Have We Finally Reached The Tipping Point For “American Christianity”?

american-flag-cross-1It ought to confuse and convict Christians in America that no one can agree if America is or is not a “Christian nation.” Of course different people mean different things by the term but many argue that if ever a nation has displayed Christian virtue to the world, it is the United States of America. One Nation under God. After all, over 70% of our population claim to be Christians.

The very fact that the debate is debated should throw serious shade on those claiming that we are somehow a nation of Christians. Or even primarily Christians. Jesus said that we would be able to tell who loves Him(John 14:21). We have a Jude0-Christian ethic that was adopted by our founders but they intentionally shied away from establishing a state religion and this includes Christianity. This Judeo-Christian ethic provided the framework for many of our core values as citizens. All men are created equal, etc.. But this is not the same thing as saying that we are a nation of Christians.

In fact, the relationship between the Christian faith and American culture has been tenuous at best and strenuous most of the time, each pushing against the other, each trying to convert the other. Both are highly influential and adaptable. While it might be theoretically possible for both systems to exist side-by-side without changing one other, that’s not how it seems to have worked itself out.

America’s belief system is built on the idea of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps to success. It is intimately intertwined with consumerism, the pursuit of comfort, the right to property and free market tendencies. It is built on the idea of self-reliance and a good dose of morality and sadly sometimes, moral superiority.

Alan Wolfe considers the relationship between Christianity and American culture in his book, The Transformation of American Religion.  “In every aspect of the religious life,” he writes, “American faith has met American culture-and American culture has triumphed.”

That is to say, views certainly shape one another and in Wolfe’s opinion, American culture has won out over Christianity, at least for the majority who claim to be Christian. In fact, the burden of Wolfe’s book is to suggest that, for all the religious rhetoric, professing people of faith, including Christians, are remarkably just like everyone else: “Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer,” he says. He goes on to give a bit more insight into his meaning:

More Americans than ever proclaim themselves born again in Christ, but the lord to whom they turn rarely gets angry and frequently strengthens self-esteem.

To people of faith, I say this:  . . . your religion has accommodated itself to modern life in the United States.

How is it then that so many people in America claim some version of Christianity while living just like everyone else? It seems that, after having marinated in American Culture, many people who claim to be Christians have actually drifted away from Christianity altogether, coming up instead with something completely different. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have called this new brand of faith “moralistic therapeutic deism”.

In their 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton examined the actual, daily-way-we-live faith of teenagers as it has been handed down to them by their parents and their churches. Smith and Denton found that the key distinctives of this strand of faith were as follows:

  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

This set of beliefs is markedly different than Biblical Christianity but fits quite nicely with the predominant American approach to life, giving credence to Wolfe’s assertion that, when pressed, we must admit that, at least for the most part, American culture has transformed the practice of Christianity in America into something else. Something somehow less. Less potent. Less dangerous. Less sacrificial. More commercial. More self-centered.

In fact it seems quite plausible to argue that Moralistic therapeutic deism has become, for many, synonymous with  “Christianity”. The term has been back-loaded with a different meaning and the result is that many people who may mean markedly different things using the term, can all call themselves “Christian” without being questioned. This is so much the case that  “preachers” like Joel Osteen quite intentionally steer away from the Bible’s themes of sin and judgment, instead promising that we can have Our Best Life Now  if we just live right and think happy. This is not Christianity.

Moralistic therapeutic deism has become the default American version of “Christianity”. This is certainly not to say that there are not people striving to faithfully follow Jesus in America. But they are rarer than we would like to believe. This helps explain why over 70% of Americans profess to be “Christian” and yet Christianity’s influence is so barely seen in our culture. Because Moralistic therapeutic deism has as much to do with Biblical Christianity as “American Cheese” has to do with cheese.

Since Moralist therapeutic deism is not Christianity, we are left with confusion and contradictions between what we as a nation claim to believe and how we actually live. Stephen Colbert has no problem pointing out the inconsistencies:

“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

The real issue, of course is that when a good many Americans say they are “Christians”, they really mean “One nation united under moralistic therapeutic deism”. Though we use the word “Christian”, we don’t mean Biblical Christian. We mean good, moral people, who do our best for ourselves (first) and maybe others; we’re generally nice people with God on our side. So to answer Colbert: of course we don’t help the poor because our faith doesn’t require it. Our faith is centered on personal contentment/fulfillment. We may help others when we feel like it but our faith doesn’t necessarily demand lives of sacrificial love. It’s enough, after all, that we attend a worship performance, show our faith by our bumper stickers and thank God for the good parking spot at the mall. This certainly helps explain why some get mad about coffee cups but not social injustice.

This is a critical time for those in America who really do want to follow Jesus. The name “Christian” has been co-opted and commercialized. What are we going to do about it? There are, of course, many people in America who are striving to live everyday life with the intentionality of following Jesus. There are certainly churches helping the poor. There are churches seeking social justice and promoting adoption and foster care. There are, of course, churches welcoming refugees and blessing others with the blessing of Jesus. But sadly, these churches seem to be the minority while countless others have simply confused Therapeutic Moralistic Deism with what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus said that you will know His people by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20). He also said that you can tell who really loves Him by who keeps His commandments (John 14:21). James said that if we claim to have faith but don’t back it up with our deeds, our “faith” is worthless (James 2:14-26) and John said that if we claim to love God but don’t love others, we’re liars (1 John 4:7-21). Biblical Christianity teaches that, though our works cannot make us right with God, they are the evidence of a life transformed. They are the fruit of the seeds of faith. Being a blessing to others is a fundamental part of what it means to be God’s people (Genesis 12:1-3; Jeremiah 29:1-9; Matthew 5:13-16, etc.) and if our faith isn’t made manifest in sacrificial love to others, we’d better question the real object of our faith. If we as a nation don’t love and serve the “least of these,” we’re not a Christian nation.

We have chances in front of us everyday to help others distinguish between Christianity and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The sheep and goats will not fully be separated until Judgment but for now, those who love Jesus can help others understand what this truly means by feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and incarcerated (Matthew 25:31-46), caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27), etc.

Though we should definitely be clear in our preaching and doctrine to distinguish Biblical Christianity from “American Christianity” (Moralistic Therapeutic Deism), we also have the the responsibility to not just declare but demonstrate the difference. Biblical Christianity should look like love in action (1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4). Biblical Christianity always points to Jesus rather than self. Biblical Christianity not only proclaims redemption but strives to demonstrate it. Following Jesus means loving others, seeking peace and reconciliation while admitting that we can only seek these things when Jesus enables us to do so.

Will we finally admit and demonstrate that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not Christianity? The world is watching. What will we show them?

 

 

Art Is A (Necessary) Luxury

IMG_6362I’ve got a sketchbook that’s found itself a special place in my heart. It’s not a particularly special sketchbook except for the fact that I’ve place a stretch of weird tin-fin-foil-duct-tape that my son Danny received for his birthday across the front of it.

I know this is an odd observation. But  it’s been with me for at least several months now which has got to count for something. It’s been responsible for pieces like this and this and this and this and this . . . (you get the idea, weird doodles one guy makes so he doesn’t have a nervous breakdown.)

It’s been a great sketchbook and I’ve really appreciated it. But there are only a few pages left so I know by experience that I’ll be lucky to get one more piece (by my own subjectivity) out of this particular sketchbook.

I know that in a few days, I won’t have this sketchbook anymore, so I’m in the midst of a weird grieving process that will likely only make sense to those who weirdly attach themselves to inanimate objects.. I go through the same thing every time I finish I finish a writing journal (I prefer Moleskine Classic if you’d like to buy me one) as well (though I don’t “journal” in the traditional sense).

This has set me to thinking (as many things do).

I am under no illusions of grandeur (at least in this area of life). I am not a particularly meaningful artist in the grand scheme of the universe. But art is very meaningful to me. I understand that I have been given just enough artistic ability that I am continually frustrated by normal suburban life but not enough that I will make a living selling my art. And I am OK with that. But I’ve been thinking a lot about a couple of ideas lately:

Art is a luxury (Art always costs):

For purposes of today’s conversation, we’re going to simply define art as:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination

I’m thinking of a broad spectrum of things. Things like dance, painting, music, poetry, drawing, Andy Kaufman, writing, knitting, sculpting, theater, and the like. I’m thinking of such a broad spectrum, 01) because they all fit the definition: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, and, 02) because they all cost. You cannot participate in these activities without giving something in exchange. Like a sort of modern alchemy’s equivalent exchange.

I was made keenly aware of this fact the other day as someone who is currently between opportunities. As you may know, I dabble a bit in the doodlings (sample my dabbles here or here). I prefer Staedtler pigment liner markers and my 0.8mm marker went dry on me in the middle of a doodle dabbling. Ever the Proverbs 31 woman, my wife had a Michael‘s coupon. But that didn’t change the fact that I’m currently unemployed and (even more than normal) every cent counts. I had to stop and think about how we were going to pay for the marker.

Art always costs. I have a friend who sits inside a closet after his family goes to bed so he doesn’t wake them while he practices guitar or writes songs. Art is a luxury because it always requires something from the practitioner. Whether it be the cost of an item, the time taken from some other task, art costs, which means that many view it as prohibitive.

Art is necessary:

Art may be a luxury, but unlike caviar, art is necessary. I can only speak from the microcosm of my own existence but I know that, for me, practicing creativity has helped me through some of my most difficult times. There is a therapeutic (and/or cathartic) value to externally expressing one’s self in a creative venture. It forces you to either take your mind off of something that’s bothering you (hopefully then being able to return to that vexing issue later with more clarity and calmness) or to work through the issue in some sort of external manner, forcing you to consider the issue issue in different ways.

But art is not only necessary because of its internal personal benefits. Art gives us the unique opportunity to see the world the way others see it. It broadens our thinking in often challenging ways. Art can soothe or stir. Art can critique or celebrate. Art can gives us windows into complex issues and help us understand one another in deeper ways.

The Faith-Art Connection

My faith teaches me that I should be content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8) and that I should give sacrificially, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35), considering others more significant than myself (Philippians 2). In other words, sacrifice is at the center of my religion.

My faith also teaches me that I have nothing to prove. Because of Jesus, I have all of the love and acceptance I could ever hope for (and more). When God the Father looks at me, He says “this is my child in whom I am well pleased”. I am able to work from my identity rather than for my identity. My being produces my doing.

This may seem initially unrelated to topics of art, but for me, it is integrally related. I have known many artistic people over the years and many of them view their art as a way to give their lives meaning. They find their identity in their art (in their doing) and therefore, by necessity, they are also tied to the continual pursuit of approval. I don’t know about you, but when I am seeking the approval of others, I take fewer chances. I’m more likely to find a winning formula and stick to it.

It is not necessary or helpful to believe that every single piece of art we produce will be a sea change. But art is always tied to creativity and creativity naturally pursues growth. Most artists mature over the course of their careers. But this always means that there were evolutions in their style and approach. And this means that they had to be willing to change. And this means that they had to be willing to take a risk. And this means that they had to be willing to fail.

The freedom to fail does not come easily.

I have scrapped many, many pieces of art. And that’s OK. It does not mean that I’m a failure. I have also let people see pieces I probably should have kept to myself. This also does not mean that I’m a failure but it does mean that lots of people know that I’m open to failure. The freedom to fail can only come when our identity is not tied to the task at hand. If my self-worth comes from my art, I will not take chances because I can’t risk my identity. The freedom to fail only comes when our doing flows from our being and our being (our identity) is tied to something greater than ourselves. Something not shakeable by our failures or successes.

Art requires vulnerability.

Putting a piece of creativity out into any sort of public sphere (sharing it with anyone) always requires vulnerability because it always involves the possibility of exposing more than you’d wished and that it will bring criticism.

Since art is often the expression of something deep, it requires vulnerability to share it. But sharing our creative expressions also means that we are aware that others may not like it or may not “get it”. Once again, if I find my identity in my doings, in my art, then I will either not take risks with my creativity or I will now share them with anyone.

Those With the Least to Lose Have the Most to Give, or, Those With The Least to Prove Should Take More Risks

It pains my heart to know that some of the worst “art” in recent generations has been produced by Christians. This pains my heart because this has not always been the case. Some of the best art the world has ever known has been produced by Christians. I believe that Christians should be at the forefront of every artistic endeavor. We have the freedom to fail because our worth comes from Jesus! We have the security to be vulnerable because we live to give rather than to receive.

It’s time for Christians to once again value art as more than propaganda. Go, create something today and share it with others.