We were driving down I-29 and Erin was explaining to me why she didn’t consider herself a Christian anymore.
“It’s the whole ‘it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship’ thing.” she said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Some background about Erin. She was one of those youth group girls. Youth pastors love them—they’re a sign that they’re doing something right. She went on mission trips. Led Bible Studies. Summer camp counselor. Christian fish tattoo. You know the type. Maybe you are the type. Anyhow.
I was confused. “The relationship bit is a pretty big selling point for Christianity,” and I couldn’t have put that worse.
“That’s just the point!” she shouted, slamming the dashboard with her palms. “It’s a slogan! It’s no different then ‘Have it Your Way!’”
“Except it’s true,” I said.
“Maybe,” she conceded. “But nobody lived that way at church. You come for the relationship, and then everyone starts telling you what to do. They all talk like every other religion was all rules except for their own, but when you look at it, it’s all rules too. And I was sick of it.”
And so we drove across the Midwest, Erin and I. And I thought about this poor girl, who’d fallen prey to a slogan that is well-intentioned but, perhaps, conveys something we know isn’t quite true.
I feel the slogan is something we’ve cooked up help ease down the medicine of faith. We use it to excuse ourselves from the conversation of world religion—it’s not enough for Christianity to be more true than other religions, it must also be beyond comparison. We use it to convince the skeptics that there’s really nothing to it—there’s no mystery here, no difficulties or complexities. Just a relationship. And we’ve insisted on it so earnestly an outsider might wonder if we weren’t protesting a bit much.
Christianity is a relationship. But. It is also a fiery baptism. It is also a taking up a cross and following, selling it all for the pearl of great price. It is a lavish banquet, to which the whore and the leper may well get a grander invitation than your own. And, all of these aspects spin together to describe the fumbling give-and-take between us and the Creator. “Religion” might be the best word to describe it after all. The Bible itself is not shy about referring to it as such. A few times, actually, but notably in James 1:27 (NIV).
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
That last phrase is one I find interesting: polluted by the world. It may not be a stretch to say that the whole “it’s not a religion” phrase has, in places, mutated into just that: worldly pollution. In our desperate and wholesome desire to love the world, we may have borrowed a few of its less attractive practices.
Among them, fine print.