First, I apologize for the break in service. My blog was down due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control. That happens sometimes. I appreciate your patience and willingness to come back when service is restored.
Today my thoughts are about the trivializing of God in popular American religion. If just trivializing existed only among the laity, that would be bad enough. But it becomes dizzyingly dismaying when it appears in the pulpit!
This morning I went to lunch with several of my students (and one former student). We meet every other week to discuss current theological subjects and the topic usually has something to do with concerns of emerging church people. (My former student pastors a church some would describe as emerging or emergent and the students are all involved in a “collective” that practices transformative performance a la Peter Rollins and Ikon.) I learn a lot from these very thoughtful young Christians. They help keep me from becoming an old fogey theology professor!
On my way to the lunch meeting I happened to pick up the current issue of a free “city magazine.” It’s mainly for women, but occasionally I find something interesting in its pages. The magazine always contains an article written by a local pastor. This month the guest pastor serves a “First Church” of a mainline denomination.
The column’s title is “Your Biggest Fan: God does what is best for us.” Here’s the crucial message in a nutshell: “If ever there is someone who you can rely on to always be in your corner, it’s God–your biggest fan. He created you in his image, after all. Probably, you disappoint him now and then with your decisions and poor judgment, but he goes on loving you and rooting for you just the same.” Then, the closing declaration of this “sermon” is: “God is truly your biggest fan. No matter what your circumstances are, you can make it work with his support. That’s what really matters.”
Now, I apologize for not acknowledging the author or publication, but given what I think of this theology they would probably appreciate me not mentioning them by name!
Of course, I shouldn’t and won’t judge the pastor by this one article. It might not represent the best of his preaching or thinking. That’s another reason not to name him. However, and nevertheless, the sentiment expressed in this particular article represents the worst of contemporary Christian thinking in America. Why?
To think and speak of God as “my biggest fan” is to elevate myself to a position along side if not above God. At least that is the inevitable impression it conveys to people. By all means, God is love and his loving kindness and mercy are beyond description. But can describing God as “my biggest fan” begin to do justice to God’s love, wrath, grace and mercy? I don’t think so.
After all, Jesus’ metaphor for God’s relationship to us is “Father.” I don’t think “fan” begins to express what “heavenly parent” means. Did Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son/waiting father/elder brother picture the father as the prodigal son’s “fan?” I don’t think so.
Notice other language in the article. The pastor says “Probably, you disappoint him now and then….” Probably?! How can such a statement begin to do justice to our sinfulness and God’s wrath–even if we understand wrath as “tough love?”
The language this pastor used is borrowed from the culture of self-esteem and points attention away from the gospel to something else entirely. It is more compatible with New Thought (a quasi-religious philosophy in which American culture is saturated since the 19th century when it burst onto the scene) than with the biblical gospel of depravity and grace.
No doubt the pastor thought he was contextualizing the gospel to modern American women and men–steeped as they are in messages such as “above all, be true to yourself” and “no limits” and “believe in yourself.” But I regard his message as accommodation and capitulation to that Zeitgeist. This is, I fear, “another gospel” than the one Jesus and Paul and the other apostles and church fathers and reformers proclaimed.
To say that God is “always in your corner” is to trivialize God and negate human finitude and fallenness (the two “f words” without which we cannot begin to understand the gospel). In popular parlance “in my corner” means always unconditionally supporting me and applauding everything I do even if sometimes with constructive criticism. That metaphor turns God into my life coach rather than my father in heaven and merciful judge. And it turns me into God’s summum bonum rather than the other way around.
THAT God is nothing more or less than an idol–an American idol. It is an expression of contemporary American consumer religion of self-esteem which is just another form of the most ancient heresy of all–idolatry of self, refusal of creatureliness.
Also, the final statement of the article (quoted above) makes Christianity about “making it work” for me. In effect, the “it” there becomes God. God is reduced to a tool for working out my circumstances to my advantage. This is sheer American utilitarianism and instrumentalism.
Years ago I studied under Wolfhart Pannenberg in Munich. I’ll never forget something he said to a group of pastors over lunch: “I used to go to church and wonder where was the gospel? Then I realized ‘the gospel is what the preacher SHOULD HAVE SAID’.” That’s my reaction to this pastor’s article. What’s yours?