Why Isn’t Christianity Simpler?

radio microphone

When I moved to Vancouver in 1998, once people found out I had been a guest of various radio hosts in Winnipeg and elsewhere, the question was always the same: “Have you been on Rafe Mair’s show yet?”

Outside of British Columbia, Rafe Mair’s name is mostly unknown. But BCers know him to have been a successful lawyer, Social Credit politician, and finally king of talk radio in that province. He died last week at 85, and his passing prompts me to recall the only time we did talk.

We didn’t meet for a radio chat, however, but for a television interview. Well into his seventies, having had a fall-out with his long-time radio station CKNW, Rafe agreed to host a TV series called “The Search” for OMNI. So I met him in suburban Vancouver to promote my new book on Christian ethics, Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (OUP).

The interview started normally enough. Rafe and I met just minutes before the show started—between my getting made up for the cameras and wired up for the sound people. We shook hands across the desk of the set, exchanged brief pleasantries, waited for the crew to get in position, and then we were on.

Rafe looked balefully into the camera, growling out his intro. “Fair enough,” I thought. I had been warned by countless BCers that Rafe munched Christians for breakfast. “Here we go.”

And we did go. But not in the direction I thought we would.

Having introduced me according to the script prepared by his assistant, and having held up a copy of my book to the camera while doing so, he then laid the book down, swiveled to fix me with a glare, and started in on…

… nothing to do with the book at all. Instead, for the next half-hour, Rafe subjected me to his Top Ten List of Crushing Questions for Kooky Christians.

Creation vs. evolution, the problem of evil, the exclusive claims about the Lordship of Christ, the abuse of boys by priests—he fired off round after round. And as soon as I managed to get out even a slightly plausible reply, he abruptly cut me off and shot a new question my way.

At every commercial break, however, he then pivoted to the camera, held up my book, and coolly intoned, “We’re here with John Stackhouse, author of the new book, Making the Best of It…” while I caught my breath.

At the end, however, he asked me a particularly strange query. “Professor,” he said—and radio hosts who call me “Professor” are almost always in the gunning-for-you mode, the politesse adding a smidgen of civility to their attack—“why is Christianity so complicated?”

I didn’t know what he meant, so he continued.

“If this is the good news of eternal life, why isn’t it a message simple enough to put on a postcard that an eight-year-old could read and understand? Why does Christianity have all these doctrines and rituals and experts and complications?”

Usually people ask me why Christians are so simplistic and credulous (= stupid). So I had to think fast and I gave him two answers.

The first was a Sunday School version of the gospel. Simple enough. But the second involved me turning the tables, with a smile, on my host.

“Rafe, I recall that you were trained as a lawyer, right?”

“Yes,” he allowed.

“And after that you were a lawmaker, right?”

“Yes,” he said again.

“So tell me, Rafe, why is the legal code is so complicated? If we’re just supposed to treat each other justly, and if we don’t, we deserve to be punished in proportion to our crime, why does it take piles of legal books to record and explain the law?”

He stared back. I went on.

In grown-up world, things are complicated. Laws are complex because people are complex and their relationships are complex. The Bible is a book meant to help people all over the world come to faith in God and live the way we should. So it likewise is complex, even as its basic principles are simple.”

I was grateful to Rafe for his stimulating question as I had never thought about that before. And he seemed to think I offered an adequate answer.

How do I know?

Because he said nothing to me, but turned immediately to the camera, and said again, “We’re here with John Stackhouse…” and the show was over. He briefly shook my hand again, and left the studio.

I can’t say whether Rafe Mair rests in peace. But I do know that God will have mercy on his soul, as I am glad he has mercy on me and all of us.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 700 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book is scheduled for release later this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).