Idolatry 2.0

I am working my way through part of NT Wright’s work, Surprised by Scripture, and his chapter on Western gods called “Idolatry 2.0” is a fascinating read.

His contention is the Enlightenment re-introduced Epicurean thought through men like Jefferson. Tired of the antics of the Church in the medieval period, the thought of God being “there” but far off was appealing all over again. They were tired of the angry god theory, so they shoved him off on a shelf.

With the rise of science, Wright’s contention is that science isn’t evil. What Epicurean thought introduced, though, was scientism. The world has autonomy, so God doesn’t have much to say much about science.

Or politics, for that matter. Get rid of the divine right of kings and let democracy develop its own way. Of course, that belief has the assumption that when countries elsewhere in the world throw off their old dictators they would naturally want to be Western-styled democracies. When that doesn’t happen, and it really hasn’t happened (think “Arab Spring”), then western civilization is left scratching its head.

In Wright’s view, scientism and political autonomy have given birth to secularism, the dominant motif of the West, especially the United States. Because of the underlying roots of Epicurean thought, secularism still has that “bad taste” in its mouth about an “angry god” so secularism works to shove religiosity from American culture. Get “god talk” out of the public square. Conduct all of life (politics, science, even marriage) as though all that exists is simply visible. No big scary thing out there to worry about.

But what happens when you create a vacuum? The saying goes “nature abhors a vacuum.” You can push God, or gods, upstairs and out of sight, but history shows again and again when you try that, other gods quietly sneak in to take their place.

The “big three” for Wright are these: Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite. We have the god of war (or power), along with money and sex.

We’ve come to think of sex as simply a “life force” one can’t resist. Christopher Hitchens, preeminent atheistic priest, once said one should never pass up an opportunity to appear on television or to have sex. Even unnamed, Aphrodite is served by millions.

We think money fixes everything. Even those who don’t like evil capitalists and think the government can solve all our problems still need one thing as their catalyst: MORE MONEY. The problem with schools? Lack of funding. The problem with poverty? Lack of funding. The problem with (just insert anything here)? Lack of funding. It’s MONEY.

If a nation is trouble (like Greece today), it’s a matter of shoring up their financial system and moving on.

We bow to Mars as well. Got a terror problem? Send in the drones. Got a church shooting problem? Let the congregation start packin’!

Try and solve something by forgiveness and reconciliation? Get a life! Just shoot someone!

Aphrodite, Mammon, and Mars are present and powerful. They are even more powerful because they go largely unrecognized. That’s what makes a stronghold a stronghold. You don’t recognize it. If we did see it, the ugliness would be so horrifying we would actually work to get it out.

So, while society has tried hard to rid itself of the Christian God, they have instead welcomed in other gods. And those are the big ones. Wright names others as well.

And this, my friends, is called being “progressive.”

But it’s simply idolatry dressed up in a new skin.

Somehow we’ve turned the good news into bad news

In Simply Good News, Wright goes into far more detail as to how we’ve managed to distort the announcement of the good news of the Kingdom into one of an angry God and simple fragments of a much fuller truth. It is well worth the time to read through his fuller treatment of how we have gone from proclaiming the good news to offering “good advice” to fragmenting the gospel so badly we’ve reduced it to bumper sticker theology that leaves people with a sense that God is just angry all the time.

A couple of years ago I had a guest speaker at my church and as we sat for the meal before our ministry time, he just began with his theology of God being mad. “God really is mad.” He went on to quote several verses dealing with the anger of God toward sin. It was in that moment I really want to exhibit a bit of righteous anger myself and uninvite him immediately.

The fragments we use are true… to an extent. We need to understand that saying “Jesus died in my place” is true. But to let that be the central part of the good news proclamation is to miss the greater picture, in Wright’s view.

We’ve turned Christianity into a “system.” We have a “system” of thought, a “system” of evangelism, a “system” of what is “central” to the gospel.

Again, it is important to read Wright’s fuller treatment in the book, but his contention is that we are missing the fuller picture of the gospel. We miss God as Creator and we miss the whole idea of covenant. As Creator, the whole world belongs to God and he longs to put that world right at last. It is about ALL of creation being redeemed. You can’t read Romans 8 without coming away with that conclusion.

In covenant, God calls Israel to be his people. It is a call of love. The call to covenant comes out of a heart of love, not anger.

Wright does deal with wrath and the meaning of God’s wrath. He doesn’t negate it. He calls us to keep it in context.

God’s goal in the good news is the restoration and transformation of ALL creation. Then Wright really puts the hammer down on our slim, distorted views of how we see the “central” message of the gospel these days:

To imagine a gospel that has forgotten about creation and covenant; to imagine a gospel with an angry deity who is pacified only by the blood of an innocent victim; to imagine good news that, instead of restoring and completing the work of the world’s creation, is prepared to throw away the world and take some people (“souls”) to a different location, namely a disembodied heaven — this picture looks far more like a complicated form of paganism than genuine biblical Christianity. (p. 74)

Somehow, we’ve turned the truly good news of Jesus Christ into some really bad news.

It’s time to re-think our view of the Kingdom of God.

It is simply good news

I am starting into NT Wright’s book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes It Good. 

As usual with Wright at this point in my life, it is refreshing reading. Wright has done such a marvelous job of paring down issues over time. He can be as complicated as the next scholar. Here, he keeps it basic.

It’s about good news. What we offer today most of the time is good advice.

For Paul the apostle, it boils down to this:

God had come in the person of Jesus; God was coming, to the whole world, in the presence and power of his Spirit wherever the good news was announced. And one day — the God now made known in Jesus — would come back to finish the task, to be all in all, to fill the world with his glory and love, to transform everything, to rectify everything, to heal everything with his powerful love. (p. 34)

THIS is some good news! The desperate need of our day is to recapture this vision of good news. It is something to proclaim, to live out, to stay passionate about. This good news is also a scandal and foolishness. But to those who hear and receive, to those who are thirsty and find living water, it is good news. 

Why we read Scriptures in every worship service

We follow a public reading of Scripture format every service. They are designed to keep us mindful of the story.

The church needs constantly to learn, and constantly to be working on, the practice of telling and retelling the great stories of the world and Israel, especially the creation and the Exodus; the great promises that emerged from those stories; and the ways in which those promises came to their fruition in Jesus Christ. The reading of scripture— the written account of those stories— has therefore always been central to the church’s worship. (N T Wright, After You Believe)

Transformational thinking starts with suffering. Really.

Picking up N T Wright’s book, After You Believe, is a tremendous bonus as I work through these texts on “live dead” for my messages on Sunday.

Wright does not pull any punches. He examines the New Testament texts thoroughly. While a lot of his writing sounds a lot like the old “Kingdom Now” theology, it varies off wildly from that strain of thought because of where Kingdom power really starts: in suffering. It’s not all “glory” in our own terms, like Kingdom Now tended to propose, or some strains that I hear in other teaching from time to time these days.

NT Wright takes James. 1:2-4 and 2 Peter 1:5-8 works them this way:

Here we are clearly in the same world of thought. All these characteristics lead to one another, of course. The point is not to spend some years acquiring the first, and then move on to the second, and so on; they work together. And the point is their forward look: the aim of it all is to be fruitful in working for Jesus (2 Peter); to be “complete,” teleioi, ready for whatever contingency may arise, since your character has been formed to be prepared for anything and everything (James).

Character formation is the key, not just good feelings over someone getting healed. Suffering leads that way in New Testament teaching:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

Live Dead is necessary for any believer. America. North Africa. China. Live Dead may look “different” in particular contexts, but above all should be the idea of character transformation. Our lives are to be different from this world. It takes our minds being transformed. It takes US being willing to have our characters formed by Christ and allowing Kingdom habits to become second nature.

Walk in transformational thinking. Walk in new life. Really.

Be anxious for nothing. Really.

I am working through a series I’ve called “Live Dead.” I am using the missions theme our denomination uses that is building teams to go into the hardest areas of the world and from that exploring what it means to “live dead” as American Christians. I’ve been drawing from the New Testament readings each week in our services (Revised Common Lectionary). This week is Phil. 4:1-9.

At the same time I have been exploring some books for discipleship material and downloaded N T Wright’s book After You Believe. The title sounded like a “discipleship” book, but knowing N T Wright’s style, I knew it wouldn’t be exactly what I was looking for. It wasn’t. It was exactly what I needed. It is flowing seamlessly into my study of “live dead” because his whole contention is that when Scripture tells us to do things we kind of pass on quickly (like “be anxious for nothing”), the Kingdom really means us to live this way. 

If we are truly flowing in resurrection power, we are taking on the character of the Kingdom. We are living in the gifts of the Kingdom, which empower us to live in an entirely different realm from what this world offers.

So Paul can confidently write these words:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:4-9)

He can confidently write these words because that is joyous expectation of the Kingdom!

Wright says this:

This is how virtue works. Keep your eye on the goal of a “complete” character — in the Christian case, the full humanity promised in the resurrection, through which we are called to be a royal priesthood. Practice the skills in the present which will gradually enable you to do and be what will go to make up that complete character. This will seem “unnatural” at first, but eventually it may, if we stick at it, become “second nature.” When you do this, he says, you will turning into a genuine, God-reflecting human being. The world will see in you a reflection of who God truly is. God will see in you a reflection of the world as it has been and will be renewed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So… be anxious for nothing. Really.