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The Way of Salvation Discussion
Chapter Two Christianity The Way of Salvation Every Christmas Eve when I was a boy, my family would gather around the fire to hear my father read The Christ Child (1931). This children’s book borrows its voice from the stories of Jesus’s birth and youth in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke. It borrows its images from the husband-and-wife team of Maud and Mishka Petersham, illustrators whose watercolors seem to spring off the page with the power and poignancy of miracle. The cover depicts Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem just after His birth. Oddly, both His mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph, have gone missing, so the baby’s only company is a drove of sheep and donkeys that seem to be hanging on His every breath with the sort of obsessive attention usually reserved for new parents (though apparently not these ones). This image is commanded by a bright yellow halo, which recalls an astronaut’s helmet from the 1960s (John Glenn style), or so I thought as a boy. Out of this bubble, which fits snugly over Jesus’s head, springs a series of bigger halos, bursting into the night sky with light like the sun. Clearly there is something special about this kid, who doesn’t seem to object when the wise men come bearing gifts no child has ever heard of (except, of course, for the gold). Eventually He will learn to feed and dress himself, to swing a hammer and pound a nail. He will ride on a donkey into Jerusalem, eat one last meal with His disciples, pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, be betrayed by a friend, endure a show trial, and be scourged, mocked, and crucified. But this is a children’s book, so the scariest it gets here is talk of animals sacrificed at the Jerusalem Temple and an image of Mary, Joseph, and their baby fleeing King Herod into Egypt and a jetblack night. Otherwise Jesus seems to have a pretty cushy childhood. He waxes strong in Joseph’s carpenter’s shop and manages to shake loose from his parents for a few days in the Big City, where he hangs with rabbis in the temple, both listening to them and asking them questions. But this 59 good Jewish boy cannot shake His halo, which sets Him apart, marks Him as chosen wherever He goes—an intangible reminder of the tangible Incarnation. One of the lies of the so-called New Atheists is that the religions are one and the same, but the diversity inside Christianity alone is staggering. In the days before orthodoxy had the power to cast out heterodoxy, the early Christian movement was a willy-nilly affair with a laundry list of soon-to-be heretics that stretched from Montanists and Manicheans to Gnostics and Ebionites, Donatists and Docetics, Arians and Nestorians. If Christians today have largely forgotten the creeds and catechisms, Christians in the first few centuries had not yet written them. Then as now, writes theologian Harvey Cox, there was “no central hierarchy, no commonly accepted creed, and no standard ritual practice.”1 Christianity was up for grabs. For the most part, early Christians defined themselves theologically, depending on how they viewed relations with the Jews, the mix of divine and human natures inside Jesus, and family relations among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Early Christians also gravitated toward competing styles of monastic withdrawal—from peripatetic and solitary desert monks (the term monk comes from monos, Greek for “alone”) to the more settled and less ascetic monastic communities of the Benedictines. Among the many ways of being an ancient Christian was the extreme asceticism of Simeon the Stylite (390–459), the David Blaine of his time, who climbed atop a pillar in his twenties and stayed there for the rest of his life. There have been efforts to rein in this diversity, to bring heretics to their senses and eccentrics like St. Simeon back to earth. The Roman emperor Constantine (272–337), who converted to Christianity in 312, convened the first church council in 325 in Nicaea in modern-day Turkey in an effort to impose uniformity on Christendom. But “the one true church” was as elusive then as it is today. Christianity is now so elastic that it seems a stretch to use this term to cover the beliefs and behaviors of Pentecostals in Brazil, Mormons in Utah, Roman Catholics in Italy, and the Orthodox in Moscow. Unlike Muslims, who have always insisted that the Quran is revelation only in the original Arabic, Christians do not confine God’s speech to the Hebrew of their Old Testament or the Greek of their New Testament. In fact, while Muslims have resisted translating the Quran (the first English translation by a Muslim did not appear until the twentieth century), Christians have long viewed the translation, publication, and distribution of Bibles in 60 assorted vernaculars as a sacred duty. The Jesus film, distributed by the evangelical student group Campus Crusade for Christ International, has been translated into over a thousand languages and viewed in more than 220 countries.2 But Christianity has not just adapted to local tongues. It has taken on local beliefs and practices—from Confucianism in East Asia to spirit possession in Africa. Members of the popular Kimbanguist Church of Congo celebrate Holy Communion with sweet potatoes and honey rather than bread and wine. This strategy of accommodating local cultures is one of the keys to Christianity’s global success, and one of the sources of its dizzying diversity. I was raised in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Cape Cod. Recently I have attended services at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Though separated by only sixty miles, these two congregations are worlds apart. St. Peter’s is lily white and quiet piety. Bethel AME is African American and irrepressible ecstasy. You can set your watch by St. Peter’s services, which never run over one hour, but worship at Bethel AME doesn’t stop running until the Spirit gives out. At St. Peter’s, bodies stay in pews and hands stay on laps, even when the organist tries to rouse them with a black spiritual. At Bethel AME, parishioners are more rousable. They get up and go as the Spirit leads them, raising their arms to heaven as a live band plays praise songs. Yet both are Christianity. So is the Quaker meeting a few miles from my home in East Sandwich, Massachusetts—a dozen or so Friends (as Quakers are called), sitting in silence in old plaids and practical wool, warmed (sort of) by a wood-burning stove, trusting in what silence says as their predecessors have since this congregation formed in 1657. But the Christianity of The Christ Child, and of my childhood, did not trust in silence. It was all about the doctrine of the Incarnation, which to me was as mysterious as adult life in general. According to this core Christian teaching, at the fulcrum of world history God took on the form of a helpless baby, born of a frightened young woman and held in the rough hands of a carpenter. “What if God was one of us?” asks the Joan Osborne pop song. Christianity responds, “He was!” One day He humbled Himself and became a human being, as if Pele or Michael Jordan had decided at the peak of his career to give up his power, prestige, and prosperity for a new life of swaddling clothes among mere mortals. Through the Incarnation, God creatively confused the sacred and the secular, investing the mundane comings and goings of everyday life with sacred import. So while Christianity has always been about salvation from sin, it is also about 61 hallowing ordinary things. Soft Monotheism and the Trinity Every Sunday, in millions of churches around the world, Christians affirm this doctrine of the Incarnation by reciting the statement of belief carved out at Constantine’s request at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Still accepted today by all three major branches of Christianity—Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism—the Nicene Creed is organized around the doctrine of the Trinity, with sections on God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Christians are monotheists, but theirs is a soft monotheism compared to the hard monotheism of Jews and Muslims, who refuse not just to petrify God in graven images but even to imagine God in human form. The Christian tradition is replete with Jesus sculptures and Jesus paintings, which shout to the rooftops the good news that God has taken on a human body. So Christians see God as a mysterious Trinity: three persons in one godhead, or as novelist J. C. Hallman brilliantly put it, “triplets perched on the fence between polytheism and monotheism.”3 In the Nicene Creed they affirm “one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”; “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God”; and “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.” Of these three divine persons, Jesus gets the most ink. “For us and for our salvation,” He comes down from heaven and is born a human being from the Virgin Mary. He is crucified, dies, and is buried. But after three days He rises from the dead and ascends to heaven. Some day He will return to earth “in glory to judge the living and the dead.” This creed concludes with an appendix of sorts that affirms the divine inspiration of the Christian Bible, the unity of the Christian church, and the importance of the Christian initiation rite known as baptism. Its last line affirms the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and looks forward to “the life of the world to come.” It is often a mistake to refer to a religion as a “faith,” or to its adherents as “believers.” As odd as this might sound, faith and belief don’t matter much in most religions. Often ritual is far more important, as in Confucianism. Or story, as in Yoruba religion. Many Jews do not believe in God, and the world’s Hindus get along quite well without any creed. When it comes to religion, we are more often what we do than what we think. Of course, there are churchgoers who baptize their children and 62 partake of the bread and wine of Holy Communion without much regard for what it all means, but to be a Christian has typically been to care about both faith and belief. The major schisms in Christian history have been driven to a great extent by doctrinal disagreements, and Christians have had few qualms, at least until modern times, about rooting out heretics through institutions such as the Inquisition. Today the price of admission to the Christian family continues to be orthodoxy (right thought) rather than orthopraxy (right practice). “We believe,” the Nicene Creed begins, and two hundred or so words later Christians the world over have summarized their collective faith. Jesus (A Trilogy) As the term Christianity implies, this faith revolves around the person of Jesus, whom Christians have traditionally regarded as Son of God, Savior, and Christ (from the Greek word for the Hebrew term messiah, the coming king who will remake the world). Although the Bible describes Him as “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), Jesus means different things to different people in different times and places. Shifting with the cultural, political, and economic winds, images of Jesus are about as stable as the weather in Kansas’s Tornado Alley. In the ancient world, He was the messiah in Jerusalem, a truth teller in Athens, and an emperor in Rome. In the United States, He has been black and white, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, a capitalist and a socialist, a pacifist and a warrior, an athlete and an aesthete, a civil rights agitator and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Muslims embrace Him as a prophet, Hindus as an avatar, and Buddhists as a bodhisattva. So when Jesus asks, “Who do people say I am?” (Mark 8:27,NIV), there is no easy answer, either in His lifetime or in ours.4 For all Christians, Jesus represents the power of God in the world. Some emphasize His role as a teacher whose words and actions instruct us to care for the poor, liberate the oppressed, and build the kingdom of God. Others see Him as a miracle worker who heals the sick, casts out demons, and raises the dead. Still others embrace Him as the Savior whose suffering and death by crucifixion paid the price for human sin and offers us salvation. But there is no disputing the influence Jesus has had on world history. The Library of Congress in Washington, DC, holds more books about Jesus (roughly seventeen thousand) than about any other historical 63 figure—twice as many as the runner-up, Shakespeare. Worldwide, there are an estimated 187,000 books about Jesus in five hundred different languages.5 Jesus even has a country named after him: the Central American nation of El Salvador (“The Savior”). Given its preoccupation with faith and belief, creed and catechism, it is tempting to pigeonhole Christianity as the doctrinal religion par excellence. But this is also a religion with a story. Christians refer to this story as the gospel. This term is used to describe the four gospels of the Christian New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), which, along with the Old Testament, the letters attributed to the apostle Paul, and some additional books, make up the Christian Bible. But the root meaning of the term gospel is “good news.” When Christians spread the gospel, they are spreading this good news. And though they might do so by reciting Christian doctrines such as the sinfulness of human beings and the atonement for sins by Jesus on the cross, they are at least as likely to tell a story. The stories Christians tell vary from community to community, and from individual to individual. But the narrative arc typically runs from sin to salvation. Ever since Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, human beings have committed sins. There is a catalog of these transgressions known as the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, lust, and greed. But sin refers more generally to the human propensity toward wrongdoing and evil. According to the Bible, everybody sins—“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8)—and sins have consequences, including conflict with other people and separation from God. Sinners cannot be admitted to heaven or granted eternal life, and there is nothing they can do on their own to merit salvation from sin. But happily Christianity is a “rescue religion,” and this rescue was made possible as Jesus was dying on the cross.6 On that day, which Christians celebrate as Good Friday, a sinless Jesus took our sins onto Himself. Three days later, on what Christians celebrate as Easter, He demonstrated God’s power over sin by rising from the dead. The “good news,” therefore, is that anyone who hears this story, confesses her sins, and turns to Jesus for forgiveness can be saved. Or, as the Bible puts it, “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). This basic story operates on three interlocking levels. There is the story of Jesus Himself, the God who is born in a manger in Bethlehem, wanders around the Galilee, and dies on a cross in Jerusalem. But this Jesus story is 64 itself embedded in narrower stories of the role of Jesus in individual lives and a broader story of the role of Jesus in human history. The narrower stories are often told as great reversals, dramatic tales of wretched sinners saved by the grace of a merciful God. Or, as the popular Christian hymn “Amazing Grace” puts it, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” U.S. president George W. Bush was an alcoholic until a visitation by evangelist Billy Graham to his family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, began to turn his life around. Shortly thereafter, he professed his faith in Jesus and was “born again.” When asked in a 1999 debate to name his favorite political philosopher, Bush said, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Those who come to Christ in a flash are referred to as born-again Christians, but there is a less flashy way to become a Christian: by being baptized as a child and doing what Christians do as an adult. The broader Jesus story runs from creation to apocalypse—from the creation of the world “in the beginning” told in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, to the coming conflagration told in the last biblical book, Revelation. Like all religious people, Christians repress, remember, and retell their core stories selectively. They emphasize this episode at the expense of that episode, in keeping with their own biases and the preoccupations of their times. But most popular versions of this broader Jesus story focus on the Christian problem of sin and the Christian solution of salvation. God creates a man named Adam and a woman named Eve and sets them up in the Garden of Eden. Life is good until they disobey God, eating fruit that God has forbidden to them. As a result of this primordial transgression, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden, and sin, death, and suffering enter the human story. After things go from bad to worse, God destroys the world in a great flood, leaving the family of Noah and the animals he has squirreled onto his ark to repopulate Earth. God then makes common cause with the Israelites, choosing them as His people via Abraham and delivering His Law to them via Moses. But sin, death, and suffering continue apace, so God the Father sends His Son, Jesus, into the world to live and die as a human being and to rise from the dead. Through His death by crucifixion, Jesus pays for the sins of the world, allowing those who follow Him to enjoy eternal life with God. But the workings of God in human history will not be fully revealed until Jesus returns and the dead are called out of their graves and separated along with the living into the saved (who go to heaven) and the damned (who go to hell). 65 This biblical story is brilliantly encapsulated in a large cross made by the American outsider artist Preston Geter. This cross is whittled, totem style, out of two-by-fours and colored in vibrant house paints. Adam and Eve appear at the base, naked and entwined in the Garden of Eden, encircled by a snake and chomping lustily on a bright red apple. Next up from the bottom is Noah’s Ark, followed by Moses holding the Ten Commandments over his head, Charlton Heston style. At the center of this sculpture is a tiny crib holding the baby Jesus. Next is the crucified Christ, his outstretched arms turning the entire sculpture into the form of a cross. At the apex is the resurrected Christ, his arms pointing up, ascending to heaven, showing us the way to God. In keeping with the traditional Christian view that Christianity fulfills Judaism rather than overturning it, this sculpture reinterprets events from the Hebrew Bible in light of the coming of Jesus, transforming the lives of Adam, Eve, Noah, and Moses literally into portions of the cross itself. Like the Jesus story, this cross comes with a personal challenge: Do you believe that Christ died to save you from your sins? Do you know that Jesus rose to demonstrate that death does not have the last word—that the one true God is a god of flourishing? 2.2 Billion Saved Christianity began as a renegade movement of ne’er-do-wells fighting over to what extent their commitment to Jesus the Jew committed them to Jewish practices such as circumcision. This movement was little more than a burr in the side of the Roman Empire until Constantine, whose mother was a Christian, converted in 312, transforming Christians almost overnight from persecuted outsiders to persecuting insiders—from living under the thumb of a hostile power to being the thumb itself. While Constantine’s predecessor Diocletian was the most bloodthirsty persecutor of Christians in Roman history, burning churches, forbidding Christian w …
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