be a part of any political movement in his day.
One thing you must know about Jesus: he will not be a part of your agenda. He enacts his own agenda. And the reason that people did not recognize Jesus for who he was is they were looking for something else. The Sadducees didn’t want a Messiah because they preferred the comforts of wealth and political power. The Pharisees rejected God because their self-righteousness had become their God. The Essenes missed out on Jesus because they couldn’t imagine a Messiah who would want to love and restore everyone, not just the do-gooders like themselves. And the Zealots couldn’t see Jesus as the Messiah because he didn’t have social and political motivations, because he was more concerned about fulfilling a spiritual purpose that a political one.
I do believe that there are certain aspects of modern day conservatism and that there are certain aspects of modern day liberalism that Jesus would be in favor of. I’m just not sure which aspects those are 😉
Christianity is a Western religion
This is simply no longer the case. Today, more Christians live in sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe. There are more Christians in the Philippines than France and Great Britain combined. And, according to Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University, by 2030 there will be more Christians in China than in the United States. For centuries, unfortunately, the spread of Christianity was slowed by nations that would only offer Christianity in the context of conquest. Today, missionaries travel from countries like South Korea, the Philippines, and Brazil to European nations, not vice versa. I’ve always been a little bit disheartened when people chalk my Christian faith up to something like genetics, as if a relationship with God was like unattached earlobes. I can honestly say that today, the Christian faith knows no singular ethnicity, language, or nationality.
Wow, that was long! So, are you still here or did I lose you? Do you have any questions or points of contention? If so, please comment below or shoot me a message on Facebook. Thanks for reading!