Saturday, April 21, 2012

The American Captivity of Christianity

Is America a genuinely Christian nation? Is American culture uniquely Christian in its attitudes, values, principles, practices, and beliefs? What does a “Christian nation” look like? What would a uniquely Christian culture look like? Is American Christianity dissimilar from Christianity in other parts of the world? If so, how it is different? Perhaps a better question is why is it different?  Furthermore, is American Christianity really Christianity at all or is it something else altogether? These are good questions for any Christian living in present-day America.

 Before I begin, I am not suggesting that the Christian community become a group of insurrectionists. I am also not suggesting that in order to be a Christian, American’s have to disavow their country. What I am thinking is that one of the essential components of discipleship in the American culture is altogether missing from this process: cultural catharsis.

Americans are no different from people groups anywhere else in the world in terms of loyalty to their country. We are Americans and very proud of that, and I do not mean in a bad sense. As in any other culture, Americans have a core set of values that drive how they look at the world. We will call that the American worldview.

In American culture, the one value the culture esteems more than any other is the “right” of the individual. Think about how often we hear about the “self.” We have been inundated with self-esteem lectures, books, and it has even become part of our public education philosophy. Children are told they are very special. We have eliminated losing in competitions because it reveals that we may not be the best at that activity and this knowledge may hurt our self-esteem. Think about how often we hear about individual “rights.” I recently heard a woman, whose son was on death row for murder talk about justice for her son because his sentence had just been commuted to life because he was black and there wasn’t enough black jurors on the jury when he was convicted. She made no mention of the person he murdered or of the family of the person he had murdered. All the woman seemed to be concerned with were her own interests in the situation, and that, to the complete disregard of others. However, this is the American way.

America is the land of opportunity. But it is the land of “individual” opportunity. We see ourselves as individuals in the most radical way. As individuals, we have rights. We have all sorts of rights. We have a right to individual freedom. We have a right to happiness. We have a right to believe whatever we want. Employees have a right to sick days and to be paid for them as well. We have a right to marry and to divorce. We have a right to engage in whatever pleases us sexually. We have a right to success, as we define success. In America, the individual is empowered above all else, and has all the rights necessary to be, well, happy and prosperous. American culture is about the individual almost to the complete disregard of all else. The Christian of American culture must ask if this “individual” emphasis is in accord with the cultural context in which Scripture initially came to us. Moreover, he/she must also ask what implications this individual emphasis could have on gospel proclamation. In addition, the Christian American must ask how this extreme individual consciousness of Western culture may affect the Christian worldview. In other words, are American Christians purging the American worldview from their thinking or are they Americanizing the Christian worldview so that they view everything spiritual through a distinctly American grid?

In contradistinction to this radical individualism, Mediterranean culture strongly emphasizes the group. The individual does not disappear entirely as Scripture clearly reveals, contrary to some social science critics. However, the individual does not view themselves as entirely separate entities apart from the group to which they belong. The individual is who he/she is within the context of that group. Take away the group and a large part of the person as an individual disappears. It is in this social context that the church and the nation of Israel existed. A Jew sees themself not merely as “me” or “I” in individual terms. He sees himself as the “Jewish me or I that exists.” This mindset was surely behind much of the writings of the NT when we read about all the “one anothers,” and certain the “body” of Christ. This mindset is foundational to Christian community. Sadly, it has been entirely lost in American culture, having been erased, and whited-out by the American individual. What does this mean for Christian community? More importantly, what does it mean for gospel proclamation, not only from a methodological standpoint, but most significantly, from the perspective of content?

The gospel has been hi-jacked, eclipsed, taken captive by the American worldview and this is due in no small part to the number of imposters within the Christian community who came in, claiming to know and love Jesus all the while clinging firmly to the American worldview. Subsequently, these attractive personality types, the sales type, the business manager type, have been pushed to the echelon of Christian leadership because of their considerable skills elsewhere in life. Since discipleship has fallen on hard times and liberalism has gripped the seminaries, very little scrubbing of the ungodly thinking process took place before they were put into place. Couple this with a staunchly semi-pelagian theology and you have the perfect recipe for taking the true Christian gospel captive to the American worldview.

Since people are not actually dead in their trespasses and sins, they don’t need a miracle from God to restore them to a right relationship. All they need is some guidance and “spiritual” life coaching. They can do it themselves with just the right information communicated in the right, non-threatening, non-offensive, non-exclusivist kind of way. Without realizing it, most evangelicals have adopted a form of soteriological deism. God did all the work necessary for salvation and literally left the rest up to us. The preacher has to find an attractive and compelling way to communicate the message and all the individual has to do is take the time to analyze what he/she hears and make a decision.

The American gospel is a gospel of hyper-freedom. The core message is that God has done everything that is necessary for you to have your best life now and all you need to do is appropriate these things to yourself, make a decision to have a private, personal relationship with Jesus Christ and you can see your dreams begin to come true. American Christianity is not about the “body” nor is it about the “church.” It is about “me” and God. In fact, there is a country song with that very title. American Christians do not seem to realize that the idea of “individual” Christian is oxy-moronic. To be a Christian is to be in, to be part of the Christian group. Moreover, this is not something a person does. You do not join the Christian group. You are placed there by God’s eternal decree.

In terms of truth, the American worldview is radically relativistic. There is no such thing as objective, transcendent truth. There is “my” truth. Christianity is Americanized when we eliminate sound exegetical process in exchange for “my” interpretive process for finding meaning in Scripture. It is Americanized when Christians behave as if they have a “right” to handle the text in whatever way they see fit. We Americanize Christianity when the individual knows better than the collective group.

In terms of morality, the American worldview is radically experiential. If it feels right to you, then it must be right. The most egregious thing one American can do to another is judge their lifestyle. The culture seems powerless to recognize the inherent contradiction with which this thinking is carried out in real life. We Americanize Christianity when Christians think that God understands their unhappiness to the point that He is okay with illicit divorce, or extra-marital affairs, or even homosexual behavior. I heard a woman once say that Christians have no business feeling guilty when they sin because guilt is so unhealthy and that God loves them no matter what they do. Apparently, she was not acquainted with James and I John or much of the rest of Scripture.

In terms of authority, the American worldview seeks individual autonomy above all else. Americans cannot tolerate the idea that there are some things that they simply cannot fix. They rely entirely on their own ability to fix whatever problem comes along and will not submit to any authority they deem unworthy. Americans are about the freedom of the individual, not about tradition or the transcendent. God is not one to whom they are held accountable. Rather, he is the self-help guru in the sky. He is called on only when needed and He is needed rarely. For most Americans, God is a daddy figure who wants us to be happy, healthy, and successful. He only wants what is best for us and we get to decide what is best for us.

The hyper-individualism of the American worldview has privatized religion. Michael Horton points out that talking about one’s Christian testimony means “…one’s inner experience and moral transformation. Once privatized, religion becomes relativized. No longer truth, it is your truth. Since religious beliefs are no longer claims about public events, they can only be justified now in terms of what each individual finds meaningful, useful, and transformative.”[1]

Christianity has been taken captive by American culture. J. Graham Machen wrote, “A solid building cannot be constructed when all the materials are faulty; a blessed society cannot be formed out of men who are still under the curse of sin. Human institutions are really to be molded, not by Christian principles accepted by the unsaved, but by Christian men; the true transformation of society will come by the influence of those who have themselves been redeemed.”[2]

Sadly, Christians in America are Americans first, and then Christian. American Christians have turned the gospel into a proclamation of self-help for individual success in areas of personal worth, finance, family, profession, and too many other areas to mention. The pop-psychology that passes itself off as a sermon on Sunday mornings in thousands of American churches doesn’t even remotely resemble the traditional message of Christ preached in the history of the Christian community. In America, the gospel is about “me.” God is there for me. He cares for me. I have a personal relationship with Jesus because I have decided to follow Jesus. It does not matter that Scripture knows nothing of this private understanding of the God-man relationship. It matters not that Scripture nowhere speaks of a personal relationship with Jesus. Scripture presents the gospel in terms that are glaringly antithetical to the American gospel. Man is dead, helpless, unholy, unrighteous and radically depraved from birth. God, for reasons known only to Him, determined to rescue man from his wretched and miserable condition by sending Christ to stand in as punishment for sin. God, for His own glory, redeemed man to Himself, calling man out of his state of blindness, deafness, dumbness and death, into a state of life, joy, and peace.

We must do a better job of recognizing the fundamental differences that exist between the Christian and the American worldview. They are not the same, contrary to what many Christians might believe. There are fundamental beliefs within the American worldview that are clearly contrary to sound Christian thought and praxis. New converts must be educated in this areas. The earlier we engage this in the discipleship process, the better off we will be.

[1] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 50.
[2] J. Graham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1923), 158.

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