Saturday, October 30, 2010

Does the good news hinge on bad news?

Is Christianity a guilt-driven religion?

The answer of what I like to call "pop-evangelicalism" is, "No man, it's all about grace."

Grace. Sure. But don't you mean grace in response to...guilt?

The narrative which the evangelical has in mind is still the narrative of Martin Luther--burdened by guilt under the wrath of an angry God, finally liberated by the good news of justification by faith alone. We don't have to keep trying to appease God under the weight of heavy burdens imposed upon us by the Catholic Church. That's good news, right?

Here's the thing: that's still a guilt-driven religion. It's just that you've proposed a different solution to that guilt. Instead of trying to pay of the debt you owe, you are driven to accept the fact that you cannot pay it, confess your guilt, and accept God's forgiveness and cleansing. This proposal would not make sense outside of some shared assumptions about God's wrath and our accountability to him.

Evangelicals often run into the problem that many people aren't starting with those assumptions. Their solution to this problem goes like this: before you tell the good news, you have to tell the bad news. This takes on a couple of forms. One is the fundamentalist bible-thumping technique, where you tell people all the things that they're doing that God hates and will send them to hell. Another is the pop-evangelical method of psychoanalyzing the world around them and convincing us that deep down we're all screwed up. (I read a couple of perfect examples of this here and here.) Whatever may differ in outward appearance, the fundamental principle is the same: make people feel their guilt, so that they may be driven by that guilt to God's forgiveness in Christ. It is the gospel of guilt.

Perhaps this expression is not fair of me, since I know that many Christians would prefer to call the "gospel of guilt" the "gospel of forgiveness." But call it what you want; I am simply saying that this message rests on guilt being the fundamental issue. I have often heard the sentiment, "The problem with our culture is that we don't want to hear about sin." For such people, the word "gospel" is essentially defined to be Jesus' antidote for guilt. The good news hinges on bad news. For this reason it seems evangelicals desperately want people to feel guilty, so that they'll embrace the gospel. Yet, people I know tend to find this pretty ludicrous. Are they just rejecting the gospel because their hearts are hardened and they can't recognize their own guilt?

It's not as if people don't realize they're messed up. Pop-evangelicals are hip enough to admit that they're messed up, too; but this is partially annoying, partially disturbing. God now accepts us because we're just as cynical about ourselves as we are about everything else. How is that good news?

The problem, as I see it, is that we're asking the wrong fundamental questions about God. For instance, this post at the Mockingbird blog criticizes a man's response to Stephen Colbert's facetious question, "Which scorecard do you want to be graded on?" The assumption that "God has a little scorecard" for us after we die is just the wrong way to approach theology. Yet by pushing the gospel of guilt we reinforce this assumption, either implicitly or explicitly.

The true fundamental question, in my mind, is, how do we find our life? To make this the fundamental question is to start all theology with an affirmation of genuine human experience. Most Christians instinctively know they should do this (especially pop-evangelicals, whose inclination is to be as sensitive as possible to things of real value within our culture), but their doctrine does not allow them to make this instinct into an intellectual commitment. Thus when we hear someone say, "I just believe in being a good person," we cry out, "Aha! You can't be a good person! You need the gospel!" This response is the product of a fundamental theological error, in my humble opinion. The proper response should be, "I believe in that, too. But what do we mean by good, and how do we get to it?"

If the question is how we find our life, then the answer is surely in God. That is, we live according to God's justice. This is nothing like trying to pass on God's scorecard. It is not for the sake of merit that we ought to live according to justice, but for the sake of the thing itself. "Choose life so that you...may live," says Moses (Deut. 3:19). True humanity is life lived justly before God.

Therefore the best way to deal with questions like Stephen Colbert's is not to take them seriously. For one thing, Colbert is not serious. For another, questions about God's scorecard should never be taken seriously, because that characterization of God is false and shallow. The question to which we ought to steer the conversation is, how do we find our life? This is the best way to maintain our true theological focus.

If evangelicals are worried that I have left out sin and redemption, there is no need to worry that I have left out such a major biblical theme. Sin and redemption are seen all the more clearly when we fit them into their proper context in relation to the life offered to us in God. To see this, just step back and look at the Bible as a whole.

The biblical narrative is one in which God continually offers us the source of eternal life. This is the gospel of life, and it is written all throughout Scripture. Yet each time it is offered, we choose something else. First there is the tree of life in Eden. We choose instead the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then there is the law, in which Moses says, "Choose life." But we (Israel) turn away and are sent into exile. Then Jesus comes, in whom there is life (see John 1:4, 5:26, 6:35, 8:12, 10:10, 11:25, and countless other references). But we, his own people, do not accept him (John 1:11). The biblical account of sin is this: that life has been offered to us, and we choose something else.

Here we see the need for redemption, in that life comes only from God, and yet we have broken our relationship to him. This makes more sense out of the Christian life than any scorecard notion of merit before God. If anyone wonders why I shouldn't sin after my sins have been atoned for, Paul makes it pretty clear: how can we go back to death after having finally been reconciled to the source of life? (Rom. 6:1-11; cf. Rom. 8)

In seeking to engage our culture with the gospel of life, it is not necessary to start with the bad news. However, this does not mean the gospel is not challenging. When we talk about what it means to have life, we soon have to ask what our lives ought to look like. Suddenly we must ask where we have gone wrong, both personally and culturally. Without even mentioning sin, we find ourselves challenging our basic assumptions about ourselves. It would be so much easier to believe that there's no such thing as eternal life, that the gospel of life is a hoax. Then change, both in ourselves and in our culture, wouldn't feel so necessary. Then we could reassure ourselves that, as the Italian proverb goes, at the end of the day, the king and the pawn both end up in the same box. Justice would be, as one of my friends believes, nothing more than a joke. But if eternal life is offered to us in Jesus Christ, then we have to take his ideas seriously.

Let me stop to make one point here, which I briefly mentioned earlier. Evangelicals already instinctively believe what I am saying here. They just don't have the doctrine to allow them to give intellectual assent. The problem, I believe, really is in the doctrine. This sounds like heresy to some, a little uncomfortable to others, and just confusing or even boring to everyone else. But any time evangelicals celebrate the amazing work of William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, Jr., or any of the great Christian social reformers; or any time we celebrate the fact that C. S. Lewis made great literature and scholarship or that the great Christian composers made beautiful music; or any time we teach our children to love learning and to value education; then we are implicitly accepting a gospel that is designed to challenge the world with a new vision of humanity. This instinct ought to be made explicit, and it ought to have implications for how we think about spiritual life.

The tragic irony, from my point of view, is that the gospel of guilt is every bit as worldly as the social gospel of liberal theology. Our culture is steeped in judgmental behavior. Everyone knows why you don't get into arguments on the Internet. If you go to a forum on the web, you might even see the scorecard account of judgment taken literally: forum members can give you a "thumbs up" if they like the way you're contributing and a "thumbs down" if they don't (and you can keep track of your overall "score"). The desire to score things permeates our culture. We judge the economy in terms of aggregates, we judge our schools in terms of test scores, we judge our politicians in terms of approval ratings, and we judge our work in terms of salary. Perhaps the reason we are increasingly unable to provide sound theoretical critiques of our cultural institutions is related to our relentless desire to measure things in terms of numbers that sound like they mean something. (If it's on a graph, it must be true, right?) This tendency goes hand in hand with our consistently judgmental attitudes toward one another. With no way of comparing things other than "greater than" and "less than," how can we criticize one another constructively? As a result, I believe many people simply live in fear of being judged by others. This explains the widespread trend toward moral relativism, which I consider merely a reaction to the more prevailing societal norm.

The evangelical who is well-adjusted to this culture proceeds to tell the story of Jesus in this way: "We owe God a debt so huge we could never pay it off. But Jesus has paid that debt for us, so now we're free from that debt!" I don't even think that's what the atonement, much less the whole gospel, is all about. The only time I can recall Jesus using debt as his controlling metaphor was in a parable commanding us to forgive one another. I can think of no other time when that metaphor is actually used in the New Testament. We read it into Paul all the time and think he is using it, but I'm fairly convinced he isn't.

I have heard at least one good evangelical give an honest response to this criticism, which was that if you don't start by telling the bad news, i.e. how much we owe God, then the good news doesn't sound so good. But if anyone will think for just a moment, she will see that this is not true. For on the very face of it, the offer of eternal life is surely good news in and of itself. (I have met people who say they would not want to live forever; it would be boring or something. Do such people simply suffer from total lack of imagination, or are they really so blinded by a desire to be free of God? Mind you, I can totally understand the belief that there is no eternal life. What I don't understand is the desire not to have it.) Not that anyone will immediately believe that there is truly eternal life offered, but neither will anyone immediately believe that they are sinners in the hands of an angry God. Both are equally bizarre ideas. My only question, then, is which one is actually the good news we're offering?

Ah, but doesn't God demand repentance of people before giving them eternal life? We're back to the scorecard mentality. If you do this, God will give you life in exchange. Even faith can work this way. Evangelicals claim it's all by grace through faith, but it sure sounds to me a lot like a pitiful exchange in which God accepts something as tiny as our mere belief and gives us eternal life as a reward. I think the more biblical and theologically satisfying answer is that eternal life is living according to God's justice, or, what amounts to the same thing, following Christ's teachings. We don't do the works of God in order to obtain life; we do the works of God because that's what life is. If that's not what we want, we don't have to take it. But that's what God offers, and it's what we were meant for; and there is nothing else that will last for eternity.

I think the gospel of life demands that we stop thinking according to the world's logic. Surely we can start even by rethinking God's justice. Does it really work numerically, the way we're so used to thinking about it? If not, that means a couple of things. For one, it means there really might be constructive ways to critique the world around us without contributing to its destructive judgmental behavior. For another, it means that the gospel really isn't fundamentally about canceling some debt that God was keeping track of. It means we might need to retell the gospel to ourselves and make sure we understand what's actually going on. Then we might just be able to tell the story afresh, in a way that will make sense and yet challenge our world. And we might just want to start with the good news.

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