A Haircut and a Theology Lecture
The trim cost our correspondent 13 bucks. The discourse on salvation, however, was free.
By Jason Byassee
You don’t expect to have to defend yourself theologically when you go to the barber.
The conversation started innocently enough. Her look and accent said she wasn’t from around here, as most people in Skokie are not—the local schools have students who speak just under 70 first languages. Turned out she was Assyrian—a large ethnic group largely in Iran and Iraq now. Thousands of years ago these guys kicked the Israelites all over the Middle East. More recently they largely became Christian, and then heretical. They’re Orthodox, but not Chalcedonian. That is, they split from what we think of as the Eastern Orthodox Church over the Council of Chalcedon’s description of Jesus as having two natures in one person. For the Assyrians and other “Nestorian” Christians (that is, what the Orthodox refer to them as when they’re being rude), Christ has two natures and two persons. The Nestorian “pope” lives in Skokie. Their churches look Baptist—a corollary of their rejection of a union between the two natures in a single person is a belief that Jesus should not be depicted in art. So unlike other Orthodox churches, which are full of icons, these have walls painted white, suggesting a God who cannot be portrayed in images.
But we didn’t talk about any of that.
I asked what she thought of the war in her homeland, not knowing then, as I know now, that at least some Assyrians were treated pretty well by Saddam Hussein. “It’s OK,” she said. “The Bible says it’s the Lord who sends the war.” This didn’t sound Orthodox to me, but hey, she had the sharp objects near vulnerable parts of my anatomy.
“I sure feel sorry for those who will be thrown into the lake of fire,” she continued. Not so subtle a way to induce worry in me over my eternal destiny, but then it can’t be an easy thing evangelizing in one’s second language.
She clarified her history. Once in Chicagoland a friend took her to an evangelical non-denominational church full of Assyrians. She “heard the gospel for the first time,” she said. And went back to her Assyrian Orthodox church to argue against the priest that the New Testament doesn’t believe in priests. “He said women shouldn’t argue in churches,” she crowed, glorious in victory. Though I disagree with his church’s position on gender, I felt strangely sympathetic with this poor priest.
“So, you’re Methodist, you baptize babies?” Uh oh, I thought, her first direct question.
“Why? The Bible says you don’t baptize until someone has faith.”
“Well, it’s kind of like circumcision in the Old Testament—Jewish babies are made Jews before they know what’s happening.”
“But not in the New Testament, sprinkling doesn’t save.”
“Sure it does—1 Peter 3:21.” I might be Methodist now, but the evangelicals taught me Bible and the Baptists taught me how to win a “sword drill,” a game in which Sunday school students compete to locate Bible verses quoted by the teacher.
“But why do you baptize the child? The child cannot believe, the child is not saved.”
Now it was personal. “Oh yes he is, you don’t tell me whether my son is saved or not.” In less than one question, the cool reserve of the sword drill gave way to the anger of a parent whose child has been slighted. “For someone who says the Bible doesn’t have priests you sure know a lot about the souls of people you don’t even know.”
Now other customers were craning their necks to see the barber and barbee arguing about the Bible and baptism and babies. I tried to cool off; she went back to cutting my hair, a bit angrier and more unhappy than before, perhaps envisioning me in the lake of fire.
Then she really got me. “You’re thinning, you know.” Game, set, match. At least there’ll be less of me for the flames to singe.
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Jason Byassee is an assistant editor at the Christian Century. His last piece for SoMA was The Accidental Virgin.
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