Monday, March 10, 2008

Listen Up, Heretics!

The last time I walked out of church was 20 years ago. On that occasion, a pastor-of-the-week was preaching at Camp Calumet Lutheran. He wandered, but that is hardly remarkable for Lutherans. The problem was that he preached a different gospel, the Gospel of Nice. The Gospel of Good Stuff. He multiplied examples of nice things people had done, and he gradually clarified that this was his point. This was the whole deal, being nice. When he got to the story about the mailman who was going to run in the Moscow marathon, delivering written greetings to the children of Russia, we expected he was finally going to tie it in with some Christian message. Nothing. He remarked how Jesus might have done something like that – a perfect lead-in to an actual sermon about what our Lord might have said in such notes – and then wandered off again. We wandered out.

I walked out of my own church this Sunday. After the offending section, which I will describe below, I tried to stay and just get over it. But I could not remain in worship with the people who had spoken. It was too jarring. I went over to Home Depot and got some aspen trim.

It has a good ending. By the time I got back the sermon was in full swing, and Earl’s lesson hit exactly on my point of objection, but subtly and with balance. He had not written the sermon with the visiting speakers in mind, but the Holy Spirit was on top of that. If they could hear it, the corrective was there. Better still, it was on target enough that I could see where it provided corrective to me as well.

There are many good things which are not the Gospel of Christ, and we confuse them with the gospel at great peril. The demon Screwtape, in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters encourages junior demon Wormwood to get his “patient” interested in "Christianity And."
What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.

Every age has its own fashions, many of which are quite good things in themselves, worthy to be encouraged by Christians. But it is these fashionable good things that are more of a danger to our faith. What we regard as greatly important is far more likely to be confused with the Faith As Taught than lesser goods. We recognize safe driving as a good thing, but we are unlikely to regard it as Christian doctrine. We think carpentry an honorable profession and useful skill, but we are unlikely to incorporate a demonstration into weekly worship. (Though I personally would find that more uplifting than liturgical dance.)

This era of the church has a serious problem confusing health and food issues with Christianity. If you have any temptation to think of healthy eating as part of a Christian lifestyle, or whole foods as part of God’s plan, or physical health as anything other than a worldly good, you are already well within its grasp.

“But AVI! The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Yes, and in point of strict fact, I very seldom sleep with temple prostitutes, and even less often have I married anyone who worships other gods. That is the intent of that verse, and adding our own cultural values in to it is quite simply…heresy.

The opposite attitude, of eating for joy instead of health, is neither better nor worse. There is some chance that it might be spiritually safer, however, as we are less likely to believe it is a god. The church has never had anything against health. But it has regarded an attitude of being focused on staying healthy as being equivalent to being focused on good horsemanship. More Christians have found encouragement from Scripture to neglect the body than to cherish it.

The conflation of healthy eating with spiritual advancement is quite recent in Christian history. It is another of those odd ideas that we picked up in the 19th C. Prior to that, Christians were far more likely to err in the direction of punishing the body, fasting or denying themselves to point of danger or even death. We are the oddity; our era. It is we who all other eras of the church, and most other geographical areas of the church today would furrow their brows at and ask “What are those people thinking of? What on earth does that have to do with Jesus?” Health is a form of wealth, like beauty or education, and we do well to keep thinking of it in those terms.

The speakers this Sunday came from another denomination, one that is known for its focus on healthy eating. The woman speaking is the health officer of her church. Well, why not a Good Sex officer, then? Don’t we want marriages to be joyful? Why not a church cosmetologist, or an insurance officer? Do we hate beauty and security? No, but in those instances we recognize them for what they are: temptations that bind us into this world; potential rivals to God. This health heresy arises at precisely that point in history when we start living longer, and has increased in pace with longer life. We who are wealthiest in length of life are the most careful to protect (should I say hoard?) it.

When I got back to service, Earl was preaching on Romans 8: 5-11, and was at that point on verses 6-8:
6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Our guests, I suspect, heard that more in terms of “eating sausages is giving in to the flesh and unholy; eating lentils is more disciplined and righteous.” No matter. The truth was there if they wanted to hear it. Earl was hot on the trail of the many ways we can seek after the things of this world, and though he didn’t specify being a food fanatic, it was in there for such as I who needed to hear it. The Holy Spirit comes through again, eh?

I imagine most Christians in America let some sort of similar idea sneak in when they think about being “in the flesh.” It is dangerous precisely because it so permeates parts of our culture, and is thus so easily incorporated into unofficial doctrine. I seldom mention it, because it would tick so many people off, and comity in Christian community is also a good thing. People mention it all the time – moms especially because their special charge to instruct in good habits – good studying, good driving, good eating, good organization – makes them susceptible. I nearly always give it a pass when people get that slightly obsessive food thing going in a Christian context. I suspect they would be granolas even if they weren’t Christians, and just don’t stop to think about separating things out clearly.

But when it gets this over-the-top, when the speaker is framed by loaves on the Lord’s Table and is talking about cholesterol, I willingly risk offense.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. You left me wondering how Earl brought the sermon back to a point. Was it a reference to the Screwtape Letters or is that your take on it?

I've heard the line that your body is a temple many times, but not the part of it being a temple for the holy spirit. Can you expand upon that explaination a bit? I might just be missing the context because I don't know what chapter and verse it's from.


Jerub-Baal said...

Great post, and you've covered one of my pet-peeves better than I could have...

Nash, the 'body is a temple' is from 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 (New International Version)

18] Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 19] Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20] you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.

AVI, I thought your gentle sarcasm on that point to be perfect!

Nash, a tool for you would be which allows you to look stuff up by keyword search, or by chapter and verse, and in a wide variety of translations. Is always good to have a way to fact-check anyone trying to quote the Bible...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Nash - what jerub-baal said. is very thorough. If you want to cross-reference to the 1934 Vietnamese Bible, for example, it's there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that resource. The problem with reading the Bible on my own is that it always creates more questions than answers.

Jerub-Baal said...

Well Nash, one basic tenet (that works with just about anything). Books are written for a purpose. A mechanic's annual reference is written to help a mechanic fix this year's cars. A Physics textbook is written to help people learn physics. A murder mystery is written to be edge-of-your-seat entertaining (or should be, oh, and also written to make gobs of cash for the author...).

The Bible's purpose is to teach mankind how to seek redemption (see all those passages where Jesus says "I came to seek and save the lost.") It's not really even written to help us understand God, although it will help some in that aspect. After all, it describes an Infinite and Omnipotent being. We mortals will necessarily miss understanding a lot on that score...

The funny thing is, we're taught on a societal level that the Bible is written to teach us all sorts of things that it's just not for (just like AVI's post on the Sunday message he walked out on). No wonder people get confused, we read it as the equivalent of a Physics Text when it's really a mechanic's annual.

When you read it, just ask yourself, "How does this help me get closer to God?" Maybe you won't know the answer 4 out of 5 times (that would actually be pretty good) but when you do know the answer it will come a lot easier, and be more useful.

Hope that helps.

OK, I'm standing on AVI's soapbox, I'll get off now...

Ben Wyman said...

I have attended a grand total of one major church planning meeting, a meeting I was only accidentally invited to. It concerned a sermon series we were launching into called "Who Cares About Planet Earth?" about God and the environment. The people in the meeting spent about ten minutes explaining positive things the preaching pastor could talk about, like buying hybrids and recycling.

Six seminary graduates and two doctoral degrees in that room, and no one mentioned that we might be missing the point. I've never been back.

jaed said...

"positive things the preaching pastor could talk about, like buying hybrids and recycling."

I read that somehow as "the pestering preacher". Somehow seems apropos. ;-)