I grew up with a black and white Christianity. A "this is right—and that is wrong" approach to the world. For instance, alcohol and homosexuality were bad, attending church good and praying daily even better.
As I've got older I can no longer stomach such simplified responses to the world around me. After travelling to many countries and meeting thousands of people, I know that every person has a very intimate and sacred story, a background that comes with them.
The thought of an all-encompassing or blanket approach to everyone's journey feels so limiting and confining—not to mention reducing life to a structure for how people should encounter a living god.
Recently I met up with some really good friends who don't want to push Santa onto their two children. They believe that telling their kids a lie for seven or eight years of their life and then turning around and saying that they were just kidding undermines the so-called truth and strong values they want to instil in their formative years. They also believe Santa is a harmful distraction away from what should be the primary focus of the season: Jesus. I thought I could bear that to an extent, until I heard that they thought that any Christians who let their kids grow up believing in Santa were 'heretics.'
Meanwhile, I have some other friends who have just finished theology degrees in order to become pastors and ministers, yet they love to drink and swear and get pretty rowdy on a regular basis—not just individually but collectively as a group of future-pastors. They recently inflicted destruction because of alcohol, causing not just an embarrassing scene but also some physical damage as they got a bit carried away over the weekend.
Yet both of these groups would label themselves Christians. That's something I really struggle with, not just because I don't identify with either group but because I don't know what it means to be a Christian anymore.
I don't want to be lumped in with a group that says there are strict standards to uphold and that certain lifestyles are wrong—and I don't want to be part of the Christians that hold absolutely no values and let everything that could possibly happen in life be permissible.
Yet both groups (and everyone in between) hold their views in light of the sacred Bible and believe their interpretation is justified, while usually believing the other group has some learning to do.
I remember hearing of Shane Claiborne trying to re-define himself and his community of radical, organic social workers as "followers of Jesus," thinking it would help differentiate them from 'Christians,' creating a lens to shape their life. That was until I met some very conservative Christians in Canada—who thought that even attending a venue which served alcohol was setting a bad example—calling themselves the same thing.
Grouping and labelling can only do damage when we start to inflict our own views onto someone else's and believe it to be the same way of seeing the world. This is where the great problem arises—that everyone limits their own beliefs to their own viewpoint and tries to take ownership of the 'Christian' label.
Rob Bell surmised something really powerful recently, when he was recording a podcast with the author from Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert. He said that there are two conflicting worlds that often come head-to-head, that is the rational and the pre-rational ways of observing life.
The 'pre-rational' frame of mind is where people say things without thinking, evidence or deconstruction, but rather with ideas that just happen to come into the mind or what feels good to believe regardless of facts.
He said what often happens is that people move into a rational state, where they start to analyse and examine what they previously knew, often finding what they believed before no longer holds sway. This is where a lot of teenagers lose faith and walk away from church.
Bell said that if people stay in the rational world then they have a whole lot of mysteries about the world and the universe that they can't explain; often they don't want to regress to a pre-rational world. But rather than going backwards, he concluded that people need to head beyond rational into a "trans-rational" world, where people are still cognizant of their rational state of mind but choose to pray about what they see around them, wonder at the mysteries that cannot be explained, and be guided by a spirit that moves them beyond the physical world.
For some people even mentioning Rob Bell's name is enough to warrant suspicion but for others this will allow them to see that reaching the rational world is not the end game, that they are allowed to move beyond rational to a place that holds the mysteries of life in balance.
For me, the best thing I could possibly hope for is that Christians from all denominations and walks of life can internalise their own dogma and practices, while externalising one thing as their lens for the future: being people who bear the fruit of the spirit.
If every 'Christian' in the world was known for being only about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness gentleness, and self-control then I think it would be something we could all be proud of, and a label I'd want to associate with.
Matt Browning is a storyteller and lover of ideas. He is currently setting up a social enterprise for youth unemployment in Rotorua, New Zealand—taking youth who are dropping out of high school or coming out of youth prison and hiring them full-time so that they can get the experience needed to be hired in the future.
Matt Browning's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/matt-browning.html