When primitive Christianity first began to take root, it wasn’t known as “Christianity.” That was more or less a term coined by onlookers. The first Christians referred to their movement as “The Way.” The earliest disciples saw themselves, not as part of new religion, but as travelers on and in the Way of Jesus.
This “Way,” consequently, was something active and dynamic, bound to the living Christ. It was not some dead religion seized with rigor mortis. The passing of the centuries, however, has seriously muted this fact. The years have suppressed the wild and dangerous roots of the Christian faith, and in some cases, have beaten the living daylights out of it. This has not been lost on a large and growing number of believers.
According to researcher William Hendricks, over a million Christian adults leave the church each and every year. Many do so “not because the church is too spiritual,” he says, “but because the church is not spiritual enough.” Large swathes of official Christianity have traded the untamed vitality of its Founder for something far more domesticated. Somewhere deep within us, we know this is a tragedy. We don’t need researchers or statistics to confirm the obvious: Our spiritual instincts tell us that there is something more, something deeper, more radical and more alive than the safe, sterile, status quo of the religious institution. We know (with apologies to Steppenwolf) we were born to be wild.
An example: Last autumn I was fortunate enough to visit Jackson, Wyoming, the Grand Tetons, and the Yellowstone area. No pictures can do the region justice. It is landscape that must be seen and savored firsthand. Yet, the highlight of my trip was not the dramatic scenery. It was what happened on a cold, snowy day in the National Elk Refuge. The National Elk Refuge is a 25,000 acre plot of land that in the fall and winter becomes home to thousands of migrating elk. The elk come down out of the mountains to harbor there, but it is not a completely safe harbor. The administrators of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have a policy that allows hunting on the Refuge, a policy not without controversy. I saw a bit of this hunting up close and personal.
While on a wildlife expedition I observed a party of hunters stalking several hundred elk. These animals circled and panicked like proverbial fish in a barrel as the hunters closed in on them. It didn’t seem very gaming to me, and I braced myself for the slaughter. It was then that one of the big bulls in the herd decided that he had had enough. So, nearly a ton of wild, thundering animals-on-hooves stampeded toward the hunters. At the last minute, the bull shot between two of the would-be-trophy-takers, the space no wider than a sidewalk. And when he did, the entire herd followed.
Hundreds and hundreds of animals ran for daylight, and in a matter of minutes, the herd had not only escaped their predators – who looked at one another with a mixture of awe and shame – they had completely disappeared into the Wyoming woods. Not a single animal could be seen. These beautiful animals have lost a good deal of their habitat, but they have not lost their instincts. They still heed the wild and wonderful call of the wilderness, forsaking the false safety of the “refuge” for life with fewer fences. Granted, life in the wild is full of predatory dangers as well; but at least it is life outside of a man-made cage.
Jesus, it appears to me, wants us to have this kind of freedom, for he did not come to start a religion. He came to start a spiritual revolution. Jesus did not come to show us how to build cathedrals or ecclesiastical refuges. He came to show us how to live. Jesus did not come to fence us in, but to set us wildly and wonderfully free. We were never born for captivity. We were born to be wild.