Understandably, the early Christian church was persecuted by the ancient Romans for practicing incest and cannibalism.
At least, that’s what someone might have thought Christians were doing if he or she had only bits and pieces of Christian lore to go on: Christians giving “holy kisses” to “brothers and sisters” (in the Lord) and then eating and drinking a body and blood (of Christ, in the bread and wine).
Alas, Christians are denounced still today by people who are confident they know what Christians believe and practice, but who clearly don’t. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens long traded in half-understood fragments of Christianity throughout their popular writings. So have top comedians, such as Ricky Gervais and Sarah Silverman.
These are all smart people. And other smart people are thus inspired to practice their own versions of half-baked and caustic drollery at Christianity’s expense. On this Easter weekend, for example, my Facebook feed was adorned by this sparkle of wit:
“Jesus suffered on Friday and was raised again on Sunday. All that means is that he took a weekend off to save the world. C’mon, Christians: You’re not even trying!”
In their recent books, scholars Brian Clarke and Stuart Macdonald (Leaving Christianity) and Reginald Bibby (Resilient Gods) track what we’ve all known for quite a while now: Canadians are abandoning a religion they hardly know. Poll after poll have shown that Canadians are generally clueless about the most basic facts of the country’s still-dominant religion: Who wrote the Gospels? What are the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes? Who was the Prophet Isaiah or the Apostle Paul?
Worries about “Biblical illiteracy,” to be sure, surfaced decades ago among university leaders in Canada—at least as early as the 1940s, in fact. (So argues Catherine Gidney in A Long Eclipse: The Liberal Protestant Establishment and the Canadian University 1920-1970). But today’s students would make students back then look like theological professors.
Instead of wringing our hands, however, Canadian Christians should see the opportunity before us. Christianity is rapidly becoming so unfamiliar to Canadians that it might soon become actually interestingagain.
Christianity is, after all, a very peculiar religion. Other religions make more immediate sense. Buddhism, for instance, says that, despite whatever delights it affords, life is generally hard and then you die. Far better to detach from the world and float off in painless silence than to experience relentless transience, loss, and pain.
Islam is admirably straightforward, too: one God, clear rules to follow, with paradise for those who behave and hell for those who don’t. No wonder it’s so attractive to so many around the globe.
Christianity, however? Hopeless. One God—who is also three, and yet one, but also three—the second person of whom becomes a human being—without ceasing to be divine, and yet somehow is also truly and fully human—lives a perfect life—as an artisan-cum-rabbi in an obscure province in the Roman Empire who gathers a small following of hopeful revolutionaries—and then is killed as an annoyance by that Empire, but also by the religious experts of his own people, who conclude that he is nothing but a small-time false prophet—but then is raised from the dead by God as the Lord of Life and Ruler of the World—but invisibly, in heaven, where he lives now, but will return someday to sort everything out properly…
Stop. Just stop. It’s such nonsense! Who could believe such stuff? This story makes Scientology itself look plausible—as Sarah Silverman herself has duly noted.
At least, however, it’s what Christianity actually says. Rather than the widespread myths of “Big Angry Father God abusing poor, helpless Son God on the Cross” or “heaven as infinite, and infinitely boring, harp-playing church service”—at least we are discussing what the Bible teaches.
We can, that is, if we can get our story out in the first place. But this entails a message difficult to convey to our neighbours: “You think you know what we believe and do, and you’re sure you don’t like or want it, but you don’t, and here’s the truth instead.”
Where to start? By our not merely bemoaning the mistaken impressions so many village atheists have of the Christian faith, but responding to their confident distortions as opportunities. “Well, no, that’s not what we say or do. There is, yes, greeting each other as family members, and eating and drinking some blood at our services, but not actual incest or cannibalism. Would you like to know why we talk as if we’re a family and symbolically eat flesh and drink blood?”
Not everyone, of course, will care to hear more. But if someone has gone to the trouble to mock what they think we say and do, maybe they’re signaling enough interest to at least listen to a correction.
It’s a start.