Why Harpers gets it rightSo I know that I've been annoying on here about this before, but Harpers has followed up the previous articles that I recommended we all read with one that blows them all out of the water. This month features an article called "The Christian Paradox" by Bill McKibben that reads like a sermon we all want to be preaching, or at least should be. I know that Jonny will remind me that Harpers ultra liberal, anti-conservative evangelical stance makes this an obviously biased article, but bear with me on this on.
McKibben, who, at the end reveals himself as a "main-line liberal Protestant" takes the American church to task for not being Christian. He begins by showing statistically how biblically illiterate Americans are (12 percent think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife, 75 percent think the Bible says "God helps those who help themselves"). He shows how America is more Christian than Israel is Jewish (85 to 77 percent).
The failure of biblical literacy is one thing, but then McKibben really lays it own by asking whether or not America is Christian. How would you measure something like this? Charity to the poor? America ranks second to last in governmental aid, and as individuals Americans only give 21 cents a day to the poor. McKibben's point is that "it is not that America trails badly in all these categories; it's that the overwhelmingly Christian American nation trails badly in all these categories, categories to which Jesus paid particular attention." ah yes. Even jumping on the Evangelical favorite "personal morality," McKibben shows that most Americans aren't really Christians. High murder rates, last Western democracy that has the death penalty, high divorce rates, etc.
McKibben eventually gets to his point, one that theologians of the Radical Reformation tradition have been making in American theology for the past 25 years. It's about competing narratives, or creeds, to the Gospel message of Jesus. "It is another competing creed, this one straight from the sprawling megachurches of teh n ew exurbs, that frighten me most. Its deviation is less obvious precisely because it looks so much like the rest of culture. In fact, most of what gets preached in these palaces isn't loony at all. It is disturbingly convintional. The pastors focus relentlessly on you and your individual needs." He points out the obvious, the mega churches with latte stands and Krispy Kreme doughnuts at every service, sermons about goal meeting, etc. While not rail-roading the care of the individual, McKibben criticizes this message for forgetting about Jesus' radical message about care for the other.
The love of neighbor is a radical concept, that has deep political, social, and economic implications. (See Yoder, Politics of Jesus) Christian Americans forget this. McKibben, writing in Harpers magazine, puts this out there...
"How nice it would be if Jesus had declared that our income was ours to keep, instead of insisting that we had to share. How satisfying it would be if we were supposed to hate our enemies. Religious conservatives will always have a compartively easy sell. But the gospel is too radical for any culture larger than the Amish to ever come close to realizing; [Jake note: the Amish are not the shining example, but that's beside the point in demanding a departure from selfishness it conflicts with all our current desires. Taking seriously the actual message of Jesus, though, should serve to moderate the greed and violence that mark this culture. It's hard to imagine a con much more audacious than making Christ the front man for a program of tax cuts for the rich or war in Iraq. If some modest part of the 85 percent of us who are Christians woke up to that fact, then the world might change."
That last sentance is the most important part of all of this. Are we preaching this message where we can, the true Gospel, wherein we must give of ourselves for others, share amongst all, put away violence and greed? Do we practice this amongst each other, in our churches, in our homes? Are our theological programs, papers, and conversations driving us to more seriously be students of the message of Jesus Christ? Are we constantly allowing the cross to criticize our personal, political, social, and economic decisions. Because we are, whether we like it or not, in or headed toward positions of great influence in this 85 percent of Christian America. And if we wake up to this, preach an unpopular but true Gospel, then things may actually change a little bit.