Called to be Human: Letters to my Children on Living a Christian Life
Written straight from the heart of a parent and with the wisdom of a pastor, Called to be Human addresses big questions on the minds of young adults. Jinkins works hard to do this in a way that does not resort to easy answers or tired clichés. Undoubtedly, at the heart of every Christian parent is a deep and profound sense of responsibility to think meaningfully about how to pass along a strong personal faith to the next generation. This is not an easy task, a reality that Jinkins acknowledges repeatedly throughout a series of “letters” written lovingly and affectionately to his own son and daughter (Jeremy and Jessica). He offers counsel and advice to engage his grown children in dialogue about things that really matter and a faith that is often mysterious but always filled with hope.
As Jinkins considers several big questions that young adults (and others) often wrestle with, there are several prevailing themes throughout his book. First, he argues strongly against a dead religion that is based merely on a set of creeds or beliefs. In fact, he notes that “faith is a matter of trust and reverence more than it is a matter of beliefs and belief systems . . . the older I get, the more I see that life is mystery and the less certainty I possess” (3). Jinkins cautions his children against placing God and their Christian faith in a box that is manipulated and controlled easily. His harshest words are reserved for Christians whose understanding of God is centered only in religious dogma. He illustrates this point by writing: “Give me an aggressively disbelieving atheist any day over either a lukewarm believer or a convinced and unquestioning religionist!” (70). Rather, he reminds his children continually of the primacy of hope as the catalyst that brings faith to life – a faith that embraces and presses into mystery.
A second assertion of Jinkins is that “the purpose of Christian faith is for us to become human” (9). This, he argues, is set forth clearly in the Incarnation itself as well as the themes of life, death, and resurrection throughout Scripture in general and in the person of Christ in particular. Thus, it is dangerous to merely equate life in Christ with “personal salvation” or escaping eternal damnation when our call is much bolder – to “follow Christ” with all the messiness (and mystery) that doing so entails. Being fully human is about the pursuit of God and relationships rather than merely finding simple answers to the often complex, weighty questions of life. As such, doubt is not the issue of concern for the Christ-follower, but apathyis or, as Jinkins writes to his daughter, “longing for the longing for God is not far from longing for God” (14).
Third, Jinkins makes a very personal point when he speaks of faith as “letting go” and applies this notion to the challenge and privilege of parenting. He writes, “I hardly knew the character of faith, the scale of hope, and the risk of love until I became a parent” (4). When we consider those things that deepen and enrich faith, often they are connected to adversity and suffering in ways that are difficult to understand or explain, but true nonetheless. In making this point, Jinkins speaks tenderly of his wife’s cancer and daughter ’s open-heart surgery as a young child. Extending mercy and love to others in the midst of our own pain and questions remains a high and distinct calling for the committed Christ-follower.
A fourth major theme is a Christian understanding of one’s “calling” in life. Clearly, Jinkins’ son (Jeremy) is wrestling with significant questions about job and career that are redirected lovingly to a conversation about vocation. Our ultimate purpose, Jinkins asserts, is to follow Christ and “every other calling in life is just an extension of that basic calling”(24-25). This means that the Christian lawyer or physician is pursuing his or her calling and God-given passions every bit as much as the pastor or priest. Jinkins writes: “‘What we do for a living’ is never completely irrelevant to God’s calling us to follow Jesus Christ – not if what we do for a living has any real connection to our lives” (59). Of course, this is fleshed out in relationships and friendships as well as jobs and careers.
While there were other important themes addressed by Jinkins, those listed are some ofthe prevailing ones throughout the book. There are, however, several points of critique that are worthy of consideration. Jinkins cautions rightly against the dangers of materialism and an overly individualistic society and church, a reality noted by many inside and outside the community of faith. Committed Christ-followers should always be aware of such dangers and stand against them as individuals and as a corporate community of faith. However, at times Jinkins becomes particularly scathing in his critique of a religion that has “grown self-centered, self-satisfied, self-righteous, complacent, pitiless, and proud” (30). Further, he references “the urgency of the message for a church too wrapped up in its own self-interests, self-promotion, and self-righteousness to attend to others” (47). While there is certainly some truth in these statements, it is not particularly helpful to resort to such broad generalizations in characterizing the Christian community. There are many churches (perhaps most) doing very good things in their immediate communities and throughout the world. Indeed, without the support and sacrifice of such Christian communities (and faith-based organizations), a caring response to local and global challenges would be muted significantly.
In dialogue with his children, Jinkins talks eloquently and passionately about the mystery of faith and the danger of too much certainty about a God who is infinitely greater than we can ever imagine. He does so in a way that is quite compelling, but at times fails to recognize the things that God has revealed about Himself through general and special revelation. There are some things we can and do “know” about God because He has chosen to reveal those things. Throughout his book, Jinkins rejects an apologetics approach, preferring C. S. Lewis “after his superficial arguments for God’s existence were jettisoned” (73). However, he does contradict himself slightly when taking Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion),and other critics of a theistic worldview to task for lacking “intellectual engagement” (71). While knowledge and wisdom are worthwhile ends, Jinkins balances this truth with the reality that there is much in God’s economy that operates on other dimensions as well (practically as knowledge is lived out as well as through the miraculous – sometimes “irrational”– works of God).
One of Jinkins most poignant and moving topics is when he writes to his daughter about God’s holiness. He laments the fact that often Christians in North America fail to have an adequately reverential awe for God. He illustrates this point by writing:
We take God’s name in vain whenever we empty God’s name of holiness (of sacredness, otherness, and transcendence) so as to manipulate God for our own ends – for instance, when we try to use God’s authority as the definitive conversational trump card or as the means to an end (whether the end is social, cultural, political, economic, or religious). (88)
This is a significant point to make to young adult believers as well as older believers in light of the temptation to use God to excuse one’s own behavior or argue for a particular course of action. As a person working with college students, it is not at all uncommon to hear students use God as an excuse for everything from not studying to the explanation offered when breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend (to make the bad news more “palatable” for the one rejected). This is a point that Jinkins could have developed further because of its relevance to seeking God’s will on the one hand and personal responsibility on the other.
Jinkins’ letters were particularly personal when he discussed friendship and marriage. It was surprising that he did not address issues of sexuality in a significant way when certainly this is a dominant theme in our culture (particularly for young adults). Nonetheless, he had many excellent observations about marriage. He noted the vast gulf between Christianity and a culture that often paints love as dependence, making “the ideal of romantic love … an intestinal parasite that can’t survive without its host” (74). Such love is completely conditional and incapable of sustaining a relationship over time. Jinkins also points to the importance of forgiveness in marriage and learning to disagree with civility and humility. Again, there would have been many points at which a discussion of men and women as sexual beings would have tied in well with the overall framework of his book and been particularly relevant to young adults grappling with such issues in the context of their relationships. Singleness could have been another important dimension of this discussion as well.
In these “letters to his children,” Jinkins offers many thoughtful insights in a way that is filled with humility and grace acknowledging clearly the God whose fathomless love and mystery fills us with hope and purpose. This very love drives Christ-followers to respond to the needs of others out of a spirit of gratitude and generosity with a sense of stewardship for all that we have been given in Him. This book is not one that answers all of the big questions of life that are raised throughout its pages, nor was this Jinkins’ purpose or hope. On the contrary, he engages Jeremy and Jessica (and those of us eaves dropping) in a conversation filled with grace and humility that is deeper and more profound than merely providing simple answers to the vexing questions of life. As he closes, Jinkins does so with the tenderness, hopes, and affections of a father who wants the best for his children:
You, Jeremy and Jessica, are my friends and my children, and though I do not know all that you shall become, I know the name by which you shall be called, because you are created in the image of that name and you shall be drawn inexorably into the full reality of that name when he appears (135).