I’m always going back to the most basic question: “what is this whole Christianity thing about?” To some, it seems obvious: maybe that it’s about preserving patriarchal, traditional values – “and by the way, I want nothing to do with it.” Others might be curious: I grew up in church. Should I get my kids involved? Why? What are we about? What’s our focus? And why should anyone care?
I’m intrigued by little books that present the basics, like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. New Testament professor C. Kavin Rowe, in his book Christianity’s Surprise, brings up three ways Christianity seemed surprising, fresh and new to the world when it first appeared: first, in the kind of overarching story it told about everything; second, in its vision of what humans are; third, in its institutions. We discussed his ideas in some recent adult forum classes. Here are some of my thoughts in summary.
First, says Rowe, Christians have a story: not just a collection of bible fables and sayings to believe in or reject, but a shared “this is who we are” story that gives us a place in this world -a ‘why we’re here’ and a ‘where we’re headed.’’ Think of how your grandparents told you how they got through the Great Depression, adding “you too can get through what you face.” Our story is hopeful: as Rowe emphasizes, it’s centered on Jesus’ defeat giving way not to disaster but surprising new life, resurrection.
Many would say the most basic thing about Christianity is its ‘message’ – but that word makes me think of a sentimental one-liner on a greeting card or tweet. ‘Story’ sounds more real, personal, open-ended, adventurous. The ELCA recently said the goal is to tell lots of people the story of Jesus, but maybe what needs to be told are stories, plural: my story, your story, and his- all connected, going somewhere together. The theologian John Webster said Christian hope involves looking backward and forward, at promises made in the past that we can trust and act on as we enter the future. It seems like that kind of hope is what Christians are after.
People do DNA tests; they try to find their ‘tribe,’ they need roots and a story. As Rowe, Stanley Hauerwas (5 and 1/2 minutes in or so in this sermon) and others say, we too often learn that ‘freedom’ means being autonomous and detached. “My story can only be the story I choose for myself.’ I cut myself off from belonging and from obligations to others (as one class participant observed, people say ‘I’m not racist’ while ignoring the history and systems of racism we’re implicated in). Christianity gives us a story and roots. The baptized get to spend each day learningwhat it means to be children of God and to belong to one another.
Which gives us to Rowe’s second theme: Christianity’s vision of the human. What makes us human? Why are we of value? Again, it’s not personal autonomy or anything about us, such as our ability to use reason or to be moral agents or some status we have. It’s that we’re created in the image of God. Rowe points out using passages such as Colossians 1 that this means we belong to Christ (and his story). Christ joins our humanity with divinity; he died and was raised for each of us. Indeed, we can say he’s “the” human – drawing us into his presence when we care for the incarcerated, the poor, and those whose value as humans seems questionable in this world (see Matthew 25, which Rowe discusses). I felt this chapter was a little undeveloped, but it brought me back to the Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:
What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love. God establishes a most intimate unity with this … While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human; and we must recognize that God wills that we be human … In the human Jesus Christ the whole of humanity has been judged; again this is not the uninvolved judgement of a judge, but the merciful judgement of one who who has borne and suffered the fate of all humanity. Jesus is not a human being but the human being. What happens to him happens to human beings. It happens to all and therefore to us. The name of Jesus embraces in itself the whole of humanity and the whole of God. (from pg84-85 of new hardback Fortress edition).
Class participants seemed to be of the opinion that the most basic element of Christianity is love. I think Rowe here is getting at how love transforms the way we see one another.
Finally: the third aspect of Christianity that was new and surprising, says Rowe, were its institutions. Isn’t that what’s wrong with religion? When it gets institutional, and isn’t just a free-flowing social movement? Obviously, we need some level of institution, like meeting places, times, who’s in charge of what. Says Rowe, we need institutions to maintain the story and vision and practices of the church. Hospitals where any human would be cared for were first created by Christian bishops and monastics, Rowe claims. I recently heard Henry Louis Gates Jr. talk about the vitality of the Black Church as an institution during slavery: if you were a child and your parents were suddenly sold, you at least have a somewhat consistent church family that will support you; songs and stories that keep you going. The question is, what institutions does Christianity need today? How can we keep alive the story, the hope, a sense of being connected to all of humanity?
Rowe’s framework is very intriguing. One big remaining question is whether these aspects of Christianity really set it apart from Judaism, let alone other religions.