Keep It Weird

I live in Portland, Oregon, the “weird” capital of the United States. Portlanders are suspicious of anything that smacks of low-quality, mass-production consumerism. “Conformity” is a four-letter word. On an iconic wall downtown our civic motto is inscribed for all to see: “Keep Portland Weird.” (A local resident called the “unipiper” is known to ride in circles on a unicycle in front of this sign, wearing a Darth Vader mask and playing bagpipes that blow blasts of fire. Google it.) And by and large Portlanders don’t like religion, especially organized religion, and especially Christianity. Portland fancies itself an intellectual community that values science and logic, not superstition and “red state” religion. To put it another way, the people who live around me see American Christianity as the opposite of weird. It’s normal, so normal it’s sickening. It adds nothing to society except a vestige of America’s racist, sexist, exclusionist past. And sometimes when I go to church here (or elsewhere in America), I can see some of what they mean. Church can easily become just one more thing on a to-do list for the week, and one thing that can be skipped easily, because it’s just another place to consume content and reinforce wider cultural values. And, even worse, church can showcase and promote some of American culture’s darkest vices: exploitation, greed, narcissism, extreme individualism, sexism, classism, nationalism, and racism.

I have had countless conversations with pastors about how church life got upended during the 2020 lockdown, attendance dwindled during the online church era of 2020–21, and then when things started to open up again, people just didn’t come back. They learned to live without church, and then they realized that they could live without church. So they did. Church was too normal. It competed with everything else going on, so it faded into the background of their lives. Sure, every now and again there was a twinge of nostalgia mixed with guilt, a little nag that said, “Maybe you should go back.” But for many that minor pang was not enough to inspire them to get up and go out.

I’m not against tradition. I like routine, and I like many “normal” things. I am a creature of habit. So, I am not going to talk about how churches need to be spontaneous and constantly “shake things up.” But as a historian and New Testament scholar, I am struck by the contrast between modern American Christianity (often viewed as a mirror of the worst of culture) and the Jesus communities of the first century. When it comes to the churches associated with the apostle Paul, you couldn’t imagine a more opposite scenario! The first Christians were weird! There’s no denying that. I am not talking about their clothing, music preferences, or hobbies. When I say “weird” or “strange,” I am talking about deviation from cultural norms and society’s expectations for how things ought to be done. Especially when it came to religion—and keep in mind, everyone was religious (more on that later)—the Christians were as backwards and as odd as you could be. Now, sometimes Christian writers are accused of exaggerating the uniqueness of Jesus and the apostolic teachings. I am not trying to do that. I don’t think the early Christians were perfect or completely alien to their social and cultural world. But there were certain fundamentals of religion that the Christians just didn’t have— for example, material sacrifices, physical temples, and formal priests. Such things were the building blocks of religion in the first century, and if you showed up to a Christian gathering in Ephesus or Philippi, you wouldn’t find any of these things. Isn’t that weird? How is that possible?

I should say from the outset that I don’t think the first Christians were trying to be weird in order to be weird. They weren’t anti-conformist as some sort of intentional political or cultural ideology. In fact, as much as possible, they wanted to prove themselves to be respectable, “good” society members. It was more the case that the person of Christ, the work of the Spirit, and the fundamental dynamics of the gospel themselves changed their orientation toward God, God’s world, God’s creatures, and God’s good end. That made Christians seem like aliens from another planet. They had unusual ways of talking about the divine and about spiritual matters, odd patterns and practices of worship, and suspicious social habits and behaviors. Weird is not always bad (that’s why I live in Portland); weird can be good. But weird can also be dangerous. Ideas and persons and institutions that threaten our core values make us nervous. This book is about how earliest Christianity emerged as a new and strange religion that had various effects on people: some were puzzled and others were offended. For example, a second-century opponent of Christianity named Celsus supposedly said, “If all men wanted to be Christians, the Christians would no longer want them.” Some, like Celsus, saw the Jesus people as a plague on society. But some found deep love in the gospel and a new way to live. Say what you will about first-century Christianity, but it was anything but dull and boring.

Real Coconut Water Is Pink?

I’m one of those weird Portland hippies who likes coconut water. It sounds natural and healthy, and I like eating coconut, so what’s not to like? It took me a while to find the coconut water brand that had the right amount of sugar and the right taste for my palate, but it came to be one of my favorite drinks. One day, I was at Costco and I saw a new brand: Harmless Harvest Organic Coconut Water. I liked the idea of buying in bulk at a cheap price, so I picked one up to check it out. Why is the coconut water pink? I wondered. I thought maybe I picked up a bad pack, so I looked at another set—also pink. In fact, all the packs had pink liquid in the bottles. Lo and behold, there was an explanation on the box under the heading “Naturally Pink.” Long story short, when the natural coconut sugars touch oxygen, they turn the water pink in only a short time. Pink is what color bottled coconut water should be. So why have I only seen clear coconut water before? Many mass-market coconut-water producers use artificial preservatives and other chemicals to maintain a clear and “pristine” appearance. They know that consumers associate “clear” with fresh and clean. Ironically, they add chemicals to make it seem more natural. I know it’s just a drink, but I felt lied to by the American food industry! If coconut water is supposed to be pink, I want the pink stuff.

You can see where I am going with this. If coconut water is supposed to be pink, and I’m being sold a manufactured version to make me feel better, what else in life is “supposed to be pink”? What about Christianity? I hesitate to sell you on the idea that Strange Religion is the only book on the market to tell you the truth about “real Christianity.” I’m Portland weird, but I stop short of being a conspiracy theorist. And yet I do think pop Christianity in the Western world often reflects a “chemically altered” version of the Jesus movement that has been manufactured for cheap refreshment. My goal is to go back to the writings of the apostles and other first-century Christian leaders to see what the “natural ingredients” are in their religion, their faith, and their way of being. With my drinks, I don’t care what color they are; I just want to know exactly what I am putting in my body. With my faith, I don’t care if it looks strange; give it to me the way it was meant to be! I hope that is why you are reading this book, and I hope it is refreshing.

Excerpted from Strange Religion by Nijay Gupta, ©2024. Used by permission of Brazos Press.