If you spent your childhood outside the evangelical bubble before Jesus Christ and his radical, irrational message knocked you flat as an adult, then you, like the apostle Paul, understand the mystery of spiritual conversion. You might have been missing some Christian street cred—an Awana certificate, a Precious Moments figurines collection, a working knowledge of Dove Award winners—but what is all that anyway? You didn’t know the secret handshake at the front gate, so Jesus sprung you an entrance through the back door of God’s Kingdom, and you crossed the divide between life and death.
I’m so stinking jealous of you.
I, on the other hand, spent my life knowing the secret handshake. I suspect I first experienced a cultural conversion, learning the lexicon of American Christianity as one learns his ABC’s. (A man who grows up in Mexico City is hardly applauded when he gets an A in high school Spanish, just as it was simply to be expected that Caroline would grow up to become a Christian.) I was never uncomfortable for one moment inside a church. I knew the idioms and articles of my faith, and I can picture the yellowing photograph of me standing in a blue dress, age 6, at the microphone reciting the 66 books of the Bible in record time.
I spent my early years in the church basement doing hand motions to Christian songs before spending years at a Bible Belt megachurch as a teenager. I rode church buses to summer camp, dropped salvation tracts in bathrooms, listened to The Gaither Vocal Band on 8-tracks, and was afraid to kiss boys for the first half of my life. I never used bad language. I was a Christian back then—a damn good one.
I was a club insider, and that knowledge alone sometimes kept me from intimacy with Jesus Christ. In my mind, the theology of man’s depravity was a Sunday School sticker, not a genetic encoding, so when I did have authentic encounters with God (and I will tell you that I still did despite the showmanship), it was because God’s mercy thwacked my religion.
Consider this analogy: If someone asked you to be a Hindu, what would he expect of you? Would it be like Here’s a sari—put it on! Go and buy a statue of the elephant Ganesha and put it in your front foyer! Watch Bollywood movies, scent your home with cumin, and learn to enjoy the sitar. Is that what it means to be a Hindu? Would that make you an insider? Or is the Hindu identity something else—something less cultural? I am asking the same questions of Christianity in America where it has become, at times, a process of cultural home décor, devotional objects and secret handshakes that have little to do with following Jesus Christ.
Even though my family surrounded itself with the objects of our faith, I can point to the powerful influences that kept me from being poisoned by too much curry, so to speak. The model of my parents’ daily, unadorned faith in Jesus Christ was so simple, so convincing in its power to change people, so lovely in its consistency, that it eclipsed the cultural stuff on most days. I also knew real people who transcended the symbolism and I saw how their Christianity affected the way they served, spoke,and lived. Perhaps most convincing of all was the shift in my own spirit as I matured, and even if the scripture might have been packaged in weirdly marketed ways, the Word of God still made deep cuts into my selfishness. A rapture bumper sticker can't do that.
Let’s remember that the New Testament Pharisees couldn’t grasp the non-religious aspects of Jesus Christ either; they were comfortable with circumcision, Mosaic law, Sabbath observances, and so forth, but really uncomfortable with Jesus. When Christ came to them and told them their secret handshake wasn’t cutting it any more, their exclusive club was in jeopardy of being shut down—of being run over with Gentiles and newbies. It’s no wonder he made people crazy. What do you do with a man like that?
What do we do with a man like that?
First of all, we don’t use the stupid stuff as an excuse to dismiss the essential stuff. I’ve seen scores of young people in particular get all indie-arrogant on me, telling me that mainstream evangelicalism is full of crap, so “let’s all just quit believing in its little fairytales.” People love to use public relations disasters and quotes from smug agnostics to wipe out their theology, but I caution us to explore a little deeper.
Secondly, we look at the global church which is probably a better indicator of what God does with people when the Pharisees aren’t blocking the view. The global Christian church is moving across great swaths of land and sea as we speak with nothing but the transforming work of the Holy Spirit to its credit. I say spend a month abroad and find out what Jesus Christ’s gospel is doing underground. It will shake off the religious excess that’s been getting to you in America.
Thirdly, we quit blogging about Christianity and we pray. Not cheek-pecking, condescending prayers, but hours-long, down and dirty, I’m-gonna-test-this-thing-and-see-if-it’s-for-real prayers. The kind of prayers that become the intersection of Me and the Spirit of God. If you’re feeling like a cultural Christian today, shut off your freaking computer and see if God will meet with you. Then drop me a note and we’ll have lots to talk about.
My husband, who many years ago at age 21 was accosted by the love of Jesus Christ without knowing the secret handshake, is my daily reminder of God’s grace. My parents, who practically invented the handshake, but loved Jesus anyway with an authentic passion, provide the same. But most powerful of all is my own miracle, a reformed Pharisee who is still learning what it means to follow Jesus.
An inspired reminder from Romans 2:If you're brought up Jewish, don't assume that you can lean back in the arms of your religion and take it easy, feeling smug because you're an insider to God's revelation, a connoisseur of the best things of God, informed on the latest doctrines! . . .You can get by with almost anything if you front it with eloquent talk about God and his law. The line from Scripture, "It's because of you Jews that the outsiders are down on God," shows it's an old problem that isn't going to go away. (The Message)