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Has Christianity Failed You?
By Ravi Zacharias
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2010 Ravi Zacharias
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWho Is Jesus?
Three little boys were arguing about whose father got home faster from work each day. The first boy boasted that his father was a former Olympian middle distance runner and ran in record times. He left work at 4:00 p.m. every afternoon, and although his home was three miles away, he would grab his briefcase and run all the way, reaching home by 4:15. The second boy was not to be outdone. His father, he said, had competed in professional auto racing, and once he put his foot to the pedal, nothing could get in his way. He also worked three miles away and also left work at 4:00 but reached home by 4:05. The third one was just chuckling at all these boastful claims. He knew he had them both beaten. His father, he said, actually worked five miles away from home. He left work at 4:00 every afternoon and got home half an hour before he left work, at 3:30. He worked for the government.
With my apologies to all those in civil ser vice, the point I want to make is that it is human nature to lay claim to something that is exceptional or superior to everyone else, whether it is one's culture, a great landmark building, or a skilled leader. Our skyscrapers are higher than your skyscrapers; my culture is better than your culture; my culture is older than your culture; my dad is stronger or smarter or faster than your dad - so goes the game of one-upmanship.
To those who feel that Christianity has failed them, I ask, Have you sometimes wondered whether that's all there is to religion too - one culture claiming that its values are better than another's or that one's faith is superior to someone else's faith? Are all religions basically false? Are all religions basically true? Are all religions merely ethnocentric prejudices camouflaged by spiritual talk?
After years of belief as a Christian, I have to reluctantly and sadly admit that sometimes this does seem to be the case. Some religions do lay claim to a superior heritage by virtue of a superior birthright. Islam, for example, touts the language of the Qur'an as the supreme linguistic expression so that reading it in any language other than Arabic deprives the reader of experiencing the miracle. The prophet of Islam is specifically the prophet of Arabia, and yet he is supposed to be supreme over the world of revelation. If religion can be reduced to "bragging rights," it is a very deadly game, isn't it? People give their hard-earned money and their valuable time to pin all their hopes for the eternal - and, oh, so much more - on that belief. What one deems to be of ultimate value exacts a cost in proportion. Indeed, a close scrutiny of some religions will show that many religious claims are indeed all about the "son bragging about the father," resulting in questions about the father himself.
Something else about religion that is equally discomfiting to many is its claim to exclusivity. But this ought not to surprise us, because truth by definition must exclude that which contradicts it. When someone claims their religion is superior to other faiths but cannot support the claim, we should ask what this claim of supremacy looks like when it is applied to matters of life and destiny. And it is even more important to ask these questions before walking away from a belief once held as the dearest of commitments.
At a recent forum in India, I was asked why someone with an apparently passionate commitment to his or her belief in Jesus Christ would suddenly "come out of the closet," declaring this belief untenable. For some, it may very well be that the Christianity that has resulted in disappointment may have been nothing more than a boast that "my father is better than your father" rather than having been a true faith that has been lost after examining the claims of Christianity with an honest heart and mind and finding it wanting.
Before we can talk about some of the existential problems some people believe they have experienced with Christianity, we must begin this discussion by taking a close look at the claims of Jesus and their implications - who is Jesus and what does he teach (and Christianity by extension) - for this is the only way to determine that it is really Christianity that has failed and not something or someone else. Matthew tells us that Jesus placed a little child among the leaders he was developing, his disciples, and declared, "The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matthew 19:14) - meaning, without the simple faith of a child we cannot see heaven. At the same time, he won the commitment of the scrutinizing mind of Saul of Tarsus, who knew and had done all that the law required for salvation. An honest examination of Jesus' pronouncements readily demonstrates that they uniquely transcend all cultural distinctives and can be powerfully confirmed by human need, longing, and observation, across cultures and language groups.
A great many books are being written about this Jesus today, even by those who disavow his historic assertions. After all, in the fallout of postmodernism one can make anyone say anything about anything, bereft of the text or the context. Physician and author Deepak Chopra has cleverly written two books on Jesus, one he admits is a complete work of fiction, though you can be sure he has a real motive in doing so, and the other in which he says that Jesus finally gained enlightenment in his pursuit of the ultimate. Though he claims to greatly admire Jesus, such twisted writing betrays the truth taught by Jesus and distorts history.
Once we understand Jesus in his own words and measure his claims and promises against our deepest needs, we will be surprised at just how personal and magnificent he really is - the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6) - rather than being merely the focus of deviously rendered fictitious story lines.
C. S. Lewis's conversion story, Surprised by Joy, describes this precisely. Lewis says that his greatest realization after he had finally recognized who Jesus is and what he offers to every human heart was that he had not come to a place or accepted a belief; he had come to a person - and that person is the very person of God.
The spiritual talk of today is all about ideas and feelings; Jesus' message, on the other hand, is about the person and presence of God. The spiritual talk of today minimizes fact and maximizes the mystical; Jesus always connected experience to fact. The spiritual talk of today engages in seductive double-speak; Jesus presented the truth as absolute, even when it was uncomfortable to hear - never making mysticism the ultimate goal but putting it in the context of what was real. The spiritual talk of today employs clichés that endanger the spirit by making truth secondary to what feels good; Jesus taught that feeling his presence is only possible because of the fact of his existence. The spiritual talk of today claims to be generously accepting of all faiths, while in reality - with a prejudice that disregards reason and misplaces faith - it undermines the only faith that truly teaches tolerance.
The message of Jesus goes beyond mere religion or belief and dramatically alters our way of thinking and being. He challenges all of humanity to taste and see that he is good and to take to heart the truth that his word abides forever.
Some time ago, I attended a football game in my home city of Atlanta. Through the courtesy of one of the players, we were seated close to the team's bench. Years before, I had watched a game from the nosebleed section, and I remember thinking how small the players looked and how vast the playing field appeared. This time, however, I was so close to the players that I could almost hear them breathing, and I was quite surprised by how big they were and by how small the field really was.
When we are close enough to the Jesus of history that we can look at history from his perspective, we actually see how mighty and strong he is and how navigable life is with him as the captain.
GIVING A "FACE" TO JESUS
Growing up in India, I heard his name many times. In the Hindi language, his name is Isa Masih, which is transliterated from " Jesus the Messiah." Christians are called Isaiis (pronounced Is-ah-ees), meaning " Jesus Ones" or " Jesus Followers." Christmas is Bada Din - the Big Day. Yes, I heard the name of Jesus. But apart from associating him with going to church and with the festivities of Easter and Christmas, his name meant nothing to me.
His picture hung in our home at eye level in my parents' bedroom, which was the larger of the two small bedrooms in our home in New Delhi, India. My earliest memory of that picture is that my mother never opened her eyes in the morning until she had first reached for her glasses and positioned them on her face. Only then would she turn toward the picture and open her eyes, so that the face of Jesus was the first thing she saw every morning. It was a ritual for her, and in a culture where superstition abounds, those fears and habits are subtly passed on from generation to generation. So when I was in a crisis, I would go into her room, lean on the little chest of drawers, look at the picture, and make my petition. If I were sure that nobody would see me, I would even kneel in front of it and mutter a quick plea for help, especially at examination time. I remember it well - a faded, green-hued version of the most famous of all paintings, Warner Sallman's The Head of Christ. Back then, however, it was just a picture to me, a talisman.
Artists have drawn pictures, painted canvasses, and sculpted images of Jesus as they see him. It's odd, isn't it, that the most revered personality in history, whose birth is the point of reference for our calendar and whose life is described as "the greatest story ever told," has left us no picture of himself? Just as the most defining moment of our lives, our own births, cannot be recalled, the most supreme name in all of history, honored by millions, is ultimately faceless to us.
I also recall, as a young teen, seeing an American movie magazine that ended up in our home through some American friends. I remember seeing a picture of an actor seated on a chair, his face in his hands, and the bold caption above the picture reading, "Dare I, a sinner, play Christ?" For years, no movie production ever showed Jesus' face, just his back or his body from his shoulders down. Modern authorities in the field of communication would consider this a huge lapse; after all, isn't a picture worth a thousand words? God indicated that the contrary is true. It is not seeing that is all important; it is the act of recognizing that brings together much more than mere sight.
One of the fascinating stories in the book of Exodus pictures Moses on the verge of leading the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt into the Promised Land (Exodus 33:12-23). It has been a long and arduous journey; the Israelites have lost many lives and faced severe deprivations. Moses goes off alone to pray and pleads with God, "Show me your glory."
What an amazing request, considering that Moses has already experienced the series of miracles that had brought them from slavery to that point! No one could have doubted that a supernatural hand had guided them. From escaping the Egyptians at the Red Sea to the revelation of the Ten Commandments to the provision of their food and clothing along the journey, this horde of humanity would never have made it without divine intervention. Yet Moses still asked to see God's face, even being so bold before God as to insist that he would not cross over the Jordan River without being assured of God's presence.
God gave an even more amazing response to Moses' request: "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." And so he told Moses, "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by" (Exodus 33:20-22). Thus, Moses would see the "back" of God but not his face. It might have been like walking into a room and knowing someone is there, perhaps smelling their cologne or perfume or hearing them breathing, even hearing a voice, but not being able to see the person - maybe something like Dorothy's first meeting with the Wizard of Oz.
Perhaps if we are able to understand why God has kept his face from us, we will have a clue to why we must learn to recognize him and sense his presence through his words and deeds rather than through his physical features. I venture two bold reasons. First, if we could see God's face, his defining physical features would necessarily be very different, depending on what part of the world we are in. In the East, it would become all about the image itself rather than the person, and the image would become the focus of adulation. The clothes he wore, his hairstyle, anything even remotely connected to his facial appearance would become a fetish and the object of worship to which the superstitious or spiritually minded would cling. The idolatry of the means as an end would be inescapable.
During a visit to India's southern state of Kerala, I was driven to a city with the tongue-twisting name Kodungallur. Kodungallur is famous for one thing: It was here, according to tradition and even some historical references, that the apostle Thomas is said to have arrived in India in AD 53. Famed writers of early Chris tian history such as the Venerable Bede and Gregory of Nazianzus, among others, have made reference to Thomas's trip to India. The oldest denominational Chris tian church in India bears the name of Thomas - the Mar Thoma Church. I walked around the site of Thomas's disembarkation and let my imagination wander until a caretaker offered to show me one of the relics of the apostle that was near the altar, encased in a glass vault behind a heavily locked door. As she unlocked the door to the vault and I moved toward the relic, the voluminous sound of a hymn broke out - a security measure that alerted the keepers of the shrine that somebody was close to the relic. The guide bowed her head for a moment and touched the glass with her hand; she then touched her heart and kissed her hand in reverence. Inside the vault, on the other side of a magnifying glass, was a small bone from the right arm of the apostle. (After his martyrdom in India, Thomas's body was sent to Rome, but in more recent times, the pope authorized a piece of bone from Thomas's remains to be sent to the historic shrine.) As I stared at that little piece of bone that was about two inches long, I couldn't help but wonder not only about its authenticity but about Thomas himself. Needless to say, stories of this bone's magical powers abound. The Eastern mind invents the fantastic and reveres fetishes and relics as the means to its belief. Over the years, millions have made their pilgrimage to that spot, touched the vault, and kissed the glass barrier that separates them from that small piece of bone.
In the West, a slightly different scenario might unfold if we knew exactly what Jesus looked like. Yes, there would be those who, like their counterparts in the East, would truly reverence the object rather than the Savior, but I also believe that the financial rewards of its commercialization would be enormous. Can you imagine what would have happened if James, the half brother of Jesus, had opened up a memorabilia shop to sell pictures of Jesus? Rather than being reduced to his own image, in the West God would be reduced to our image. Expositions of his face would abound, each expert claiming different insight. There would be, in all probability, multiple attempts to isolate and replicate any DNA that might still cling to any artifact. Could you imagine a Jesus look-alike contest? One can only pity the winner at Christmas! Before long, lobbyists would demand a transgendered rendering of the Christ. Why was he male and not female - or neither? And God forbid if he were a white male.
Our demand for infinite knowledge is insatiable, and to think there is a Being who is beyond our capability of dissecting and studying scientifically is more than some of us can handle. Think about it. Is there any other language in the world like English in which so many versions of the Bible are available, each new translator claiming a unique perspective on the truth? Each one adds a little more information to the picture until what becomes important to us is how we view God rather than how he views us. Too many have so humanized God and deified man that we can scarcely tell the difference any more. Books of this nature become bestsellers because they assure us that God is just one of us. But the ramifications of this familiarity are dangerous and destructive. We have tried to reshape God to become relevant to us rather than finding out how we must become relevant to him. We in the West simply cannot live with the possibility that God has purposely left himself clothed in mystery until we are able to "recognize" who he truly is. We have tried to conform him to our image rather than the other way around, and objects of spiritual significance exact a disfigurement of stupendous proportions.
Excerpted from Has Christianity Failed You? by Ravi Zacharias Copyright © 2010 by Ravi Zacharias. Excerpted by permission.
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