the christian paradox

Americans, if taken at their word, are the most religious people in all the industrialized world, but what does that really mean? Bill McKibben has some thoughts in the new issue of Harpers. Here’s a clip:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans–most American Christians–are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

Asking Christians what Christ taught isn’t a trick. When we say we are a Christian nation–and, overwhelmingly, we do–it means something. People who go to church absorb lessons there and make real decisions based on those lessons; increasingly, these lessons inform their politics. (One poll found that 11 percent of U.S. churchgoers were urged by their clergy to vote in a particular way in the 2004 election, up from 6 percent in 2000.) When George Bush says that Jesus Christ is his favorite philosopher, he may or may not be sincere, but he is reflecting the sincere beliefs of the vast majority of Americans.

I’ve discussed it here before, but when I went and visited my local mega-church a few weeks ago, I was struck not only by the feel-good, motivational vibe of the sermon (set to music by the accompanying rock band), but by the fact that there was little to no discussion of Jesus and his teachings. There were no Bibles in the pews… There were no pews… There were just big, theater-style seats with super-sized, built-in cup holders. And, the only time that Jesus was mentioned it was to remind us that he was full of wrath and that we – at least those of us who’d marked the “saved” box on the form that had been handed around – would be able to avoid it.

There was no discussion of good works, of clothing the poor, of feeding the hungry. There was, however, talk of “us” being chosen, and the threat we all faced from the wicked, wicked world outside, but nothing about compassion. It was, to use the terminology of Bruce Bawer, all about evangelical “law”, with no mention of Christian “love.”

Having sat through this well-choreographed hour of mega-church religitainment, what McKibben says doesn’t surprise me at all. The people in that church, at least based on my experience, probably didn’t know the gospels. What they did know, however, was that Jesus was angry, that they deserved what they had, and that when Jesus returned, they’d be saved, while the rest of us burned in lakes of fire.

If I understand McKibben, he’s suggesting that believing in this self-validating religion of superiority, exclusion and privilege isn’t in actuality religious at all, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s self-help infomercial wrapped in the cloak of religion, and nothing more.

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  1. Shanster
    Posted July 28, 2005 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    That article, and your interpretation, seem right on. If people claim to be a part of a religion, they should know it thoroughly and try to practice it, rather than making religion their god. That was one of the criticisms Jesus leveled on the Pharisees. BTW, Mark, have you visited any new Mega-churches since the last one you wrote about (Northridge?)?

  2. mark
    Posted July 28, 2005 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Not yet… But I’m planning to go check out a local Unitarian church this weekend.

  3. Posted July 28, 2005 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    There was an article in the NYT two Sundays ago about Joel Osteen’s church in Houston – 16,000 congregants!!! It’s in an old NBA arena and he spent $94 million on renovations, including two waterfalls. When asked if that money could have been used better by helping those less fortunate, his response was that when he becomes 100,000 strong (or whatever number he claimed), he would be able to help that many more people. He also never graduated from college or seminary.

  4. chris
    Posted July 28, 2005 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I agree Shanster, rather than making religion their god, is an excellent way of putting the evolution of current Christianity…if you will. I find as of late, I find it harder and harder to identify as a Christian. In part, because the definition has changed to more what McKibben and Mark describe. In that way, I have become alienated from the church. However, I have spent equal or more time in volunteer community works.

  5. mark
    Posted July 28, 2005 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    I did read that, Kathleen, and I meant to link to it, but I just never had the time. The mega-church thing, as I’m sure you can tell, is very much on my mind… I suspect that we’ll see churches bigger than Orsteen’s soon. The trend is just going to grow and grow for the next few years, and more and more of us will make our way over the Canadian border to escape it. As sad as it makes me, it’s kind of fitting that the country founded by the Pilgrims ends like this, in a frothing sea of fanitacism… I’ve had a few beers, so excuse me if I’ve gone a bit too far.

  6. Posted July 28, 2005 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    You should see what they’re financing with the money from those churches. There is an Assemblies of God youth mission in Hamtramck with a coffee shop and recording studio (R.E.A.L. Church) They’ll be running a daycare area during Hamtramck Days.

  7. Posted July 29, 2005 at 9:33 am | Permalink


  8. Tony Buttons
    Posted July 29, 2005 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I want to get into the Christain apparel business.

  9. mark
    Posted July 29, 2005 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    I liked the “god pod” ad at the believerswear site. If I get a chance, I’ll put it up on the front page.

  10. Posted July 29, 2005 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Don Stewart will sell you a prosperity bracelet. I can’t find anything about his “prosperity handkerchiefs” but I thought those were cooler.

  11. Dave Morris
    Posted July 30, 2005 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    There is a band out here in Seattle called Pedro the Lion. The guy is a born again christian and he sings about life issues and his faith. His father is a preacher at a church just north of me. The T-shirts reminded me of him.

    I thought the whole Christian Rock thing was just them being smart asses, but it is apparently real. Their lyrics are pretty dark and seem unlikely to be christian at times.

    Here are some qoutes from an interview with him-

    “The guy who stays on the straight and narrow represents the typical Christian viewpoint,” Bazan said. “Do what’s right at all costs. It produces people who think they’re righteous and are going to heaven, and the bible’s very clear that no one is good or can earn their way because our hearts are dark. The only hope we have is in the record and performance of a different person who’s willing to let us take it all on ourselves.”

    “If you think you’re good and you’re proud of it, you will be very, very sorry one day,” he said. “If you’re a total mess and you’re sorry and you don’t know what to do about it, then there’s hope.

    “This record is a complete, connected narrative from the first to last song. There was a theme I wanted to communicate: Damnation for the arrogant, judgment for the judgmental.”

    “Everyone is so closed to everything,” he said of a majority of conservative followers of organized Christianity. “If He’s real and is a real force in my heart or life, I don’t have to be closed to anything. I would be the first in line to watch The Last Temptation of Christ. It was an utterly boring movie, but it wasn’t offensive. If He’s God, why would he care about a movie? It’s absurd, but that’s the way a lot of Christians think. They try to close themselves off to experience. If they’re that easily contaminated, then He isn’t real to them anyway, He’s removed and aloof. If He were real to you, there would be nothing to be afraid of.”

    An interesting take on the evangelical position. Kind of blurring the line.

  12. Dave Morris
    Posted July 30, 2005 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    It is late and this may not make sense, but the real Christian paradox to me is poverty. We are to help people out of poverty but the poor are supposedly blessed. We are asked to give of ourselves to those in need, but this would give the poor the burden of posessions and reverse the role, right?

    I remember when I discovered the hindu meaning of nirvana. I had thought for a while that it was some blissful event, but actually it means to “extinguish” a flame. Kind of like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree who gives until there is nothing left.

  13. john galt
    Posted July 30, 2005 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Never new Pedro was a christian rock band, I have a couple of their tracks on my IPod and unlike most christian rock bands they don’t suck at all. They sorta remind me of REM circa reckoning.

  14. dorothy
    Posted July 31, 2005 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    i will be very interested in your take on unitarianism. i am an episcopalian, but recently joined the unitarian jihad—from now on please address me as: sister gattling gun of serenity!

  15. dorothy
    Posted July 31, 2005 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    ps: i read that article in harper’s while on vacation. they have some of the neatest stuff in that magazine. i recommend a subscription to everyone.
    Sister Gattling Gun of

  16. mark
    Posted July 31, 2005 at 10:48 pm | Permalink


    I went this morning and had a very nice time. It was a completely different experience from the one I had a few weeks ago at the evangelical complex… I’ll try to write it all down and post something tomorrow night.

  17. Posted August 11, 2005 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Yo Mark –

    Bingo! The more one focuses on Jesus’ central core teachings, the more one realizes that Jesus was and is a Liberal…not a Democrat, but a Liberal. Bill Moyers, Bill McKibben and Jim Wallis all support this idea.

    I recommend that anyone interested in more of this line of thinking get the August 2005 Harpers before they’re gone from the store – read the entire article “The Christian Paradox” is awesome reading. Also, our website has several great articles posted (and about 100 more waiting to be posted) – please feel free to stop by, read and add your two cents.

    Let’s keep this going!

    Peace –


  18. Shanster
    Posted August 12, 2005 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    Interesting site thanks. It leads me to the conclusion that Jesus is a radical moderate. Your home page mentions that you are not biblical scholars, but are rather using your common sense. I suggest it might be a good idea to get a scholar on board. You are clearly engaging in eisogesis (but so do others who claim that God is a Republican). There are plenty of good supports that Jesus had and has liberal views, but there are plenty on the other side, too. Although “Jesus is a radical moderate” might be a much less compelling website. Psalm 85:10 refers to the fact that [in God’s Salvation] “Justice and Mercy kiss each other.” denoting that both sides are able to be reconciled.

  19. Doug Skinner
    Posted August 12, 2005 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    You can’t pigeonhole Jesus into 21st century political affiliations! It was a very different time. In fact, he would have made a very bad American politician. He wasn’t even a millionaire.

  20. Posted August 12, 2005 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Saint Francis? Was Jesus a liberal? You’re right, Shanster, scholars have been debating this for a long time–it goes without saying. Eisogesis? It sounds like a disease. How do you cure it?

  21. Shanster
    Posted August 12, 2005 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Exegesis is the cure, trying to decipher the meaning of scripture in its own time, in light of other relevant material, not just your own ideas. It’s something all students of scripture do wrong at some times; we all like to see what we want to see.

  22. Shanster
    Posted August 12, 2005 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Exegesis is the cure, trying to decipher the meaning of scripture in its own time, in light of other relevant material, not just your own ideas. It’s something all students of scripture do wrong at some times; we all like to see what we want to see.

  23. Shanster
    Posted August 13, 2005 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    Sorry for the double-post. Also, I misspelled eisegesis.

    But, Dirtgrain, my point wasn’t that people have been debating it for a long time, so there’s no answer. My point was that the answer is a combination of the two.

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