Turning Christianity Upside Down

The reformation of American Christianity will, of necessity, cause turmoil and turn the culture of many churches upside down. However upsetting this will be, it is a necessary precursor to any possible positive impacts on American culture. Christianity must be made righteous before its light can shine out in the world. The Gospel of John (John 3:19–20) tells us the people of the world love the darkness of evil and resist being brought into the light of the truth. Only a regeneration of our Christian understandings and practices can produce any hope of us lighting up our darkened world.

When Paul and his fellow Christians left Antioch to bring the light of Jesus Christ into their darkened world they were entering a culture that was not like the present secularized, scientific, and technological environment that now surrounds us. It was a culture that much resembles the contemporary condition of American Christianity. The pagan part of Roman culture followed gods that were of human invention, and traditional myths largely inherited from Greek culture, as well as imports from Eastern and Egyptian religions. The irreligious people advocated a number of conflicting philosophies.

I think it would take a long article to fully justify the previous paragraph, so please just accept my thesis that there is a real correspondence between the Roman culture of Paul’s time and our present Christian culture. If you do that, you can see that the book of Acts contains ideas applicable to our current situation.

C. Kavin Rowe in his book, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age writes that the passage describing Paul’s visit to Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–9) sets out three interdependent practices churches must follow if they are going to fulfill Luke’s vision of cultural remediation of a darkened society. These actions are: “the confession of Jesus as Lord of all, the universal mission of light, and the formation of Christian communities as the tangible presence of a people set apart.”

It might be thought all Christian churches would acknowledge that Jesus is the Lord of all that exists in this world and in the world to come. However, what is the reality in our present-day churches. It brings to my mind the parable Jesus told about the tenants of a vineyard that had been left in their care (Mark 12:1–12). The tenants thought they could take ownership of the vineyard because the owner was absent and the people the owner sent to remind the tenants of their obligations had not the owner’s power to enforce them.

The present-day tenants of the Christian enterprise have sought to claim ownership by doing away with the person and teachings of Jesus as set forth in the canonical New Testament and substituting either their own opinions or those of various people, past and present. This is readily evident in people who deny the truth of the New Testament accounts. It is also true of those who remake the gospel in order to attract people to their ministries. It shows up in the portion of Christianity whose image of Jesus is a dead man on a cross. It is also apparent in churches where the empty cross and not God’s love are made the center of preaching and teaching.

Rowe makes the point in his book that when a “moral or metaphysical order is invalidated, a practice whose sense was made in relation to this order literally loses its sense.” What this means, in plain language, is that when Christian churches and institutions move off the bedrock of the being and reality of Jesus Christ their practices of Christianity become nonsensical. This is a strong statement but I suspect it was what had become the situation when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. It may be that many of the people who are leaving the practice of Christianity are sensing at some level this disconnect between the reality of their churches and what Christianity really ought to be.

What will happen when part of American Christianity becomes a mission of light to darkened churches should not be a great surprise. John 3:19–21 (English Standard Version) tells us there will be two reactions. Some people will hate the light and resist it so their evil works will not be exposed. Others, who have having been holding to the truth, will come to the light and be seen as people of God.

19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Judgment is not a popular thought in our culture. I think it is true that some Christians in the past both misunderstood it and overemphasized it. Judgment is not getting zapped by a lightning bolt when we do something wrong. It is choosing darkness when light is available, and having to live with the consequences of that choice. One of the missions of a reformed American Christianity will be to show our nation both the reality of the light and the truly fulfilled lives Christians can live.

According to Rowe, Luke in the book of Acts shows us that Christianity was not to be a reformation of Roman culture but an overturning of it. If we apply this understanding of Acts to American Christianity, we can see that something radical is needed for its reformation. Institutional Christianity swallowed up the converts of the Billy Graham crusades, the Jesus people of the ‘70s, and the men of the Promise Keepers movement. Perhaps a motto for reformation will be “Step out of your Church and enter the Kingdom of God.” This was the essentially the message of the first reformation and I think American Christianity needs as thorough a revision. However, it should be accomplished without all the downsides, such as divisions among the reformers, persecutions, religious wars and so forth.

It is at this point that the formation of tangible Christian communities will be required to show the reality of life in Christ. I think these communities can be virtual (existing on the social media), ad hoc (Christians coming together at particular times and places to accomplish meaningful objectives), and long term (more or less permanent groups of Christians who have chosen to be an expression of the body of Christ). I also think it will need our submission to the leading of Christ and the Holy Spirit as the reformation task is too large and too difficult for our human abilities, no matter how motivated we might be.

 

 

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Our Problems with Jesus

I think that before I narrow my discussion down to the problems present-day American Christians have with Jesus I will do a broad survey of the subject. The Jews were told by the prophet Isaiah (8:14) that their God would be a stone that caused people to stumble and fall. The apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:6-8) applied this prophecy to Jesus. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:23) wrote that the crucifixion of Christ was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” In Paul’s categories, all of humanity was contained in the two categories: Jews and Gentiles.

The situation now is much like it was in Paul’s time, only there are more categories of people with problems with Jesus and not just with his crucifixion. His claim to deity, that is to be of the same nature in his divinity as God the Father, is a difficulty for non-Christians. Atheists, Buddhists, and followers of the teachings of Confucius have no deity in the Christian sense and so have a problem with Jesus’s claim to be like God the Father in one part of his person and like us in the other part. Jews and Muslims are monotheists who have no acceptance of a triune God. New Agers, Hindus, Shintoists, animists, and pagans have room for many gods in their religious systems but no place for the Christian understanding.

It is not hard at all to see why people who believe other things than Christianity would have a problem with accepting Jesus. However, why do Christians have such problems with him that they have in many ways turned away from him in their understanding of Christianity? One problem is, as with the rest of humanity, his deity. God coming to earth, living as a human, and then returning to heaven does not fit the secular, materialist understanding of reality. Many contemporary Christians are willing to strip Jesus of his divinity, search for the historical Jesus, and proclaim him a great ethical teacher. This seems a solution to the deity difficulty but if what he said, as recorded in the gospels, is true then he was not a wise human being but nutty as a fruitcake (to use an old expression).

Beyond the problem of his deity there are major difficulties with his coming to earth and his exit from it. Let me begin with his birth from a virgin. This became a problem for Christians during the nineteenth century when materialists began to attack Christianity. However, we who live in the twenty-first century when microbiologists can create mice that glow in the dark may have less of a problem with it. There appear to be only three necessary steps for it to happen, all of them never likely to happen except for the work of the Holy Spirit in Mary’s body. The first step was the failure of meiosis to occur in one of Mary’s egg cells so that it contained two strands of DNA rather than the normal one strand. The second step was for one of the X chromosomes to be converted into a Y chromosome. The third step was the initiation of the normal development of an embryo.

There are theological reasons for Jesus’ virgin birth which lead us into two other problems. One problem, for some people, is the original sin that Jesus needed to be free of so he could be a blameless sacrifice. This first problem leads into all kinds of theological thickets which I will not get into but have caused a lot of people problems. The second problem is that at Jesus’ conception his divinity was bonded to his humanity in an absolutely unique way. It took the early church over 300 years of thinking, discussion, debate, and actual conflict to arrive at what is now the traditional understanding of his two natures.

Jesus’ resurrection three days after his crucifixion, and then his ascension into heaven forty days later, create problems for Christians. The people who live in a closed universe simply deny the resurrection and invent ways it did not occur. The unacknowledged problem for many other Christians is “What is Christ doing in history and human culture until he returns?” There is a wide range of opinions among Christians on this question and many Christians think Jesus has left culture and history in their hands. The result is divisions among Christians and so a lack of ability to do what we should if history and culture were actually given to us to control.

There would not be as much problem with knowing what Jesus is doing in history and culture if he would speak to us in the present. Prophets, though, are problematical. There are false prophets now just as there were in Old Testament times. So this problem with Jesus not sending word of his larger purposes is part of the larger problem of communication with him in general. We are told in the Bible and in churches to pray. Yet prayer as we know it consists mostly of tossing words and thoughts into heaven and hoping something happens. Sometimes we think we see results, but we are not told by Jesus that what happened was the result of our prayer and that is a problem for us.

If we are to hear from Jesus, we need to rediscover our spirituality (see previous post). When we become aware of the Holy Spirit within us and Jesus beside us, we are able to have the communication we were intended to have. Achieving this state of awareness is not easy for us because we are not yet aligned completely with God’s will. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “your will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” Our tendency is to think of the earth as someplace else and that this phrase does not have anything to do with our lives. Another one of our problems with Jesus is that it is not easy to keep him close to us. This is because we are still beta versions of what we were intended to be.

Our society tells us that almost everyone, given education and opportunity, can be OK. So we are encouraged to tell others they are OK and to think the same of ourselves. We can do this if we lower our standards enough. Our problem with Jesus in this regard is that his standard is perfection and if we are honest, neither ourselves or anybody else measures up. Some Christians think they are all right because God created them. It is true that God gives us our present existence, but we are not in our final configuration. After this life we will be changed into the persons God intended, from before the universe was created, for us to be.

We have a problem with Jesus because he did not give his disciples clear information concerning what was going to happen to get us to this eternal version of ourselves. I think that, just as the Jews did not get the Messiah they expected, we will not find eternity, whatever it is like, what we anticipate. The best we can do is have faith that Jesus will provide us the dwellings he promised to us who believe he is the unique Son of God.