In the 2,000 years Christianity has been around, its history has been somewhat turbulent but overall it has been an astonishing success. Christianity has so deeply permeated the world we live in its pervasive influence has become nearly imperceptible to most people today. Christianity has obviously profoundly affected religion but also ethics, society, art, literature, politics, philosophy, law, science and economics as well. Since Christianity has been so thoroughly woven into the fabric of modern civilization, most Christians today are unaware of just how utterly bizarre their faith is, especially in the context of world history.
For our brothers and sisters around the world who live as minorities in countries where they are directly harassed and persecuted, they are fully aware of just how crazy it is to give your allegiance to King Jesus. For those of us in living in more comfortable circumstances we remain largely blissfully unaware of how weird it is to be a Christian. This is something as a church we desperately need to be reacquainted if we are to properly maintain our identity, accurately represent it in the world as well being able to circumspectly navigate challenges to the church in the world in whatever form they take. Unless you are informed, it is hard to tell just how unique a historical phenomenon Christianity is. There are some wonderful presentations by Larry Hurtado and John Ortberg, which you can find here and here, that provide a wonderful introduction to this topic. For this piece, I wish to briefly refamiliarize ourselves with the most bizarre aspect of Christianity, which is simultaneously the cornerstone of our faith and that is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Just take a moment to reflect on what resurrection is. The idea of someone dying and coming back to life defies all reason and explanation. Now imagine it was someone you intimately knew and had committed your life to and that you saw that person get violently killed. Then a couple of days later you see this person alive and well. I would not even know how to begin to process what I had witnessed. As I pointed out in a previous article, even for the original followers of Jesus who already believed in the possibility of resurrection, it was incredibly hard for them to accept he had been raised from the dead, even when he was standing right before them! Even among resurrections, which even in the Bible are in incredibly rare events, Jesus’ resurrection was unique because it was the only true resurrection to immortality and not a resuscitation. So, what is even more mind melting about the resurrection of Jesus is that it is a reconfiguration of reality itself, what the New Testament calls “new creation”. It means that since one man has been raised, death has been undone and now every person will also one day be raised. To think that for me and those I know, even those who have passed away, death is not the end but we will one day return to bodily life is just unfathomable. This not only revolutionises our beliefs about the world and the very nature of reality itself, it radically changes how we ought to act and behave since we now know death is not the end but rather a new re-created bodily existence.
The idea of resurrection is truly astonishing but how Christians popularly think of it and present it to the world represents just how domesticated and anodyne our faith has become. We think eternal life means going to heaven when you die to live out a perpetual disembodied existence. Even the old threat of hell is no longer potent since it has been so fancifully caricatured that most modern people do not take it seriously and even if they do think it is real they simply do not think they are truly awful enough to deserve a permanent residence in such a place. Even our portrait of God suffers similar problems since we have removed any sense of visceral danger about him or just how uncontrollable he is. These examples illustrate that even the things that should be recognizably Christian have lost their edge. How much more the things whose Christian connections are much harder to identify? An unintended consequence of Christianity’s pervasive influence, which is a good thing, has been that it has become heavily diluted. As Christians we struggle to identify what is truly distinctive about our faith.
If as a church we find it hard to tell just how fundamentally strange Christianity is, then it is a tell-tale sign we have already succumbed to syncretism. Syncretism is when different beliefs or cultures are merged together such that it is hard to tell one from the other. When Christianity is syncretised it often results in folk Christianity. Folk Christianity has a Christian veneer but when you examine the core beliefs and manner of life, it is actually the same traditions that existed before Christianity but have been reinvented. The end result is Christianity loses its distinctiveness since it is just a normal part of society.
If the history of the Western church has taught us anything, syncretism precedes decline. As sociologist of religion Rodney Stark pointed out, for a new religion to survive it has to adapt to the culture it finds itself in but if it is too similar it no longer becomes a legitimate alternative. The same thing happens to the church when it becomes too familiar: it ceases to be truly different. Apart from that, the chronic sense of complacency it breeds, it leaves the church unprepared for serious concerted attacks. This also happened to our Western brothers and sisters, particularly those in Europe. Now regaining our distinctiveness undoubtedly has a cost. For one, the church will no longer be as socially acceptable as it was. However, the benefits are well worth it since we gain a reinvigorated identity that is robust and capable of surviving intact.
If we lose our sense of weirdness we lose our identity because we can no longer identify what truly sets us apart. What sets us apart is we belong to God in Christ. One of the best ways to recover a lost sense of identity is to look to the past. Every person has a unique story of how they got to where they are now. Similarly, the church has a truly peculiar history which if we retrace we can rediscover who we are. This is why I cannot recommend enough the work of Ortberg and Hurtado for understanding who the church is in the context of world history. As I have argued before, the period in church history that we must return to to recover who we definitively are is the founding generation, the New Testament era church. They were thoroughly conscience of how distinctive they were yet they figured out how to exist in a world that had become alien to them. It is their success which the church today ultimately rests on.
The early church was a minority. They were outsiders who did not truly fit in the Jewish world from which they emerged neither did they truly belong to the wider Graeco-Roman world in which they inhabited. They therefore thought of themselves as exiles, a people who were in the world but did not belong to it. Nowadays Christians are far from a minority. It is now the largest religion in the world and most Christians today live in what is on paper Christian majority countries. Even though we have unprecedented numerical strength, part of us recapturing a distinctive sense of identity is adopting the minority mentality of the early church.
The early church, which began as a late second Temple Jewish sect, in large part inherited it is minority outlook from the Jewish world it was a part of. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a wonderful lecture which you can watch here on how Jews as a minority learned to endure and thrive. There are important lessons we can learn from this. This identity as what Sacks describes as a “creative minority” indelibly shaped the nature of the early church’s faith which we inherited. The Lord Jesus himself died as the faithful martyr which made him the ultimate minority of one. This minority identity is part of the very DNA of Christianity so it cannot be avoided if we are to find ourselves again. Besides, even if you are on top, having the underdog mindset is incredibly prudent because it keeps you vigilant and stops you from being complacent.
There are parts of the world that used to have a strong Christian presence but today, due to various historical reasons, it has almost vanished. Even Christianity in Europe is dying off. While I believe the church will always exist in the world, there is no biblical or historical reason to be confident that it will always exist in a given part of the world forever. The church is always under threat, no matter its size. As a practical matter, when the church is small it has to be aware of its minority status. Even when we are powerful we still have an enemy. His modus operandi consists of either outright persecution or subtle temptation and we can be certain if one does not seem to be happening the other certainly is. Those of us Christians who live in relative comfort are most likely under the seduction of the Adversary. Losing our sense of distinctiveness means we have been compromised by the world. As the scripture says, friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4.) The early church constantly reminded itself of this which is why the scripture also says,
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 ESV)
If he is not attacking then he is certainly stalking us. A minority mindset means being circumspect and maintaining constant vigilance. It also means being unwilling to compromise on what sets us apart, in both our beliefs and our conduct. Apart from the recognising our malaise, our first step as a church is refreshing our memories about who we are and that means learning our founding and history. There are also contemporary examples who regularly face the kind of opposition that was commonplace for the early church. There are literally millions of our brothers and sisters around the world who are harassed and persecuted today for the same faith which we casually hold. At the very least, they should be a constant feature of our prayer and intercession. As church if we are diligent in prayer for them, they also serve as a raw reminder to us not to take the relative comfort we have for granted.
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. (Hebrews 13:3 ESV)