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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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Like Midas’ Touch, But in Reverse: Further Reasons to Distrust the Rob Bell/Oprah Vortex

by Drew 4 Comments
Toasting their success (Dr. Oz and Midas/Oprah), courtesy Deadstate.

Toasting their success (Dr. Oz and Midas/Oprah), courtesy Deadstate.

The conversation around Rob Bell’s recent career move has been interesting.  Many are fascinated at what the Oprah Machine will turn out.  Some are skeptical, and others are quick to defend.  It seems that Bell has now been “claimed” by the progressive camp, and anyone who questions his sanctity  must be rooted out and destroyed, much like the Inquisition that the progressives (claim to) abhor.  Enter an article published by Relevant under the hysterical title, “What the Continued Crucifying of Rob Bell Says About Modern Christianity,” which defends the founder of Mars Hill thus:

“Bell is no fast food, arm-chair theologian, remember.

He’s a Bible geek whose experience with and understanding of the ancient Scriptures was one of the main reasons for his rise in the first place. This wasn’t a guy who skimmed the easy passages. This wasn’t someone who preached from the cozy confines of the Creation story, or the Psalms, or the Sermon on the Mount.”

He also charges that Bell’s critics now are the same as those before: those vile heresy-hunters are now coming out of the woodwork to crucify (side note: I despise these histrionics) Bell all over again.  But not so fast.

I’m a fan of Bell’s, as I established in my previous post.  I never called him a heretic. I still don’t think he is one.  But I seriously question his association with Oprah.  Why? Because she destroys those she touches.  Like Midas, the mythological king who turned what he touched to gold, Oprah turns those she touches to shit.

Consider Dr. Mehmet Oz. A legitimate surgeon before Oprah put her stamp on him, Dr. Oz has faced growing criticism for his seemingly un-scientific, medically-questionable claims.  He’s even had to go before Congress to defend himself.  A new study has found that more than half of his claims have no basis in medical science.  More than half! Just made up.

So it’s not that Bell is some heretic who should be thrown into the outer darkness. It’s that he’s associating with someone who corrupts, someone who brings commercial success at the price of dignity, integrity, and ultimately the truth.

And I, for one, appreciate Bell’s gifts too damn much to be okay with that.

I hope it doesn’t happen. I hope that Rob is able to resist lure of the limelight, the temptation to so popularize one’s message that all credibility is sacrificed.  As a New York doctor said (quoted in the Post article above),

“Mehmet is now an entertainer…And he’s great at it … [But] sometimes Mehmet will entertain wacky ideas — particularly if they are wacky and have entertainment value.”

Will Bell make the most of this opportunity, and use his platform to represent Christian wisdom and charity well, or will he sell out a-la Doctor Oz, dispensing theological prescriptions as corrupt and false as they are easily digestible?

Only time will tell.

Update: A friend passed on this clip from the Rob Bell Show, featured on the OWN website, which seems to indicate that, at least to a degree, Rob is not going to shy away completely from robust Christian themes.

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