It’s amazing how things come together at the same time. I was sent a very interesting study today by a new friend and began an interesting conversation with an old friend. They started in different places, but now they have collided. First the study.

The second part of the Pew Forum’s US Religious Landscape Survey came out today. Really incredible stuff about the nature of belief in America. What struck me more than the study, though, was the reporting of it. Here are three different headlines about the same study:

San Francisco Chronicle: “Study finds contradictions among Americans’ religious beliefs” American faith is poorly considered.

Associated Press: “Religious Americans: My faith isn’t the only way” So American faith is tolerant.

Los Angeles Times: “92% of Americans believe in God or a universal spirit, Pew survey finds” Subtitle: “Californians, however, are less likely to consider religion ‘very important.’ Of the 36,000 people surveyed, 42% said they think Hollywood is the corrupting influence.” American faith is sound; nothing to worry about. God is in His Heaven, and California is going to Hell.

For completeness, here’s the headline to the Pew Forum’s own article: “Think you know what Americans believe about religion? You might want to think again.”

It’s very unfortunate that the researchers asked the question “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?” This is an overly broad question that lumps together theists, deists and pantheists. Believe it or not, 20% of atheists said yes. Yes, one in five atheists believe in God… if you define “God” broadly enough. Richard Dawkins makes some very interesting comments about this in The God Delusion, but I’ll have to dig into that later on.

For now, I want to bring this around to this conversation:

Me: I’m unfamiliar with Rob Bell, but I started reading reviews of Velvet Elvis. Given his apparent (from the reviews) claim that the Bible must be read in its first-century (and earlier) context, does he give any reason for considering the Bible an actual authority on anything? Why even call yourself a Christian? This is likely my basic unease with liberal Christianity. Conservative (literalist or Catholic) Christianity I disagree with, but I understand. If you believe that neither the Bible nor the Church have unique wisdom and truth (unavailable from any other source), I don’t understand why you would be Christian, what it would even mean to say you were. In this, perhaps I do agree with Lewis, but rather than “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” I might say “Mistaken, Misquoted or Misunderstood.”

Steve: So if you start out with a basic premise that “you believe that neither the Bible nor the Church have unique wisdom and truth (unavailable from any other source)”. Yet you still feel a belief that there is something more to this world than what is immediately obvious, where does that leave you? I’m not sure I feel that the label is as important as the belief. Is calling yourself a Christian the most important characteristic?

Where does that leave you? It leaves you with all of the world’s other religions and any new one you would like to create. But without a literal Jesus who was both fully God and fully man, and was sacrificed to ransom everyone from damnation, calling it “Christianity” is almost purposefully misleading. (Here I certainly agree with C.S. Lewis.) It’s fine not to be Christian or Mormon or Muslim or Buddhist. But it makes no sense to call yourself one without believing the core tenants of the faith. This nearly unanimous definition of Christianity goes back at least 1600 years in every major denomination’s doctrine, and was clearly established by the late first century, even if it wasn’t at that time near unanimous.

I’m not suggesting that to be a Christian one must agree with every tenant of one or another denomination. But even there, it would be hard to call yourself a Calvinist but not believe in Unconditional Election. Obviously there are core beliefs and ancillary beliefs, and some religions are much more flexible than others. Tibetan Buddhism says that it might not be the only way to truth. Christianity does not. Belief in the teachings of Jesus absent his divinity would be Jesism. Unless Jesus is the Christ, then the religion is not Christianity. Christ is not his last name, it is a religious claim about his nature.