I have been asked many times why I am a Christian. What people are asking for is “my conversion story,” which is both wacky and typical. It involved growing up Jewish; and then came a dream in which a Jesus who looked like Daniel Day-Lewis rescued me from the clutches of the mermaids who had kidnapped me; and then I got hooked on (and by) Jan Karon’s Mitford novels, with their depiction of characters whose lives were infused by faith in a way I yearned for; and then there was a Book of Common Prayer; and so forth.
That is the story people think they are asking for when they ask why I am a Christian—they think they are asking for things God used to get me to the Cross, to Jesus, to my knees. But now, 14 years after I was baptized, the Mitford novels and the mermaid dreams have very little to do with why I am a Christian this week, this month. They have some genealogical relationship, but it is at best woefully incomplete to say “I’m a Christian today because of a dream I had in 1995.” And I think, as interesting as the stories of our Christian beginnings are, it would be grand and fabulous if the Church would more fully develop the skill of telling—as passionately—the stories of the middle of our faith lives.
So, why are you a Christian today?
Some of our most compelling contemporary literature explores those questions, or variations on them. To wit, Heather King’s recent Shirt of Flame, in which King, a convert to Catholicism, describes a year in which she comes to understand her own spiritual and personal struggles through the life and writings of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Similarly, the many essays Anne Lamott has collected over the years plunge us into the thick of life after the conversion. Lamott tells, at the outset of Traveling Mercies, about the day Jesus came to her as a cat and she finally invited him in. But most of the rest of her essays are moments of living after conversion—living into faith. Or take Henri Nouwen’s journals, which plunge us deeply into the middle of Nouwen’s life with God. It doesn’t much matter to the reader why Nouwen became a Catholic priest; what matters is what sense he is making of that vocation 10 years later, 20 years later, 30.
As for me, I am only in very small part a Christian this Tuesday morning because of that mermaid dream.
Beyond the dream, I am a Christian because a group of faithful people—some known to me and some, I suspect, still unknown—prayed for me, consistently and constantly, during a year when I could not pray.
I am a Christian because on the many Sundays when I sat in church and woolgathered, when I have sat mostly spaced out or bored, indifferent to or in rebellion against the sermon and the prayers—the Eucharist still somehow feeds my hungry self—the Eucharist being that piece of bread in which, as St. Francis noted, Jesus hides for our salvation.
Here’s a less-than-sexy, less-than-po-mo response: I am a Christian because of doctrine. Really, I mean this. In particular, I am a Christian because of the doctrine of sin—because the Christian story includes an account of everything I see when I look in the mirror and when I look out the window. It includes an account of the beauty and goodness I see—created and redeemed goodness—and also an account of the corroded, corrupt things I see. Indeed, it is Christian doctrine that not only explains those things but that allows me to see them in the first place. So, I am a Christian because of the ways the Christian story teaches me to see reality for what it is.
I am a Christian because the self-hiding God of Isaiah 45 holds me even when I am in hiding, too.
I am a Christian because Matthew 25 has been the only thing that has gotten me to interrupt my own career advancement, social life, housework and more and go to a prison—or in some other way do something other than advance my own interests. I know many a secular humanist is motivated by something other than Matthew 25 to do good things, to participate in the in-breaking of justice, but nothing else has ever actually gotten me up and out of my house. But Matthew 25 has.
I am a Christian because when I sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” the words always tell the truth.
I could go on, but you get the point.
Our conversion stories can be revealing. How we first came to know God shows much about ourselves, about God, about grace, about mystery and happenstance. But perhaps even more is revealed when we ask one another the question: Why are you a Christian this week? Why are you still a Christian? Why are you a Christian today?
In 1927, the famed British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay entitled, “Why I Am Not a Christian.”
Russell’s essay inspired the title of this post.
By “Christian,” I mean someone who has trusted their life to Jesus Christ as Crucified Savior and Resurrected Lord and seeks to follow Him each day. (I’m keenly aware that the term “Christian” has been hijacked to mean different things, hence the need to define.)
Three things to keep in mind about this list:
1) This isn’t a list of theological reasons (e.g., God chose me in Christ before the foundation of the world and the Holy Spirit revealed Christ to my heart).
2) This isn’t a list of why I am indebted to Jesus (He owns me; He bought me with His blood; He died for my sins, etc.). Instead, they are intellectual/emotional/experiential reasons why I trust in and follow Jesus.
3) This isn’t an exhaustive list (I can certainly list more reasons), and it doesn’t reflect any particular order or priority.
At the end of the list, I have a question for readers who aren’t following Jesus at the present time. And I’m really looking forward to hearing what they have to say.
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Why I’m a Christian…
1. Because life makes no sense to me apart from Christ. Nor does it have any purpose.
2. Because I’ve tried to not believe in Jesus, and I find that I cannot. (Perhaps this is why the early Christians were called “believers.” We believe for reasons that we cannot naturally explain. We believe because we believe. I have certainly struggled with various doubts along the way and questioned why God does and doesn’t do certain things, but that’s a different issue.)
3. Because I’ve never seen the Gospel narratives refuted successfully. Every critique that’s sought to debunk them throughout the years has been discounted under careful scrutiny and scholarship. The Gospels have stood the test of time.
4. Because I’ve never seen the resurrection of Jesus refuted successfully. Upon careful study of all the historical data, it actually takes more faith to deny His resurrection than to believe it occurred.
5. Because it makes no sense to me that Jesus of Nazareth isn’t who He said He was – the Messiah, the Son of the living God. No human being has had nearly the kind of effect on world history as Jesus has (e.g., I’m writing this post in 2012 – what does “2012” mean?). No serious historian denies that Jesus of Nazareth existed (there is more historical attestation for His existence than there is to Julius Caesar and many other ancient figures). And C.S. Lewis’ trilemma – Jesus is either a lunatic, a liar, or Lord – rings true for me.
6. Because I can’t help but see the biblical narrative of Creation, Fall, and Redemption echoed in every play, every work of art, every human story, every drama, every movie, and the news I read each day. The Christian story is deeply embedded in the soundtrack of human history and art.
7. Because every time I meet a true follower of Jesus for the first time, I feel like I’ve known him or her all my life.
8. Because Jesus is the most compelling, intriguing, awe-inspiring, and amazing person I know of who is worthy of the greatest admiration, obedience, love, and (uniquely) worship. To my mind, truth, justice, and beauty are all grounded in Him, and His story (as told in the Gospels) trumps every other story known to humanity.
9. Because I’ve never seen any religion or philosophy deliver people from a life of carnality and bondage to addictions. In my experience and observation at least, Jesus transforms people’s lives greater than anything else on the face of the Earth.
10. Because I have a deep and unshakeable belief that the Lord Jesus Christ is with me and taking care of me…and has all of my life. I cannot imagine life without Christ.
11. Because there is no rational explanation for some of the prayers that I (and others I know) have seen answered “in Jesus’ name.”
12. Because I don’t weep easily, but I readily cry whenever I detect the fingerprints of my Lord or behold His handiwork.
My question today is for my non-Christian readers, those who do not follow Jesus. (So I’m asking my Christian readers to hold off on commenting until we hear from our non-Christian friends.)
What are the reasons why you haven’t trusted your life to Jesus?
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FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. His blog, Beyond Evangelical, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.