Book Club Discussion: Is Jesus a Christian?

In Chapter 12 of William P. Young’s The Shack, Jesus talks with the book’s protagonist, Mackenzie, about the inadequacy of institutions in bringing people closer to God. 

Jesus says, “Institutions, systems, ideologies, and all the vain, futile efforts of humanity that go with them are everywhere, and interaction with all of it is unavoidable. But I can give you freedom to overcome any system of power in which you find yourself, be it religious, economic, social, or political. You will grow in the freedom to be inside or outside all kinds of systems and to move freely between and among them. Together, you and I can be in it and not of it.” 

Mackenzie asks, “Is that what it means to be a Christian?” To which Jesus responds, “Who said anything about being a Christian? I’m not a Christian.” 

Young writes, “The idea struck Mack as odd and unexpected, and he couldn’t keep himself from grinning. ‘No, I suppose you aren’t.’ 

Jesus continues, ‘Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institution. I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some are bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.” 

“Does that mean,” asked Mack, “That all roads will lead to you?” 

“Not at all,” smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop, “Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.” 

I love this sentiment. Christians so often forget that the power of salvation lies not in a religious institution, but in a loving God who reaches out to all people. 

As many of you know, I’ve spent many years struggling with the implications of religious pluralism. Growing up, I was taught that anyone who does not explicitly express faith in Jesus Christ and convert to Christianity is, without a doubt, bound to eternity in hell. 

For many years, I believed that Christians had only two options regarding the destiny of the un-evangelized. They could either be exclusivists or universalists. Exclusivists believe that only Christians are saved, and universalists believe that all people are saved. In college, I was assured that only the first option was biblical, and that universalists themselves were most likely destined to hell along with the Buddhists, and Muslims, and Hindus, as their position was far too unorthodox to make them “true believers.” 

Since then, I have found that there are more than two ways of approaching religious pluralism. I don’t have to choose between believing that God saves only a handful or that God saves everyone, including those who reject Him or practice unrepentant evil. 

Traditional exclusivism holds that 1) Jesus Christ is the only Savior, and 2) explicit faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. While I agree with the first statement, I have reservations about the second, and prefer instead to hold an agnostic yet optimistic view concerning those who have never heard the gospel or who subscribe to other religions. Peter’s joyful reaction to the unexpected faith of Cornelius best describes my reaction to what Scripture says about the unevangelized: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality,  but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

If you want me to get technical, I suppose you might say I am an “inclusivist.” I will readily admit, however, that there is much I do not know about how God works among other people or how He will judge the world. 

More about that in future posts…

The focus here is on the idea that institutions themselves do not have saving (or for that matter, damning) powers. 

I don’t know how God will judge in eternity. However, I know that those of us blessed with the knowledge of Jesus Christ, should  be slow to judge and careful of over-confidence, always heeding Christ’s warning that “not everyone who says to Me on that day, ’Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:21-23) 

I also don’t know the degree to which God is present in other religions. I’ve seen both very good and very bad fruit come from organized religion--including Christianity--and prefer to think of each individual as spiritually unique rather than the sum of his or her religious culture. I can only hope that non-Christians would do the same for me.  

I might be opening a can of worms here, but this is an important issue that I think will draw more and more attention as our culture becomes more global. What are your thoughts? Do you think it is possible to escape the confines of the choice between exclusivism and universalism? Is there a theological “third way” here? 

C.S. Lewis wrote a really beautiful passage that touches on this subject in The Last Battle of the Narnia series. It is written from the perspective of a pagan named Emeth who, until encountering Aslan, had been following Aslan’s enemy, Tash. I’ve always interpreted Tash to represent non-Christian religions, but perhaps, in light of this conversation, it is better to think of Tash as representing any institution (including Christianity) that claims to be a vehicle to salvation. 

Emeth remembers his first encounter with Aslan: 

“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him…But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord is it rue, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said. It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites. 

I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? 

I said, Lord, though knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all of my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me though wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."


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Cable news is destrying America...I know because I watch it 24/7

So after four years of living with super-basic cable, Dan and I finally broke down and got satellite TV. Now instead of flipping through just seven stations of absolutely nothing, we can flip through 100 stations of absolutely nothing. We’re so excited! 
Ironically, the dish arrived just a few weeks after I indulged in a 30-minute rant with my friends about the evils of cable news. With so much air-time to fill, pundits and commentators on networks like Fox News and MSNBC spend hours hashing and re-hashing the day’s political news to the point that the lines between opinion and objective reporting are blurred, if not unabashedly ignored. As a result, there’s a lot of preaching to the choir going on over the airwaves these days. When you can simply tune in to whichever “reporter” best reflects your political views, you only sink deeper and deeper into your already held beliefs, which is never good for productive and enlightening dialog. 

And yet I feel inexplicably drawn to the 24/7 coverage of the 2008 election. I rationalize my habit by telling myself that, as a responsible citizen, I should make sure I am an informed voter. (Too bad I’ve already made up my mind!) Maybe it’s the excitement of the sharp point-counterpoint debates of the commentators, or perhaps the flashing “breaking news” graphics that pop up with every little dip in Obama’s poll numbers or every slip of the stock market, or perhaps it’s the crawling news scroll that announces everything from Lindsey Lohan’s most recent relapse to the report of another soldier’s death in Iraq. I feel like I’m getting addicted to fast food for the brain. 

However, today I had a moment of hope...a small serving of veggies among a day of trans-fatty analysis and partially hydroginated opinion polls. Flipping through my myriad of stations, I landed on good ole’ Georgia Public Broadcasting, where Jim Lehr was reporting the evening  news. The reports were long and somewhat academic. No bright graphics, no sound effects, and no spin. Lehr’s guests, who were experts on foreign relations and the economy, were actually  allowed to finish their sentences. It was refreshing. It was peaceful. It was a bit boring. 

So while it’s nice to know that I can check the day’s headlines whenever I want with the click of a remote control, it’s also nice to know that there’s still some actual reporting going on out there…even though it’s on a station we already had.


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Book Club Discussion: Are we more compassionate than God?

In Chapter 11 of William P. Young’s “The Shack,” the story’s protagonist, Mackenzie, encounters a mysterious female figure who represents Wisdom, (no doubt inspired by Solomon’s personification of the virtue in the book of Proverbs.) 

In talking with Wisdom about the senseless kidnapping of his daughter, Mackenzie shouts, “Yes! God is to blame!” To which Wisdom responds, “…If you are able to judge God so easily, then you certainly can judge the world.” 

A fascinating conversation then unfolds: 

Again she spoke with no emotion. “You must choose two of your children to spend eternity in God’s new heaven and new earth, but only two.” 

“What?” he erupted, turning to her in disbelief.

“And you must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell.” 

Mack couldn’t believe what he was hearing and started to panic. 

“Mackenzie.” Her voice now came as calm and wonderful as first he heard it. “I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does. He knows every person ever conceived, and he knows them so much deeper and clearer than you will ever know your own children. He loves each one according to his knowledge of the being of that son or daughter. You believe he will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from His presence and apart from His love. Is that not true?” 

“I suppose I do.  I’ve just never thought about it like this.” He was stumbling over his words in his shock. “I just assumed that somehow God could do that. Talking about hell was always sort of an abstract conversation, not about anyone that I truly…” Mack hesitated, realizing that what he was about to say would sound ugly, “not about anyone that I truly cared about.” 

“So you suppose, then, that God does this easily, but you cannot? Come now, Mackenzie. Which three of your five children will you sentence to hell?” 

Mackenzie, of course, cannot choose between his children, and instead asks, “Could I go instead? If you need someone to torture for eternity, I’ll go in their place. Would that work? Could I do that?” To which wisdom responds, “Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well, Mackenzie. I am so proud of you!” 

“But I haven’t judged anything.” Mack offered in confusion. 

“Oh, but you have. You have judged them worthy of love, even if it costs you everything. That is how Jesus loves.” 

Clearly, Young isn’t a big fan of limited atonement. 

The story calls to mind a quote from Spencer Burke, who has said, “Most Christians have conceived of a God who is less forgiving and less compassionate than they are.” 

Those who know me well know that for years I struggled with this issue, to the point that I almost left the Christian faith altogether. Anytime I questioned the idea of God damning the majority of the human population to hell, I was told that this subject was not negotiable, that God picks and chooses who He wants to save and we can’t do anything about it. 

I’ve often been told that the reason I have a problem with the idea of people suffering eternally without the chance to be saved is because my sense of justice has been perverted by my sin nature, that it only seems unfair to me because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.” Ironically, I recently discovered that the context of that commonly-quoted verse is not about God’s mysterious wrath but about His mysterious mercy. The preceding verse declares, “He will have compassion on [the sinner]…for He will abundantly pardon,” and then continues, “for ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:7-8)

God does not relinquish His sovereignty by extending His abundant grace to sinners. His ways are higher than our ways in that He does not need to satisfy His vengeance in order to retain His sense of power and majesty. Jesus asks His disciples to love their enemies so that they may be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48) Perhaps we have created God in our image in that we expect His justice, like ours, to favor retribution over forgiveness. But based on all that I have since learned from Scripture and all that I have experienced in my life, I expect that it will be God’s mercy-not his wrath-that prevails and astounds us at judgment.

I've come to believe that His love is unlimited and eternal, and with Him there is indeed “abundant redemption.” (Psalm 130:7) When Jesus hung on the cross, when God had been insulted by mankind to the highest degree imaginable, Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Now, there is the mystery. There is the higher way. There is the thing that my perverted sense of justice can never comprehend.

It is not that God is less compassionate than us; He is more compassioante, more loving, more forgiving. 

(More on how my thoughts in this area have changed in next week’s posts about religious pluralism.)


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A little mindfulness never hurt anyone

Once again Oprah Winfrey has generated a lot of interest (and some controversy) regarding spirituality as she recently launched a worldwide discussion about Eckhart Tolle’s book "A New Earth." 

Folks who know me know I’m a big Oprah fan. I watch the show nearly every day while running on the treadmill in my basement, and I really enjoy her magazine, which I feel has raised the bar intellectually for other popular women’s magazines. I also admire her philanthropy and her ability to speak to women on a wide range of issues, from human trafficking and AIDS relief, to self improvement and introspection, to finding a pair of jeans that look good on your butt. I don't agree with everything she says, of course, but I like her.

I’ve watched the recent shows about Tolle and A New Earth with mild interest. New Age spirituality isn’t really my cup of tea, and ever since I visited India I’ve been a bit skeptical about Eastern religions, as they seem to perpetuate a cultural indifference toward human suffering. However, unlike some, I don’t think Oprah and Tolle are out to take the world for Satan. In fact, I think they might actually have a few good things to say, particularly about mindfulness. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being intentionally aware of one’s thoughts and actions in the present moment. In Buddhism, Right Mindfulness is the seventh path from the Noble Eightfold Path. 

Let me be clear. I’m not a Buddhist (or an Oprah follower for that matter); I’m a Christian. However, I’ve always felt that mindfulness is one of those good ideas from which we can all benefit, particularly those of us who tend to be excessively busy, goal-oriented, entitled, and materialistic (which unfortunately includes most Americans). 

I first encountered the idea of mindfulness while reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ. Here’s what he says about mindfulness: 

“In Buddhism, our effort is to practice mindfulness in each moment-to know what is going on within and all around us. When Buddha was asked, ‘Sir what do you and your monks practice?’ he replied, ‘We sit, we walk, we eat.’ The questioner continued, ‘But sir, everyone sits, walks, and eats,’ and the Buddha told him, ‘When we sit, we know we are sitting. When we walk, we know we are walking. When we eat, we know we are eating.’ Most of the time, we are lost in the past or carried away by future projects and concerns. When we are mindful, touching deeply the present moment, we can see and listen deeply, and the fruits are always understanding, acceptance, love, and the desire to relieve suffering and bring joy. When our beautiful child comes up to us to us and smiles, we are completely there for her.” 

I think this is a marvelous idea, one that can compliment (rather than compete with) Christian beliefs and practices. For example: 

- When I practice mindfulness in conversation, I listen to what others are saying rather than worrying about what I’m going to say next. 
- When I practice mindfulness in eating, I savor and enjoy smaller portions instead of absently scarfing down an entire can of Pringles while watching “The Biggest Loser.” 
- When I practice mindfulness in doing housework, I quiet those pesky and prideful thoughts of being “above” cleaning the toilet.
-  When I practice mindfulness while reading Scripture, I am more in tune with how the Holy Spirit is speaking to me at that moment and less concerned about which theological system best explains what I’ve read. 
- When I practice mindfulness while praying, I find myself doubting less and believing more. 
- When I practice mindfulness while serving, I focus on the needs of others rather than what’s next on my “to-do” list. 

I think one of the mistakes Christian fundamentalists make is to assume that other religions or cultural traditions have absolutely nothing to teach us. It’s too bad because, in this new global community, there’s a lot we can learn from one another.


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Take this quiz to find out what you believe!

Those little quizzes on Facebook and in teen magazines usually drive me crazy, but if you like talking politics, you might want to check out You can take a quiz that connects you to the 2008 presidential candidate that represents your beliefs the best. What I like about this quiz is you can adjust it to reflect the issues that matter the most to you. (For example, my most important issues were healthcare, foreign policy, and economics and trade. Less important were issues like abortion, gay marriage, and gun control.) I also like  how the site clearly and objectively explains the candidate’s positions on various issues. 

While I don’t like relying on 10-question quizzes to think for me, I like that this quiz requires you to prioritize which issues matter to you the most. If anything, it’s a good way to generate some discussion! 

Oddly enough, you can still get matched with candidates who have already dropped out of the race. In fact, last time I took the quiz, I lined up with John Edwards more than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. This time (in a frightening turn of events) Mike Gravel showed up as being compatible with my beliefs. In the end, I had 79 percent similarity with Hillary Clinton and 76 percent similarity with Barack Obama. I still plan to vote for Obama because I think he’ll do a better job of uniting the country and because he hasn’t taken money from registered lobbyists.

So, what issues are most important to you in this election? Iraq? Foreign policy in general? The environment? Dependency on foreign oil? Healthcare? Abortion? The economy? Education? 

Let me know what’s on your mind and maybe we could have a guest blogger or two assist in a little online debate about the issues you want to talk about. 

Anyone else taken the quiz? 

Anyone out there still undecided about the election?


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