Right after college I remember reading various passages from a world renowned Danish philosopher named Soren Kirkegaard. From what I could gather, Kirkegaard did not claim to be a Christian, but he was sympathetic to the ways of Jesus. Perhaps more than anything, Kirkegaard was a critic of the state of Christianity in Denmark during his lifetime.
Unfortunately I can’t remember which book or pamphlet it was in, but Kirkegaard questioned whether Christianity even existed in Denmark. The question rattled me to the core. It prompted me to ask, Does Christianity exist in America?
I had never taken the time to ask the question because I grew up in the Bible-Belt with a church on each street corner. It was obvious that Christianity existed in America.
And from a sociological point of view, I was right. Christianity existed in America and it was flourishing; but I failed to realize it was a very specific kind of Christianity. I hadn’t taken the time to ask an “outsider”– someone like Kirkegaard, if the essence of Jesus’ teachings and movement was still alive in the modern, western world.
I believe that Christianity still exists in America, but there are certainly competing versions. In America there is a brand of Christianity that is largely superstitious, and it is built on the paradigm of consumerism. This version of Christianity has endless benefits and little sacrifice.
Superstitious Christianity is primarily individualistic, and is cut off from the narrative of salvation history as revealed in Scripture (i.e. the focus is primarily on me as an individual rather than what God wants to do in human history). The focus is on me, God answering my prayers, my personal salvation, my rights, and my personal fate. For those of us who (unintentionally) subscribe to this version of Christianity, we feel persecuted when any of our rights (or benefits) are challenged.
To put it simply, superstitious Christianity is about winning, and the way of Jesus is about losing. Jesus says his way is about losing our lives instead of gaining the world (Matt. 10:39). Jesus says his way is about being last, rather than being first (Matt. 20:16). Jesus says his way is about loving our enemies rather than simply loving those who will love us in return (Matt. 5:44). The way of Jesus is about turning the other cheek rather than seeking retaliation (Matt. 5:39). The way of Jesus is about giving rather than receiving (Acts 20:35). The way of Jesus is about going the extra mile (Matt. 5:41), and praying for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). According to Jesus’ brother, James, who I focused on in my last post, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jam 1:27 NRSV).
Does the way of Jesus still exist in the world?
It is a life of devotion to one another, Scripture, accountability, prayer, Sacraments, and service to God’s kingdom. It is a concrete kind of faithfulness, that regardless of whether things go my way or not, I will keep allowing my life to be patterned after the crucified and resurrected Lamb.
Before I close, I need to let you know where this is coming from.
Yesterday I was reading the Book of Revelation and I made an important observation. Living in a primarily consumer based culture, we love the last few chapters of Revelation that talk about a new heaven and new earth, streets of gold, our tears being wiped away and there being no more sickness and dying. But we need to read about the new creation in context.
Right before Revelation chapters 20-22, which talks about the New Jerusalem, are chapters 17 &18. In Revelation 17 & 18, John writes about the downfall of Babylon. Most biblical scholars believe that Babylon in the Book of Revelation is the code word for Rome, the leading empire at the time Revelation was written. Here John writes about the end of commercialism and the systems of power and wealth that sustain the status quo, protect the majority, and oppress the marginalized.
The message of Revelation is that we have to choose which kingdom we are going to embrace. In order for the kingdom of God to prevail on earth, we have to be willing to let go of the kingdoms of this world–the kingdoms that often provide us with safety and security at the expense of others.
Sometimes Revelation 17 & 18 is interpreted as a one-time thing that happens at the end of the age, but I believe the message of Revelation is about the consistent cycles in history. We are faced with the choice of Babylon or the kingdom of God every day. Which kingdom will we choose?
Will we embrace the kingdom that offers us the most security and benefits, or we will choose the kingdom that teaches us to value our neighbor as much as we value ourselves? Will we choose the kingdom that is fueled by force, or the kingdom that resembles the mustard seed?
Christianity can be built on the paradigm of both kinds of kingdoms in the sociological sense. In fact, Christianity can masquerade in a lot of different forms. I believe the question we have to ask is whether we are being faithful to the way of Jesus.
Grace and Peace,