The Gospels and the Historical Jesus

New Testament scholar Larry W. Hurtado offers some thoughts for why he believes the Gospels are reliable as a historical testimony to the life of Jesus Christ.  While some scholars try to undermine the authority of the Scriptures for establishing who Jesus is, and prefer to rely on Second Century gnostic documents to form their ideas of Jesus, Hurtado feels there is good reason to read the canonical Gospels as the most reliable witness to what Jesus did and what He taught.

“The narratives are also studded with individuals given specific identities. There are named figures such as Jesus’ twelve disciples and Jairus, Lazarus, Bartimaeus, Nicodemus, Barabbas, Caiaphas, and Pontius Pilate. But even un-named figures are identified specifically and memorably, such as the woman with the blood flow, the clever Syrophoenician woman with a daughter in need, the Gerasene man with a legion of demons, the woman who was ‘forgiven much’ and lavished her gratitude upon Jesus in a dining scene, the man with a demoniac son who confessed belief and his need of help in believing, and the scribe who was ‘not far from the kingdom.’ In short, this all amounts to a shared programmatic effort to locate Jesus in a specific historical, geographical, and cultural setting. It represents an insistence that the Jesus whom the writers and intended readers of these Gospels reverenced (who include Gentile and Jewish believers in various locations in the Roman world), and were to see as linked with God’s purposes in a unique way, is quite definitely Jesus of Nazareth. He is not some timeless symbol, not a mythical figure of ‘once upon a time,’ but instead very specifically a Jew whose life and activities are geographically and chronologically located in a particular place and period of Jewish history in Roman Judea.[…] He is not simply a powerful wonder-worker, an impressive teacher and debater, and/or a heroic leader of his followers; he is the special vehicle of the purposes of God, which involve (ultimately) the transformation of the world, the judgment of evil, and the vindication of those who ally themselves with God’s purposes.”   (Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, pp  266 + 269)

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A Recent History of American Heresy (PDF)

Bad ReligionI recently wrote a blog series based on the book BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS   by Ross Douthat.  The first blog in that series is is A Recent History of American Heresy.    That series is now available as one document at  A Recent History of American Heresy (PDF).

You can find links to all my blog series which have been converted into PDFs at  Blog Series PDFs.

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Narcissism and the God Within

Bad ReligionThis is the fifth and final blog in this series considering the book BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS   by Ross Douthat.  The first blog is A Recent History of American Heresy.  The previous blog is The Heresy of God and Mammon.

In his book, Ross Douthat examines in great detail a number of ideas that have become broadly accepted in American Christianity, whether liberal or conservative.  He examined two tendencies in American religious thinking – Messianism and apocalyptism – and how they have become part of both the political left and right in America, switching back and forth depending on which political party is in power.   Thus politics and religious thinking have become enmeshed in odd ways in the daily life of Americans.

This has happened simultaneously with other developments in religious thinking in America including an intellectual search for a Jesus other than the one traditionally taught by Christianity – a Jesus more to the liking of some scholars as well as a number of Jesuses all created to satisfy the ideas held by various individuals.  He also presents the role that money, Mammon, has come to play in American religion, and how it becomes a competing god from whom we hope to received constant blessings of prosperity even if we do lose our souls.   One of the noted developments in this way is what Douthat calls the theology of the God Within.   Former Harvard Professor Harvey Cox said in the age just prior to this new theology:

“Religious man was born to be saved, but ‘psychological man is born to be pleased.’”  (p 231)

Religion ceases to be the way in which we learn to please the Lord God, and instead becomes something that pleases “Me”.   The religion focused on the self makes “Me” to be the real god whom I serve.   The new heresy involves the complete acceptance of individualism with post-modern rejection of any narrative which can guide or unite all human beings.  It is a completely consumerist theology – religion is there to please me, and I will shop for and shape religion until it does.

“But at the deepest level, the theology of the God Within ministers to a different set of spiritual needs, and tries to resolve a different set of contradictions, than the marriage of God and Mammon.  Whereas the prosperity gospel suggest that material abundance is the main sign of God’s activity in this world, the apostles of the God Within focus on internal harmony—mental, psychological, spiritual – as the chief evidence of things unseen.  Whereas the prosperity gospel talks about prayer primarily in terms of supplication, the theology of the God Within talks about it primarily in terms of meditation and communion.  And while the prosperity gospel insists that evil and suffering can be mastered by prayer, the God Within theology suggest that true spiritual enlightenment will expose both as illusions.  The prosperity gospel is a theology of striving and reaching demanding; the gospel of the God Within is a theology of letting go.  The prosperity gospel makes the divine sound like your broker; the theology of the God Within makes him sound like your shrink.”  (p 217)

Sociological studies of young people reveal the following about what young people shaped by the God Within Theology believe.   They have labeled these beliefs as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. . . . the God of MTD ‘is not demanding,’ the authors note.  ‘He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. . . . Niceness is the highest ethical standard, popularity the most important goal, and high self-esteem the surest sign of sanctity.” (p 233)    This new “creed” of the youth of America has five main tenets:

“1. ‘A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human 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 does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.’  5. ‘Good people go to heaven when they die.’”      (p 233)

Additionally, the religious trend has been accompanied by a growing self-absorption and self-centeredness.  The extreme individualism already present in American culture finds a powerful expression in religion which focuses on the needs and desires of the individual.  (See also my blogs Designer Religion and Which Christ Do We Believe In?)

“This growing narcissism has been a spur to excess on an epic scale.  The narcissist may find it easy to say no to others, but he’s much less likely to say no to himself—and nothing defines the last decade of American life more than our inability to master our own impulses and desires.  A nation of narcissists turns out to be a nation of gamblers and speculators, gluttons and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough.” (p 235)

And as studies continue to show the increasing levels of narcissism in American youth, other virtues disappear.

“’We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,’ one of the University of Michigan researchers noted—which is to say, just as My Space and then Facebook came online.”  (p 236)

As Douthat reports American Christian youth come to look more and more like a product of American culture.  In Genesis humans are created in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, in the American idea god and humanity become shaped in the image and likeness of “Me”.   This is of course the heretical element he is concerned with – a watering down of traditional Christianity to better suit the times and values of 21st Century Americans – individualist, consumerist, prosperous and narcissist.

Dothat also sees this abandoning of traditional Christian teachings as also opening the door to a merger between some Christians, Mormons and conservative politicians.  He particularly cites how Glenn Beck, a Mormon, has worked hard to make this merger work for his own political agenda by downplaying theological differences and making political convictions the priority in the spiritual realm.  Mormonism is a religion invented in America that resonates well with the ethical values that Americans frequently approve.

“To the extent that the chasm between Evangelicals and Mormons can be bridged, the heresy of God and country is the obvious place to fling out a rope bridge.  This is exactly what Beck did during his Fox News run.  From his boosterism for The 5,000 Year Leap to the blend of civic religion and nondenominational Christianity on display at the Lincoln Memorial, the entire Beck project represented a subtle invitation to Evangelicals to get over their anxieties about Mormonism by finding common ground with the Latter-day Saints in a shared appreciation of the Father, Son and the Holy Constitution.”  (p 263)

Dems-GOPDouthat is not opposed to conservative values or success. Just the opposite – he favors a more traditional Christianity in America influencing American politics.  His concern is that the religious trends in America continue to cast aside traditional Christian values and beliefs in order to create a more convenient marriage between “religious” Americans and conservative politics.  Douthat identifies himself with conservative thinking and politics and is recognized as a conservative by others.  He also is clear that there is a difference between American political conservatism and traditional Christianity.

“The future of American religion depends on believers who can demonstrate, in word and deed alike, that the possibilities of the Christian life are not exhausted by TV preachers and self-help gurus, utopians, and demagogues.  It depends on public examples of holiness, and public demonstrations of what the imitation of Christ can mean for a fallen world.  . . . Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.”  (p 292)

Christianity in America has the difficult task of having to resist allowing the media to shape what it is and what it should be while at the same time witnessing to what the essential core meaning of  who Jesus Christ is.    God became flesh.  God became human in Jesus Christ in order to make humanity all that God intends for humans to be.  We are to share in the the divine love and life of the Holy Trinity.  The media images of Christ and Christianity are all reductions of the truth, and thus are all heresies.  Humans are created in the image and likeness of God, and Jesus Christ fully reveals what that means and how we can conform to that image.  The hope for Christianity is not to try to conform to whatever image of religion the mass media thinks is most attractive, but for us Christians each individually and collectively as the Body of Christ to be the icon of Christ for the world.

An example of the difference between religion as God portrays it and religion as the media wants it to be is found in 1 Kings 19:11-13 where the Holy Prophet Elijah encounters God.  The media would certainly want the encounter to be in all the hype, in the spectacular, in the bizarre, in the superstar, in the mighty forces of nature.  God however reveals Himself in the still, small voice, something the media would ignore because it could not be portrayed in some attention grabbing way.

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

When we only read or pay attention to those parts of the Scripture with which we agree or which we like, we listen to ourselves not to God.  It is how we depart from Christ and embrace heresy.

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Miracles: A Sign of the Lack of Faith

The miracle stories of Jesus Christ have been very popular with Christians throughout history.  One need only note the frequency of their occurrence in the Orthodox Church Sunday lectionary – there is a preponderance of miracle Gospel lessons over the teachings of Christ.   In the twelve Gospel lessons from the Matthew cycle of Sunday readings in 2014 only one lesson is from the Sermon on the Mount while eight of the lessons are miracles of one sort or another.  And this repeats year after year, so those who attend church only or mostly on Sundays hear just a tiny portion of the Gospel proclaimed in community and what they hear is mostly miracle stories.    Sometimes when a miracle story is reported with slight differences between the four Gospel writers, two versions of the same miracle end up being read  on Sundays during the course of the year (the Gaderene swine for example is read in both the Matthew and Luke cycle).  Some people are attracted to the miracles of Christ more than to His ethical teachings especially since they may not have an interest in submitting their lives to His Lordship but want the power of miracles anyway.  Some seek miracles (magic?) in their own daily lives through Christ, the Holy Spirit, the saints, miracle workers, relics or whatever can bring such mystical power into their lives..   For these folk miracles are the most important aspect of faith, but it has been pointed out that the focus on miracles in one’s daily life may be a sign of spiritual immaturity or even a lack of real faith in God.  In recent times, Fr. Theodore G. Stylianopoulos comments:

“It is noteworthy, however, that in Samaria, where his preaching was fully successful Jesus did not perform any miracles, perhaps suggesting that true faith does not need miracles. More or less the same idea is expressed by Jesus’ second miracle in Galilee, the healing of the official’s son. ‘Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will by no mean believe.’ ”   (Sacred Text and Interpretation, p 119)

Christ proclaims the Kingdom of God in Samaria and people respond to the Gospel in faith even though He performs no miracles.  In Galilee Christ warns that the seeking of miracles may in fact prevent people from truly believing.    Faith is a relationship with God.  Are we seeking only the gifts or do we seek the Giver?   The pursuit of miracles may be because we don’t really want a relationship with God who may then put demands on us and on our lives.  St. John Chrysostom points out that though St. Paul  had the power to perform miracles, he rarely used that gift and prefered to convince people about the truth of Jesus Christ by arguments from scripture.  Thus for St. Paul, people coming to believe in Christ without experiencing any miracles was preferred evangelism rather than impressing people with miracles.

Chrysostom fears that if people turned to the gospel out of awe at seeing thaumaturgic acts, then faith would be rendered inconsequential.   …The apostle always could perform miracles, but only chose to do so in cases of serious need.  This Paul is the ultimate ascetic who includes in his renunciatory portfolio his miraculous abilities, which he forgoes for the sake of the greater good, the salvation of the whole world.  And the achievement he gains from this strategic choice – convincing people to believe in the gospel from arguments rather than signs – is, paradoxically, the greatest sign of all.   

       ‘You see how again (Acts 28:23) he close their mouths, not with signs, but with appeals to the Law and Prophets, and everywhere he does this—although he could have done signs, as well, but finally it would not be a matter of faith.  For this is the great sign: to persuade people from the Law and the Prophets.’ ”    (Margaret Mitchell, THE HEAVENLY TRUMPET: JOHN CHRYSOSTOM AND THE ART OF PAULINE INTERPRETATION, p 293-294)

St. John Chrysostom writes that for Christians acts of charity are superior to miracles for Christ commanded us love others but didn’t order us to do miracles:

St. John Chrysostom

“If there is no love, other blessings profit us nothing.  Love is the mark of the Lord’s disciples, it stamps the servants of God, by it we recognize his apostles.  Christ said:  ‘This is how all will know you for my disciples.’  By what?  Tell me.  Was it by raising the dead or by cleansing lepers or by driving out demons?  No.  Christ passed over all these signs and wonders when he said:  ‘This is how all will know you for my disciples:  your love for one another.’  This gift of love must also be achieved through man’s own earnestness and zeal.  Christ said, that His disciples are recognized not by miracles but by love.”  (St John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church:  On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pgs 52-53)

So the issue may be exactly what people are seeking in their lives:  to become disciples of Christ (which is what Christ wanted and what the apostles worked for) or to experience miracles (which is often what people prefer: contact with ‘magic powers’).   While some seek miracles in their lives, what the New Testament authors thought was more important is that we witness to our faith in Christ by our behavior so that others recognize us as disciples of Christ by the way we love one another.  People will know we are Christ’s disciples not by our performing miracles but by the way we love one another.  But even beyond that, Christ warned that being able to perform miracles is in fact no sign that you are a disciple of His.

“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'”   (Matthew 7:21-23)

So you can even do miracles and Christ can declare you to be not His disciple but rather an evildoer!   That is something for miracle lovers to think about.  Miracles may not even be a sign of the kingdom.  Christ says more important is that we love one another as he taught us so that others can see we are disciples of His.  Being His disciple, loving as He taught us to love, is more important than performing miracles or having miracles in our lives.   Being around others who have miracles in their lives may not be putting ourselves in relationship to Christ and his disciples.  This will seem counterintuitive to some, but it is a clear teaching of the New Testament and of Christianity.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann offers us insight into how to understand these truths, and to seek Christ instead of just seeking miracles from Him or His saints.

“Indeed, something strange happens here with religion: instead of help, we are given the cross, instead of promises of comfort and well-being, we hear the certainty: ‘They persecuted me, they will persecute you.’  And when we hear the Gospel about the Pharisees who derided the crucified Christ – ‘He saved others, he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel; let him come down now from the cross and we will believe in him’ (Mt 27:42) – are we not immediately reminded of the derision and accusations that are heard today: ‘So, wasn’t your God able to help you?’    And indeed, as long as we expect from God only this type of help, only miracles that would eliminate the sufferings from our life, then these accusations will continue.  And they will continue because any cheap pill is certainly better able to relieve a headache than prayer and religion.  And we will never understand the mystery of the Cross as long as we expect this type of pill from religion–  be it for something trivial or important.  As long as this is the case, regardless of all the gold or silver with which it is covered, the Cross remains what the Apostle Paul said at the dawn of Christianity: ‘a scandal for the Jews, and folly for the Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:23).  In our given situation the ‘Jews’ represent those who seek only help from religion, while the ‘Gentiles’ are those who seek clever and easy explanations.  And in this case the Cross is truly a scandal and folly.”  (Alexander Schmemann, O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING? , pp 49-50)

See also my blogs:  Miracles: Signs and Portents, Not Magic, What is a Miracle?, and  Charity is Greater than Miracles

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The Heresy of God and Mammon

This is the 4th blog in this series considering the book BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS   by Ross Douthat.  The first blog is A Recent History of American Heresy.  The previous blog is Some More American Heresies.

Perhaps the most obvious arena in which American Christians have had a different attitude than Christians historically have had is in relation to wealth.  Christ, the itinerant preacher, Himself lived a rather impoverished life and never pursued wealth.  He taught that one cannot serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:19-34; Luke 16:13-31).   The New Testament has several warnings and woes for those who are rich or who pursue wealth (for examples, see Luke 6:20-25; 1 Timothy 6:9-10; James 1:10-11).   And the Epistle of James portrays the rich as those who persecute the Christians and who face a wrathful judgment from God (James 2:6-7; 5:1-6).

Parable of the rich man and Lazarus

Some may argue that the New Testament’s negative attitude toward wealth may have something to do with how unevenly it was distributed in the ancient world and how those with wealth may have persecuted the Christians.  America, on the other hand, they might argue, has been committed to a broader distribution of wealth (even if it only trickles down!).  America has economically grown because of its banking policies including its lending policies and has created a middle class who share in the benefits of the country’s wealth.  As a nation America has none of the reservations about wealth that we find in the authors of the New Testament.

Douthat in his book describes one of the most prominent heresies active in American religion today as the “prosperity Gospel”,  the theology of “God and Mammon”  which says you don’t have to choose between the two masters, but can in fact serve them both (or perhaps in American thinking, make them both serve you!).  America has embraced completely prosperity as a sign of God’s blessings and has ignored almost completely sins and temptations that the Bible associates with wealth including greed and idolatry (Colossians 3:5) and that prosperity (Mammon) is competing with God for out loyalty.

“The prosperity gospel … is a message that’s tailored less to the very rich than to the middle and working classes—to people who are hardworking but financially insecure, who feel that they have to think about money all the time because they’re trying to make more of it, and who want to be reassured that their striving is in accordance with God’s plan rather than a threat to their salvation.  … is just as likely to involve ministers who prosper by flattering their upwardly mobile, American Dreaming congregations, telling them to keep on striving and praying, because God wants them to keep up with the Joneses next door.”   (p 190)

While indeed wealth can be a blessing, it can also be a temptation, and it is possible for a man to lose his soul and gain the world (Luke 9:23-27; Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 8:34-38).  Wealth comes for Christians with both spiritual risk and responsibility.  The American Christian embrace of wealth is often completely uncritical and seems to assume wealth can only be a good.   Americans can be very thankful for their prosperity, but when wealth is governed by selfish, self-centered behavior it becomes wanton and destructive.

“This is where the union of God and Mammon goes astray, ultimately: it succumbs to a naiveté about how riches are often accumulated and about the dark pull that money can exert over the human heart.  And its sunny boosterism leads believers into temptation, equipping them for success without preparing them for setbacks—which in turn makes failure all the more devastating when it finally, inevitably arrives.”  (p 207)

judas betrays Christ

Whereas in early Christianity, greed was one of the seven deadly sins, in America greed is often glossed over or given more euphemistic titles of blessings, prosperity and wealth.  Greed was seen as a deadly passion in Orthodox writings, but it becomes fashionable and desirable in American spiritual parlance.  For Americans there seems to be little sense that enough is enough.  And certainly wealth does not automatically produce virtue in anybody.  Rather, wealth is no cure for greed,  and can lead to jealousy, fear, hyper-vigilance and making self-preservation at all costs to be the greatest virtue.  In Orthodox Holy Week hymns it is the betrayer Judas Iscariot who is said to be a lover of money.  He is the poster child for the notion that you cannot serve God and Mammon.

Douthat also sees the embrace of wealth by Christians to have another temptation:  the idea that wealth can solve all the world’s problems.  This he suspects is what happens to liberal Christianity’s embrace of taxes and big government:  money leads to utopian ideals.

“But like many forms of liberal Christianity, the marriage of God and Mammon half-expects somehow to undo the Fall, through the beneficence of Providence and the magic of the free market.  In its emphasis on the virtues of prosperity, it risks losing something essential to Christianity—skipping on to Easter, you might say, without lingering at the foot of the cross. . . .  Christianity risks becoming an appendage to Americanism—a useful metaphysical thread for a capitalist society’s social fabric, but a faith that’s bound, perhaps fatally to the rise and fall of the gross domestic product.”  (p 205)

Wealth does come with some blessings.  Christians welcomed the blessings as they turned to building churches and engaging in mission and ministry throughout the world.  Douthat’s concern is that prosperity can blind us to its temptations and even to understanding what is important, for fund raising can become a goal in itself by which we measure the success of the Church.  Yet Christ never established fund raising as a measure of Christian success.

“[The prosperity Gospel] is particularly well suited to successful church-building, where it translated into what the sociologist Michael Hamilton has memorably described as a theology of ‘more money, more ministry.’  … but from post-World War II era onward…. a more entrepreneurial approach.  As Hamilton writes, ‘leaders of evangelical organizations scrambled to lay claim to as much of the new American wealth as they could’ – not for their own enrichment (or not always), but for the sake of spreading the Gospel.”    (p 197)

The Church  thus becomes more and more shaped by the methods, structures and models of American business, and becomes measured by those same standards as well.  Success becomes numbers and especially financial success becomes the sole measure of whether God is blessing something.

“The one who pursues money will be led astray by it.”  (Sirach 31:5)

There is much wisdom in the adage that says, “Money is a good servant but a bad master.”   I interpret Douthat to be wondering aloud whether money is the servant or has become the master in much of American religion especially in those involved in the media market.

Douthat expresses another concern:

“… the marriage of god and Mammon is nothing more than Social Darwinism with a religious face.”  (p 203)

Survival of the fittest in the religious world: those survive that have or can obtain money.  ‘Thems that have, get more.’   ‘The oppressed are also to blame for their own condition.’   But in that formula, where is Christ the impoverished preacher of Galilee and where is the Gospel which calls us to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ?

Then Jesus said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”

 

They answered, “The emperor’s.”

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”   (Mark 12:16-17)

Next:   Narcissism and the God Within

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Some More American Heresies

This is the third blog in this series considering the book BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS   by Ross Douthat.  The first blog is A Recent History of American Heresy.  The previous blog is Some American Heresies.

Faced with rapidly changing political, moral and religious values in the last half of the 20th Century, some American Christian leaders tried an accommodation to the emerging culture to help make the church seem relevant to the times, while others tried to resist what was becoming the new norm in American religious thinking.  But for Ross Duthat both efforts to deal with declining church numbers and a changing culture in the 1960s and ‘70s failed to see that unbelief was not the greatest threat to Christianity, but rather that all forms of Christianity were embracing heretical ideas thus distorting Christianity by conforming it to American values rather than trying to be the salt of the earth and a light to the nation.   A blurring between church and state occurred for some American Christians as they endeavored to defend a notion that this is a Christian nation.  Conservative Christians embraced conservative politicians, and the conservative politicians looking for votes welcomed these Christians into their ranks.  The benefit for the Church, Douthat points out, was not that clear cut as is obvious during the presidency of George W. Bush:

“Having a conservative Evangelical in the White House, it turned out, didn’t necessarily make it easier for conservative Christians to win converts or to gain ground in moral and cultural debates.  Indeed, in certain ways it seemed to make it harder.  The president’s very public piety made it easy for his detractors to lay the blame for the administration’s policy failures at the door of Evangelical Christianity itself, so that the more things soured for the Bush administration, the more they soured for Evangelicals as well.  And the extent to which Bush’s religious style ultimately polarized the country rather than uniting it hinted at deeper problems facing the Evangelical community—problems that limited their ability to fill the space that the Mainline had once occupied and that placed sharp constraints on their influence and growth.”  (pp 136-137)

And as the image of the conservative church became tainted, conservative Christians further embraced American methods and values to try to correct the church and lead the nation.  The media driven culture favors extroverted expressives as far more attractive for the “news.”  Controversy of any kind attracts viewers and so controversy and frenzy is favored over substance.  So Douthat comments:

“Worse, no sooner had Barack Obama succeeded Bush in the White House than there was an immediate search for the next political hero or heroine, the next godly Evangelical come to save the republic from itself.  Many of the candidates for this role (including Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry) embodied Evangelical politics at its worst: the tendency toward purely sectarian appeals, the reliance on the language of outrage and resentment, the conflation of partisanship with Christian principle and the confusion of the American political system with the Church itself.”  (p 141)

palinAn over emphasis on seeing America as a Christian nation caused some to distort exactly what the Church is and is supposed to be.  Media hype begins to determine who rises to leadership and even what the nature of leadership ought to be.  A ‘superstar’ model of politician and televangelist emerges – not in the image of Jesus Christ but in the image of who are the most attractive kinds of people for the attention seekingAmerican media.  It all creates a christianity  without humility which truly can carry the label: Made in America!

And while the American church  and American Christians conformed themselves to the growing political partisanship, they failed to see that the interests of the Church were distinct from the interests of political parties, or that Christ had very ambivalent attitudes towards political power as seen in His proclaiming a kingdom not of this world.   The Gospels in fact portray the power of the kingdoms of this world as really becoming to the Evil One (Luke 4:5).  Satan made no exception for America in that claim.  Regardless, many Christian began to feel the only real power of the Church is political power, a problem Christians in the 4th Century were not prepared to deal with when Constantine embraced Christianity.   Byzantine emperors boasted that their armies could defeat Satan!  And while many Americans would laugh at such a preposterous idea, American presidents also proclaimed that they could defeat evil.  Distinctions between church and state, human hubris and godliness, or folly and evil all become blurred so that some imagine the state is doing what the church is supposed to do.   They embrace the state as doing God’s will until they realize the state is also approving things the Church cannot.  So as Douthat described it the political party in power has messianic delusions while the party out of power is proclaiming the apocalyptic end of the nation.  And, it doesn’t matter which party is in and which is out for they easily change these ‘religious’ roles.

Meanwhile outside of American Christianity’s enmeshment with America’s political divide, other streams of thought within the theological world were also at work in the Church in America.  A number of Christian scholars basically abandoned the Christian faith in favor of some supposedly neutral scholar position from which they could critique the Christianity.   They rejected the “Jesus of faith” and pursued a search for a “historical Jesus.”    This was a Jesus based in pure rationalism, who turned out to look a lot like 20th Century materialists might create Him.   They made Jesus in their own image and sold the idea to America through books and movies.  They endeavored to abandon anything that seemed in their minds mystical or theological and replace it with a more human and rational Jesus.

“Understandably, few of the thinkers invested in the quest for a ‘real Jesus’ want to admit that their journey backward through the Christian past dead-ends somewhere in the early second century, generations shy of Nazareth and Calvary.  But this refusal has led the whole project inexorably downward—from scholarship into speculation, and rom history into conspiracy theory.”   (pp 170-171)

Despite claiming to be in search of the ‘historical Jesus’, these scholars have to ignore the historical fact that their Jesus was an invention of a later century than the one portrayed in the Gospels.  This historical Jesus may have been more palatable to these scholars stripped of faith, but the Jesus they created was not the Christ proclaimed in the First Century and which Tradition had faithfully preserved and handed down through the centuries.  Nevertheless many American Christians were eager to abandon Tradition which faithfully preserved the earliest images of Christ in order to embrace a Jesus they were inventing and investing with ideas of their own.

Next:  The Heresy of God and Mammon

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Love: The Supreme Virtue

“Paul sees in love (agape) the supreme virtue (1 Cor. 13:4). Its perfection, Peter says, covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Love manifests the likeness of children of God to their heavenly Father. They love their enemies and are quickly reconciled with their adversaries. Nothing can separate them from the love of God which is shown in Christ their Savior (Matt. 5:24, 44; Rom. 8:38). The love of God consists in keeping his commandments, not in some vague emotion (1 John 4:7). The Lord himself summarized the commandments in the love of God and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40). The ancient law preceded this charity and orientated humanity toward patience and generosity. It leads one to return the stray animal to its rightful owner, requiring that one assume care of it until the owner can again take possession of it. The law imposes respect for the rights of strangers, Egyptians, and prisoners, and demands one to give alms to the poor (Duet. 23:7; 20:10). In all this, the goodness and love of God are evident.”

(Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Antiquity, p 123)

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