The professor stared at me waiting for my answer: I choked.
The year: 1993
The place: Philosophy 101 at the University of Colorado
The relevance: High
The class discussion started as a lament about the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers but morphed into anger toward Christians. As I listened, my first (petty) concern was about my grade. The paper I turned in two days earlier outlined my relatively new faith in Jesus and apparently would not be well received by the professor. She was leading the charge against “Christian imperialism” – indeed, the class and professor had concluded Christians were pretty much the source of all that ills the human race.
The discussion peaked with a student’s question:
“How can anyone be a Christian given their terrible history?”
Her question dripped with anger and the class sat silently in the moment.
The professor turned and stared at me. It was clear she had read my paper. We made direct eye contact for what seemed like three hours, but was probably more like three seconds. Did the whole class turn to look at me or do I just imagine that years later?
Defensiveness swelled in me. I attempted to formulate a response. And then… I did nothing, but look at my desk.
I somehow got a B.
That Student’s Question
My fellow student from nearly 30 years ago asks a question still relevant today:
Given the actions of some Christians in today’s world, how can anyone be a Christian?
If you’re paying attention, you or someone you know has probably concluded “religion” is not worth following because of the reputation some Christians have of being anti-science, anti-social justice, anti-women, anti-whatever.
How did this happen? It’s never good when a group is more well-known for what it is against instead of what it is for.
Historically, the earliest Christians confounded the Romans because of their willingness to sacrifice for others (a bizarre concept in Roman/Greek culture). The early Christian treatment of slaves, women, and children assigned equal value to them when the surrounding culture did not.
Christians throughout history, motivated by the teaching of Jesus, have fought for the poor, education, equality – in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find great social movements that were not inspired by Jesus.
And Jesus himself? I have yet to meet anyone who has said a negative thing about him. No one.
So how did we get here?
The Primary Source
If you’ve ever taken a college level history course, you know primary sources are important.
“Don’t rely on later commentary,” professors say. “Find the original source. Otherwise, you are basing your opinion of history on someone else’s, potentially faulty, interpretation.”
In rejecting Christianity, many people (and ironically, those in academia like my professor) are making the basic error they preach against. Opinions on Christian faith are often derived from secondary sources (some of Jesus’ misguided followers), not the primary source.
To be clear: Jesus is the Primary Source.
We must help people differentiate the Primary Source from the secondary sources.
Differentiation is Nothing New
Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are constantly doing the hard work of differentiation.
Differentiation means showing people how different their secondary source image of God is from the Primary Source of Jesus.
Most of the letters in the New Testament are dedicated to differentiation:
I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ. You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.
– Paul writing to churches in the region of Galatia (Galatians 1:6-7)
Paul doesn’t mess around: If you base your image of Christ on secondary sources, you’re a fool. Ouch.
If you find yourself confused by the news, burdened by secondary sources, change your life by immersing yourself in the Primary Source.
Read the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Get a big Bible you can mark up, underline and take notes on, in a translation you understand (New Living Translation is good) and get time with the Primary Source each morning. Knowing the primary source well is key to rejecting secondary ones.
As you spend time slowly processing and praying through the gospel stories:
What are his motives? Who opposed him and why? What does he feel? What does Jesus say? How does he spend his time?
Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the letter to the Colossians says. In other words, if you want to know God, know Jesus, the Primary Source.
Go to the Primary Source. Spend a lot of time there. And then help others see Jesus clearly. It’s essential work to join in with the Spitting Jesus.
Flashback to 1993
The student asks her question, the professor looks at me, we lock eyes, the class looks toward me, and I say:
There are people who claim to be Christians who have done really stupid things.
God, help me for the dumb things I’ve done.
But then there is Jesus.
You might want to take another look at what he is all about.
I'll get it next time.
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