Monday, April 25, 2011

How Good is 'The Good News'?

Today is Easter Monday. Yesterday I joyfully celebrated the resurrection of Christ and today I am enjoying the afterglow of the joyful worship I experienced yesterday with my fellow believers.

I believe in the resurrection – both in the literal, physical resurrection of Jesus and the coming resurrection of all the sainted dead. Easter is for me, as it is for multiplied millions, both a present and coming reality.

Nonetheless, today I have started writing a book that some will find disturbing. I have given it the working title: How Good is The Good News?

As I write, I plan to post pieces of my unedited draft, hoping to gain from my readers a deeper understanding of my subject.

What I have written has already disturbed me as it may disturb some of you. However, I must write it in order to deal with a question in my head that won’t go away:

Does civilization advance or retreat; and, is the quality of human existence facilitated or hindered among those who seriously believe and practice Christianity?

I wrote this question in my journal last week.

I had been driving through a number of rural counties in Tennessee and Kentucky and kept passing signs with crudely inscribed scripture verses, wooden crosses and churches of all sizes. My radio blared out songs about Heaven and getting saved, interspersed with preachers who huffed and puffed religious clich├ęs that spewed out from their impassioned stream of consciousness.

These are “gospel-infested” places.

The names of our hills, valleys and streams link our geography to ancient Israel: Bethel, Mt. Nebo, Palestine, Canaan, Zion, Gilgal, and Shiloh are recycled labels for some piece of property or building in nearly every county.

It has been this way for three hundred years. The people of Appalachia and the rural American South (of which I am proudly numbered) think of themselves as perhaps the most loyal Christians on the planet.

And yet, our region is a greenhouse for poverty, drug abuse and ignorance.

Our European ancestors were among the first to arrive here. The land they settled is rich and fertile. Their descendants have lived in the world’s most prosperous nation. Nonetheless, huge percentages of them have floundered as wave after wave of other penniless immigrant families came to America and grew wealthy, educated their children and took advantage of all the blessings of Western Civilization.

Yes, I know. Some of the country’s wealthiest people live in our suburbs. Some of this region’s counties are among the nation’s richest. If you drive the interstate from Atlanta to Nashville and on to Louisville, you will experience a region that seems economically vibrant and which is attracting vast numbers of migrants and immigrants from around the world. Our interstates are national arteries and link our zones of health one to one another. Along their path, all is well. But outside this economic and cultural bubble is staggering decay.

Words like this are often a setup for some political discussion. Not these. My questions are spiritual.

Does Christianity posses a power capable of breaking through structures of poverty, ignorance, disease and violence? If it does, then why haven’t these two hundred years of gospel witness been enough to have made a difference? Are we forced to agree with Karl Marx’s famous observation that religion served Europe’s poor as a type of drug; making bearable their otherwise miserable lives? Is this what I am to make of our huffing radio preachers and the haunting songs about Heaven as I drive pass the rusted trailers and the dilapidated houses – that our religion is a form of emotional anesthesia which keeps us numb to the suffering around us? Is the balm of Gilead powerless against crystal meth? Is it just an old song?

Jesus said that a good tree bears good fruit and that a bad tree bears bad fruit. What am I to say then about the education levels in our gospel-soaked counties, which consistently rate among America’s lowest? Is our gospel-soaked culture a good tree or a bad tree?

An honest Christian must face these issues not primarily as a social or a political problem but as a spiritual one. We must conclude that either the gospel comforts but does not transform –as Marx believed – or that our beloved folk forms of the faith have proven inadequate for transforming individuals and cultures. The Balm of Gilead is a song, but perhaps not a real medicine.

In his second epistle, St. Peter says that we must “add to our faith knowledge.” Therefore, piety without the transforming teachings and practices of our faith is disobedience to the faith. In other words, a sentimental attachment to a familiar folk form of the faith is not necessarily the faith. Otherwise, the religion of Bach, Aquinas, Pascal, Dunn, Mendel, Milton, Wren, Wilberforce, Bonheoffer, and Jonathan Edwards would have made much more of an impact upon our region. After all, many contemporary Christians around here profess to believe a much purer form of Christianity than the people I have just named.

For two thousand years, Christians have been building Western Civilization. Our history has not been entirely pretty. Not all Christians have been faithful to Christ. Still, this civilization – with its art, science and social structures -- has been a product of the Christian beliefs and practices that molded their societies, minds and emotions. Furthermore, we must conclude that the faith that produced these people – and which inspired those people to produce our culture – involved much more than a Hallelujah, a song about Heaven and a prosperity plan.

Those who created our culture thought of Christianity as a profound way of thinking and living that one intentionally adopts (or intentionally rejects) in order to form his or her intellect and behavior.

The book goes on but this blog must end. So I conclude for now with this: not all forms of Christian faith represent it equally well. Some are enjoyable but not transformative. Some address individual change but profess no interest in making a cultural impact. Some talk about societal impact but expect little change in the disciple himself. Christian movements should be judged by how they impact the individuals and cultures they serve.

It was said of the wise men that traveled to see Christ, that “when they saw the light they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

I have been looking for that light while I drive; looking at the failed schools, the broken health care system, the drug addiction and, most of all, at the nearly illiterate, broken and impoverished people who try to survive in Appalachia and the rural South.

There is no political solution for this misery because it is not a political problem. It is the problem of an inadequate folk religion that has encouraged believers to remain intellectually slothful, unaware of the great ideas of their Christian heritage. It has kept us detached from the societal ramifications of the power of Christ which exorcises evil and liberates humanity from sin, disease, violence and ignorance. We have failed to lead our flock toward transformational community that overturns the powers that hold families and fallen cultures in bondage and which facilitate human flourishing.

All our sentimental songs about saying goodbye to this cruel world would have provided an excellent illustration for Karl Marx.

The good news ought to have better fruit than this.

Perhaps we need a reformation.

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

Have been pondering (while sincerely doing my best to avoid judging wrapped in spiritual language in my mind.!)how it is that a someone could become an ordained minister and their immediate family (wife and children) be in the exact condition as you have described in your blog Dan... Yes, they believe but they do Not know Jesus. I know folks hate it when i use words like nominal or carnal Christians but they do exist and I'm not in judgment of them... find it sad and wish i could help them.