“So,” I started, a bit nervously. This was our first real conversation about the faith. “Are there any particular books of the Bible you’d like to learn more about?”
He hesitated for a brief moment, then – with a pensive look – replied, “Actually, I was hoping you could just tell me all about Christianity. How did it begin? What does it mean today?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I never got questions like these. We spent the next hour going over all of salvation history, from Adam & Eve to Acts of the Apostles, and finished with a powerful discussion on the Mass. It was awesome, in the true sense of the word.
I had met Ling, an international student from Beijing, at a Newman Center event a few weeks prior. New to the States and having befriended several Christians, Ling had many questions about this strange person named Jesus, of whom he had heard only rumors.
Why do I tell this story? Because there was something different about Ling. He was receptive. He asked sincere, humble, curious questions. He wanted to know more. Though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, after meeting with him for several months, it hit me. He had been spared something that the rest of us, those of us who grew up in Post-Christian society, had received in our youth; he hadn’t been inoculated to Christianity.
You know how inoculation works. A weakened version of a disease is injected into your blood. Your immune system, sensing an intruder, goes all crazy and produces antibodies, which then opens up a can on the bad guys, crushing and utterly destroying them.
From then on, any time the real version of the disease tries to enter your body, your immune system is like, “Nah bro, I got this,” and kills it. Thus, inoculations are great at training your body to recognize and fight diseases it has seen before. Obviously, I’m no microbiologist, but you get the point.
Of course, getting a vaccine to prevent diseases like Chickenpox and Hepatitis B is all well and fine. But what happens when we become inoculated to a worldview? To a belief system? What happens when, coming of age in a culture littered with the shattered remnants of a once robust and holistic Christian culture, we find ourselves immune to, and thus unable to receive, the true, authentic, saving message of Jesus Christ?
What happens when Christianity becomes nothing more than a disease I have seen before?
An Inoculation to Truth
Venerable Fulton Sheen was a boss. He was also right about a lot of stuff, including this:
“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.”
Sheen understood the tragedy of our inoculation. So many of those who hate or leave the Church do so because they have been tricked into believing a false gospel.
Here are, in my opinion, three of the most insidious “fake versions” of Christianity – lies which, masquerading as truth, eventually lead people to reject Christianity altogether. We must stop them.
Three reasons Catholics leave the Church
1. “I used to think of God as an old man with a big white beard who sits up in the sky. Obviously, now I realize this is ridiculous. Christianity is just plain fantasy.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard fallen-away Catholics make comments like these. Cartoon images of a bearded God or angels with wings have embedded themselves into our subconscious. Heck, even Michelangelo painted God this way in his famous "Creation."
But we have to remember that images of immaterial beings were never meant to be taken literally. They are but symbols meant to teach us abstract, metaphysical truths which the imagination alone cannot grasp. Michelangelo’s rendering of God was much less a literal depiction than it was a commentary on God’s wisdom, timelessness, and eternality.
We are human, and we love images. But even holy images can inoculate us to the truth if we are not careful. We must never let a physical image replace a spiritual reality, or allow the imagination to trump the intellect in the task of discerning what is true.
“There is nothing to be done with the intellect until imagination has been put firmly in its place.”
– Frank Sheed
2. “The main point of Christianity is to do good and be a good person. I can do that without all of this religion stuff.”
When I ask people what they believe to be the central message of Christianity, the most common response I get is, “Be a good person.”
If this were the true message of Christianity, I wouldn’t blame people for leaving. Who wants to follow all these rules and hold all these unpopular political stances and spend all these hours sitting and kneeling and standing when I could abandon this whole religion thing and still be just as “good a person?”
Jesus Christ was not just a good person. He was the Son of God made man, and he died so that we might live in eternal, loving relationship with Him. It is up to us to respond to this invitation by committing our very lives to Him.
“Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” – G.K. Chesterton
3. “Individuals in the Church have made plenty of mistakes and poor decisions. This Church is full of sinners, and I want no part of it.”
We must always remember to be sensitive to those who have been hurt by individual members of the Church. They’re right – the Church is full of sinners, and always has been – ever since the betrayals of Peter & Judas.
But while the Church may be full of sinners, it’s still the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. Abandoning the Church because it’s full of sinful people is like abandoning a gym because it’s full of out-of-shape people.Let us always seek reform in our Church, but let us do so from within its walls.
“The Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” – Abigail Van Buren
The Cure: Rediscovering Mystery
I’ve just named three of the biggest lies about Christianity – lies which, once steeped in our subconscious, can prevent us from ever truly grasping the true Gospel message.
Thankfully, there are ways to combat the “I’ve heard it all before” syndrome. If someone you know has fallen into this trap, try some of these inoculation-smashing techniques:
1. Bust the myths. Help them to see through the false gospels they’ve been fed by our culture.
2. Contemplate the Scriptures. Don’t let the faith become “old hat.” Teach them to experience the miracles of the Incarnation and Resurrection anew through the eyes of the early Christians.
3. Be like Ling. Challenge them to approach our Lord with honesty, humility, and an open heart. When we do, the God who makes all things new will transform us in ways we never thought possible.
I’ve named just a few of the false gospels I’ve encountered. What other weakened forms of the faith are out there, preventing others from receiving the life-giving message – and person – of Jesus Christ?
Daniel Parisserved as a FOCUS missionary at Harvard and George Washington University. He now works in Formation/Training and Quality, Growth & Innovation at the Denver Support Center. He holds a Master’s in Theology from the Augustine Institute in Denver as well as a Bachelor’s in psychology from the College of William & Mary.