Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Self-Help Faith

In one of my favorite Jay Leno Jaywalking sketches he asks random people if they can recite one of the Ten Commandments. A particularly popular answer seems to be, "God helps those who help themselves." In fact, according to pollster George Barna, 75% of Amercans (Canadians seem graciously exempted) believe the Bible teaches something like this.

Of course, that's nonsense. The Bible teaches that God helps those who can't help themselves. This is called "grace," and it is the scandal of Christianity. "God helps those who help themselves," on the other hand, is actually a bit of Greek self-help advice popularized by that agnostic saint, Benjamin Franklin.

Ironically, majoring in good advice about all sorts of problems and challenges on the path to success seems to be one of the most popular goals of Evangelicalism of late.

            You will see what I mean, I think, if you visit the Christian section of your local bookstore. A lot of it looks like the self-help section of the bookstore, baptized. If you go, you may find books like, Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week, by Joel Osteen: or God Wants You to Be Rich—The Christian Guide to Financial Freedom & Unlimited Health (12 Steps to Bring More Money Into Your Life While Still Serving the Lord), by Alex Landon; or perenial favorite, Nine Promises of a Promise Keeper, which explains how to be a real Christian man. Then there is The Dieter's Prayer Book: Spiritual Power and Daily Encouragement by Helen Kopp, for those of us who need a bit of spiritual rigor to loose some pounds; and my favorite--if a bit outdated example--Robert Schuller's The Be Happy Attitudes, which he is probably rereading himself now that he’s gone bankrupt and lost his Chrystal Cathedral.

            Do you get the picture from this tiny but typical sampling? Judging by such titles, evangelicals seem more concerned with what to do and how to do it to succeed than in what has been done--what we call the gospel.

The truth is, Christianity, and the Evangelical branch in particular, is in danger of trading the good news for a kind of works-righteous bondage to good advice. These books remind me of the kind of sermon that turns every Old Testament hero into an object lesson for how to live the Christian life--rather than a lesson in how God accomplishes his will no matter how crooked his humans on the ground are. This self-help spirituality, rooted in American pragmatism and a kind of "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" faith focuses on numbered lists of "to do's," on strategies, steps, bulleted principles, and programs. It cares more for how to get things done than on what has been done for us; focuses more on success than on sacrifice; more on the cash value of religion than on humble service that asks for nothing but opportunity to love God and neighbor.

In the end it is a matter of balance. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus died and rose for sinners. That’s all of us. The practical result of his sacrificial love should probably be that I try to pick up my own cross and follow him. I don’t doubt that along the way some of us might find worldly success carrying our crosses. But what Jesus really wants us to discover is the sort of divine gratitude that inspires us spend our lives loving God and neighbor.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Hate Religion but Love Jesus?

            If you are a Youtube or Facebook fan, you probably noticed Jefferson Bethke’s viral video, “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” In the video Bethke contrasts the true wine of Jesus with religion’s vinegar. So, for example, Bethke raps:

Now back to the point, one thing is vital to mention
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrum
See one’s the work of God, but one’s a man made invention
See one is the cure, but the other’s the infection
See because religion says do, Jesus says done
Religion says slave, Jesus says son
Religion puts you in bondage, while Jesus sets you free
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus makes you see

            Bethke isn’t the first person to say or sing this sort of song. Its most common—and more ecumenical—formulation goes something like this: “I’m spiritual, not religious.” The people who say this sort of thing have—as the Ecclesiastes 3:11 puts it—eternity set in their hearts—they’re spiritual. But they don’t have the church, or synods, or Christian or Jewish or Muslim institutions, or preachers or priests or tithing or Sunday School in their lives. You see, they’re not religious.

            Spiritual, but not religious. I think they mean something like they feel good about God but lousy about the church. They think God is in the business of loving them, and they’ll take that. But they think the church is full of hullaballoo and hucksterism, rules and regulations, sinners and hypocrites, and so they give it a wide berth.

            It will come as a surprise to no one that this sort of language irritates me. But that’s beside the point. However I feel, it is important for me to understand and empathize with this outlook because it is the void into which I preach. Spiritual but not religious is the Siren song that pulls at everyone in my congregation.

            So what to answer people when I hear this? Well, I’m not hip like Jefferson Bethke. But I think my analogy makes sense. Think infrastructure.

            Imagine the Town of Cobourg or Port Hope without infrastructure but lots of neighborliness. Imagine Northumberland County without roads or a power grid or sewers or schools, or bridges—but lots of civic mindedness. Imagine your home without a foundation or furnace or plumbing or natural gas, but lots of love. It wouldn’t work very well, would it? The truth is, we need infrastructure—good infrastructure built to last, dependable, and safe—if we’re going to have any neighbors at all, or a civic life, or a place where it is safe to bring up families in love. As much as we prioritize neighborliness, civic mindedness, and love—they need all kinds of infrastructure support if they’re going to flourish.

            At its best, that is exactly what religion is to spirituality. Religion is spirituality’s infrastructure. And as much as we don’t like to see sewers or be reminded that there is a power grid, we often don’t want to bother with religion either. The truth, however, is that we don’t have much choice. Spirituality needs religion—spirituality needs teachers to point a new generation to its ideals, spirituality needs buildings where communities can learn about and practice costly love, spirituality needs accountability so that it doesn’t drift off into Hallmark sentimentalism, and spirituality needs holy texts so that we don’t make it up as we go while ignoring the wisdom of the ages.

            Of course—infrastructure can crumble. Roads need rebuilding. Even the best new sewers eventually become old and need to be cleaned out of roots and obstructions. Nuclear plants need refitting. It takes wise citizens and good leaders to ensure that infrastructure is up to snuff and supports our flourishing. Similarly, not all religion is up to snuff. Religions need renewal and fixing and reorganization from time to time. They are not perfect, not by a long shot.

            But deep spirituality needs the best of religion. And at its best religion helps organize the spiritually minded to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.