Last week, I was listening to an interview with Zachary Levi, star of Chuck (I’m still angry about how that show ended) and, most recently, the DC film Shazam. It’s a great interview; Levi talks about therapy, mental health, trust, gratitude, prayer, and his faith. I hadn’t known that Levi is a Christian, but he spends a lot of this interview talking about how important his faith is to him.
It’s always a pleasant surprise to hear a Hollywood celebrity passionate about their relationship with God, but one thing struck me in particular: as Levi described his Christianity, he said that it is “closer to Buddhist than Baptist.”
This line struck me because it encapsulates what I sometimes do when I talk about my faith. I’m a Christian, yes, but not that kind of Christian. I distance myself in particular from evangelical Christianity, the strain of American Christianity that constantly struggles with fundamentalism, mires itself in culture wars, and all too often confuses political power with the kingdom of God.
I partly do this because I have theological values and convictions that don’t mesh neatly with evangelicalism. But, let’s be honest: I also partly do it because I don’t want people to judge me. I don’t want people to think that I support conversion therapy and screaming at women entering Planned Parenthood clinics, that I deny climate change and think God appointed Trump as our president and might still be iffy on interracial marriage.
I know that the above is a caricature, or at the very least representative of a minority of American evangelicals. And I have no compunction over distancing myself from the actions and rhetoric of that minority of evangelical Christians (coughFranklin Grahamcough).
But I did grow up thinking that Christians were being persecuted in America. I was told that wavering on points of dogma was the same as rejecting Christianity. I believed that “the world,” especially pop culture, was separate from and even opposed to Christianity.
And then I discovered that actually, Christians disagree — have disagreed — about dogmas for centuries. I learned that Christianity is still culturally normative in America (with decreasing strength, but even Trump had to claim some form of Christian faith in order to win the presidency).
I even discovered that many “secular” cultural productions have deeply Christian themes (hello, Harry Potter) and that sometimes, culture is ahead of the church (#MeToo gave rise to #ChurchToo, not the other way around).
And as I threw off the baggage of the evangelical culture wars, I found myself more and more often making some version of Levi’s statement: I’m a Christian, but not like those crazy Baptists/fundamentalists/evangelicals over there.
But what’s the line? What’s the point where I say: yes, I do believe that, even though it’s unpopular. When I say: my faith does require me to take this stand, to reject that belief, to criticize those decisions.
I led youth worship recently, and we talked about the tension between believing that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and living in a society that embraces, to at least some extent, religious pluralism. Religious pluralism asserts that all religions have some truth, so can’t everyone just coexist?
And regardless of whether anyone truly believes that religions are neutral or basically equal, religious pluralism certainly promotes respect and dialogue. (Whether it achieves those things is, of course, an entirely different question.) But that’s the rub: how do you simultaneously assert that your faith is True — while also respecting that others disagree for a variety of reasons?
In the churches I grew up in, I didn’t learn much respect for non-Christians; the assumption tended to be that they were either too ignorant to see its truth or that they willfully rejected the truth.
But the “more Buddhist than Baptist” approach pulls back from any truth claims about Christianity, reducing it to a personal faith that has little to offer the world and few distinctive elements. Zachary Levi certainly finds strength and meaning in his faith, but it’s not clear that he thinks others would as well.
I don’t have any answers on how to thread the needle. But I wonder: what if we invite people into the great story of redemption? What if we invite people to taste and see that God is good?
We don’t need to prove that the story is true. We don’t need need to demand that people make a wholesale intellectual commitment.
But the story of Christianity, of God’s love for the world God made, of Jesus coming to laugh and cry and sleep and eat and die with us, of the Spirit dwelling within us, is so much bigger than personal feelings of well-being. This is a story worth inviting others into.
I’m not always sure that God is making all things new, righting all wrongs, drying all tears. Sometimes it seems like a story that’s far too good to be true. But if it is true? It’s the most beautiful story and I want a place in it. So I believe, not because I know that Jesus is the Way, but because I hope he is.
I don’t want to be more Buddhist than Baptist, or the other way around. I want to say yes to God’s story and to live as if God’s story is true. And more: I want to live out God’s story in my own life and invite others to live in this story with me.
And yes, sometimes that might mean that I have to take an unpopular stand. Sometimes it means that I see God’s story woven into the world around me. But maybe it’s not about drawing lines, about dividing in and out; maybe it’s just about the invitation into story about God’s love for us.