Every once in a while, you pick up a book that seems to be saying all the things you’ve been thinking. It’s such a wonder to have that kind of experience, such a confirmation and encouragement. In these types of situations, it’s not that you don’t need the author because you’ve got it all figured out. Rather, it is precisely that you need the author to give voice to your thoughts, to help you develop and further your perspective, and to lead you down the paths you were too nervous to traverse on your own. Finding a book that reinforces your own yet-forming thoughts and ideas is a revelation.
For me, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammad Cross the Road? by Brian McLaren has been just such a revelation.
Why Did… is about Christian identity in a pluralistic, multi-faith world. McLaren describes and decries two extremes that are common in the church.
Many have a strong but hostile identity, proud to be a Christian but also antagonistic toward non-Christians. This kind of identity is seen everyday as Facebook Christianity wages a cultural (and often political) war against atheists, agnostics, and those of other faith traditions.
McLaren also observes that many in the church react against the strong and hostile identity by developing a weak and benign Christian identity. These are folks that are almost apologetic about being Christian, willing to subjugate their identity at the altar of political correctness.
McLaren finds both of these approaches to Christian identity, so common in both Evangelicalism and mainline churches, to be lacking. Rather than moderate between the two, the crux of McLaren’s book is that followers of Jesus today need to triangulate between these polar opposites and develop a strong and benevolent Christian identity. This identity is unapologetically Christian – devoted to Jesus, the Bible, and the church. But it is also benevolent, seeking the good, peace, justice, and well-being for all.
McLaren’s call for this kind of strong and benevolent Christian identity reminds me of the very essence of what Christian faith is. Faith is the confluence and expression of honesty, humility, and hope.
We must be honest. Our history (and our present) as Christians is a checkered one. We can’t rewrite our history and ignore all of the hostile and horrible things that have been done in the name of the church. We live in the information age. Everyone knows or can easily access the truth about Constantine and Columbus, for example. Honest faith and effective witness to it require us to not sugarcoat who we have been.
We must also be humble. Are we as Christians humble enough to admit that we don’t have all the answers? Are we humble enough to admit that expressions of faith will by necessity look different in varying cultures? Are we humble enough to admit that a quest to conquer all other religions doesn’t follow the cross’s pattern of vulnerability? Are we humble enough to admit that we don’t own a monopoly on God’s Spirit? Humility can only positively impact our witness.
And we must be hopeful. The gospel is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is strong and benevolent Christian faith that gives us as followers of Jesus a vision for what the world could be. I love how McLaren expresses this vision:
With outstretched hands, smiling faces, and open hearts, we can move toward one another, meet in the middle, and walk side by side beyond the limits of our old suspicious, segregated spaces. We can reject the mutual hostility by which we have defined ourselves, respect the different gifts we bring one another, and inject fresh hope into the global human equation through the unexpected factor of human-kindness. Walking together, we can face our common threats and seek the common good, forging a future that would have been impossible any other way.
I am left with four take-aways from Why Did…
The Importance of Kindness
When I was a teenager, I listened to a lot of CCM, including Wayne Watson. In one of his songs, Watson succinctly sums up the crisis of a hostile Christian identity, “How’d the friends of Jesus ever get so mean?” For more than a decade now, McLaren has been a faithful and necessary voice, calling Christians to fundamental kindness and human decency. It is crazy that his voice has been so needed. I pray that the church hears it. I believe that what Generous Orthodoxy did for inter-denominational appreciation, Why Did… can do for inter-religious appreciation.
Repurposing Our Theology
In one section of Why Did…, McLaren takes previously-divisive tenets of Christian faith and shows how they can be used to foster peace and understanding between people. The whole section is a beautiful example of repurposing our theology, reforming it so that it can bear good fruit. The chapter on original sin alone is worth the price of the whole book.
Liturgy as Spiritual Formation
McLaren makes the case that the way we worship needs to help to form our strong and benevolent Christian identity. He urges us to pay attention to the words we use when we sing and pray as communities of faith. He asks us to think about how the Christian calendar and the sermon can be a tools in developing our identity. And in a footnote, he hints at an upcoming project called Subversive Liturgy. Color me intrigued.
What’s So Dangerous about Friendship?
What comes through loud-and-clear in Why Did… is that Christians need to be (more than just neighbors) good friends. We need to have agenda-less friendships with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, agnostics, and atheists. We have so much to learn, and friendship is the path to understanding. Our strong and benevolent Christian identity needs to be formed by the identity of our Lord, Jesus. Jesus was known as a friend. May we be as well.
Have you read Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? What did you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts.