Christianity is weird, but perhaps not as weird as you think

Christianity has what I sometimes call a “double weirdness problem.”

Elements of its teaching that are truly strange—such as the Crucified One at its centre who is paradoxically championed by Christians as being at once Victim and Victor—are still so familiar to most Canadians that they don’t arouse the curious interest they should. Even the doctrine that the Christian God is both one and three, which ought to offend against the most elementary sense of rationality, is met with a shrug.

At the same time, however, Christianity is often brushed off as having teachings far more extreme than it actually does. Two related ideas—charity and love—were recently highlighted…and badly caricatured in major media.

The New Yorker profiled Irish novelist Sally Rooney earlier this month, and the journalist interviewing her shared a view of Christianity that was at once admiring and dismissive.

On the train, eating cookies, Rooney and I started talking about religion.

“Even though Christianity is the dominant Western moral framework, the whole idea of self-sacrificing slipped down somehow.”… 

I said that I found it interesting, too, but that to really be a Christian you would have to live in a way that not many people are willing to live. I had a hard time reconciling materialism and religion. I didn’t see how anyone could call herself a Christian and have a computer.

“Right, because Christ called us to give up our earthly belongings,” Rooney said.

Well, no, Christ didn’t. He did call his disciples to leave their jobs and follow him, but those in his inner circle were sustained by the gifts of those in Jesus’s wider circle. Somebody had to remain at work to earn money, and lots of Jesus’s followers did.

This pattern continues in the apostolic era. Some, like Paul, mainly worked at evangelism and pastoring new churches while being financed by the gifts of others. But most of the early church continued in their various jobs, as human beings were called by God to do in the Garden of Eden. Working to produce a better world, to make shalom, is our fundamental calling as the image of God, and Jesus’s own Beatitudes say so: “Blessed are the shalom-makers, for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

The only person we know of whom Jesus commands to sell all that he has and give it to the poor is the so-called rich young ruler (Luke 18:22), and Jesus does so because being rich clearly was this man’s sticking point. Jesus aims a torpedo at it and the man flees, “for he had many possessions” that evidently mattered more than Jesus and his Way.

So, yes, Jesus does call us to submit everything we are and have to his authority, but few of us are called to poverty. Rather, we are called to make every spending decision in the light of Biblical values. And, for most of us in this culture, that means owning a computer, without which we cannot get our assigned work done nearly as well.

Meanwhile, the estimable journalist Douglas Todd was fretting about compassion in the pages of the Vancouver Sun. He wondered aloud if various religions (the column features a photo of the Dalai Lama) were going to extremes in calling humanity to a form of love that amounted to being a doormat, even an enabler of wickedness by giving “unconditional love” to people who would exploit it.

A friend of Todd’s, however, wrote on his Facebook page that Christianity, at least, meant something quite different by “love”:

Love, Biblically speaking, is something like “seeking, so far as you have resources and opportunity to do so, the welfare of the other.” It has nothing to do with feelings and everything to do with promoting shalom, flourishing, well-being.

Therefore, Biblical love is not enabling bad behaviours and not indulging bad people. It is seeking the best for everyone, which will include restraining bad behaviour and dealing with bad people in the most redemptive way possible for everyone concerned–and especially the victims of such bad behaviour and people.

Only thus does Jesus’s startling command to “love your enemies” make any psychological and practical sense. He is certainly not saying “Somehow develop warmly positive feelings for your enemies” or “Let your enemies do whatever they want” but “Seek the welfare of everyone, as God generously does.”

Christians in Canada today, therefore, constantly face this twofold challenge: to make Christianity weird again (!) so that its startling teachings confront a distracted world with the glorious surprise of the Good News, but also to rein in extreme misunderstandings of its teachings so that people aren’t stumbling over non-issues.

We have our work cut out for us. But if we would spend our money properly and truly love our neighbours as we love ourselves, probably fewer of our fellow Canadians would be quite so confused about our values.

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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 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).