Holding on to Identity as a Minority Faith

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for January 7, 2018, based on Daniel 1.

Christianity is the largest religion in the world, with an estimated 2.3 billion adherents. As of 2015, three-quarters of Americans and two-thirds of Canadians identify as Christians. We are hardly a minority faith.

Still, it is true that Christianity’s public influence has declined. Christianity is no longer the touchstone of North American culture that it once was. Christianity no longer defines social values or public policy in quite the way it once did. The institutions of Christianity are not as prominent or as powerful as they once were, and the institutions of our western society are no longer exclusively or even predominantly Christian—if they ever were. Christendom is no more.

This means that although Christianity is not a minority faith in North America it can often feel like it is. For some, this presents a challenge, even a catastrophe. I think it presents an opportunity.

This changed situation is an opportunity for us to reflect on and sharpen our identity as Christians: What does it really mean to be “Christian”? What marks us off as “Christian”? What distinctive beliefs or rituals or symbols or sacred stories are at the heart of this thing called “Christianity”?

The story of Daniel and his three companions in Daniel 1 is a story about early Jewish identity. Ostensibly about Israelites exiled in ancient Babylonia, yet really about Maccabean Jews under pressure to Hellenize, the story remains for Jews a powerful symbol of maintaining their religious and cultural identity in the face of enormous pressure to assimilate. For us as Christians, it can stand as a biblical call to reflect on our identity as Christians, asking those same questions forced upon us by our own post-Christendom context.

So, what does mark us off as “Christian”? Contra Daniel 1, the New Testament insists it’s not our diet—“all foods are clean,” Mark concludes based on Jesus’ teaching (Mark 7:14-19), and Paul declares that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink” (Rom 14:14-17). Likewise, it’s not the observance of holy days like the Sabbath (Rom 14:5-6; Col 2:16-17) or covenant rituals like circumcision (Gal 5:6; 6:15).

For Christians, beliefs, rituals, symbols, and sacred stories have tremendous value in nurturing the things that matter most, but they are not themselves those essentials of Christianity. Rather, as markers of Christian identity Jesus and the Apostles consistently point us to a cluster of lived-out virtues: a trusting, obedient faith, a persevering, persistent hope, and, above all, a self-giving, other-delighting love, all in the way of Jesus, all nurtured by the Spirit.

Who or What Is in Control?

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 10, 2017, based on Acts 13:1-12.

Acts 13:6-12 is a story of identity and power.

Names are important in the story. There’s Bar-Jesus (“son of Jesus”) also called Elymas (“the sorcerer”), and “Saul also called Paul,” as well as Sergius Paulus (that is, also “Paul”). It can be confusing, but all this narrative naming boils down to this question: which of these is a true “son of Jesus,” and which is actually a “son of the devil”? This is a story of identity.

It’s also a story of power. On the one hand you’ve got Elymas cozying up to the powerful, seeking to use the powers that be (both human and supernatural) for his own ends. On the other hand there’s Paul speaking truth to power, the truth of the gospel, the good news of One who died at the hands of the powers that be to free us from all evil powers (both natural and spiritual).

Even Paul participates in a display of supernatural power, speaking a temporary blindness upon Elymas. Yet notice what wins over the proconsul Paulus in the end: “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13:12). It was the persuasive gospel, not coercive sorcery, that brought about change. It was the strange story of a crucified king, not the sheer force of a supernatural power, that saved the day.

We have many temptations today to seek or maintain worldly power. This is especially so when our lofty plans for bringing about good in the world seem to be thwarted. We can then become frustrated and impatient, and start to look for alternate ways to accomplish those good ends. If only we had some real power on our side, imagine all the good we could do! If only we had political control, judicial authority, economic clout, cultural influence, spiritual dominance, or even just sheer physical force, imagine what we could accomplish for the kingdom!

But this is not the way of Jesus, who deliberately rejected worldly power at both the beginning and end of his career (Matt 4:1-11; 26:36-56). It’s not the way of the gospel, the beautiful good news of a crucified and resurrected king bringing about an upside-down kingdom through patient, persistent, selfless love.

In the end, it is those who trust in and live out this “weak power” of God (1 Cor 1:21-25) who prove themselves to be the true “Bar-Jesus.”

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.