Thursday, April 01, 2010

Scroogy Christianity

In our pampered, Western, American lives, rich with comfort and luxury, there is no question that Christians can (and often do) become lazy and complacent. Our concern for the lost and zeal for the glory of God can easily be eclipsed by a passion for keeping the car looking nice, staying up to date with the stuff recorded on the DVR, and planning the next vacation. Our hearts are, in the words of the great Reformer John Calvin, idol factories, producing God substitutes at an alarming rate. There is a fearful danger in this, and the sobering words of Jesus in the Bible should brace us: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21, ESV).

That said, there is an expanding species of glum Christian speaker/teacher/preacher/writer that has risen to prominence in the evangelical world mainly by scolding the faithful. These guys (and I won't name any of them for the moment, though I'm sure you know a few of whom I speak) are reputed to deliver "convicting," "challenging," and even "shocking" messages that specialize in taking the Christian conscience, smelting it into a makeshift pickax, and burying it in your forehead. Such messages ostensibly call Christians to put aside their complacency and be more devoted to Christ. In reality, they merely shoot fish in a barrel.

The kind of scold I have in mind can most easily be identified by his use of guilt. If he tweets, he'll tend to write things like, "1000 people died of starvation today. Hope you enjoyed 'American Idol' on TV." His Facebook statuses usually say things like, "Are you as upset about your neighbor going to Hell as about your NCAA tournament bracket?" If he has a bumper sticker, it's likely to say something like, "So much need, so few care."

If he preaches, he'll tend to load up his messages with ample illustrations of how you just don't care enough. One of this ilk, for instance, recently chastised his hearers for driving expensive cars while so many in the world are in need. It's an easy shot, and most likely amps up the requisite guilt in the hearers, but it's also may be facile nonsense, based on a whole host of unchallenged assumptions. Consider, for instance:

1). The preacher has no idea how much his hearers have also given to missions and charity. [In fact, studies show that the people in his usual evangelical audience are far more likely to have donated--and donated more--than any other group of people.]

2). He's assuming a Marxist, materialist view of the world--that somehow you having an expensive car here is causing something to be taken away from someone else in Guatemala.

3). He's misunderstanding the nature of the wealth to begin with--and coming close to spitting on God's blessing. The Bible assures us that there are dangers associated with wealth, to be sure. But we must also recognize that the material prosperity of the Western world is a direct result of Reformation Christianity, with it's traditional emphases on creativity, free exchange, hard work, and innovation. Are we supposed to apologize for living in a civilization that has reaped God's blessing for operating for much of its history in the way that He designed? Are we to feel guilty that God, who has appointed the time and place of our dwelling, put is in a culture that has benefited from centuries of (admittedly now-waning) Christian influence? Is a preacher who tries to "convict" you about having air conditioning spurring you to godliness, or just scoring a few cheap rhetorical points so you'll feel like something happened?

4). Furthermore, such preachers often fail to answer certain key questions all this should raise, such as, how much affluence is too much? Could you give me a dollar figure? And what about your car, Mr. Preacher? You live here too. You've declared a $100,000 Mercedes to be sinfully extravagant, but what about your $16,000 Ford Focus? How many people worldwide could be fed on $16,000? How much missions work could be done with the money you spent on that suit? In these situations, it's usually your life that's sinfully extravagant, while his just happens to be right at the God-approved level of frugality. The bottom line is that in America, you could always have given more than you did.

While many of the charges of the glum Christian guiltists are based on faulty, unexamined views of economics and motivation, there is also often a cracked theological foundation underlying the whole enterprise.

First, I suspect that the main driver behind such guilt-inducing appeals is a concern about nominal Christianity. And there, at least, the sourpuss killjoy has properly diagnosed a real problem. Our churches are filled with people who don't seem to behave any differently than the world. But while he gets the diagnosis right, the cause seems to elude him, and thus, so does the cure. Much of the nominal "easy-believism" filling churches today is the result of revivalistic evangelism, imported from the 19th century, which equates emotional, one-time professions of faith with actual conversion. Having been presented with a sub-gospel of "Jesus loves you and wants to live in you," it appears that many "Christians" produced by such appeals really do care more about their flat screen TVs and stock portfolios than they do about Jesus. But the answer to that problem isn't "do more!"--it's to repent and believe the gospel.

Another problem lurking a little further beneath the surface is an incipient dualism, also a product of the revivalism. As the downgrade in theology made its way through American evangelicalism during the 18th and 19th centuries (speeded along by many of the unbiblical and pragmatic practices we adopted), the Reformation emphasis on the cultural mandate was almost completely lost. In a robust, biblical, Reformed worldview, the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. All things done to the glory of God in fulfillment of our God-given vocations ("callings") are spiritual, which is why Martin Luther once said that changing a diaper is as spiritual as preaching a sermon. Asked what he would do if he knew Jesus were returning tomorrow, Luther is said to have responded "I'd plant a tree." As revivalistic Christianity came to be more and more about "saving souls," and less about what Luther and the Reformers saw as the Kingdom of God, that which was non-material and churchy came to be seen as truly "spiritual." Evangelism, missions, and church activities came to be seen as "Kingdom work" while the mundane activities of life (i.e. the stuff we necessarily spend most of our days on, like our jobs, our families, our daily chores) came to be seen as worldly (if necessary) distractions. In this way of thinking, which absolutely saturates evangelicalism, only that which directly benefits missions and evangelism is of value. Thus, the "worldly person" is the one who goes to his plumbing job each day in order to feed his family and pay his mortgage. The best value he can hope his work will have is that he might get to share the gospel with someone while on the job, or make some money that can be contributed to missions and evangelism. Meanwhile, the truly "spiritual person" is the one floating above the ether, conveying concepts to minds, preferably working in full-time ministry, and making the plumbers feel guilty about spending 40 hours of their week at work. As a result, evangelical Christianity is a fruitful pasture for the work of the scolds. Most Christians already feel guilty about not doing enough "Kingdom" (i.e. church) work, and this kind of message punches them right in the solar plexus.

Now, to be clear, being more devoted to Christ is a good thing. It's a necessary thing. But that's precisely where my problem with these preachers gets its traction. We could always be more devoted to Christ. There are undoubtedly Christians who need to be shaken out of apathy. But guilt trips like this are too easy because of the basic fact of sin: all fall short of the glory of God. The bottom line in the message of the furrowed scolds is that you're not faithful enough.

Well guess what? You're right. I'm not faithful enough. I fall short of loving Jesus enough. Too often, I'm concerned about my own comfort. And you know something? All that is true of you too, Mr. Evangelist. It's called sin, and you're stuck with it just like I am. Every single one of us falls short in all of those areas. There has never been a single nanosecond where either of us has loved God with our whole heart, mind, and strength.

So now what? Rather than offering the cool refreshment promised by the Gospel, such preachers instead lay guilt upon guilt, chain upon chain, all the while drawing praise for their fearless, "convicting" message of condemnation. But guilt is easy, especially when dealing with a roomful of Christians. [Puffing yourself and some of your hearers us with notions of how much more you care than everyone else is a real danger here as well. You can often spot an immature Christian who has just sat through such a message by his insufferable sanctimony.] A Christian with a properly working conscience will always feel the weight of her own failures in such a message.

Of course, there is a place for a strong message of conviction and repentance, and many of the people who dabble in this kind of guilt-tripping generally have good ministries otherwise. There are those who occasionally take an easy shot at Christians without being characterized by it. But getting Christians to figuratively tear their robes in anguish is just an easy stage trick, like getting the audience to gasp while you appear to be sawing the lady in half. Preaching the gospel is hard. God justifies lazy people? God justifies those who don't love their neighbor as themselves? God justifies people who are sinfully preoccupied with their own comfort? God justifies people who bought iPads with money that could have been given to Haitian missions? That's a message the self-righteous human spirit rebels at. That's scandalous.

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