Q In your book, you mention an atheist you know who looks at Jane Eyre as her sacred text. Why Jesus? Why not Jane Eyre, or Harry Potter, or even Gandhi?
A Well, it’s a very subjective thing — I just sensed that this was the set of teachings and examples that was the most challenging, probably getting closer to being comprehensive. And it’s not exclusive at all. I still feel inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and all sorts of other people. But I just sensed that [the lessons of Jesus] were the most challenging and difficult to apply, which to me meant that they were probably the most meaningful. They were the most demanding of change and seemed to best address the struggles that I was seeing in our society and in my own existence.
I admit, too, that it probably has a lot to do with the timing of my birth [in 1960]. If you grew up in American culture in the time that I have lived, you’ve been exposed to Jesus a lot. Less so now if you are coming of age today, but when I was growing up it was inescapable.
Q In the book’s introduction, you share this memory from when you were a teenager: “‘To me, it doesn’t matter if he literally rose from the dead,’ I recall declaring to my father, aware that my statement was a deal breaker with respect to my qualifying as a Christian.” A deal breaker — why?
A In my understanding of who Christians are and what it means to be a Christian, you believe that Jesus was resurrected, that he rose from the dead and, moreover, that this is why he is authoritative. And so even though I was young then, I realized that what I was saying was not in sync with Christian belief. It pained me somewhat to say it to my father because it would make him probably hurt and mad, and because I felt a certain regret. . . . Especially at the time, you know, it was pretty bad not to be a Christian. I did sense that it was a controversial thing I was doing.
Strangely enough, a couple of years later I was heavily courted by the Campus Crusade people at my undergraduate campus, and I tried again to really be a Christian. I thought I did all the stuff. I prayed the prayer, thought I was accepting Jesus into my life. To cut to the chase, nothing really happened, and it didn’t really take. That was my last real earnest try at being a Christian. But as you know, I continued to have a deep regard for and a fascination with Jesus.
I know that there are many who consider themselves Christians but who have a more metaphorical understanding of God and the resurrection and so forth. But even then, I would really strongly cling to the idea that I’m not a religious person. I don’t say that with pride, or with regret and apology. But I don’t go to church; I don’t use religious language; I’m not part of a church community.
One reason I bring this up is that a form of pushback I get is that I’m a “crypto-Christian.” I can’t stop somebody from thinking that. But if you look at the definition of “religious,” I’m pretty sure I’m not.
That said, I do completely understand and celebrate the fact that I have overlap with many Christians. My hope is that Christians find something really beneficial in this book that’s helpful in terms of them talking about Jesus in an updated way.
Q How can mainline Christians do that?
A It seems to me that you begin not with Jesus but with the ethic. If Jesus is not authoritative for a person, it’s not going to help the conversation by saying, “Oh you have to do X, Y, Z, because Jesus taught that.” A better conversation is to say, well, “There is this ethic, and there are these teachings. It’s amazing how much truth there is in these teachings and how powerful they can be. It’s difficult, but they can be transformative. And yeah, they come from Jesus.”