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The Failure of American Christianity in Two Pictures

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I was at my local bookstore recently and was struck by the juxtaposition above.  It is significant that even a book retailer knows that “Christian Life” and “Self-Transformation” are not the same sorts of activities.  But in how many of our pulpits is this distinction denied? How many churches are built on the bait-and-switch of marketing self-transformation while sneaking in Jesus?

The Christian life and “self-transformation” or “self-help” are not living from the same narrative or drawing from the same source of power.  To cite a few distinctions:

  • Christianity is about what God has done in Christ; self-transformation is about how I can better myself.
  • Following Jesus means denying ourselves, taking up a cross, so that we decrease and Christ increases within us; self-transformation is about determining on our own what our lives should look like.
  • The Christian life invites us to follow saints, apostles, martyrs, and monks; self-transformation is the clarion call of a thousand different spiritual hucksters, false prophets, seminar stars, and warmed-over pagan gurus.
  • Sanctification is the name we give to becoming more like God, through the power of God; self-transformation is the impoverished secular version of trying to become more without God. (See also: the Tower of Babel.)
  • The baptized life is lived in community and with a sacred canon compiled in the Bible, bequeathed to us by the Spirit and the Church; self-transformation is a lonely project in which progress is a marketing ploy and the only canon is the latest publisher’s list.
  • Living as Christians is made possible by the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper), a sacrament in which we feed on Christ by faith; self-transformation is a project enabled only by our own feeble resources.

The truly sad part?  American Christianity – Protestantism, in particular – has reached a place where we are unable to differentiate between Christian life and self-transformation.  As a pastor, many of the most “successful” preachers whom I’m expected to mimic constantly blur, if not explode, the distinction between Christian faith and self-help.  We have traded the gospel, God’s transformative, free gift of grace to the world, into just another way to make our lives better.

This is Caesar’s religion, not Christ’s.

The proof is in one other photo I took that happened to be at the end of the “Christian Life” aisle.  The tag line: Find inspiration to claim your destiny.

Egads.

There must be more to Christianity than “inspiration.”  Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hallmark movie, a Nicholas Sparks novel, a Zen expression, a cup of coffee, or a shot of vodka.  To be fair, authors don’t always have control over how their work is marketed.  Still, it is difficult to see how this might be an inaccurate representation of Joel’s version of Christianity.  It’s no accident that there is no mention of Jesus or the Godhead.  The mild code language of “inspiration” gives one the impression that this is vaguely spiritual but not overly sectarian.  And, potential Calvinism aside, the talk of “destiny” offers the promise that this book will be a key to unlocking a hitherto secret future that a beneficent (but unnamed) universe is simply waiting to hand you.

But the Christian life is not something we find; Christ came to us while we were yet sinners.  The incarnation was God’s idea, not ours. It was a rescue mission for which we did not ask.

Followers of Jesus don’t claim a destiny, we are given a calling in our baptism.

The Christian life isn’t about bettering our life, it’s about the life of Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.  Why is it that a book retailer can get this but millions of Christians in America can’t see just how counter-gospel the self-help message is?

John Wesley once, famously, wrote that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” But Satan himself could conceive of no more pernicious, twisted version of the Christian life than this self-help thinly disguised as Christian wisdom.

We’ll let St. Paul have the last word. He seemed to know, in the 1st century, that the Joels of this world would sneak in, wolves in sheep’s clothing, to devour the flock:

 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

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C.S. Lewis on the Preference for Old Books

Ron Burgundy loves old books.

Should we, the denizens of the 21st century, have a preference for old books? The most articulate defender of classic Christian belief in the last century was a layman with no formal theological training.  This is probably because C.S. Lewis read so many old books (including for devotional purposes).  He makes a case for reading classic texts in the introduction he wrote to a true masterpiece of Christian theology: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

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Clive Staples Lewis, courtesy WIkimedia Commons.

A pretty doable ratio: 1:1 or no less than 1:3.  The trajectory of of modern theology would be quite different if our seminary professors and pastors practiced this kind of reading.  The need for “a standard of plain, central Christianity” is why I am a proponent of creeds and catechisms: such are needed to distinguish the massive rivers of Christian truth from negotiable tributaries.  “In essentials, unity,” urged Augustine.

There is much liberty in Christian belief if we have agreement on the essentials.  But as Athanasius knew so well, there are some non-negotiables. It’s no accident he’s known as Athanasius contra mundum (“against the world”).  By introducing homoousious (“of the same being”) into the dialogue at Nicea, Athanasius stood up to the Arian heresy and preserved, against the popular compromise option, the doctrine of Christ’s full divinity.

Old books take us out of the assumptions of our present age – assumptions we often do not notice because we are drowning in them – and invite us to participate in what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”

The cult of the present has enough devotees.  Better to pay homage, even if only occasionally, to that great company of women and men who lived and died before our age had dawned.  The results will be truly relevant because they are in touch with the timeless.

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A New Kind of Devotional Reading

by Drew 3 Comments

A confession: I find much that passes for “Christian inspiration” cloying and vacuous. C.s.lewis3

On the other hand, I quite like what many of my colleagues found utterly painful in seminary: real theology.

Hey, I can’t help it. As Saint Gaga says, “I was born this way.”  But, it turns out, I am not alone.  In his marvelous introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, C.S. Lewis commends theological writing as devotional reading:

For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.  I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

A couple of things stand out here: Lewis noted decades ago that the “devotional” books were not necessarily aids in growing our devotion to Christ.  How many popular devotional books are little more than nuggets of popular wisdom with a dollop of Scripture?  That describes vast majority I’ve encountered, at least.

Also, this helps us understand why a layman without any formal theological training turned out to be such an excellent theologian: he read extensively in the primary sources – like On the Incarnation of the Word – rather than getting trickle-down doctrine from lowest-common-denominator books designed for consumer ease rather than depth and truth.

Lewis’ experience resonates with my own.  What about you? Have you tried theology as devotional reading?  What makes your heart “sing unbidden?  If you haven’t yet familiarized yourself with Lewis’ corpus, his work – such as Mere Christianity, or Screwtape Letters – would be a wonderful place to start.  You just might find them more devotional – drawing you closer to the heart of God – than those page-a-day readers that the publishers push on us year after year.

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Spiritual Kaizen with Bishop Grant Hagiya

I just finished Bishop Grant Hagiya’s newly-minted Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader and I happy to commend it to your own shelves.  As I’ve written already, there is much food for thought within.  Hagiya’s brief volume, which draws heavily on his doctoral work, combines decades of church leadership experience, lifelong study of the martial arts (I like the idea of a Bishop that can break boards!), and the latest in organizational development studies.  His central thesis is that great leaders practice kaizen, a Japanese term that basically means “constant growth.”  One illustration of this concept comes from a story he tells about a retreat center (not institutions that are usually known for their entrepreneurship) that his annual conference frequented:

“Every time I returned to that retreat center some small new addition was noticeable. One time it was the addition of card holders on the sleeping room doors so people could put their business cards on the door to identify where they were located. Another time they had a seasonal prayer card placed on the desk in each room. Still another time there was the addition of a dessert cart. Each time I returned, there was a small but noticeable improvement present. This is kaizen at its best!” (104)

Giving this excerpt and describing his basic thesis, while accurate, do not due justice to the depth and breadth what lies within.  Compared to most of the paint-by-numbers church leadership books (you’ve read one, you’ve read them all), Bishop Hagiya’s work feels like a crash course in advanced leadership theory.  He sums up a massive amount of current literature in concise manner, and is well worth the read in that regard.  Combined with his insights from martial arts training and personal experience as a church leader at all levels, Spiritual Kaizen will make an enjoyable addition to your summer reading plans, whether laity or clergy.

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