Chapter OneGood News in a Bad News World
In This Chapter
* Getting the gist of Christianity
* Exploring the many paradoxes of the Christian faith
* Breaking it down: Seeing how Christianity fans out
* Understanding Christianity's role in today's world
* Recognizing the difference between Christianity and major world religions
When you click the remote and watch the nightly news broadcast, good
news is sure hard to come by. Instead, other people's bad news always
seems to take center stage: A burglar steals an elderly couple's life savings, a
fire rips through an apartment building, or a hijacked plane crashes in Siberia.
You visit the checkout aisle at your local grocery and see that other people's
bad news sells tabloids: a celebrity's failed two-week-old marriage, a politician's
scandal, or a mystery illness that causes an Olympic gold medalist to
grow a second nose.
You and I are inundated with bad news, but it's the yearning for good news
that keeps us getting out of bed each day: a marriage proposal, a job promotion,
the expectancy of a child or grandchild, the winning ticket of the Super
Lotto. Good news not only makes your day, but it also gives you hope and
optimism for the future.
Christianity is a faith that's all about good news. The heart of the Christian
message is called the gospel, which means - you guessed it - the "good
news." The Christian faith, therefore, claims to offer meaning and hope to
people, not just for a day, but also for all eternity.
So what exactly is this so-called good news that Christianity claims? How is
it different from other religions? And if Christianity is supposed to be about
good news, why does it seem that so much bad news - scandalous priests,
corrupt televangelists, and so on - flows from the Christian Church these
In this chapter, you discover the essence of Christianity and how it compares
to other world religions. You also explore some popular misconceptions of
the Christian faith so that you can discern what Christianity is and is not.
Packing Christianity into a Nutshell
Trying to define Christianity in a single sentence is kind of like trying to cram
my family's luggage into the back of our minivan when we go on vacation - an
impossible task until you start throwing many bags, even seemingly
important ones, out the window. I spend this entire book diving into what the
Christian faith is, but if I had to pack it into a nutshell, I'd say that Christianity
is the belief that God chose to create and love humans, and - at an incredible
cost to himself - frees them from a tight spot if only they, in response,
choose to reach out for his helping hand.
I dive into the cut-and-dry basics of Christianity later in this chapter, but first I
give you the scoop on the whole shebang - from beginning to end (as briefly
as possible!) so you know what you're dealing with. So kick back, get a mug of
java or tea, and read on for the story of Christianity. (If you want to get to the
nitty-gritty, flip ahead to the section, "Understanding how Christians define
Going back to the beginning: People
choosing, God responding
Christians believe in what they call the one True God, who is perfect, has
existed forever, and created the world and all its itty-bitty little creatures (see
Chapter 7). But when God created humans, he came up with something extra
special; he not only gave people pinky toes and eyebrows, but also the one-of-a-kind
gift of free will (choice).
God gave people the ability to choose whether to follow him and have a relationship
with him or to go our own separate ways. The reason he did this
seems pretty obvious to me: Suppose you desired a relationship with a special
someone. Would you prefer a person who decidedly picked you out of a
crowd, or would you rather have a robot that was programmed to do nothing
else? Personally, I prefer the chooser. I often wonder why my wife decided on
me, but I won't argue; I'll just enjoy the voluntary, albeit semi-crazy, decision
she made. So too, God opted for a humanity with free choice. But when he
did so, he took a risk, because people can decide to go their own ways and
forget about him.
God made it clear from the get-go that following him meant letting the good
times roll, while going against him would be a major bummer for all parties
involved - yucky stuff like eternal death and judgment, as I discuss in
Chapters 4 and 9.
The first folks to live out this experiment in freedom were Adam and Eve.
The couple had some good times with God for a while. But as the Bible talks
about in the Book of Genesis, curiosity got the better of them, and they soon
wanted to know what it was like doing what they wanted to do instead of
what God wanted them to do. They disobeyed God, setting off a chain reaction
of disobedience (or sin) that has spiraled through every generation since
them. See Chapter 4 for more on Adam and Eve's escapade.
When people recognize sin in their lives, their natural response is to try to do
something to make up for it. Humans have continually tried to earn God's
favor by doing good deeds as a payback (see Chapter 15). Christianity says
that payback with God is impossible, though. Think of it like this: Suppose a
genie grants you a wish to be transformed into a fish if you want to. Because
he asks you in the middle of a heat wave, the idea of being a fish surrounded
24/7 by chilly water sounds really cool, so you take the plunge into the deep
blue sea. However, after a long swim and an initial fling with a puffer fish, you
decide that the fish's life isn't for you. Your natural response may be to swim
upstream to where you initially jumped into the water and hope that somehow
that action will reverse the metamorphic process. But no amount of
swimming against the current will change you back into a human again.
Instead, the genie, by his own initiative, has to change you back.
In the same way, as you see when you read Chapter 3, God had to act on his
own initiative to allow some way out of the trap that humans found themselves
in. Christianity says that he did this by sending his Son, Jesus Christ
(flip to Chapter 5), to take the punishment that is due you and I. In his teaching,
Jesus made it clear that the Good News of Christianity is simple: Rather
than deal with the bad news of sin, confess your sins and believe in Jesus as
Lord and Savior. He wipes your sins clean and gives you eternal life. A single
Bible verse sums up his message: "For God so loved the world that he gave
his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have
eternal life" (John 3:16).
Understanding how Christians
define their faith
If you played a word association game with a sampling of Christians who've
been touched by God's gospel and asked them to name a single word or
phrase that sums up Christianity, I suspect you'd get a handful of answers. A
few likely candidates are Jesus Christ Grace Truth Life The Bible A transformed life
Each of these words reveals a key aspect of what Christianity's all about.
After you begin to paint the terms one on top of another, you begin to see a
clearer portrait of the Christian faith.
If you want to understand what true Christianity is, look first and foremost to
what the Bible's New Testament says about Jesus. Explore all of what Jesus
did, said, and taught - not just a couple selected verses. What's more, never
look at the actions or words of Christians and conclude that their behavior or
attitudes reflect what Christianity is. The Church is often in alignment with
Jesus, but as Chapter 15 covers, Christians aren't perfect and make mistakes
Definition #1: Jesus Christ
Christianity is a faith based on the life, teachings, and resurrection of Jesus, a
man who lived in Palestine some 2,000 years ago. Jesus claimed to be the Son
of God, sent by his Father in heaven to die on the cross for the sins of all
People of other faiths often consider Jesus a good moral teacher, one who
preached such memorable principles as "Love your enemies" and "Turn the
other cheek." To Christians, however, Jesus isn't just a good teacher. He
either was who he said he was - God in human form - or else he was someone
who's not trustworthy. Chapter 5 discusses Jesus and the reasons why
Christians believe that being merely a good teacher is the one thing that
Jesus could never have been.
Definition #2: Grace
You see the word grace sprinkled all around the Christian Church - in the
song, "Amazing Grace," in church names, such as Grace Baptist Church, and
when Christians say "grace" before a meal, to name a few. Grace is everywhere.
In fact, the New Testament mentions it 123 times.
Christians define grace as God's undeserved love shown toward humans.
They believe that God's grace is what saves humans through Jesus Christ
(see Chapter 3) and enables believers to live a Christian life (see Chapter 14).
Definition #3: Truth
Christians say that their faith isn't just a fairy tale that gives them comfort in
times of trouble or blind hope in the midst of tragedy. Rather, they say that
Christianity is factual, explaining the way events actually happened in the
past, why today is like it is, and what's going to happen in the future. See
Chapters 2 and 16 and the "Christianity isn't just a touchy-feely thing" section
later in this chapter for more on this subject.
Definition #4: Life
A central teaching of Christianity has always been that life is more than
school, marriage, kids, work, 401k's, Florida retirements, and hearing aids.
Instead, Christianity claims that every person has an eternal soul that will
exist even after his or her earthly body dies. Therefore, those who believe in
God's grace through Jesus Christ will have eternal life in heaven and eventually
on a new earth, while those who don't will be separated from God forever
in hell. As Jesus said, he came so that humans may have life that has
meaning, purpose, and joy. See Chapter 9 for more on these life and death
Definition #5: The Bible
Christianity says that God revealed who he is and what his plans are through
the written words of the Bible. Christians have historically believed that the
Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God, are without error in
the original writings, and serve as the final authority for the Christian faith. In
fact, Christians have traditionally believed that their religion is intricately
interwoven with the Bible, so much so that you can't separate them from
each other without destroying the fabric of both. See Chapters 2 and 6 for
more on the Bible.
Definition #6: A transformed life
When you know a lot about a subject, it's easy to get lost in the details. I can
ask a chef about his prize soufflé, and he may bury me with the details of its
preparation rather than what I care about - that its taste is to die for! I can
ask a Web site developer about her Web site, and she may talk at length
about technical aspects of HTML when all I care about is how I can use the
site to order books. Or I can ask a theologian about what Christianity is, and
he may go off on the particulars of the Nicean Creed, when all I want to know
is whether the faith brings peace and joy to life. When the chef, Web site
developer, and theologian responded, they were telling me the truth, but I
was hoping for something more relevant and tangible.
So, although you explore many aspects of Christian belief throughout this
book, don't forget that, for the average Christian, the Good News of Christianity
on a practical, everyday level means a transformed life, from a life that was
empty to a life that has meaning and hope, even when tragedies happen.
Check out Chapters 3, 5, and 13 to discover how Christ changed the lives of
people in Bible times as well as those living today in the 21st century.
Being forewarned of stereotypes:
What Christianity is not
You get a glimpse of what Christianity is in the preceding sections, but this
section helps you take note of several misconceptions about Christianity that
permeate popular thought. Some come from people who aren't Christians,
while some are from Christians themselves who take Christianity a la carte,
emphasizing one part of Christian teaching rather than the entire Christian
Consider the following misconceptions that are popular today: Christianity is harsh and legalistic. Christianity is just about love. Christians can't have any fun. Christianity is just a European religion. Christianity is one of many paths to the same end. Christianity is a one-hour-a-week obligation. Christianity is a feel-good kick.
I discuss these in the sections that follow.
Christianity isn't just about judgment and condemnation
Because Christianity seeks to change, even kill, the sinful nature, many
people have come to think of it as a faith that's based on meeting a certain
behavioral standard. And if you don't measure up, then you're going to be
judged and condemned.
Movies and TV shows often portray the Church as legalistic and judgmental.
Take, for example, the film Chocolat. It tells the story of a wandering single
mother, Vianne, and her daughter who come to a French village that's
dominated by the Comte de Reynaud, the mayor who has a firm hand on all
that goes on in the village and its church. When the mayor learns that Vianne
had her child out of wedlock, has no interest in coming to church, and plans
to open a chocolate shop during Lent (the religious season when Christians
traditionally abstain from eating something, such as chocolate), he resolves
to run her out of town. The film portrays a stark contrast between the
Comte's strict legalism and Vianne's loving grace throughout the movie.
Many undoubtedly identify with Chocolat's depiction of the Church. Perhaps
you even grew up in a church like that. Yet, the irony is that, in watching the
film, Jesus would be one to identify with the character of Vianne, not the
mayor. After all, in many ways, the religious leaders of his day looked upon
Jesus in the exact same way as the Comte looked upon Vianne.
Throughout history, strands of the Church have had this tendency to slip
into legalism. However, this attitude isn't unique to Christianity. When you
look at any religion, you find a similar portion of its followers stressing regulation
and conformity to an expected standard, looking down on or being suspicious
of those who don't live up to the rules. Ironically, even those who
profess no religion at all sometimes fall into this legalism trap, criticizing
those who believe differently than they do.