Self-Absorbed Christianity

The inadequacies of my contemporary Christian worldview.

One of my favorite characters in movies is in Kevin Sullivan's  Anne of Green Gables mini-series. Her name is Rachel Lynde. Rachel was a neighbor of the central family of the story. She was kind of a busy-body and know-it-all, but nevertheless one who had an inner heart of gold in her own way.

There's a scene in the series in which the title character, Anne, has come home for a visit, and everyone is sitting around on the "veranda" after having been to church and eaten their Sunday meal. As they sit together on the porch, Rachel utters what I think is the funniest line of the entire series.  It is inconsequential to the plot in general, but it perfectly captures her character and, I think, says something important about people.  

Can you imagine the minister going on this morning about how maybe not all the heathen are lost? If that's true, then all the money we've been spending on foreign missions all these years has been completely wasted!

What I love about this line is the rubber-meets-the-road practicality it represents. Whereas those who conceive of themselves as thinking "deep" theological thoughts may want to proffer innovations for the how's and why's of spiritual questions, people like Rachel are quick to run-to-ground the practical implications of such ideas in the lives of actual people. To Rachel, and to practical thinkers everywhere, if people who haven't heard the gospel aren't lost, it's a waste of time and money to reach out to them.

I have written here and elsewhere about how, during certain extreme trials in my own life, I found that unexamined aspects of a contemporary Christian worldview offered inadequate explanatory power to sustain me during what I was going through. In some ways, I think I represent a Rachel Lynde-like practicality, in the sense that the circumstances of my life have tested whether certain aspects of contemporary Christian assumptions offer sufficient answers to sustain someone under extreme duress.

Someone asked me recently what I mean when I talk about a contemporary Christian worldview. By using that phrase, I'm attempting to capture what's rattling around in my head. There is a narrative or framework that I suspect (I don't know for sure because I'm not in anyone else's head) many modern Christians operate with.  It goes something like this:

The central task of my existence in this world is to deal with the question of my own personal salvation. After that, my central focus needs to be my own on-going moral rehabilitation. My own moral rehabilitation requires that my interactions with others reflect either concerns about their personal salvation or my own upright behavior in dealing with them. In any case, most of my purpose in being here is to focus on myself; my own spiritual destiny; my own progress in moral rehabilitation. But while this may very well be true, it is also counter-intuitively the case that none of my actions really matter. On the one hand that's because, whatever I do, God's grace is sufficient to deal with my own personal salvation. At another level, some modern Christians believe, my salvation is entirely unrelated to any conscious decision on my part, because God's sovereignty is such that the outcomes of our lives here are all pre-determined anyway. We're really just walking through a pre-written script for which the outcome is already known.

Now, you can judge for yourself whether anything in the preceding paragraph touches on the narrative you have rattling around in your own head. Someone somewhere will accuse me of constructing a straw man. But what I'm writing here is a description of my own experience. I offer this as a witness, not as some sort of expert. But I confess that I am sharing this because I harbor deep suspicions that the narrative I had in my head was not all that unusual among modern Christians, particularly in the west.

Parts of that narrative were things I had adopted unconsciously, as if I had internalized them through the air we breathe. But the "straw man" critique that this post is likely to receive is inapt because I don't claim that the narrative I'm describing is anything other than a condensation of my own assumptions. It might be that I had synthesized this narrative in my head in some kind of unusual, ill-informed way and that no one anywhere will be able to relate. That's possible. To be honest, though, I don't think the narrative in my head differed all that much from the one in many other heads.  The reader will have to decide for himself. So, as I said, I write regarding my own thought-life and experience as a witness, albeit an involuntary one.  I am, as Whittaker Chambers once wrote to his children, "an involuntary witness to God's grace and the fortifying power of faith."

I want to make a couple of observations about the narrative I described. First all of, it not-so-subtly encourages someone to place his focus squarely on himself.  It gives permission for a person to spend most of his thought-life on himself and his own moral status. In addition, it actually nudges a person toward a kind of nihilistic despair. I don't think, for most people, this despair is entirely conscious, and it may not even feel like despair. Probably many of us haven't really worked through the full implications of our own contemporary Christian theology.  I certainly had not, until disaster struck.

In hindsight, one example of a practical way that I think the contemporary Christian narrative induces despair is that it drains people of a sense of urgency regarding, say, prayer. I suspect, I'm not certain, that if you drilled into it with enough Christians, other than the community of people who conceive of prayer mostly as a matter of spiritual discipline, you may find that Christians spend substantially more time reading and thinking about their own moral rehabilitation than they do spending time in prayer. They may feel guilty about that, but they also may not really understand why they never seem to get a prayer life fully off the ground. I suspect for many people, even though the narrative in their heads may not be fully examined, they are like Rachel Lynde in possessing an innate ability to cut to the chase and perceive the implications of the framework in their minds. People, I suspect, inevitably allocate time and resource toward those pursuits where the rubber meets the road, and neglect things of less central importance. So the practical person's innate reaction, to the idea of their actions being largely irrelevant to their eternal destiny, inclines them to behave as if prayer is pointless to a certain extent.  They may not actually say this. They may not even consciously ponder it. But it may act as an unspoken or unrecognized obstacle to the cultivation of a meaningful life of prayer.

I should add that the self-orientation encouraged by the contemporary Christian worldview seems to have been taken to the next level, and revealed quite plainly, in the lyrics of contemporary Christian music. Even with worship music - music that is in widespread use - there is often far more concern expressed about how we feel, and what we want, than in who and what God is or in the loyalty and sacrifice we're called to.

God is far more interesting right now as a therapist than as a captain.  No one sings "Onward Christian Soldiers" anymore.

Almost a decade ago I wrote a post on Facebook in which I shared some quantitative research I had done on the state of contemporary Christian music lyrics at that time.  (You can read that old post, without going to Facebook, here.) My point about that at present is only that, however much I might want to complain about the shallow self-absorption of many modern lyrics, an argument can be made that they are merely a metastasized form of the widespread theological assumptions of our time.

The last thing I will add about contemporary Christian assumptions, before I discuss how I found them to be inadequate in my own life, is that they have become saturated with naturalistic assumptions for explaining human behavior. If, for example, a person makes pathological moral choices which are plainly self-destructive, the prevailing assumption among many Christians in the 21st century will probably be that the explanation for such behavior is either environmental or informational. Something either happened to that person (we usually assume something traumatic) or that person is operating with some fundamental misunderstanding or faulty information. We shy away from the vantage point that sees pathological moral choices as volitional, intentional, spiritual, and as a manifestation of what that person actually loves.  We may say "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God", but we hesitate to consider the possibility that some people actually prefer and desire what is dark.  It regularly eludes us that moral pathology may be explainable neither by environmental conditioning nor faulty knowledge.

The apostle John's teaching, that "people loved darkness", is so inconsistent with the modern Christian therapeutic worldview, saturated as it is with naturalistic assumptions, that it seems to vanish from any serious consideration.  The modern Christian affinity for conceiving of people in a mechanistic way can be seen in everything from conservative Christian books on parenting to progressive Christian explanations for racial disparities, or progressive Christians' predominant concern about material things generally.

The events of the last many years left me concluding that the generally therapeutic and naturalistic perspective encouraged by contemporary Christian thought was inadequate to the challenges I was facing , I've mentioned here before that my deceased daughter started going off the rails during her late teenage years. A decade-long odyssey ensued in which her life spiraled downward, punctuated by infrequent and grudging efforts at rehabilitation by various means. We had been intentional Christian parents who had tried to cultivate a joyful, eager, active, and informed approach to our spiritual lives. We had read the most influential books on Christian parenting. We had invested time in our children's lives. We had been attentive to the influence of the culture. All of these were, of course, good things for us to be doing. But when our daughter began to self-destruct, some unexamined assumptions we had been making about the ways of the world tied us down and made us blind to the actual problem and had us focused on...ourselves.

How then, did we focus on ourselves? Well, when things began to fall apart, we immediately gravitated toward the assumption that there must have been some fundamental environmental failure on our watch. We became obsessively focused on discovering whether there was some traumatic event in her background that might explain her present behavior. We also assumed that there must be some informational key to modifying her behavior. We lay awake nights obsessing over how to creatively transmit information and knowledge to her that would cause some lightbulb to go off in her head and induce the realization that she was headed down a dangerous track. In short, we assumed - without really asking ourselves why - that the answer to her choices must lie in either her environment or her lack of accurate information. It took us far too long to realize that perhaps her problems were related, rather, to her own affections. We offered 2-3 years of ineffectual help, time utterly wasted as Rachel Lynde might say, unable to recognize what was actually happening. That she might actually have grown to love darkness had never even occurred to us. That the answers to what we were dealing with might not be naturalistic, but supernatural, was not even on our radar. Oh, we recognized that the issues were moral. We were just not immediately willing to think about a response in terms of the supernatural. Well, we did believe in the existence of Satan, vaguely-defined, and in malign spiritual influences generally. But we did so primarily from the vantage point of their effect on one's personal moral rehabilitation and eternal salvation. We believed in Satan, but in practical terms we conceived of him as someone who mostly just picked at the hedgerows of our moral rehabilitation. We were naïve, or at least blind, to the reality that actual conscious affection for evil is real and might exist among someone we loved so much. We were certainly not operating with any practical understanding that Satan stands ready to kill people if he can.

In short, our intuitive reaction to events, influenced by our worldview, caused us to focus on ourselves and what we could do, how we could have failed, what our moral obligations were. In some ways, the naturalistic intuitions offered by our contemporary Christian perspective blinded us to the volitional, intentional, accountable choices our daughter needed to make. We finally realized - it took us far too long - that it was not prior events or lack of knowledge that caused her to make the choices she was making. She had simply developed a love for darkness. Our contemporary Christian worldview was inadequate because it left us rooting around, looking for answers where there were no answers to be found. I say this not because we had been perfect parents, but because we finally learned that perfect parents are never a prerequisite - have never been a prerequisite - for loving the light. (e.g. Ezekiel 18) And even had we been perfect parents, the result could still have been the same. After all, Adam and Eve had a perfect parent and look how they turned out. (Genesis 1-3)

In C.S. Lewis' famous journal recounting how he processed his wife's death, about a third of the way through, he says this:

For the first time I have looked back and read these notes. They appall me. From the way I've been talking, anyone would think Joy's death mattered chiefly for its effect on myself.

Don't read the remarks I've written in this post to suggest that somehow my daughter's death matter's chiefly for its transforming effect on my own worldview. My point is nothing of the kind. I'm only saying that, in the day of trouble, the naturalistic components of a modern Christian worldview act like a squirrel to a dog with ADHD. They create a distraction from the fundamental, supernatural forces at work in the struggle between good and evil. And that's the way the enemy likes it. For as Flannery O'Connor once observed about writing stories, "The devil plays the greatest role in the production of that fiction from which he himself is absent as an actor." He prefers to slink by, snake-like, unobserved. O'Connor made a related observation, worth repeating here, regarding modern Christianity's affinity for adopting naturalistic understandings of the world. She observed that "the supernatural is an embarrassment today, even to many of the churches."

Quite.

Nowhere are the naturalistic assumptions of the modern Christian narrative more apparent than in the area of drug abuse. This is a subject, in my experience, regarding which the professional Christian helper class almost uniformly embraces a naturalistic worldview. The inclination to abuse drugs is assumed to be psychological, and the predominate after-effects are presumed to be biological. The solutions are presumed to be medical and behavioral. But throughout most of human history, across many or even most cultures, mind-altering drugs have been understood to be gateways to demonic influence. Indeed, the Greek word for the proscribed magic and sorcery of the New Testament is "pharmakeia". The definition of it includes the use of mind-altering drugs, and from this word we get our word "pharmacy". My own observation, from things I have personally seen, is that the effect of mind altering drugs on human beings reaches far beyond mere physical or psychological pathologies. There is much more going on than just the general deterioration of morals. I write only as a witness, as I said before. But I have seen things that suggest a naturalistic interpretation of mind-altering drugs doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what's really going on.

Well, someone may be wondering "What are you saying, then? Are you saying that we shouldn't be focused on our personal salvation or moral rehabilitation?".

No.  That's not what I'm saying.

I am saying, however, that we shouldn't be focused on those things to the exclusion of everything else. There is something we're supposed to do here besides focusing spiritually on ourselves. Our salvation and sanctification are critical, but they are not ends in and of themselves. We are saved for something - something more than merely basking in our own salvation. We are redeemed back to something, for a reason.

We have something we are supposed to do.

There are, I think, at least two other things we are to do between now and Jesus' return. We are to exercise dominion in the world, commensurate with our place in the created order.  And we are to engage in spiritual warfare.

Both of these pursuits, not coincidentally I suspect, tend to take our gaze off ourselves and to shift our focus outward.

When God created the earth, he placed human beings here and told them to exercise dominion over it. The earth exists for human flourishing and human oversight. There are, however, a wide array of modern forces exerting pressure on human beings to reject their responsibility for exercising dominion on the earth. The environmental and green movements in particular harbor inverted views of the relationship between humans and the earth itself. (e.g. David Attenborough has referred to humans as viruses and a plague on the planet.) But God gave humans this responsibility and he did not revoke it when we were kicked out of the garden. He also didn't revoke our obligation to fill the earth and subdue it. Or, for that matter, anything else about the fundamental design he put in place at the beginning.

Nothing about God's design for humans in creation has changed.  We have a role to play here that preceded, and wasn't replaced by, Christianity. You can get a whiff of how contemporary Christian thought has somewhat diminished this memory of our place in the world by the way that full-time ministry is often elevated and promoted as a spiritual pursuit, but the same can't be said of farming, or engineering, or construction, or any other endeavor that is consistent with our responsibility to exercise dominion over the earth.

I said previously that, in addition to exercising dominion, we are to engage in spiritual warfare.  But what does that look like? I don't know all the forms that it takes, but I do know, at a minimum, that making disciples is a form of spiritual warfare. How do I know that? Because of what Jesus himself said in giving the great commission.

Most Christians are familiar with the verses in Matthew 28 where Jesus says "go and make disciples of all nations." We understand that he wants us to make disciples, but to a great extent we forget the reason that he gives for doing so. Prior to his direction for us to go, he says "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, therefore go..." Jesus has been given all authority now, but who had the authority before? Well, we find out in almost the first event in Jesus' earthly ministry.

...the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me. - Matthew 4:8ff

What's notable about this exchange is that Jesus did not dispute whether the kingdoms of the world were, in fact, Satan's to give. Rather than bargain for the nations of the world, Jesus seems to have been determined to take them. In a sense, he came to take them by force but in a jujitsu sort of way. It's pretty clear that Satan was taken off guard by events, especially by what happened at the cross and afterward. The New Testament does say that the first thing Jesus did after encountering Satan in the wilderness was to publicly declare his intention to reverse the effects of Satan's oppression, after which he proceeded down the road to the next village and choked out a demon there. (Luke 4)   (The original language for "be silent" can be translated "strangle". But I digress.)  

By Jesus' death and resurrection from the dead, the New Testament makes pretty clear that the forces of evil in the spirit realm were disarmed and dispossessed. So when Jesus prefaces his direction for us to make disciples, he says it is because of the sea change in authority that has occurred. Apparently, disciple making involves telling people, not only that their sins can be forgiven, but that there's been a revolution in the allocation of cosmic authority.  There is, as it were, a new sheriff in town. Satan is no longer a legitimate authority, and to the extent he pretends to be, he is a usurper. It is no longer a given that Satan has anything to hang over anyone's head. Telling people that it is time to shift loyalties is a message central to what it means to "make disciples".  

To say that Satan's authority has been taken away is not the same thing as saying all of his power has been taken away, however. He is yet able to wage war against "those who keep God's commands and hold onto their testimony about Jesus." (Revelation 12)

Alas. That's disappointing but there it is.

Satan would, of course, prefer that no one know that Jesus is now in charge. Like those southern plantation owners who never told their slaves that they had been emancipated, Satan prefers we all remain ignorant of our change in fortune. So when Christians tell people that they are free to change sides, and that Satan has no more legitimate authority, they're making disciples in a way that is a very real form of spiritual warfare.

C.S. Lewis captures this idea in a compelling way in the closing chapters of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Aslan has been killed on the table of stone by the white witch and her hordes of demonic creatures. When the witch and her hordes leave the stone table, Aslan comes back to life. Susan and Lucy have witnessed the ghastly death and the glorious resurrection from a hiding place nearby. When Aslan comes back to life, he tells the girls to get on his back and he then races to the castle of the white witch. A great battle is taking place, far in the distance, between the Narnians and the witch's army.  The castle is full to bursting with unfortunate Narnians who have been turned into stone by the witch. Aslan proceeds to work his way through the castle, breathing on the fossilized Narnians and bringing them, each in turn, back to life.

But here is where the symbolism of the story departs from the contemporary Christian view and reflects Lewis' typically thoughtful perspective. In the contemporary view, these Narnians, having been given their lives back by Aslan, would spend the rest of their days luxuriating in their aliveness and devoting their thought life to what it means to be a proper and upright Narnian. This would be the corollary to the contemporary view that our personal salvation and moral rehabilitation, together, represent the sum of our concerns. But in the world of C.S. Lewis, Narnians who are brought back to life understand that they are to immediately take up arms and at great personal risk go to war, for Aslan.

They seem to understand that they have been saved from one thing to give themselves up for another.

One of the side-effects of the contemporary, self-focused understanding of Christianity is a deep-seated passivity in the face of spiritual conflict. Even a propensity for being surprised by it when it occurs. I myself am a case in point. I fear I have been too slow to recognize skullduggery on the part of the enemy - assuming I even recognized that the enemy was a threat to anything more than moral uprightness. Alas, contemporary theology can lull Christians into a stupor with too little expectation of human agency and our responsibility to act. The naturalistic moralism of contemporary Christianity might explain the almost exclusively defensive crouch in which many people live their lives. It took me too long to remember that, while the Spirit has provided us defensive armor, he has also provided us weapons for offense.

Perseverance through suffering is a virtue but it is not the only virtue. C.S. Lewis pointed out that courage is not merely one of the virtues, it is the form that every virtue takes at the testing point. There is a time for enduring a whipping in battle, but there is also a time for dishing out a whipping in battle, and intending to do so. Thinking strategically and proactively about spiritual warfare, instead of only ever reacting to the enemy's provocations, was something that was lost to me in the naturalistic fog of my contemporary Christian worldview.

The self-oriented and naturalistic assumptions I held caused me to initially view the catastrophic changes in my daughter through a primarily therapeutic lens. I unconsciously held too low a view of her moral agency, and of her ability to choose. I placed far too little stock in the power of her affections and too much hope in the power of information. Such an understanding induced a kind of temporary paralysis during a season of great danger, delaying my ability to offer more effective help.

The contemporary narrative in my head was wholly inadequate to the moment, in the day of trouble.

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