My brother Eli is eighteen, and he doesn’t believe in God anymore. Or right now. I was still at the boarding school when it came out, and he texted me as he broke the news. “They’re threatening to cut off my lunch money. And I still have to go to church.” Later: “Dad’s in hardcore denial and Mom swore.” “Please call them.” “They’re quoting Pastor Chuck against me.”
During my own periods of Jesus-wariness, Mom was also taken by unease. Christianity is an intrinsic part of her life. She begins her morning with Bible-reading. She lives according to a lot of the typical Christian standards.* In high school, I was encouraged to be friends with people who weren’t Christians (you can be a light! witness to them!**), but I could not date until I was 16, and if and only if that boy was a Christian. They kept this rule for Holly. They have since permitted Eli to date three different atheist girls (they’ve grown more lax since he’s the third kid and also has a penis). Mom believes that a life with Christianity is the best, truest, safest, most beautiful way to live. So when one of us kids strays away from this, when we doubt its relevance, when we are overly critical and skeptical, of course she loses her cookies. She feels like she’s failed as a mother, like a mother’s job is to lead her kids to Jesus, and if they like Allah (or – let’s be real here – hedonism) instead, she gets her mom-card revoked. The “supermom” badge my friend Pat claimed she wore in high school would be ripped from her little chest.
PAUSE: If you aren’t a part of the Christian community and are having a difficult time tracking with this phenomenon, try to liken it to this: You are an earth-loving pacifist who composts and always takes public transportation (when biking is totally out of the question, that is), and you choose what you want in the fridge before you open it so you can snatch it out and conserve as much energy as possible. These are the ideas you try to instill in your kids, that the earth is wonderful and good, and since it provides for us, we must take care of it. It’s alive just as we are alive. And your kids grow older, and you rest peacefully at night knowing they’ve joined clubs that pick up litter once a month, and they only buy their clothes from resale stores, and one day you hear one of them chewing out a classmate for drinking bottled water. You’ve done successful parenting, hurrah! But one day, your kid comes home driving a hummer. She says, “Mom, screw the earth. From now on, I’m wearing deodorant with anti-perspirant in it, and I’m going to run my A/C whenever the hell I want, and oh, is this a can of hairspray? Gas emissions? Ozone deterioration? Sorrynotsorry!” You look at your child, and your world is thrown to pieces. This is what it’s like for my mom when we threaten to leave Christianity. This, times maybe a hundred.
So my parents have been flipping out a little bit. They’re giving Eli books to read and forcing him to still attend church (all things, I should note, I find no problem with; after all, he’s still under their roof and eating their food). And while I’m not flipping out, I do concede that not having Christianity as an active part of Eli’s life will no doubt change him in ways my parents (and perhaps I, too) do not prefer. Without Jesus, he must create his own moral framework, and who knows what that will entail? Certainly nothing short of cocaine and unprotected sex!
I’ve been thinking about Eli lately. And his not being a Christian. And I think of my own faith. And even though I consume the body and blood when they’re offered, I do so with the awareness that most people would be like, “Uh, Rach, blaspheme much?” Because I don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, and I don’t pray or read my Bible, and I don’t really think Jesus is the “only way.”**** By typical evangelical Christianity standards, I am not a Christian.
But how does mainstream evangelical Christianity really know, ultimately, what it means to be a Christian?
Two summers ago, I went backpacking in Europe with a program called Youth Hostel Ministry, or YHM. Wheaton sends 20-30 students each year, to work at hostels, meet travelers, and talk about God. It’s a mission trip. Kind of.***** I had done the program after my sophomore year of college, when I was stationed in Amsterdam, but this most recent time, my friend Meg and I led the trip. And I was okay for most of the summer. I did my praying, I did my Bible-reading, I even joined Meg in a fast or two. But an existential crisis was bound to happen. After all, I am Rachel Mac. Existential crises are my favorite. And that one was sparked in Gryon, Switzerland, with some Mormons who knew how to defend their faith better than I knew how to defend mine (and were ridiculously happy and kind to boot).****** But the crisis really exploded when we got to Taize, this ecumenical monastic order in rural France, where people from all over the world camp out to attend their three daily chanting services. My friend Jeff had been to Taize the summer before, and the reverent way he spoke about it made me think it might revitalize my faith. It would be like a couples retreat, but with God. However. My experience was not like Jeff’s. I did not love Taize. The services were very long, and you had to sit on the ground (which kills your posture!), and most of the chants were not in English. How was I supposed to feel the presence of God if I was continuously glancing between the German lyrics and the translation at the bottom of the page? Additionally, Taize was not the most luxurious of campgrounds. At mealtimes, people stood in huge, pushing, sweaty masses. Never lines. For breakfast, you were given a roll and a cup of tea. You had to have a ticket stamped so that you would not sneak and get seconds. I told Meg, “It is terrible of me to liken this to the Holocaust. But there must be some similarities.” The worst part of Taize, though, was that I was frustrated, feeling far from God, and given time to over-think.
It was in Taize where I finally got to the edge of honesty. I am always honest, but unless I’m thinking and processing, the honesty isn’t as full or true as it could be. And in Taize, I realized I didn’t know what it meant to be a Christian. And I realized I only called myself a Christian because it was convenient and easy and I didn’t know how to live any other way.
Of course I freaked out. Not because I felt as if God were judging me. Or because I worried about my salvation. I felt as if I was disappointing my greater Christian community. I was not a person that they would call a Christian. And for months afterwards, I lived in panic about it. Am I a Christian? Am I a Christian? Am I a Christian?
But eventually I stopped caring. Because what I’ve come to hold is that maybe the label doesn’t matter as much as I once thought it did.
Calling oneself a Christian is not as great as being like Christ. If Eli goes to church every week and identifies himself as a Christian and marries a Christian woman, and they’re involved at church, and they send their kids to Christian schools…none of that would make me proud of him. I will be proud of Eli if he becomes a good man. If he is generous with his time and his money. If he cares for and values people, especially the people who society tells us are worthless. If he thinks deeply, desires refinement, chooses others over himself. I don’t really care if Eli has sex before he’s married so long as he truly cares about the girls he’s sleeping with. As long as they are whole people to him, and not just bodies. “All girls are complex, emotional creatures!” I say to him. “Never ask for or expect a blow job!”
I call myself a Christian, but I don’t put much stock in that, and I don’t want that label to give me identity. I want to be judged for what I do rather than the associations people have with the word “Christian.” Some people in my life have been incredibly Christ-like without calling themselves Christians. Kayla from high school. Friends I made at the boarding school. People at Wheaton who lost, or abandoned, or grew away from the faith. So maybe Jesus is the only way, but only insomuch as what he represents is the only way. When one is patient and compassionate and giving, is she not a Christian in that moment, whether or not she believes in Christ as her savior?
My mother would probably say no. But I am still a rebellious child, and I will say yes.
*Ours is a no-profanity, no-rated-R-movies household, where Fireproof is considered a quality film, evolution is the devil’s propaganda, and why did anyone think it was a good idea to vote for Obama? Like most people, I do not agree with everything my parents hold to, but I try to understand and be respectful (and, when I can’t hold it in, argue with diplomacy). I love my parents, but I have grown into a person who is not them. Eli has too, which is the whole cause of the uproar.
**My mother never actually said this, PTL.***
***She does say PTL, though.
****The other day I visited my friend Sam’s church. It was big. It was hip. It’s called “realityLA,” for goodness’ sake. So I thought it was hilarious when they said you could text your prayer requests to a certain number during the service, but I also wasn’t too surprised. And that wasn’t what turned me off to the church, not really. It was the pastor who kept repeating that Jesus is “the only way.” When I talked to Sam about the service later, I told him I was a little wary. “It was pretty conservative,” I said. “With the whole Jesus-as-the-only-way-to-heaven bit.” Sam gave me a look of dismay. “You know that’s basic Christian doctrine, right?”
*****We were trained in evangelism. Even though you were advised not to follow a script, you still followed a script. It was still you being the possessor of truth, you bringing the truth to the lost, offering it up, making it presentable. I remember meeting people who exhibited rather loose theology, and in the back of my mind I wondered, “Okay, so are they really a Christian, or what?” I was actually just wondering if they were MY kind of Christian, if their lifestyle fit into the Christian subculture. Which was the right way to be saved.
******I wrote about this here: https://racheltellsitlikeitis.com/2011/08/08/it-is-the-doubt-that-never-ends/