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An Easter sunrise service at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in the 1950s. (Dick Whittington Studio/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Secular Case for Christianity

A growing community of believers and nonbelievers confronts our crisis of meaning. I'm among them.

A couple of years ago, I was commissioned to write a one-act play for a theater here in Hollywood. After a bit of thrashing about, I came up with a trifle that I called “I Am Who Am” about a suburban housewife asked by God to help set up His Facebook page. It was cute. As we went into pre-production, I arranged to meet the director at a diner in Los Feliz.

Given the set-up, the producers had picked as director the only practicing Christian associated with the theater. Rochelle belonged to a large Hollywood church called Reality. Like many megachurches that have taken off in recent years, Reality has a charismatic young preacher with a defiantly casual aesthetic. The congregation meets in the auditorium of a public high school, and a rock band—the worship team—takes up much of the stage.

As we sat down to share a plate of fries, Rochelle told me about Reality as a preface to saying that she was worried that my play might seem to be making fun of people of faith. 

“Oh, I know Reality,” I said. “We’ve attended a couple of times. My wife used to be a member.”

“You’re a Christian?” she asked, breaking out in a smile. She looked me in the eye and said, “He is risen.”

I smiled. Awkwardly. It felt like I was supposed to say something back, but I had no idea what. She was asking for the secret password, and I didn’t have it. 

You see, I had only recently started going back to church. I grew up in Milwaukee with a form of pale, Midwestern Catholicism that had turned me off intellectually and aesthetically. I spent most of my adult life in a state of defiant non-religiousness. Whenever anyone asked I called myself an agnostic.

Then I met a pretty girl in a bar.

My wife, Simone, is a devout Christian, the daughter of an ordained Congregationalist minister who is herself the daughter of a Baptist pastor. I started going to church with her. And, after we got married, we made the rounds a bit, looking for a congregation in Los Angeles that suited us.

So by the time I met Rochelle at that diner, I had seen up-close a lot of the different forms that American Protestantism can take, from the utterly bland to the truly weird. I even thought of myself, somewhat uncomfortably, as a Christian. But my experience hadn’t really prepared me for this “He is risen” business. I stammered my way out of it, and pivoted to talking about my script and the logistics of pre-production.

Of course I eventually figured it out. When a Christian says, “He is risen,” another Christian is supposed to respond, “He is risen indeed!” or “Truly He is risen!” There’s a name for it—the paschal greeting—and it’s a thing in Catholicism, too, especially on Easter. It’s even the name of a Sopranos episode. You might wonder how I came out of 12 years of Catholic school unfamiliar with the paschal greeting. I myself have wondered.

But that’s what a Christian is, right? Someone who believes that Jesus died for our sins, rose from the dead, and gave us eternal salvation. As a short-and-sweet form of the Christian statement of faith, the paschal greeting allows Christians to recognize one another in the wild. (The statement of faith is more fully realized in the Christian creeds and confessions, which are recited during services or learned during catechism.)

More than any other religion, Christianity is built on the statement of faith. And this simple, binary definition of what makes a Christian is eagerly accepted by believers and nonbelievers alike. 

Recently, though, I’ve been losing my confidence in that distinction—and not just as it applies to my own life. 

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