Tuesday, January 31, 2012


It's a little late, but a lot of you probably noticed the spurt of religion-bashing that went through the Christian circle of Facebook a couple weeks ago, beginning with a spoken word rap titled "Why I hate religion, but love Jesus." Not gonna touch that today: A much brighter mind than I has already dissected it literally line for line and demonstrated why it's a terrible piece of theology. No, my beef is with something I saw a few days ago on facebook: a quote from Roy Gustafson reading, "Religion is the story of what a sinful man tries to do for a holy God: the gospel is the story of what a holy God has done for sinful men."

Now, this is not necessarily meant to bash organized religion... but, coming as it did on the heels of the aforementioned, extremely popular video, that's how I took it. And it irked me.

Read it again. It's got a nice flow to it. A nice compare/contrast, good repetition of key words, which combine to make it easy to say, easy to remember, and, in turning a popular notion on its head, easy to agree with: All of which, as I have pointed out in a previous post, are qualities that are highly sought after in the evangelical catchphrase department. Unfortunately for us all, just because a phrase is catchy doesn't mean it's accurate.

Now the intent of this phrase seems to be to create a dichotomy between "religion" and "the gospel." Religion is portrayed as ultimately futile: What a sinful man tries to do for a holy God. The gospel is the opposite of religion: it is what a holy God has already accomplished for sinful man. The point, it seems, is that religion is not only unnecessary, but useless and even counter-productive in the face of the gospel.

Now, to some extent this is, obviously, true. Religion is, on some level, an attempt by men to do things for a holy God. And the gospel is certainly what God has already done for man. The problem is the implicit conclusion that in the face of the gospel, religion is futile, useless, and a hindrance to all good followers of Christ (the term "Christian" being deemed too religious). The problem is thinking that you can separate the good news of Jesus Christ from religion for even a second.

"Religion is the story of what a sinful man tries to do for a holy God: the gospel is the story of what a holy God has done for sinful men." However, the gospel is also the story of a holy God participating in religion with his people, as the very Word of the Father is baptized (a religious practice), participates in ceremonial worship and teaching in the temple (in a somewhat religious manner), and partakes of a yearly, highly ceremonial meal absolutely loaded with religious significance.

And let's not forget about the rest of the New Testament: How about when Paul includes moral instructions in his letters? What about when he tells Titus to teach sound doctrine and train people to be self-controlled and pure? What about when he tells Timothy to reprove and rebuke those who don't teach sound doctrine, or when he gives Timothy exact specifications for elders and deacons and men who serve the church?

Aren't all these things instructing fallen man how to better "do things" for a holy God?

And what is wrong with such an attempt? Are we not told by James that faith without works is dead? And what are works, if not this very definition of religion that Mr. Gustafson gives us? What are works if not "what a sinful man tries to do for a holy God"? That means that, accepting Mr. Gustafson's definition, faith without religion is dead. There is a necessary correlation between what a holy God has done for sinful men, and what sinful man does for a holy God: for the works, the religion, are a sign and result of the saving work of Christ.

My gospel is not one of human passivity. My gospel is not one in which Jesus goes around talking to all the static people telling them to sit tight, that they don't need to do anything. My gospel is one in which Jesus is the center of whirlwind of activity, a whirlwind of teaching and ceremony and asking and seeking and knocking, feeding the poor and taking communion and gathering together to pray...

My gospel is the story of a holy God saving sinful man, and then teaching that sinful man how to do religion right. You cannot love Jesus but hate doing things for him. You cannot take the religion out of Christianity.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Wisdom Gleaned from SNL

I was watching SNL with Anna the other day, and one of their skits was about a show called "You Can Do Anything!" It brilliantly satirized the modern culture of endless affirmation. One contestant was going to juggle ten bowling pins, and on hearing that he had never juggled before, the hosts encouraged him, saying "You can do anything!" When he failed spectacularly, failing to catch a single pin, they continued encouraging him, saying "Now, when people ask you if you can juggle, you can say yes!" My favorite line, however, came at the end, when the last contestant unveiled his skill of combining Irish dancing with Chinese calligraphy (spoiler: it doesn't go as well as you'd think). His final line after finishing his skill is "I tried, and therefore no one should criticize me."

Now, some of you may have stopped laughing (if you ever were), because this culture has even pervaded the church. There is the attitude that God doesn't care whether you fail or succeed at what you're trying to do: All that matters is that you try. If you fail, then it's certainly not your fault: God must not have wanted you to succeed in the first place! And this is all fantastic and very comforting and affirming to everyone involved, but there's one problem: This is not how Jesus acted. On the contrary...

Many of you are familiar with the Transfiguration. Jesus takes his three closest disciples--James, John, and Peter--up to a mountain to witness his Transfiguration. But we're going to look at what happens immediately after that, in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. After the transfiguration, they begin making their way back to the other disciples. But there's something unusual going on: A crowd of people are gathered around the other disciples, arguing with them. Jesus asks what they're arguing about, and a man begs Jesus to look at his son, because the disciples were unable to heal him.

Now look how Jesus reacts. He doesn't go over to the disciples, put his arm around them, and say, "There, there. It's alright. You tried, and that's all that matters to me. I don't care that you failed." On the contrary. Jesus answers "Oh faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" Jesus is positively pissed. But who is he angry at? He's not angry at the guy who brings his son to him: That guy is demonstrating his faithfulness by bringing the boy to Jesus in the first place. The only logical explanation is that he is angry at the disciples. And why is he angry?

Because they failed. Or, more accurately, because of their lack of faith, which directly caused them to fail (see Matthew 17:19-20). Now, there are times when, despite having done almost everything right, we still fail. In that case, God probably does have something else in mind for us. But in this case, it's not that Jesus planned for the disciples to fail. It's not as though they did everything right and God just wanted to teach them something. Most importantly, it's not as though God put them in a situation where they were destined to fail. God gave them an opportunity: To cast out this demon, demonstrating to the crowd that their rabbi has given them that power from God. God had given the disciples everything they needed to succeed, and then he gave them an opportunity to shine... and they blew it. And Jesus is rightfully angry at them, because the responsibility for their failure lies firmly on their shoulders. (And the vehemence of his response leads me to believe that the disciples weren't exactly accepting responsibility for it.)

This isn't just an angry rant. When you fail, don't just brush it off as if it were something unavoidable, as if God had simply doomed you to fail.  Examine yourself, see what you could have done differently, and accept criticism. Then prepare yourself for the next challenge. There is a difference between success and failure, victory and defeat, and in the disciples' case, their actions were what tipped the scale. Pray in faith, and be victorious.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On Marriage

"Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." I was expecting, about a month ago, to be able to write coherently about this passage now. To say that I know what it means, what being one flesh entails. But I was wrong. If anything, I feel as though I know even less about it.
Getting ready for my wedding, people constantly asked me if I was nervous or freaking out. I was always able to say that no, I wasn't nervous. I was very excited, but also somewhat calm: I eagerly awaited marriage. Then, the night before the wedding, it hit me. The reason I wasn't nervous was because I still had only the faintest idea of what marriage entailed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized: the only way people are able to make it all the way through a wedding without completely flipping out is by not thinking too much about the crazy, incredible, mind-blowing fact of marriage.

All human beings are, by nature, dependent on God. But it is possible for human beings to be, more or less, independent of other human beings. You could be an island, a unit of one, completely independent regarding the rest of the human race. I was not that, not quite... but I could have been, in theory. But not anymore.

I am now forever linked, inseparably, to another human being, and she is linked to me (and believe me, I got the better part of that deal). I am not independent: I am now completely dependent on her, for I am no longer a unit of one. Nor am I one of a unit of two. Two become one flesh, meaning I am half of a unit of one... but it is a much greater one than the one I was before. And one half of something cannot claim, even for a moment, to be independent of the other half. Each half depends completely on the other, because only with the other can each be whole and functional.

My life is forever changed. In fact, it may well be incorrect to call it "my" life. If something is now bonded insuperably to something else, can it still be referred to as something distinct from that thing? I don't think so. That's what I mean about not being able to understand marriage, or coming close to understanding it, without freaking out. It's so mindblowingly huge that it will actually blow your mind. So to continue... our lives--my individual life and her individual life--may not even exist. They may not be things anymore. It is not our lives... it is our life. Till death do us part (if then: the Eastern Orthodox church has a super cool view of marriage). But anyway... one life. Our life.

And it's gonna be freaking awesome.