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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Do you know Christianity?

In my spare time I teach a World Religions class for high school students through a local homeschool partnership. One of the biggest challenges with this group of students is that most of them think they know Christianity. We talked about the difference between studying a religion and practicing that same religion the other day. Then we talked about whether or not they know Christianity.

For example, I asked, can you tell me how many sacraments are recognized within Christianity?

Their initial response was, "What's a sacrament?"

Strike one.

These are not unintelligent students, nor are they uninformed about Christianity. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we wandered into more familiar territory, they argued among themselves with eloquence and care. The trouble is, they think they know Christianity.

It's sort of like thinking you know Minnesota when you've never been outside your own home town. Never seen the headwaters of the Mississippi? Never been to the Boundary Waters? Never wandered the Mall of America, or the Minnesota Zoo, or the Capitol building? Never seen the pipestone quarries or the Red River Valley or the tamarack bogs or the statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe in Bemidji? Then how can you say you know Minnesota?

Many of us find ourselves in a similar place regarding Christianity. Do you understand the Eastern Orthodox icons and their role in eastern Christian spirituality? Do you get why Roman Catholics "pray" to Mary or other saints? (Hint: it's not about idolatry.) Do you understand why many Christians from other traditions mistrust Protestants' single-mindedness about "salvation by grace alone", and what are the biblical foundations of that mistrust? Do you know the Christian movements that recognize seven sacraments, and those that recognize two, and those that don't recognize sacraments at all?

Obviously, most of us have no idea how to answer these questions. Yet millions of people throughout the world claim the name of Jesus and live in a devotion to him that leads them into each of these practices or beliefs.

Most Americans practice a narrow version of their own Christianity. Nothing wrong with practicing one version of Christianity. What is offensive, though, is when we claim to have exclusive rights to the brand name of Jesus and tell anyone who practices Christianity differently that they're off base.

It's a little like me telling you that if you're not from Zimmerman, you're not a Minnesotan.

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