Friday, July 11, 2008

What is a "Christian"?

My friend, Rachel Wolf, a Jew with a storied history in the Messianic movement, wrote the following piece for the Messianic Times (reprinted here with her permission).

Read this, press into it, what does it do to your understanding of "Christian"?

What if God was calling the non-Jewish human world into some form of Jewishness?

What if we believed that Jesus was in fact a Jew and we're called to be like him?

How would you see things differently? Or does it matter?

Coffee and the Meaning of the Life
by Rachel Wolf

A few weeks ago, I bumped into an old friend at Starbucks. We had spent many memorable hours together in English Lit. She had moved out of the country shortly after college, and had recently come back to town. Never one to mince words, after some initial catch-ups, she said, “You’re an intelligent person. I understand that you had a religious experience, but how can you believe that goyishe nonsense?”

I was dumbfounded. Not because I was offended. (Hey, after various confrontations with professional anti-missionaries this was a raving compliment.) Nor because I was shocked by the question. (C’mon, I had asked myself the same question plenty of times over the years!)

I was speechless because I wanted to give her a meaningful answer. How could I even begin to compress 30+ years of painful, in fact, gut-wrenching, personal, spiritual and intellectual searching into a brief chat over latte with Stevie Wonder singing in the background?

For a moment I must have looked like I was about to be sick. “Are you okay?” was the next question.

I jolted headlong over my jumbled thoughts and tripped down a verbal staircase: “But it’s not goyishe. It’s really Jewish. Well, no, the nonsense isn’t Jewish. I mean it’s not nonsense. I mean there are some Gentile believers who really understand that it’s Jewish. And maybe I shouldn’t call Christianity nonsense. And I certainly don’t think of myself as a Christian, not that all Christians are bad or anything. But I can understand why you feel that way -- I mean about goyishe nonsense, not that all Christians are bad.”

She was now the one who looked pale. To make matters worse, I noticed that some of my coffee had managed to jump out of that little sipping hole onto my sweater as I was desperately gesturing, in hopes of whipping my airborne thoughts into some semblance of order.


I took a breath, my eyes welling up with tears, as I searched again into the galaxies of my past.

“It’s like Alice Through the Looking Glass and I’m Alice.” My heart was bursting with the pain of the years as if it were all fresh. Please don’t cry, I pleaded with myself.

“It’s like, I know exactly how things look to you. I know how the world looks from your eyes. It’s me. You’re me. Look, I wear Jewish history like a mantle. The expulsions, the blood libels, the Protocols, the traditions, the ya ba by by bys, the Holocaust, all of it. It’s me, it’s where I come from; it’s who I am.

“But I’ve been through the looking glass, and now I see the same world, the same history, the same Bible, all the same stuff, but all turned around and inside out. And even when I want to, I can’t go back. The strange thing is, the looking glass world is the real thing, and we have all been trapped in the two-dimensional looking glass thinking it was real.”

“So, you mean you think Christianity is true and Judaism is backwards?”

My mouth opened, lips poised to speak, and closed again. Was the distance was too vast to span? How in the world do I communicate an alternate reality that is as different as that of another universe -- yet, at the same time, the very same thing I grew up believing and yearning for? Mere words seemed inadequate.

“No, no, not at all. (Nervous laugh.) We’ve all been trapped in the looking glass: the Jews, the Christians, even the Marxists and secularlists. I know it sounds ridiculous to say this, but all of Western religious thought has been skewed; it's been operating from an erroneous 'cosmology.'”

“I thought we were talking about religion?”

“Okay. As I see it, there are two basic aspects of this that seem like mishegas to us modern American Jews, or I guess to modern secularized Jews in general-- the goyishe nonsense you’re talking about. Tell me if this kind of summarizes what you mean:

"First, there’s the God idea: ‘How can you believe in a real personal God who can actually speak to you/communicate with you? Don’t you have to be either some sort of naive, uneducated Southern Christian, someone from the Middle Ages, or schizophrenic to believe that?’

"And. second, there’s the Christian/Jesus thing: ‘How can you believe that this one historical person is the key to salvation (whatever that is)?’”

“Yeehh...” said my friend thoughtfully. “There are lots of other issues, but I guess those two things summarize the main things pretty well.”

“Yeah. And, by the way, taking that step into ‘being a believer’ does not always make all the questions and wierdness go away. In some cases it temporarily enhances the wierdness. Does that make sense?

“Well, no, but go on.”

“Well, it’s taken me over thirty years of struggling and studying to find answers that satisfy me-- in science, history, Christian-Jewish relations, apparent anti-semitism in the New Testament, the ongoing importance of Jewish survival, etc. etc. But what I understand now is this:

“God is really real. God’s not a concept. Abraham didn’t invent monotheism. God is the author of reality. Life is a personal story, not a bizarre accident. The Bible is a story. As Heschel put it, it’s the story about God in search of man [humans]. God is the source of all life, and he desires for the life he created to be reconciled to him.

“And the central characters in this story are the Jews. We Jews -- even today -- we Jews have a particular, even a crucial, role to play in this story. We truly have an assignment, a job to do, and it’s about tikkun olam, but lasting eternally effective tikkun olam.”

“But hasn’t science proved that the universe is random?”

“There is no compelling reason why the universe has to be random and impersonal like we grew up being told it is. Nothing in science makes that a necessary conclusion. I’ve looked at it really hard. Materialism, the belief that matter is all there is and life is a random accident, is merely a philosophical choice.”

“Okay, okay so what about Jesus?”

“He’s the hope of Israel. He's called the ‘glory of my people Israel’ in the book of Luke.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. I thought he was the Christ-child in the manger and all that. The Bethlehem star and the wise men.”

"We speak of Tikkun Olam, our obligation to do whatever we can to repair the world. Yet with all of our amazing and important gifts to the world, we have failed to see that we cannot overcome the vast evil in the world solely by our natural gifts and generosity. We have to work in partnership with the one who destroyed the power of death itself -- Yeshua the Messiah. We have a real assignment to accomplish true tikkun olam through the power of the spirit of God.

"What did Yeshua tell his Jewish disciples? He told them, 'Tell them that the kingdom of heaven is near, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with malignant diseases, drive out evil spirits.' Yeshua also explained his ministry like this (from Isa. 61): To preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn...

"So the Christians are caught in the glass thinking that the New Testament and Jesus and all that stuff is Christian. And we are stuck thinking the same thing -- ‘Christian’ having a different connotation in each case. But the reality is that you can’t really understand who Jesus -- Yeshua -- was/is unless you let go of the whole Christianity thing and understand that it is all Jewish -- but open to all who want to join in, Jew or not. This world is in terrible shape. It’s going to take more than human ingenuity and compassion to fix it. There’s really life -- reality -- in this thing -- in him. I don't know -- I can't explain it any better right now."

"Well," said my friend (who is a dear rebel in her own right) "maybe there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreampt of in my philosophies." She laughed and retrieved a "Stain Stick" out of her purse.