Okay, a quick Bible quiz:
Which of the following are characteristics of Jesus, as He’s portrayed in the New Testament?
Prideful. Selfish. Mean-spirited. Judgmental. Elitist. Closed-minded. Vindictive. Intolerant. Legalistic. Self-righteous.
If you answered “None of the above,” then your understanding of the scriptures pretty much squares with mine, in that regard.
How, then, have we reached a state of affairs where all of those qualities are routinely on display by the evangelical Christian activists who are striving, and with a great deal of success, to reshape our country’s law and social policy in their own image?
This is not some doctrinal hair-splitting, here, but a wholesale flip-flop of church teachings. The New Testament is out, the Old Testament is in. And the actual words of Christ, which were printed in red ink in the Bibles of my childhood because they were supposedly the most important part, are heard so rarely nowadays in religious debate that they’ve been relegated to the status of footnotes.
Why such a dramatic turnaround? A reading of history and current events suggests two answers, neither of them spiritual in nature: money and power.
Thanks to a backlash against the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, evangelical church members who had for most of their lives been targets of scorn were suddenly offered a chance at respectability and clout. All they had to do in return was to vote correctly, and to leave their awkward social consciences at the door. Human nature being what it is, most of them took the deal and haven’t looked back.
A generation later, the extent to which mainstream Christians have abandoned their namesake’s radical social agenda of love, charity, and non-violence in order to embrace a new gospel based on economics and the secular status quo resembles, at times, a bad “Saturday Night Live” skit.
One gospel music radio station that advertises itself as “All Jesus, all the time!” carries commercials for a Christian retirement planner (“No matter how much money you’ve set aside,” an announcer intones, “you have to wonder if it’s enough…”) and for a Christian plastic surgeon who supposedly caters to the “special needs of Christians” when it comes to cosmetic surgery.
The particulars of how a Christian nose job differs from, say, a Buddhist or a Muslim one is mind-boggling enough. But the station is apparently so confident in its Christian-targeted marketing approach that it uses the self-promotional slogan, “What would Jesus listen to?” The implication being, of course, that if Jesus were around today He would keep His radio faithfully tuned to this station’s frequency.
If He did, Jesus would hear advertising pitches such as the one for a restaurant that is recommended to Christians who enjoy “a cool, upscale vibe” when they dine out.
My dictionary says that “cool” means “nonchalant; detached,” and that an “upscale” establishment is one that’s “intended for customers with high incomes.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Jesus command His followers to be the very opposite of nonchalant and detached, as they engage the world around them? Likewise, it’s very hard for me to imagine an “upscale” Jesus who would choose to patronize a business because its prices are high enough to keep the riff-raff out. In fact, Jesus preferred spending His time with social outcasts. It was one of many reasons that the rich and powerful of His day grew to hate Him so much that they wanted Him killed.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t plan for their retirement, have cosmetic surgery, or even eat at a fancy café if the spirit moves them. But to insist that these secular activities have religious significance merely to sell products, and to insinuate that professionals who follow religions other than Christianity are less qualified to provide those services, is misleading to the point of perverse.
Back in the early 1900s, a Chicago humor columnist named Finley Peter Dunne once mused that the highest mission of journalists was to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” Dunne was no preacher, but I’ve always thought that his slogan was also a good summation of the works of Jesus as they’re depicted in the gospels. Time and again, we see Jesus taking the side of the weak, downtrodden, and despised, while asking troubling questions of the status quo, business-as-usual crowd.
As a result, it’s especially disturbing to me that the revolutionary message of Jesus has undergone such a bizarre cultural make-over in recent years. No longer is He a troubling force whose questions make us squirm and re-examine our priorities in life.
Instead, He’s become a feel-good, upscale sort of guy who believes that the status quo in America is just fine, thanks, and anyone ungrateful enough to disagree should suffer the double-whammy affliction of having both their morals and their patriotism questioned. In public, if possible.
It would be unfair, of course, to single out Christian radio in this regard. Christian publications and Christian television are equally guilty of distorting the teachings of Jesus for their own ends.
For me, one of the most poignant moments of the recent holiday season was when, on impulse, I flipped the remote to a Christian TV network on Christmas Eve, hoping to catch some good choral music.
Instead, I was treated to a female talk-show host who delivered a frowning rant against the rampant commercialism of the Christmas season. Every year, she said, stores begin earlier and earlier, pushing their holiday merchandise in our faces, thoughtlessly distracting us from our worship of the Christ child, etc., etc.
Ironically, the woman making this scathing indictment was wearing a decorative, upscale Christmas sweater whose price, I guessed, represented a week’s salary for most of her viewers. The studio set, just behind her, consisted of a huge tree, elaborate decorations, and a scattering of elegant china figurines—merchandise easily worth a couple of thousand dollars.
My initial anger at her hypocrisy gradually turned to pity, as I realized she probably had no idea of the stark contradiction between her words and her actions.
Doesn’t anybody see? I asked myself. Doesn’t anybody realize that there’s something terribly, terribly wrong with what’s being sold to Americans these days as Christianity?
As it turns out, somebody does see.
The surprise hit of the contemporary gospel music charts, in recent weeks, is a song by a young group called Casting Crowns. The title of the song is “If We Are the Body,” and it takes its name from the New Testament metaphor of the church as the “body” of Jesus in the world. Here’s the chorus:
“But if we are the body
Why aren’t His arms reaching?
Why aren’t His hands healing?
Why aren’t His words teaching?
Why is His love not showing them
There is a way?”
And at the end of the verses, there’s this haunting coda:
“Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come.”
Apparently, the upstart new song is especially popular among the adolescent and young adult demographics. I’m not surprised. Young people are notoriously gifted at spotting hypocrisy. And they often have laser-beam vision that’s aimed at emperors who wear no clothes.
This is their kind of song. It asks troubling questions…the same kind, I suspect, that Jesus would be asking of the so-called faithful if He were around today.
They’re questions that deserve an answer.