December 23, 2006

When a 5-year-old asks if I'm Christian

Last night, while driving to a bowling alley of all places, my five-year-old niece MB asked me out of the blue:

Liz, are you Christian?
It's not as easy a question to answer as one might think!

For one thing, MB's parents are raising her as a Jew. For another thing, MB's family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. For a third thing, how likely is it for a five-year-old to be able to grasp the difference between "primitive Christianity" and today's secular Christianity? Not to mention my own personal journey with the whole topic!

So I took a breath and answered
Well, I don't believe in anyone named Jesus Christ, if that's what you mean. But I do believe in God, and since I was raised Jewish like you, I guess I still am kind of Jewish. Even more important than if I'm Christian or not, I believe in doing things that are common to both Judaism and Christianity, like treating people well and doing charity or tzedaka.
She seemed to accept my answer.

Then I asked her if she was Christian or Jewish. "I'm Jewish!" she replied. "But my daddy is Christian so we celebrate Christmas for him and Hanukkah for me and Mommy."

I'm waiting for the day when MB, my partner, and I can all talk about belief in God, spirituality, putting our faith into practice, and bringing our practice back into our faith.

But for now, we settle on playing four rounds of Apples to Apples Junior in a day, which is just fine for all of us!



Kody Gabriel said...

So glad I got to see you today and hear that story in person. Much love!

Cecilia said...

That is a big question from a 5 year old!

Here in Atlanta that can be a very loaded question. I answer that carefully to any aged questioner. To many folks here, "Christian" is a very narrowly defined term.

I really liked your answer. Guess your niece is thinking on these things with the two holidays ocuring at this time.

Won't it be interesting to hear her thoughts and beliefs when she is a teenager!

Anonymous said...

The answer has to come from your heart, doesn't it? It has to be a confession, i.e. a sincere admission, rather than a profession, i.e. a claim. Otherwise it would qualify as an abuse of the child.

And that, I suppose, is one part of the point of I John 4:2-3, which RichardM and I have been discussing in an earlier place on your blog. (And I now wonder how you put up with that discussion, given your own feelings.)

Nowadays I live in Omaha, which is one of those places where the question is often, "Are you a Christian or are you a Catholic?" I am happy to start my answer to that one by saying, "Catholics are Christians, too, you know."

Back when I lived in Denver, the question was usually just, "Are you Christian?" And when it was asked, it came from the sort of born-again Protestants to whom anyone not "born again" is not Christian. In those days I sometimes answered, "If I said 'Yes', you would think you understood without understanding. But if I said 'No', I would be denying the truth."

Liz Opp said...

Kody - I was glad my partner and I had the opportunity to see you and get to know a little more about you. Thanks for making space for us to visit, especially during a busy time.

Ceal - Thanks for dropping by.... Your comment here reminds me I still want to take a closer look at your new blog.

Marshall - "If I said 'Yes' you would think you understood without understanding. But if I said 'No' I would be denying the truth." My, my, but I do love a good perplexing answer like that! smile

As for how I put up with the long exchange that sometimes occurs on The Good Raised Up, for one thing I'm not required to read and absorb all that is there. For another, by keeping the dialogue where it started, those who are interested can follow it without page-hopping. And for a third thing, I have in fact thought about moving the whole thing to a new page, but decided against it for now, based on the other two reasons I've given.


Cecilia said...

Marshal: I am currently visiting a man in prison who is latino. He recently became a Christian and grew up as a Catholic. However, in his country, Catholcism is more of a culture. People go to Mass on Sunday then go out and treat their neighbor any way they choose for the rest of the week. As the man says, many of those Catholics are not Christian - they do not live their faith.

Here in Atlanta, you might be asked if you are "saved." Some folks have never talked to us again after we didn't give the right answer.

Sometimes it is like you might be contagious or dangerous to be around if you are not like-minded. So I sure dread that question.

Mark Wutka said...

Liz, thank you for sharing this. I hope you never feel like you have to say or accept something that you don't feel deep down.

Ceal mentioned in meeting this morning that a book she read asked the question "What was the first Christmas gift?" It wasn't love, it wasn't peace. It was a child.

Not only do they occasionally ask questions that adults might shy away from, they also provide a fascinating alternative view of the world. I took my grandkids to a museum, in one section we saw an old roman statue with no head. Kaitlynn saw another display that featured the heads from several statues and announced "they keep the heads over there." Sometimes we need those simple, direct observations, just as we need those simple-but-difficult-to-answer questions.

With love,

Anonymous said...

Cecilia, you wrote of the Latino you met in prison, "...In his country, Catholicism is more of a culture. People go to Mass on Sunday then go out and treat their neighbor any way they choose for the rest of the week. As the man says, many of those Catholics are not Christian - they do not live their faith."

Actually, I've met many Protestants who are that way, too. They go to their steeplehouse on Sunday to worship, but then they go out and treat their neighbor any way they choose for the rest of the week. Some of them, for example, are used car salespeople who assert they are Christian while making exploitive deals. Some are U.S. Army recruiters who assert they are Christian while recruiting kids to fight wars.

Even in Atlanta, I understand, there are many people of this sort.

Pastoral Friend Johan Maurer recently wrote in his blog about the evangelical Protestant pastor Ron Sider's new book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? Johan quoted this passage from Ron's book:

"To say there is a crisis of disobedience in the evangelical world today is to dangerously understate the problem. Born-again Christians divorce at about the same rate as everyone else. Self-centered materialism is seducing evangelicals and rapidly destroying our earlier, slightly more generous giving. Only 6 per cent of born-again Christians tithe. Born-again Christians justify and engage in sexual promiscuity (both premarital sex and adultery) at astonishing rates. Racism and perhaps physical abuse of wives seem to be worse in evangelical circles than elsewhere. This is scandalous behavior for people who claim to be born-again by the Holy Spirit and to enjoy the very presence of the Risen Lord in their lives."

The question, "Are you a Christian or are you a Catholic?", at least as I have heard it asked, implies that Catholics are fallen in this way and Protestants are not. That is an unfair bias and needs to be corrected.

As for being shunned by people who ask if you are saved, after you give the wrong answer, I suspect that may even be for the best. If they didn't shun you, you'd rapidly find that you are deeply uncomfortable with their culture and they are deeply uncomfortable with yours. If the shunning does no other good, it at least prevents the other person's deep discomfort from turning into grave feelings of having been offended by some thing that you did in all innocence. It keeps the peace.

Paul said...

When a 5-year-old asks if I'm Christian....

Hi Liz,

I don’t use the word Quaker very much,just simply Christian.

Christianity for me can be sum up in one word Incarnation.

The Word for me becomes incarnate in the breaking of bread and in the sharing of the one cup, (yes, I am High Church Friend who continues to partake in the sacraments)
and the silence of Meeting
for Worship.

But I also find the Word in the words of the mission statement from Los Angeles Catholic Worker,
“We are called to make the Word of God flesh by responding to the suffering Christ incarnate among our poor and marginalized sisters and brothers. The homeless, the addict, the mentally ill, the AIDS victim, the infirm, the politically and culturally oppressed are the ones who Christ has told us will be first in His Kingdom. If we too desire to become citizens of His Kingdom, then we must live our lives in proximity to and in solidarity with those who are at the margins of our society”.

Marcus Borg who says" frequently discusses the concept of “thin places”: where heaven and Earth seem more intimately linked, where our souls can experience God’s presence through the Holy Spirit".

The Breaking of bread, The Holy Silence, Working for peace and justice, for me becomes these thin and sacramental places where heaven and earth seem more intimately linked.

This revise prayer from the catholic liturgy is on my blog,

In the silence you feed your people and strengthen them in holiness, so that the family of humankind may come to walk in the light of one faith, in one communion of love.
We come then to the silence to be fed at your table and grow into the likeness of your Spirit.