by Brian Walsh
Some years ago I was teaching a course on postmodernity and a biblical worldview. The material was difficult for some of the students, both intellectually, but perhaps more to the point, it was difficult spiritually. And before class one day a student was just kind of hanging around as I was getting my act together. He clearly wanted to talk. So I asked him if there was something on his mind.
“Well,” he began, “I did have a question.”
“Sure,” I replied, “go ahead.”
“Are you born again?” the student asked.
An interesting question, and certainly a deeply loaded question for this young man.
So I replied, “If by being ‘born again’ you mean, ‘do I root my life in a relationship with Jesus Christ?’ then the answer is clearly yes. But if you mean, do I find myself comfortable in a certain subculture of modern Christianity, then the answer is no.”
It was clear that this answer wasn’t quite getting at my student’s question so I continued. “But if the question means, ‘can I trust you?’” (at which the student quickly nodded his head), “then the answer is decidedly no. If all that it takes to get you to trust me is for me to say that I am born again, then definitely no. I am not born again, and you should not grant me any trust too quickly.”
The student thanked me for my answer, remained silent in the class that followed and did not return to the next class.
Now I’ve got lots of friends who find the language of being ‘born again’ to be at the very heart of their understanding of Christian faith and their own identity as Jesus followers. And I do not doubt the sincerity of their faith. I do, however, sometimes get the distinct feeling that they doubt the sincerity of the faith of anyone who does not use this same ‘born again’ language to describe their own discipleship. And that is deeply problematic. In the next post I’ll say some more about this, but let me just make one point here.
The metaphor of being ‘born again’ has only one occurrence in the whole Bible! Once! That’s it! In one place, in John’s gospel, we meet the language of being born again employed to describe Christian conversion. Once! And yet a tradition of Christianity that purports to place a premium on the authority of Scripture has taken this one metaphor and made it into a shibboleth of admission.
If you don’t use this language, then … well, then you aren’t “born again.” That is to say, you aren’t a Christian. This isn’t submission to Scripture, this is making all of biblical interpretation, indeed all of Christian self-understanding subject to an over-emphasis and an over-interpretation of one solitary biblical text. Certainly isn’t the “whole counsel of God” is it?
Now this is likely not all that revolutionary to most readers of this blog. It isn’t likely anything all that new either. In my next blog I’ll say a little more about why being “born again” is likely a pretty bad idea.