Sure, all kinds of Christians love Jesus. But he’s especially central in evangelical piety.
by Mark Galli
Some years ago Francis Quinn, then Roman Catholic bishop of Sacramento, and I were talking about evangelicals who were converting to Catholicism. I was a Presbyterian minister at the time, serving a small church in Sacramento. I can’t remember the occasion of our conversation, but I do remember one his remarks. He said that when evangelicals move into Catholicism, “I hope they bring Jesus with them. We Catholics need more Jesus.”
Catholics certainly don’t ignore Jesus—he hangs crucified at the front of most of their churches, after all. And they believe it is his very body and blood that they receive in every Mass. But as the good bishop noted, Jesus isn’t necessarily at the center of most Catholic daily piety. For many Catholics, that place would be occupied by the Virgin Mary or perhaps one or more of the saints. Other Catholics are enamored with the magisterium or the church’s tradition. But it would be hard to argue that the Catholic faith is “Jesusy.”
That term was coined by writer Anne Lamott soon after her conversion. In a period of dark despondency, one night she lay in bed, when “I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner. … The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there—and of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that is was Jesus.”
For the next few days, she says, “I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.”
A week later, she found herself in church crying uncontrollably at the singing of hymns. She left before the benediction and raced home and again felt like the little cat was running at her heels.
I opened the door to my house, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “F[orget] it. I quit.” I took a long, deep breath and said out loud, “All right, You can come in.”
Jesus has been at the center of her faith since, so much so she said in an interview in Christianity Today, her friends “roll their eyes at me because I’m really Jesusy, there’s just no way around it.” As she stood before a mostly evangelical audience at Calvin College in 2000, she exclaimed, “We’ll have the Jesusiest time ever!”
Lamott, by her own admission, is anything but an evangelical Christian. But “Jesusy” is not a bad way to sum up what is distinctive about the lived faith of evangelical Christians, in both their conversions and subsequent spirituality. It harkens to the 1960s and the conversion of so many hippies, who recounted in various and sundry ways their dramatic encounters with Jesus. They were, as they came to be known, “Jesus people.”
This is why at the heart of evangelical spirituality lies Jesus. Thus the classic phrases that sum up what one does to become Christian: One “accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior” or “invites Jesus into your heart” so that one can have “a personal relationship with Jesus.”
And thus the classic stories that describe the born-again experience of evangelical saints, none more evangelical than that of John Wesley. One evening he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate. Someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m., as he later recalled, “while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
SOURCE: Christianity Today
Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.