Driving my daughter home from school the other day, I spotted a small group of teenage girls at a busy intersection a few blocks from my house. They were on the sidewalk, smiling and chatting and dancing along to nonexistent music. A few of them shook pom-poms. Two of them held up big, hand-painted signs that said:
I live in a diverse, metropolitan area, so despite the girl’s bright smiles and youthful enthusiasm, no one was honking. Except one. The driver of a mini-van made a left-turn in front of us, honking all the way through the intersection. A passenger then rolled down her window, leaned out and gave the girls a solid whoop-whoop for their efforts. The girls hooted and hollered and whoop-whooped right back, their bodies gyrating with giddiness. United in Christ.
“Why did that car honk?” Maxine asked as we pulled away.
“They honked at those girls with the signs,” I said.
“What did the signs say?” she asked.
“Honk if you love Jesus.”
Pause. Pause. Pause.
“But you didn’t honk,” she observed.
“No, I didn’t.”
“You don’t like Jesus?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “that’s not it.”
Pause. Pause. Pause.
“You don’t love Jesus?” she asked.
She was really thinking this one through. And who could blame her? This shit is downright confusing, particularly to young people whose minds are so literal.
“No, that’s not it, either,” I said.
The fact is, I do love Jesus. Maybe not the way I love a family member or friend, but the way I love celebrities whose work I respect and admire. I love Jesus the same way I love Franz Kafka and Steven Hawking. The same way I love Joan Didion, Sarah Silverman, Ralph Fiennes.
(Okay, not exactly the way I love Ralph Fiennes.)
The point is, love is not just love when it comes to the love of Jesus. Just like belief is not just belief. In a literal sense, I do believe in Jesus. I believe he lived, and I believe he died. I believe he was a really good and smart person who wanted to help his people. I believe he said some truly remarkable things along his journey. I believe that he was a model of how to lead a moral life — or that he sought to be one anyway.
But, of course, that’s not enough.
For me to honk my horn at those girls, I needed to love not only Jesus the leader, but also Jesus the son of God. In order to whoop-whoop, I needed to believe not only that Jesus was a great man, but also that — as Sarah Silverman put it — Jesus was magic. The girls’ signs didn’t come with disclaimers, but they should have.
So, there I was, in the car, defending my silence to an inquisitive kid.
“I actually really like Jesus,” I ended up telling Maxine. “I think he was a fantastic person, and he tried really hard to make the world a better place. It’s just that some people, Christian people, think he was the son of God, and that’s why those girls were holding those signs. I don’t believe he was the son of God, so I didn’t honk. Does that make sense?”
“Yep,” she said.
And that was that.