Missing Jesus

My college newspaper rarely addresses religious topics. So I was a little surprised to pick up the latest edition and see Michael Angelo’s “The Creation of Adam” frame from the Sistine Chapel covering the lead page. I have seen the sprawling, cosmic depiction so many times that initially I failed to notice that the newspaper had altered the picture. While God’s majestic form was the same, with one arm extending through the heavens down to his creation, Adam had been significantly changed. Instead of holding his hand out tenderly towards God, his middle finger protruded defiantly at the Creator.

As a Christian I found this distortion offensive. Yet I had to admit that the parody did encapsulate a prevailing attitude on campus. Days earlier sitting at a campus café, I couldn’t help overhearing a lively conversation at the table next to me. Two professors were discussing a variety of topics, when one statement caught my attention. “I hate Christianity,” one of them said turning suddenly pensive and looking out the window. “I really hate it.” I stared into my coffee cup eagerly awaiting his reasoning, but none was given. The other professor simply nodded his agreement and the conversation moved on. Perhaps I could have dismissed the professor’s animosity, if his was an isolated view. But I have heard his sentiment echo in the comments of fellow students.

In one way it’s not difficult to see what creates this hostility. A young man named Daniel comes to our college every day to preach. He stands in the middle of the courtyard and shouts at the passing students. Daniel has the sensitivity of a wrecking ball. “God hates you!” He cries out so loudly that his voice breaks. “All you little devils are going to fry. One day God is going to skip you like flat, smooth stones into the lake of fire. He’s going to laugh when he does it and I’m going to laugh too!” On one occasion a student approached him timidly, “Daniel this is hate-free campus. I don’t think you should be saying these things.” This only filled Daniel with fresh fury. “Oh it is, is it? Well, then let me tell you little vermin, I’m here to bring back the hate!”

I have challenged Daniel’s hermeneutic and approach many times. The attempts are futile. Invariably, he loses his temper and I too am assigned a place in the lake of fire. I comfort myself by thinking that the other students can see that Daniel doesn’t represent real Christianity, but at least in one case I’ve been wrong. One day as I walked through the courtyard with two of my classmates, Daniel’s hateful voice rang in the air and my friends shook their heads in disgust. Not wanting them to confuse Daniel’s message with true Christianity, I remarked, “Can you believe that guy claims to be following Jesus? I can’t imagine Jesus screaming that he hated everyone.” I expected them to readily agree. Instead they only stared at me blankly. Then one of them launched into a diatribe about how she couldn’t stand those “self-righteous Christians.”

I have come to the conclusion that many of my fellow students are rejecting the wrong Christ. They simply don’t know who Jesus is. They have never read the Bible for themselves. And this biblical ignorance is not confined to students. Upon learning that I planned to attend seminary after graduation, my English professor was shocked. “You want to study the Bible? I have to admit I’ve never really read it.”

That’s too bad, I thought, because anyone who reads through the gospels with even the slightest understanding is unlikely to be turned off by Jesus. They may balk at His elevated moral code or scoff at His miracles but few can remained unmoved by the humble servant who befriended sinners and loved the lowly. It’s also too bad that as Christians we have sidelined the potent message of the Gospels and focused on a strange amalgam of pop culture and religion that is misinforming unbelievers. Angry, fanatical street preachers aren’t the only ones who’ve created the problem.

I do not disparage the practice of wearing Christian clothes and symbols to communicate the faith, but the recent tidal wave of Christian paraphernalia has taken a turn for the worse. When the mimicry of the secular world becomes painfully overt, I cringe at the message being sent. We have adapted Calvin Klien’s CK logo to read, “CK, Christ is King” and emblazoned it on t-shirts. The popular brand “Tommy Hilfiger,” becomes “Tommy Hellfighter.” While I’m sure the aim of those sporting such logos is admirable, this punning only displays a pathetic pandering to the world. The local Christian radio station runs an ad that promises “safe, easy listening with no offensive lyrics.” Every time I hear it, I can’t help but notice the advertisement’s stark contrast to Jesus’ warning about the offensiveness of his message or hear the disciples’ complain, “This is a hard teaching. Who can follow it?”

The bumper stick wars are equally perplexing. Many Christians, including myself, have fish symbols on their cars. When some antagonistic unbeliever had the clever idea of adding little feet to the fish to create a Darwin fish, Christians responded eagerly with an adjustment of their own: A large “Truth” fish, swallowing the Darwin fish now appears on many bumpers. Unfortunately the message totally contradicts the teaching of the gospels. Turning the other cheek goes beyond nonviolence; it prescribes a posture of humility and proscribes retaliation. It was to be consumed that Christ was born into this world.

Our stale maxims and done to death condemnation of the sin de jour are hardly effective. Jesus’ approach could not be more different then ours. We seem hesitant to surrender our clunky and predictable methods to follow him, flitting from soul to soul, whetting spiritual appetites, speaking the lost language of spiritual longing, challenging, probing, provoking, baffling. His methods were as varied as His audience. To the sinners He was unreserved and inspiring, “Whoever drinks of the water I give will never thirst” (John 4:14). To the disingenuous he was enigmatic. “Neither will I tell you” (Matthew 21:27).

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For some reason we thought we could improve on His example. We thought we could water down the message and make it easier to swallow. But it turns out that people are choking on our concoction, especially young people. Here is what young people think about today’s Christianity: They think it’s cheesy, arrogant, simple, mainstream and they don’t want it. Our generation has already rejected that pitch. We have seen the American Dream spread out before us like a banquet feast, and in short, we were full. We don’t want unflinching confidence. We want vulnerability. We don’t want cute slogans and serenity. We want revolution and dynamism. We want humility. We want unvarnished truth. Now that I think about it, we want Jesus.

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