I grew up in a homogeneous culture in a mid-sized town in southern Minnesota.
After four years at a small Lutheran college and one year at a small newspaper, I went off to journalism school in Chicago. One day, a professor asked my urban reporting class whether our high schools were integrated. A friend who grew up in the valley of the Jolly Green Giant, 25 miles from me, quipped, “Yes! They let the Norwegians and the Germans sit next to each other.”
Religious diversity in those parts meant a mix of Catholics and Lutherans. A really diverse crowd would include some non-Lutheran Protestants—meaning Methodists like me. I knew a few kids who didn’t go to any church, but most of us spent Sunday mornings dressed up and squirming in the pews, waiting for the moment when the children’s sermon would start and we could get up. Once we were summoned, we’d go up front to sit on the floor for a few minutes of ministerial storytelling. Immediately after that, we’d be sent off to Sunday school, where at least they had crayons.
I believe there was only one Jewish family in my high school when I went there. I have missed my past two high school reunions because they were scheduled during Rosh Hashanah—a detail I haven’t even bothered to complain about because as far as I know it affects precisely two members of my high school class: me and my high school sweetheart–the two Methodists who have Jewish families. This year, if I fly home the morning after the reunion, I’ll make it home just in time for Rosh Hashanah dinner.
In my earliest religious memory, I am roaming my house singing “I’m No Kin to the Monkey,” which I learned at friends’ Baptist vacation Bible school. Despite an ear bending from my horrified uncle, my parents took the long view. Mainline Protestants have no quibble with science on this point, and my parents grasped something my uncle did not: I had no idea what the song was really about. In fact, I was singing it for several fine non-scientific reasons. Namely: a) It was about monkeys; b) it was catchy; c) it was about monkeys; d) it said teachers who said I was kin to the monkey belonged in a zoo(!); and e) it was about monkeys. Seriously. What more could a 6-year-old ask for?
My mother grew up Presbyterian, and my father grew up Methodist, both mainline Protestant denominations, but with some important theological and tonal differences.
The idea that life is a test that determines whether you get into heaven permeates Christian preaching and worship. Is the path to salvation a narrow ladder spanning a crevasse or a wide thoroughfare with the doors at the end flung wide? The answer given by any particular denomination informs everything about how Christianity is practiced within the walls of its churches. It determines whether congregants are scolded or exhorted, and whether hell is something concrete to fear or is largely ignored in favor of a vision of a forgiving God. The former tends toward heavy use of shame and fear, the latter can fail to grapple with the real evil that exists in the world.
What are the terms of God’s forgiveness of human sin? Christians give widely different answers to that question, but the question itself remains the basis for conversation about faith. Whether you are a southern Baptist or the most liberal of Protestants, you recognize this as being what the religious conversation is about. Not that you talk about it all the time in worship. If forgiveness is there for the taking and offered to all—not just Christians and not exclusively through Jesus—you’ll certainly talk about grace a lot, but you don’t need to talk about being fallen every week. Whether spoken or unspoken, “who does God forgive” and “are any strings attached” are the central questions of Christianity. How any one Christian answers points them in the direction of a particular form of practice.
This is a fundamental difference from Judaism. Obviously Jesus is not part of the Jewish discussion about sin and forgiveness. But the very question that Christianity swirls around is Judaism’s main theme once a year—during the High Holidays. Traditionally, Jews spend the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish new year—assessing their sins and apologizing to people they’ve wronged. Eight days later, Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—arrives. This is a day of fasting to atone to God for sins against God. The services between Kol Nidre, the haunting evening service at the start of the holy day, and the break fast at sundown the next day are focused on sin in a way that most Jewish services are not.
The terms of the larger discussion, the day-in, day-out understanding of the meaning of faith, are built on different rocks. Even though Jewish and Christian scriptures overlap and the teachings sometimes share a sensibility, the terms of the discussion about what religion means are different in such fundamental ways that a person who thinks they know what it is to be religious from a Christian standpoint can be startled as they learn to worship Jewishly.