Monday, November 22, 2010

Geography Class, Islam, and the Gospel

I vividly remember sitting in World Geography one day in High School. By this time I had become a good little Pharisee in the Purpose Driven and Contemporary Praise Band movements of the Southern Baptist Convention. I remember watching a few films in class about various world religions. I honestly can't tell you the name of the film series or even the individuals they got to speak on the program. I do remember a young charismatic Muslim with a Koran in his hand speaking about the merits of his religion.

At one point he said something to the effect of, "Islam actually tells you what you need to do and then tells you how to do these things. Christianity does not do this. This is the strength of Islam. It teaches the principles and then it teaches you how to actually live by what it teaches."

For a moment, my young impressionable mind was threatened by what he had said. It was true that I carried a great deal of guilt and sense of failure about these standards that I was supposed to meet. For a moment, the legalist in me envied the Muslim for his attainable religion. Then my charismatic sensibilities kicked back in. "He's totally off base!" I mused. I thought back to all the practical preaching I had sat through. I thought about all the promises and commitments I had made. I thought about all the principles that my church had shown us buried in the Scriptures. We had Purpose, Spiritual Gift Surveys, the Prayer of Jabez, Promise Keepers, Small Groups, Accountability Partners, etc, etc. All the "progress" I had been making along the path. I thought about all of the works and steps and programs. I thought about all the training in sanctification.

Over the next couple years, I was impressed by the progress that the church was making in these areas. Eventually, the "Bible as Life's Instruction Manual" had been perfected and several cottage industries had sprung up in support of it. In my own mind I had thought back to that guy in class and been proud of how we sure were proving that silly Muslim wrong!

Looking back, that Muslim understood the Law in the Christian Bible better than I did. The reason why I found such commonality in my own faith and his description of Islam was that my faith was in my own works. The proof was in the things that I turned to for comfort: my works. I thought I was pulling things off just like he did. I was a legalist... just like him. No wonder we had so much in common.

Where was Christ in all of that? Did Christ even matter and was He even needed? On what had I set my hope and faith? Did I really believe in Christ or was "belief in Christ" just another self-righteous work that I had achieved on my way to pleasing God? All of the other stuff had obscured the cross... the very thing that I needed most.

The missing piece that he had not said on that video was something that I should have been clinging to all along. Yes, the Christian Law cannot be followed by sinful man. Yes, it cannot be done because it must be done perfectly. That is true. But Christ has fulfilled the Law on my behalf and justified me, a poor miserable sinner, through His vicarious atonement by death on the cross. There is nothing left for me to do. Christ has done it all in my stead.

And yet many churches today fall for the arguement that I first heard from this Muslim in Geography class. The church has to be practical. It has to be relevant and achievable.

It has to be like Islam. Achievable Law... no Gospel required.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

For the past 12 years or so, there has been a "Jesus Awareness Week" (it may have a different title now). It was started to be a counter to "Gay Awareness Week" - following a week after. The first one was horrid, all the fundamentalist groups decided they were going to win the campus for Christ - pulled people off of bikes to force them to take tracts - really foolish things.

However, my favorite story with this comes from my Greek Professor. He is a Baptist, but has an interest in Buddhism (as I sort of did... I was a Greek Language major as well as a Japanese History major, and I loved the religious history of Japan).

At any rate, one of his students who just assumes that He isn't Christian comes in to convert him, and she has a tract with the 4 things you must do to be a Christian... love your neighbor, 3 other things. And my Greek prof looks at it and says, "Oh, this is interesting." Then he pulls a book on Buddhism off the shelf from behind him and says, "Oh, well, look, this one is here too, and this one too..." and points out all the places where Buddhism teaches the same "moral truths". Then he says, "Tell you what, I'll take your book if you take this one."

The girl fled.

Now, while perhaps drastic (as this prof tends to be) it makes a point. If you shift focus off of the Gospel onto the Law, really, what is the difference between Christianity and even Buddhism? All Moralism.

Mike Baker said...

Isn't it interesting that the Gospel in the church decreases at the same time that pluralism, universalism, and apathy increases to replace it?

Once Christ and justification by grace alone are no longer central, then we become just another generically moral religious tradition among many similar traditions. In such a situation, why should Christianity claim to be exclusive? Why should I even bother when I can "try to be good" all on my own and sleep in on Sunday.

It really is amazing how identical the practical moral teaching (the Law) is everywhere. No one says anything particularly unqiue because the Law is written on our hearts.

Now the Gospel... there's only one place to find that! Too bad the church despises it so much.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Whenever Ecumenical movements talk about how we need to focus on things we can all agree on, they really just mean a watered down moralism.

Mike Baker said...

Yes, Pr. Brown.

And I happen to think that "ecumenical/pluralist" thinking and "watered down moralism" go more than just hand in hand. They really are a chicken or the egg situation.

I've seen it both ways. In once situation, the universalist impulse causes someone to water-down and minimize differences. In another situation, the unintentional watering down of doctrine and moralistic behavior causes someone to conclude that all religions basically teach the same truths.

These things are pervasive at this point in our society. It is the essence of American Civil Religion.