Reclaimed Perspective: A Gospel of “Nice” and “Clean”

It just so happened that I ended up reading two very distinct and yet very parallel books at the same time last month. One was a library book that I just happened to pick up, and one was an audiobook that had been recommended to me. The parallel messages of two books created quite a firestorm in my head and my heart – so much so that they are still resonating in me!

One is The Hole in Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns (president of World Vision US).

Almost Christian

The other is Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean, written in response to a national survey done of the religious views held by youth in America. Have you read them? Let me whet your appetite a bit. The premise in Almost Christian is this:

“What if the blasé religiosity of most American teenagers is not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all? What if the church models a way of life that asks, not passionate surrender but ho-hum assent? What if we are preaching moral affirmation, a feel-better faith, and a hands-off God instead of the decisively involved, impossibly loving, radically sending God of Abraham and Mary, who desired us enough to enter creation in Jesus Christ and whose Spirit is active in the church and in the world today?” (12)

Owwwwwwch. Yes, I do believe you might be on to something here, Kenda! She goes on to describe “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which is how we could best describe the faith of most “Christian” teenagers (and maybe the faith of most Christian adults, too, for that matter!)

Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Looks nice, right? The problem is, this is nowhere close to the kind of Gospel that Jesus taught! Jesus taught this absolutely radical form of love that goes way beyond our human efforts. A love that sacrificially gives of ourselves because of His sacrificial gift to us.
In Matthew 5, He taught this: 
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers,i what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
Being a Christian isn’t just learning to be nice to each other. There is a purpose, a calling… we are to give ourselves away. As Kenda says, “Christ sends us into the world as he was sent: to embody God’s good news as we tell it, to enact the divine plan of salvation in word and deed.”
That’s just the tip of this iceberg – there’s lots more where this came from. But while I was hearing these convicting messages about how Christianity has become more about mental assent and moral formation – and much less about transformation, faith, and divine calling – I was also reading a much more widely-read, but no less convicting, book.
The Hole in Our GospelThe Hole in Our Gospel offers the answer to the faith gap presented in Almost Christian. Here it is. We have worked so hard to make sure we are on the moral straight path, that we are clean and holy and having our quiet times, that we have become oblivious to our sins of omission – the things that Jesus commands us TO DO, rather than the things he commands us NOT TO DO.
Would you believe that Peter Singer, the controversial professor of bioethics at Princeton University, is the author that Stearns uses to illustrate this point in his book? I wouldn’t! But it’s true. This is the story Stearns quotes on page 97:
The path from the library to my university to the Humanities lecture theater passes a shallow ornamental pond. Suppose that on my way to give a lecture I notice that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. Would anyone deny that I ought to wade in and pull the child out? This will mean getting my clothes muddy, and either canceling my lecture or delaying it until I can find something dry to change into; but compared with the avoidable death of a child this is insignificant. A plausible principle that would support the judgment that I ought to pull the child out is this: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. This principle seems uncontroversial.

Nevertheless, this principle is deceptive. If it were seriously acted upon, our lives and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle applies, not just to rare situations in which one can save a child from a pond, but to the everyday situation in which we can assist those living in absolute poverty. Not to help would be wrong, whether or not it is intrinsically equivalent to killing.

For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away… Unfortunately for those who like to keep their moral responsibilities limited, instance communication and swift transportation have changed the situation. From the moral point of view, the development of the world into a “global village” has made an important, though still unrecognized difference to our moral situation… There would seem, therefore, to be no possible justification for discrimination on geographic grounds.

This is a compelling moral argument – but when you add on the teachings from Isaiah, other prophets, the disciples, and Jesus about caring for widows, orphans, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the enslaved, etc. – it is more than compelling. It is downright convicting.

Stearns adds, “One of the sure signs that we have been co-opted by our culture is that, like frogs in the proverbial kettle, we have grown comfortable with things that should shock us and mobilize us to action. We no longer feel the heat of outrage against things that anger God. We have so embraced the American dream that we can no longer see or feel the world’s nightmare of poverty, suffering, and hopelessness.”

And it is a nightmare. Children and women walking back and forth to fetch water all day long – missing school and work just to collect a basic necessity. And then, becoming debilitatingly sick from the dirty water they had to work so hard to collect. Preventable diseases, like malaria, killing children. AIDS orphans. Child-headed households. Families in such poverty that they can barely afford to eat, let alone pay school fees for their children. Decades of war devastating whole countries. Slaves forced to endlessly make bricks or dig for worms, with no hope for rescue. Stolen property, virginity, children – and no justice anywhere.

I can’t imagine living without the hope of justice. I get angry when someone cuts in front of me or vandalizes public property. But I have access to lots of ways – family, friends, insurance, police, the Better Business Bureau, Amazon reviews, social media – to find justice.

Then Stearns says this: “So many people are crying out to God for His help. Might you be the answer to one of their prayers?”

And Martin Luther King, Jr., says this: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

And I can’t help it. I’m overwhelmed and broken by my plenty, by my distance from the world’s problems, and by my blindness to my calling to love those who are in prison, who are hungry, who are thirsty, who are sick, who are persecuted.

That’s it. No happy ending here, I am just pondering this hole in my heart, hoping that I never stop noticing it, and wondering what plans God has to fill it.

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