Undefinable Religianity

Empty Pews A woman named Karen Armstrong was on NPR’s Fresh Air several days ago describing her new book The Case For God. Just going on what I heard from the interview, having not actually read the book, it sounded as though she doesn’t make a case for “God” at all, but for a contemplative and/or ritualistic life that spurs you to love and compassion for mankind. She used the word “religion” a lot. Love and compassion for mankind is one thing –and it’s wonderful–, but she incorrectly equated that with “God,” effectively wrecking the rhetorical structure that allows the word “God” to function. A few days after that I heard Ken Burns on All Things Considered describe how he featured in his new National Parks documentary naturalist John Muir, whose strict Calvinist father beat him as a small child. Carrying the scars of that “oppressive Christianity,” Muir came to explore the American Sierras and was spiritually “liberated,” and he was able to “devise a new faith, based in nature.” Now, I’m not challenging the facts of that mini-biography, just the assumptive language used (i.e., Christianity is oppressive, leaving it is liberating). Again, loose, unchecked language slid into radios across the nation, smudging or re-drafting the definitions of God and Christianity.

“Conservative” media is no better by any means. Bill O’Reilly and Glen Beck routinely piddle on not just the theological periphery, but the fundamentals (another word that’s been wrecked) of Christianity. And across the media spectrum, scores of “religious” or at least curious talk show hosts practicing their openness and tolerance lump Christianity onto the world religion heap, squeeze it through the play-doh molds of “Happiness,” “Light,” and “Peace,” and then stand back and reflect on how good they feel. In so doing, though doubtful they realize it, they collude with the ranks of zealous, nigh militant secularists in the entertainment and scholastic circles in whose arsenal are included the play-doh molds of “Ignorance,” “Warfare,” and “Corruption.” Though the molds of the militant are more directly offensive, the molds of the tolerant are probably more dangerous.

And what are Christians doing? Getting squeezed. In this storm of marching secularism and indiscriminate religiosity (modernism and post-modernism, respectively — see last post), Christians are ill-equipped to confront either danger, because to some extent, they often do fit one of those molds. The secularist accusations are straightforward and challenge ugly truths about Christians who are contentious and hateful, or greedy and selfish. The accusation of ignorance, though usually mocking what Christians believe, confronts many Christians who don’t really know what they believe. These Christians are the ones who are in danger of squeezing themselves through the first set of play-doh molds, diluting true faith, and sliding away from Truth and into lies. I said the molds of the tolerant were the more dangerous because instead of confronting legitimate sin among Christians –and thus possibly impelling them to repentance– they distract from any sin, even the idea of sin, by instead conjuring airy, pleasant feelings. It’s a much more sophisticated set of lies. And Christians are gobbling it up.

The world seems bent on divorcing the term/idea of “Christianity” in popular culture from the Truth to which Christianity has always held. That truth is told through a rich story that stretches back to the “beginning” and which stretches forward to an ultimate goal, a new beginning. Often when you try to talk with Christians about this story, they respond, “Now you’re talking all that theology stuff,” forgetting that “theology” is just a way of talking about bits of that story. The story itself is the reality, the primary mode of knowing. Without that story, knowing from where you’ve come and to where you’re going, you have no identity, no way of knowing where or who you are. And that story, the narrative of God and his creation, is much bigger than what you hear on interviews, see on tv, or even read about in books or journals.  How do we allow ourselves to limit it to a couple of basic (if truncated), explainable doctrines that seem to merge conveniently with what the world’s saying about “religion” in general? Are we not brave enough to plumb the depths of Christianity for what it is and what it contains? Let’s be diligent to recognize the swarming lies about Christianity out there, and for the sake of honesty, learn the story.

2 thoughts on “Undefinable Religianity

  1. Stephen lee

    …”brave enough to plumb the depth of Christianity for what it is and what it contains?” Love that Stephen. It is indeed robust enough to take on any objection, confusion, or anything whatsoever. But that is for the courageous of heart only…leaving out BOTH sides of Christian sub-cultures you referred to (and you nailed them on the head). Let’s do indeed enter in to the discussion deeply into the DEPTHS of Christianity as it ialone is capable penetrating and transforming culture.. Let’s do so in the manner of C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, NT Wright and others of daring hearts and minds. The assumed call in this whole post to apologetic and relational bravery (rather than relying on existing subcultural paradigms) reminds of what T.S. Eliot said…

    “I had rather walk, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a child’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.”

    Great post brother!

  2. Cameron

    Great post, Stephen. I like your admonition to “learn the story.” Of course, we should learn the story of the Scriptures. But I’d like it if we could apply that same notion to the entire story of the Church–the lived experience of God’s people, in Christ–and maybe that’s partly what you mean. It seems to me that one of the reasons Christians today are so ill equipped is because they are without a full (or even cursory) understanding of how we got to where we are today (the truncation of our faith goes in so many directions) and why history matters to our beliefs. After all, true theology is the experience of God’s glory and our attempt to explain that experience, not merely intellectual formulations. In the ancient Church, theology wasn’t an academic pursuit but one of prayer and holiness. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

    Anyway, good thoughts. Keep the posts coming!


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