What's in it for me?

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Here is a great quote from Jack Good, in his book The Dishonest Church:

On one issue there is increasing agreement among those who treasure and study the New Testament: Jesus's teachings focused on this world. He spoke time after time about the Kingdom of God. The phrase suggests the way human life would be organized if God, not Caesar, were in charge.

The church has been especially dishonest on the subject of Jesus's focus on the present life. An uninformed visitor to most mainline services would be convinced that Jesus was concerned primarily about life after death. Such a visitor could easily conclude that the current life is only an obstacle course on the way to a blissful existence beyond the grave....

The modern church that makes the afterlife the near exclusive focus of religious attention is violating the most elementary of Jesus's commitments. Rather than expanding the horizons of people, it reinforces inwardness. Instead of challenging people to live as if God were in charge right now, the church offers its people an inexpensive ticket to the rule of God in an undefined afterlife. Instead of encouraging a broadened concern, the modern church allows people to remain in their consumer-oriented state: "What's in this for me"?
This captures in a nutshell what is so wrong with much of contemporary Christianity. This focus on me manifests itself in all sorts of ways within Christianity; the ultimate example of this kind of self-centered focus can be found in the churches where the so-called prosperity gospel is preached. But that is just a more extreme example of a problem that really, in my view, pervades the religion; the ultimate issue is that a kind of me-ism, one that perverted Jesus's outward focus on the Kingdom of God, has existed for a long time in Christian history.

Years ago, when I was living in Colorado Springs (a haven of fundamentalism), a pair of proselytizers once knocked on the front door of my apartment; their first question to me when I opened the door was whether I knew if I was going to heaven or not. If that's the first question they ask a potential convert, that tells you right off the bat what the focus of their religion is.

Me, me, me. What's in it for me?

It isn't just fundamentalism that is to blame here. This hollowing out of the core of Jesus's message in favor of easy platitudes goes back very early in the history of the faith. One need only look at the Apostle's creed to see what I am talking about. Here we have a statement, meant to be recited by believers, that claims to assert the essentials of the Christian religion. But what does it say--and what does it not say? It talks about the virgin birth, it talks about Jesus's execution, it talks about his resurrection. Not a single word about the life and teachings of Jesus during the 33 years that separated his birth and his crucification. Nothing that he did during his public ministry is considered important enough to make the cut in a statement that supposedly captures a fundamental creed of the faith of his followers!

The life and teachings of Jesus are thrown by the wayside. Instead of focusing on the Kingdom of God, we focus on how Jesus's resurrection earns us a ticket to a blissful life in another realm than the one we live in today. Sure, we have four Gospels that tell mythology-laden accounts of Jesus's life. But his life and teachings are always secondary in this scheme of things, always part of a grander scheme that is ultimately not about his teachings, but about me, and how I can get a ticket to the afterlife.

Last Sunday, Christians celebrated Easter. Christian services the world over proclaimed a hopeful message--"Christ is risen!", we are told. But what does that mean, really? Why the celebrating? Does it mean that Jesus was literally brought back to life as some sort of conquest over physical death that we all can partake of so that we can see our dead grandparents in heaven? Or does it mean that Jesus's ideas about the Kingdom of God outlasted his own death, that there is hope that all of us can work together towards building a better world, that he showed the way through humble self-sacrifice that the way to conquer the Kingdom of Caesar is not by emulating the ways of Caesar?

The best way we can honor Jesus's self-sacrifice on the cross is not by ignoring the life and teachings that brought him to that fateful end. And the way to do this, in my view, is to get back to the real essential task of building the Kingdom of God--in the here and now, as Jesus sought to do.

8 comments:

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

The statement by Good simply is incorrect. I don't think that most preachers week in and week out focus almost entirely on life after death. In fact, most Evangelical Churches -- including the prosperity preachers -- are talking mostly about how to live life now. Granted this focus is on the self or the family, but it's surely not about life after death. I would venture to guess that among many Mainline Protestant preachers, great attention is paid to the life of Jesus and the implications of his teachings for how we live. I hope that this is true of me. Again, I find the excerpts from Good's book simply not founded on reality. But thanks for raising the question about focus!!

Mystical Seeker said...

But how do you think many Christians would find value in their faith if there was no life after death? My guess is that huge numbers of them would say, "if that is true, so then, what's the point?" Take away life after death, and most Christians would say that their religion wouldn't make sense. This is the foundation of the faith for most Christians. Just because preachers may not talk about it week after week, the reality is, especially for fundamentalists and evangelicals, this is what it's ultimately all about--it is the foundation that underlies everything else. That's why a lot of Christians signed up for the program. That's why proselytizers come to your door and ask you first thing if you think you will go to heaven. That's why people talk about being "saved"--from what, if not from eternal damnation? Take it away, and they believe that their religion would have no meaning.

It is true, as you mention, that the prosperity gospel is focused on the here and now rather than an afterlife. To me, the prosperity gospel is an example of what can happen when you have a religion that is based on self-interest rather than the Kingdom of God.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Although the promise of "eternal life" is embedded in the Christian message, I don't know that it is the make or break doctrine of the church. At the same time, I don't really think that it gets in the way of a social justice emphasis. In fact, I think that by offering hope of eternal life it frees a person from a debilitating fear of death. Having embraced death, one is then able to focus on living life fully -- for others.

To some degree we're all concerned about the self. Indeed, Jesus did say, love your neighbor as you love yourself. The prosperity gospel turns this on its head and makes it an end in itself. But as Maslow's (I think it was his) hierarchy of needs suggests we must attend to our basic needs before we're able to help others.

That being said, if faith only focuses on the self then it becomes narcissistic and distorted!

Mystical Seeker said...

Perhaps your experience is different from my own, but my experience, particularly with evangelicals, is that the promise of eternal life is definitely the make or break doctrine for a vast number of Christians.

Perhaps I shouldn't have brought up the prosperity gospel in my posting, because it seems to be clouding the issue a bit. I was trying to bring that up as another example of what I see as self-centeredness in faith. I am aware that many people who believe in an afterlife are committed to social justice; but I ultimately think that far too often, this focus on the afterlife detracts from it. My experience with the proselytizers at the front door of my apartment illustrates a phenomenon that, in my view, is hugely prevalent in certain quarters of Christianity. Maybe your experience is different, but from what I have seen, for many Christians, being "saved" from eternal damnation is the be-all and end-all of their faith. It is their marketing tool, it is what makes their religion tick. I would frankly be surprised that you don't think this is common among Christians. Maybe it isn't so common among liberal Christians, but I think it is definitely prevalent among fundamentalists.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

"An uninformed visitor to most mainline services would be convinced that Jesus was concerned primarily about life after death. Such a visitor could easily conclude that the current life is only an obstacle course on the way to a blissful existence beyond the grave ..."

It's this quote that got my attention. It speaks of "most Mainline Churches." Mainline churches as I understand them are very different from the Fundamentalists you're talking about. I don't focus on life after death week in and week out, and few of my colleagues do either. This statement is purely nonsense. Yes, Fundamentalists knocking at your door probably do have this in mind, but they're not moderate to liberal Mainliners. And, although Evangelicals do talk a lot about salvation -- that's the definition of evangelical after all -- they seem to be into "practical Bible teaching" these days, which focuses less on the next life than good living in the current one. Now, this "practical bible teaching" does tend ignore Jesus' call to care for the neighbor, which is one reason why a majority of white evangelicals have jumped into bed with the Bush led GOP. But even here there is change. More and more younger Evangelicals are seeing that their faith calls them to engage in protecting the enviroment, ending the war(s), feeding the hungry, etc. So, no I don't buy the stereotype. From the quotes you've given from the book, I can't believe the author has had any encounters with Mainline churches recently.

Mystical Seeker said...

I would like to believe that what you say is true. But I do know, for example, that when I read a lot of online sermons from mainline services that treat the subject of the resurrection (which I often do as part of my research into churches to visit), it almost always seems to boil down to the notion that the presumed victory over death is the key point in their faith.

For example, a February 11 sermon from an Episcopal priest in Berkeley, which is posted online, says the following: Our Catechism tells us that, “the Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world.” The bedrock of this hope is the resurrection of Jesus, with all its implications for our own eternal salvation. (emphasis added).

I know someone who goes to that church, and she said that it is pretty liberal. And the Episcopal church is as mainline as it comes.

Or here is what the minister of a pretty liberal Presbyterian congregation in San Francisco said in a sermon on April 30 of last year:

But friends, if I thought that this whole religion business is just an affirmation of the human spirit, or of moral values, of Jesus as the great Example, then, like Pilate, I would wash my hands of it. I believe in the literal Resurrection of Jesus Christ, not just resuscitation of the human body, and probably not in flesh as we know it, but in a real spiritual body – mysterious to be sure, but real. Resurrection is what keeps me safe, forgiven, open, empowered, committed to life. The resurrection is the sureness of God still living among us. In Christ, God "pitched God’s tent among us"; God has dwelt with us where we are and as we are. In resurrection, that presence continues.

When I read comments like those in sermons, I am hearing things that are far removed from my own reasons for being interested in the Christian faith. Both of these mainline, liberal pastors, have made it clear that the resurrection, and the consequent victory over death that it entails, is the fundamental basis of their Christian faith (or the "bedrock", as the Episcopal priest put it). In my experience, this confirms what Jack Good has been writing about.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

But this is just my point -- If you look up Easter sermons online or look up Resurrection -- yes you're going to find just such statements. You'll find them in my sermons because I believe in life after death and that in the resurrection death's sting is overcome. But you need to look at the broader spectrum of sermons. Good's point is that every week nothing is said about anything except life after death and that's simply not so. If it were our congregants would fall asleep. I happen to follow the lectionary, which generally helps keep me free of hobby horses.

It would seem that Good wants churches to be something they're not and that is divorced from any historic statements of Christianity. But you won't find that, even among most liberal churches. But I don't think that we belabor the point.

I'd tell you to check out my sermon this week but I'm not preaching -- I'm singing "I Am the Resurrection."

Mystical Seeker said...

I don't think Good is saying that talk of life after death necessarily dominates the sermons week after week. I actually think this is missing the forest for the trees. It doesn't matter how frequently this message gets said--it only has to be said occasionally, even once a year at Easter--I don't care how often it gets said. The point is that this doctrine of life after death is being touted as the fundamental undercurrent, or "bedrock", of the faith. A visitor need only be told this once to get the point--that Christianity is fundamentally, first and foremost, about life after death. The Episcopal priest who I quoted couldn't have been more explicit about this, especially when she said "with all its implications for our own salvation."

And although Good didn't mention the Apostle's Creed, I mentioned it myself because it represents another fundamental failure, in my view, of historic Christianity, which has focused on the mythological aspects of Jesus's birth, death and resurrection, without mentioning a single word about his teachings or life. This in my view highlights the fact that this focus on life after death and atonement and other post-Easter theological developments has come at the expense of Jesus's teachings and life.

Any preacher who tells me that the resurrection and the promise of an afterlife is the bedrock of their faith has lost me as a potential visitor. I happen to think that the bedrock of Jesus's religious message was not life after death, but about building the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Certainly it is the bedrock of my own faith.

I would suggest that three small quotes that I have provided from the book do not give a complete picture of his message. Obviously the quotes I have offered don't sit well with you, but he also has a lot to say in his book about the Bible, about God, revelation, and the way that people relate to a chaotic and complicated world. The book isn't just full of condemnation about existing clergy practices. In any case, I don't think that anything he has written in his book conflicts with anything that many other progressive theologians have been saying. The book was published by the Center for Progressive Christianity, and, if quotes on the back cover mean anything, it has the blessing of Jim Burklo. Frankly, Good has given me hope with his book; he has shown me that there are others who feel as I do out there in the Christian world, and thus I don't feel so much like a loner in the wilderness.