What is "Christianity"?

This and a few posts that follow will attempt to answer some basic questions about life in Christ. Feel free to follow along, and if you have other questions you'd like me to answer, shoot me an email.

Buried deep in the Book of Common Prayer, in a series of pages rarely turned to, you can find the following:

Q: What is the duty of all Christians?
A: The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.

This snippet of the Catechism comes as the penultimate Q/A in a section called "The Ministry," which, as its name indicates, spells out the nature and responsibilities of ordained and lay ministry. It's one of the few places in the Catechism that uses the word "Christian." We read more often about "we," "members in Christ," and "all people." It's not that the authors of the Catechism were unconcerned with the institutional aspect of Christianity; rather, one gets the impression that they were just more concerned with seeing all people relate to Christ. 

So often, identity gets wrapped up in being part of this or that group, and not being part of any variety of other groups. We're more likely to distinguish ourselves from whichever group or person we are not. Identity becomes a negative characteristic rather than a positive one. But the authors of the Catechism seem to be more concerned with helping all people find their identity in Christ. 

The Cross of San Damiano, hanging in the Basilica of St. Clare of Assisi

As Ben Myers puts it, rather bluntly, Jesus never set out to start a religion, or teach ideas (37–38). Rather, Jesus came simply for the sake of giving himself. Christians have many ideas, mostly good, some great, others not so much. But fortunately, Christianity is not a religion of ideas. 

Instead, Christianity is a way of life, an opportunity to be with Jesus. At its heart, Christianity simply offers Jesus. 

John—one of Jesus’ followers, called a disciple—tells us is that the Light has come into the world and that it makes all the difference. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John says that the world was trapped in darkness. John doesn’t mean literal darkness (the absence of light). Instead, he uses the idea of darkness to metaphorically refer to a mental, ethical, and spiritual darkness. Jon refers to the absence of goodness, enlightenment, and, above all, the absence of God. Jesus heals this darkness simply by giving himself. This is good news. 

In order to better get into John’s headspace, imagine a room without windows or lights. The doors are sealed. It’s dark and stuffy, and you keep banging into things. Sounds comical, or even painful, right?

"Light in a Dark Room," photo by Alan Watson

But now you’ve fallen down, maybe you tripped over something you couldn’t see, and you’re wrestling with others who also have fallen as you all try to get up simultaneously. A few people in different parts of the room claim they’ve got lights, maybe a flashlight or matches, but you can’t see anything. There’s no visible proof. Someone else is selling what they claim to be lights. Another person says there never were and never will be any lights — we’re stuck this way. All around you morale is low, people are hurt, and someone just picked your pocket, another person just screamed, children are crying, and you’re doing your best to remain sane. You fall asleep. 

This is how John thinks of the world before Jesus came. And by describing the world this way, John is riffing off of Genesis 1: “In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

The world, whatever it was before Genesis 1, was absent and dark. In the next verse, something happens. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

God’s Light brings not only light, but order, stability, time, and substance. It’s only after God speaks the light into the world that we have a world. It’s only after there’s light that there’s land, plants, animals, and humans. 

For John, likewise, the world is in darkness and chaos and this time God sends light in the person of Jesus Christ. John’s claim is bold. "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John calls Jesus both the Light and the Word. Jesus is the Word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that God spoke to create all things. In fact, this Word not only was with God; this Word is God. And it is God, in the person of Jesus, who is the Light that will enlighten the hearts and minds of the world.

Remember our hypothetical dark room. Imagine you’re in it again. Several hours of darkness pass when all of a sudden people start yelling. You wake up. You hear people talking about light. They say they see the faint outline of a door, far away... you feel movement around you, and ask the person next to you what’s up, but they’re unresponsive. You still don’t see anything. Why?

You hear more about light. Someone next to you asks “who’s that?” But you still don’t see anything. The person next to you asks why your eyes are still closed. You had no idea. The room isn't dark anymore, but somehow you still are.

John claims that Jesus is the light that came into the world, but even his own people did not know him and many rejected him. The world that he created didn’t recognize its own Creator, like a work of art that doesn’t recognize its artist. The world was blind to the light. But John speaks a word of hope: the darkness couldn’t overcome the light. 

The radical claim of Christianity, as John eloquently puts it here, is that despite all adversity, and in the face of ignorance, malice, and hatred, God the Son gives himself in relationship to us all to cure all that darkness. Christianity is the way of life that choses to enter into that relationship. Christianity is that state of life that turns from darkness to light. Christianity is the public and personal embrace of that Light.