Jesus and Christianity

I saw Reza Aslan, author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” on the Daily Show the other day.

At one point, John Oliver (the interviewer) reveals that Aslan is a Muslim (“one of those Muslamic people”). Aslan first responds that he is not out to offend Christianity, saying that his mother and his wife are both Christians and his brother in law is a Christian pastor.

Then he says, “But I do believe firmly that you can be a follower of Jesus and not be a Christian, just as you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus, if you know what I mean.” Oliver knowingly responds as the audience erupts into applause, “Yes, I think…I think I know EXACTLY what you mean there.”

I think I know what he means as well. I remember when Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish woman who is a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, said to our congregation, “I really, really love the teachings of Jesus. I wish more Christians did as well.”

It would be easy for me to get defensive of my Christian tribe here. I could remind Aslan and Oliver and Levine that it is intellectually dishonest to suggest an easy split between the historical Jesus and the church that sought to preserve his story and preach his message down through the centuries. I could remind them that at its best, Christianity embodies the Spirit of Christ, teaching peace in a world of violence, love in a world of hatred, healing in a world of unbounded brokenness. They might even agree with my defense.

But the reason the audience applauded so heartily and Oliver agreed so readily with Aslan’s statement that you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus is because it seems on the surface so very obvious. To the casual observer of the church, it seems that Christianity is more concerned with being on the right side of ideological issues than with feeding the hungry, more infatuated with power than identified with the powerless, occupied more with purity than with the plight of the poor. Those who take even a few moments to read the story of Jesus discover a vast chasm between much of what the church has been and done over the centuries and what in fact Jesus calls us to be and do.

So yes, it is possible to be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus. Sometimes that a description of me. I’m afraid some days I find it easier to go through the motions of religion than answer the radical call of discipleship. Any honest Christian would have to say that we are all a mixed bag of success and failure at living out the demands of Jesus for life in the kingdom.

So I welcome other Jesus-followers, whether they identify themselves as Christian or not, to help me in my journey. I long for companions along the Way who take Jesus as seriously as I try to take him, who are willing to shape their lives by his teachings, who are able to catch me when I fall and put me back on the path. And because, as a Christian, I believe that the life of Jesus reveals the very life of God, I welcome the fellowship of all who celebrate that life.

What an interesting gathering it would be if we all got together – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and anybody else who simply wants to follow Jesus – and encouraged one another to live our lives shaped by the patterns of life Jesus taught and lived. Perhaps then the day would truly dawn that Isaiah spoke of and Jesus affirmed: “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

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3 thoughts on “Jesus and Christianity

  1. The only dichotomy in your statements come to the point of who Jesus really is. He is ether (1) a crazy man, who states that he is god, because he is crazy. (2) He is the true definition of evil, leading people to idolatry and into worshiping him as god. OR (3) he is exactly what he said he was, which is affirmed by all the saints from that time to this, God the holy son of God who is God in a true trinity, nether separate or totally one. and if he is that, any time a Muhammadan, Jewish, Hindi, or Buddhist calls him a good teacher, they ether believe a total misrepresentation of Jesus, or they are blaspheming there own faith, well everyone but the Hindu…

    • John, Thanks for your comment. I understand what you are trying to say, but would point out that the gospel writers all have Jesus say a number of things about himself. What he says least of all about himself is that he is God. The church has come to understand him as the incarnate God, which I re-stated in my blog as Jesus “reveals the very life of God.” I believe this as well, which is why I am a Christian. But the question Aslan raised in the interview and I wanted to explore in the blog is whether or not it is possible to follow Jesus; i.e., seek to live one’s life in the way he commends, and yet not be a Christian; i.e., not subscribe to the larger theological claims of the Christian church. Likewise, it is possible to subscribe completely to the tenets of the Christian faith, to be orthodox in doctrine, and yet still not be a follower of Jesus by shaping one’s life according to the pattern of his life. I think those are questions at least worth exploring in this age. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

      • I think one can follow (most of) Jesus’ teachings, trying to live as He lived, and not be a Christian. I would not have thought so until I met a man who is doing it. Among other things he reveres Jesus life of compassion and help for the downtrodden and the poor and this man does what he can in his world to follow Jesus’ example. I must say “most of” the teachings, because this man obviously doesn’t accept the words of Jesus: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except by Me.” And I cannot imagine anyone disagreeing with the statement that a person can profess to be a Christian and not be a follower of Jesus. Those folks are sadly everywhere- in the pews and even some in the pulpits. Their eyes are blinded and their ears are deaf to the truth that they may be hearing or even speaking. I was one of this group, even active in the church, until I finally “heard” the way of salvation in Jesus at the age of 28 by the grace of God though the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

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