What’s So Peculiar about Christianity?

Christianity itself is really quite peculiar, and always has been, though not always in the same way in every time and place.

The peculiar character of Christian faith never occurred to me in the Evangelical, nearly fundamentalist subculture of my childhood. And it didn’t occur to me when I came out as a gay man, either. The wonderfully peculiar and transforming character of Christian faith has been unfolding in my thinking and living over the last 20 years or so.

To be sure, most Christians today in the North Atlantic rarely think about their faith as “peculiar.” Most of the time, Christianity just blends in with the wider culture and occasionally surfaces among political candidates as a kind of litmus test for elections. This seems rather far removed from the personally transforming, world-altering character of the Gospel that shaped the first few centuries of Christianity and which can still inspire renewal and transformation today.

I never really thought about it that way growing up in the American Midwest. Even though I heard and read the gospel story many times over my life, I can’t quite imagine why I missed just how peculiar it is.

Just to recall, the story of Jesus  that inspired the gospel writers was a story about a Jewish prophet living in a conquered, backwater province of the Roman Empire; about an unmarried, itinerant teacher in a society constructed on marriage and family relations; about the scandalous practice of sharing meals and daily life with the ritually unclean and socially misfit; about a humiliating, public execution at the hands of an occupying army; and reports from hysterical women who seemed to be talking about grave robbers and an empty tomb.

Now, really, that’s a pretty strange, odd and, well, very peculiar story.  It’s out-of-the-ordinary, culturally unwarranted, socially unreasonable, religiously radical, philosophically suspect, and politically dangerous. And precisely for all of those reasons, the gospel writers insisted that this story is “good news.”

Notice that I didn’t mention anything about human sexuality in that account. Given some of the academic work I do at the intersections of sexuality and religion, one might expect to read a bit more about that here. But I believe the Christian Gospel is already quite peculiar all on its own without any help from all the debates around sexuality and gender with which so many churches live today. To be sure, those debates can help highlight some important issues and questions, but they only scratch the surface of the Gospel’s potential for renewal and transformation.

Given the ongoing legacy of the “wedding” between Christianity and western cultural values, I would say we need to retrieve that peculiar Gospel energy to address the social and political mess we find ourselves in today regarding race, ethnicity, economics, class, and a planetary environment on the brink of collapse.

The biblical writer who wrote the first letter of Peter was on to something by referring to Christians as “peculiar.” The whole biblical book of Acts provides story after story of the wonderfully transforming energy of the Gospel. As Luke (presumably) described it in Acts, those early Christians “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

I’m convinced that the Christian Gospel still carries that potential today — to turn the world upside down with a peculiar faith, that inspires hope, and transforms the world with love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

A Strange Book — Thank God!

I mean, of course, the Bible. I don’t mean that the Bible is “strange” in the way that should make anyone avoid it. To the contrary, the peculiar character of the Bible itself is one of the reasons that keep me firmly planted in Christian traditions. Let me explain.

I am not a biblical scholar; I’m a theologian. But I do read the Bible and I do read what others have written about the Bible, both historically and today. I used to do all that reading as a way to defend myself against arguments from atheists or skeptics or those who believed that gay people should be condemned.

I no longer read the Bible that way, that is, with a defensive posture. What I have come to appreciate over the last 15 or 20 years of doing theological work is that defensive postures are dead-ends and soul-killers. Or as a colleague of mine used to say: You can’t do Christian theology from a place a fear; the only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.

By doing that myself, I have come to realize just how wonderfully peculiar the Bible is and how peculiar Christian history is. I mean by “peculiar” that it carries transforming insights, world-altering perspectives, and thankfully disorienting “good news.” Or as Flanney O’Connor was once reported to have said, “You shall know the truth and it will make you odd.”

There are so many examples I could offer, but here’s just one place to begin: the ongoing exhortation by the so-called “religious right” in the U.S. to return to so-called “biblical family values.” Let’s notice what some of those “values” were:

Abraham’s use of his slave, Hagar, to sire a child, and his subsequent banishment of her and the child to the wilderness (Genesis 21:14) would be considered unspeakably callous by today’s standards. Yet according to the family values of his day, Abraham was acting completely within his rights. When Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, the Bible describes it not simply as an act of brotherly betrayal but as a necessary part of God’s will for God’s people (Genesis 27). Even more severe is Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter to fulfill the terms of a hastily made vow (Judges 11:29-40) or Onan being put to death for refusing to impregnate his late brother’s wife (Genesis 38:9).

That’s just a short list of the kind of biblical family values that we certainly don’t want our children to adopt today.

Not every biblical family relationship is quite that dysfunctional. But strangely enough, when biblical figures act virtuously, they often do so outside the bounds of what even ancient Mediterranean cultures considered the “traditional family.” The story of Ruth and Naomi is an account of same-sex devotion often read, ironically, during heterosexual marriage ceremonies (Ruth 1:16). David and Jonathan’s relationship is presented with a tenderness lacking in most biblical marriages: David admits that his love for his friend “surpassed the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26). Those are just two stories in which the biblical writers themselves were subverting their own cultural standards.

The gospel writers did much the same thing. Set aside for the moment how they appear to present Jesus as unmarried and childless – that alone was a culturally and religiously subversive position in his own society. Even more significant is how the gospel writers chose to portray his teaching. According to Luke, Jesus turned to a large crowd that was traveling with him along a road and said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, [and] brothers and sisters…cannot be my disciple” (14:26). According to both Matthew and Luke, to a man who wished to be his disciple but wanted first to attend to his father’s funeral Jesus said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead”(Mt. 8:22, Lk 9:60). According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, when told that his mother and brothers wanted to see him Jesus pointed to his disciples and said “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:48, Mk 3:33, Lk 8:21).

To put it mildly, Jesus does not appear to care much for marriage and biological families. According to the Acts of the Apostles, the earliest Christian communities took that posture to heart, displaced the biological family with the “faith family” and created their own micro-economic system. Rather than establishing individual household units, Luke writes, those first Christians did not claim “ownership of any private possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). Paul seems likewise to have been shaped by this radical, first-century reassessment of what family means. Paul worried that marriage was a distraction from the more important work of Christian ministry (1 Cor. 7:32-39). In his view, marriage was, at best, a last-ditch solution for those who could not otherwise control their lust (1 Cor. 7:9).

I’m not suggesting that the Bible is so out of touch with today’s world that we can’t read it anymore. To the contrary, my point is just this: precisely because even biblical writers seemed committed to subverting their own cultural standards for the sake of divinely good news, we can find the hope, the energy, the inspiration, and the divine cheer-leading to do the same thing today.

We could do that, not just about the highly-charged notion of “family,” but about all sorts of questions and issues we face today — concerning economics, race and ethnicity, caring for the environment, transforming despairing loneliness into communal hope and affection — and so much more!

I’m eager to continue reading the Bible with others, in community, who seek ways to transform our world with a peculiar faith, an inspiring hope, and a transforming love (1 Corinthians 13:13). I believe the wide world is not just ready but eager and desperate for Christian communities to do precisely that. And it can begin, oddly enough, by reading the Bible together.

The Bible is truly a peculiar book – thank God!