If you haven’t heard, the Rev. Rob Bell has a dire warning for the church in America.
It was against the backdrop of Ash Wednesday, in the still-numb reality of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians being martyred for their faith by monstrous Islamic terrorists that I first read about Bell’s pronouncement.
The Church was irrelevant. Christianity itself was becoming more irrelevant with every passing day that it did not embrace same-sex “marriage”.
More irrelevant. This supposedly Christian pastor told Oprah that it was only a matter of time, and he expected the Church to get over itself very soon or perish. He said that since that was the direction society was heading, it’s the direction Christianity needs to be heading as well. Otherwise, the faith founded upon the Eternal God and his Incarnate Son will simply disappear and be left behind.
“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense…”
Alrighty, then. According to Bell, the inspired, holy Word of God is merely a collection of 2,000 year old letters which are no longer relevant to our modern culture. God is past His expiration date.
Bell’s disdain for the authority of Christ, for Sacred Scripture, and for the purpose and nature of marriage is all too clear, and I know I won’t persuade him otherwise today. But this characterization of the Church as an irrelevant body that is essentially prejudiced, woefully out of touch, and dying on the vine is just feeble, smarmy perfidy.
Bell is a little boy sitting at the table with his Play-doh. But rather than making planes or buildings or weird animals, he’s squishing together beliefs and opinions and preferences to form his own religion. He is the latest architect of Play-doh Christianity: those heretics who prefer a religion, fashioned by an ever-changing culture, in which the only true doctrine is there is no sin.
Since there is no sin, there’s no need for a Cross. No need for a Christ. No need to mention repentance at all. (Except to demand repentance of the sin of intolerance of all the culture says is good and necessary.)
Play-doh Christianity says that since God is love, then He happily allows whatever His children decide will make them happy, and bows to their conclusions about what is right and wrong. He serves at the pleasure of His children, from age to changing age. He bends with the times — or rather, they mold Him to the times and He cooperates — pliable, good-natured deity that He is.
Bell can have his happy-clappy, navel-centered religion and his wimpy god. He just can’t call it Christianity, and he can’t claim it’s the Church.
If Bell’s Play-doh creation was a jarring contrast to the profoundness of Ash Wednesday and those heroic men who clung to Christ when death was at their throats, it seems mild compared to the formless mound of doh being sculpted by the next “Reverend”.
Let me introduce you to John Schuck. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and considers himself a Christian, despite the fact that he doesn’t believe in God.
He believes that Christianity is merely a human construct, like all religions; that Jesus Christ may have been a historical figure, but is mostly legend; the Bible is a human product and not the Divinely-inspired Word of God. In short, he says, he “regards the symbols of Christianity from a non-supernatural point of view.”
And by the way, he doesn’t appreciate being told he’s not really a Christian.
“Why is that so many people think my affirmations are antithetical to Christianity? I think it is because Christianity has placed all of its eggs in the belief basket. We all have been trained to think that Christianity is about believing things. Its symbols and artifacts (God, Bible, Jesus, Heaven, etc) must be accepted in a certain way. And when times change and these beliefs are no longer credible, the choices we are left with are either rejection or fundamentalism.”
(Again, God serves at the pleasure of the people and their changing times. Otherwise, how could he be credible?)
“I think of Christianity as a culture. It has produced 2,000 years of artifacts: literature, music, art, ethics, architecture, and (yes) beliefs. But cultures evolve and Christianity will have to adapt in order to survive in the modern era…”
(Mr. Shuck, ours is not the first era Christianity has “survived” and it will not be the last unless Jesus returns.)
“I believe one of the newer religious paths could be a “belief-less” Christianity. In this “sect,” one is not required to believe things. One learns and draws upon practices and products of our cultural tradition to create meaning in the present. The last two congregations I have served have huge commitments to equality for LGTBQ people and eco-justice, among other things. They draw from the well of our Christian cultural tradition (and other religious traditions) for encouragement in these efforts. I think a belief-less Christianity can be a positive good for society.
“Belief-less Christianity is thriving right now, even as other forms of the faith are falling away rapidly. Many liberal or progressive Christians have already let go or de-emphasized belief in Heaven, that the Bible is literally true, that Jesus is supernatural, and that Christianity is the only way. Yet they still practice what they call Christianity. Instead of traditional beliefs, they emphasize social justice, personal integrity and resilience, and building community. The cultural artifacts serve as resources.
“But what about belief in God? Can a belief-less Christianity really survive if God isn’t in the picture? Can you even call that Christianity anymore? In theory, yes. In practice, it is a challenge because “belief in God” seems to be so intractable. However, once people start questioning it and realize that they’re not alone, it becomes much more commonplace.”
“Since posting my article — and in response to my ministry in general — many have opened up to me that they didn’t believe in God but they liked coming to my church. One young woman, after going through my confirmation class, joined the church. She read her faith statement in front of the congregation. It was a powerful articulation of her social justice commitments in which she added that she didn’t believe in God. The congregation enthusiastically welcomed her, of course.”
“Someone quipped that my congregation is BYOG: Bring Your Own God. I use that and invite people to “bring their own God” — or none at all. While the symbol “God” is part of our cultural tradition, you can take it or leave it or redefine it to your liking. That permission to be theological do-it-yourselfers is at the heart of belief-less Christianity.”
When you get past the dopeyness of it, you recognize the melody. Same old song been sung since forever. “I shall not serve.”
Shuck’s Play-doh design goes way beyond Bell’s. Shuck has squished God out altogether. He simply clings to the name “Christian” for, what reason? Artifacts and resources?
It is Lent. The season set aside for reflection and contemplation of all that Jesus Christ suffered for our sakes. The season given to us as a time for purging and cleansing our lives of sin and obstacles to faith. The time when we are asked to follow Christ into the desert and in the silence, to listen and hear God.
It’s almost Holy Week; soon we will stand in solemn remembrance of a particular Friday in Jerusalem, long ago, when two pieces of wood became a bridge; became a Divine splint; became that thing Bell and Shuck have no use for any longer.
The “faith” Bell and Shuck preach is merely a vehicle for social justice according to their terms. It’s not a religion but a political and secular movement trading on God’s generosity and good nature.
But Christianity is first and foremost about the Cross.
There is no Christianity without Christ, and no Christ without the cross. There was no need for the cross except for our Redemption, and no need for that except for our sin. To preach Christianity without preaching repentance from sin and taking up your cross is just wicked babble.
Bell and Shuck both want a “Christianity” in which there’s no cross for them to carry, so first they must do away with the cross. Let us not speak of Calvary, they whisper. Let us not speak of sin. How ugly and accusing. God is looove!
God — whatever he may be to you, or nothing at all if you choose! — does not dwell on unpleasant things like rules, laws, right or wrong, good or evil. He cares only for your pleasure and satisfaction. All that offends him is the intractableness of some folks who insist that Jesus Christ is Lord; the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
It’s a very popular message in our culture today, where rights and opinions are paramount, and autonomy is inviolate. Obedience is a very bad word. Humility and reverence and sacrifice are spit out like sour milk. We’re quite sickened by the very concepts.
Bell’s and Shuck’s words sound very sweet indeed to ears itching for such pleasing affirmation and permission. Come, be your own god. Establish your own law. Determine for yourself what is good and what is not. Worship yourself. Worship your own ideals. Make social justice your religion, and by your own decree establish what justice means. Listen to the wisdom of the age and mold your god accordingly.
Bell and Shuck are fools handing out Play-doh to more poor fools who listen to them and start molding and squishing their own god.
Their malleable inventions will never save them. For that you need solid wood.
I’ll take the foolishness of the Cross over the wisdom of this world any day.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Cor 1:18-21,25