I didn’t grow up as a Christian or with much of a formal religious background, so Christianity always seemed to me to be a little foreign. Most of what I observed about Christianity seemed to be closely associated with American clean-cut values or political causes, and the images I was exposed to consisted of mostly white men preaching in front of big audiences.
I began to think of Christianity as an American religion, which is strange considering that it originated from the Middle East — and Jesus and his followers were much darker-skinned than anything I would have seen through the American media. I am Asian American: my mother grew up in Vietnam, and my father in Japan. Our family friends were not just white, but Indian and Persian. So as an ethnic minority with so much that was diverse and “international” in my background, I didn’t identify with many of the ways I saw Christianity displayed around me. I wrestled the question, “could such a faith really include me?”
So even subconsciously, I began to form a picture of what Christianity was, based on images and experiences from my surroundings. Over time, I began to form and feel convictions about this picture, and its values and shortcomings. I would see the way some Christians talked about, or treated the Muslim or homosexual communities, and think, “That’s not right. I can’t believe in something like that!” I had an experience the other day as I was walking near the beach, and two women carrying megaphones were yelling about everybody going to hell. And I was angry and sad, because so many people would see this and assume that their behavior was justified or approved by Christianity, when it turned me off just as much. But that experience would leave an impression on their picture of the Christian faith.
But here’s the thing. When I was growing up, I didn’t really evaluate. I would see these things, make up my own mind, and that was it. And by the time I was in high school, I had formed beliefs about Christianity that were so strong, that I didn’t think they’d ever change. I knew why people believed in heaven — to relieve their fears of death. I knew why Jesus said the things he did — to comfort others and impart a better way of living, even if there was no afterlife or God.
That was until a friend challenged my assumptions. He told me, “I respect your opinions, but did they come from what you saw on television, or is it in the Bible?” And I began to realize that I really didn’t know what was written in the Bible. I had read or heard excerpts here and there, for school assignments or during a sermon the occasional time I went to church. But I knew far less than I assumed or thought. It was shocking and humbling how strong my feelings and convictions about Christianity were, given how little I actually knew about its primary source of beliefs, the Bible. When I started to read it thoroughly, and in earnest, I discovered a vastly different picture that was both simple and complex; both emotionally challenging and intellectually satisfying. I saw a God who challenged the ethno-centric prejudice of men, and called them to care for the most marginalized of society. Who would those people be today? Probably some whom Christians find it hardest to accept and love.
So I discovered the gap between my own perception of Christianity, and the “picture” in the Bible. Yet nobody had challenged me all these years, or asked me to explain myself, and so I kept solidifying my position — in a way that I now see was dogmatic in its own right.
Before I could even consider the truth of Christianity, I had to come to a place of open-mindedness. And open-mindedness is not always what it seems: I think most people say they are open-minded, but are actually quite set in their beliefs.
Here’s what open-mindedness means to me. It’s being willing to admit that we don’t have the full picture, in our way of looking at the world. It means being open to (and valuing) change, correction, and growth throughout our lives. It means having the humility to confess that we will be mistaken or inconsistent at times. It means having the heart to realize our need to learn from others who are different from us. And I had to come to that place, to even consider Christianity, because I believed something entirely different growing up. It’s pretty humbling to have to admit that what you’ve invested so many hours of thought and emotion into believing, might not be entirely accurate. I realize that’s not easy at all, because that’s what I had to do. It’s probably even harder to do, the older you get, because it feels like the stakes are higher, and you’ve had many more years to reinforce your convictions.
Christians often aren’t very open-minded: there’s an unspoken culture in church of needing to appear like we have all the answers, and to put on a “happy face” like Ned Flanders. The model “Christian” is seen as somebody rock-solid in their convictions, because anything else is compromising, watering-down, or being wishy-washy about one’s faith. But I reject that stereotype!
If I believe as a Christian that there is a God who is bigger, wiser, and superior in every way to me — it should go without saying that I’ll constantly be learning and changing as I discover more about Him, and about the world I live in. It should be a no-brainer that I will be humbled as I realize where I am wrong. In fact, if I am not learning, changing, and being humbled, I think it’s fair to ask: am I really following God? That’s a question I would challenge every Christian with.
So I value open-mindedness, not only because I believe it should take me closer to the truth, but because life is richer as we learn from other people and perspectives. If I hadn’t been truly open in high school, I realize now that I would have missed out on the biggest part of my life now: my Christian faith!
That was the first step of my spiritual journey: to recognize the “picture” of Christianity that had been formed over my life thus far, and to begin to differentiate between what I had heard or read, and what was in the Bible. And then to come to a place of openness and humility, to even consider other perspectives. In the next post of this series, I’ll share about how I evaluated my beliefs, and came to a better understanding of how to decide what to believe in, and why people believe in things — for better or for worse!
If you want to discuss or engage more:
- What kinds of experiences, images and people formed your “picture” of Christianity growing up? How did they impact your beliefs about the Christian faith, even until today?
- To what extent is that “picture” of Christianity consistent with what you read in the Bible? What passages trouble you? What passages dispel myths you’ve heard or seen?
- How would you define “open-mindedness?” How would you describe characteristics of open-mindedness in practice? Who are some people, or what are some actions that are good examples of it, and why?