“For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great sings and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
This past weekend Jenny and I took the kids to one of our favorite local bookstores just to have some browsing time. But while we were there I noticed something strange. My favorite section, the “Religion” section, had its name changed. Now it was no longer the “Religion” section. It was the “Inspiration” section. There were still some religious books there – titles by C. S. Lewis, the Dalai Lama, and Reza Aslan – but there were also countless hallmark-style books; tiny volumes with collected quotes from various religious and philosophical works that were personally affirming and encouraging. Other titles were self-help in nature, focusing on finding inner peace, financial stability, and so forth. All were lumped together in one section.
But it just got stranger as we went over to the kids section. We were looking at some Easter themed books when my wife pulled out a beautifully illustrated book about the Easter story. It featured Jesus, his ride into Jerusalem, his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection. And yet….there was something off about the whole thing. While the Last Supper was there, it had nothing to do with Jesus’ sacrifice. While the trial was there, it didn’t mention why Jesus was condemned. And when it came time for the risen Christ to issue the Great Commission, all he said to his disciples was, “Go tell people that God loves everyone.” This is a far cry from what we find in Scripture, where Jesus tells his disciples:
All authority in heaven an on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV, emphasis mine).
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8 ESV, emphasis mine).
The common theme in both of these discoveries is this: religion has become nothing more than sentimentality. Instead of books on the various deep and complex religious traditions from around the world, we get the inspiration section filled with pseudo-religious feel good soup. Instead of the Lord and Savior Jesus, we get universalist hippie Jesus who offers generic love and placebo discipleship.
Both instances highlight what religion in American society has become: nothing more than a feel-good drug. Whereas religion in general and Christianity in particular were once life-commitments and worldview shaping meta-narratives, what we have now is a society that sees religion as, at best, nothing more than something to comfort us in hard times and, at worst, irrational and dangerous.
And it would be easy to blame “the culture” for this shift. In fact, blaming the “culture” and the secularization of America for the downfall of religious identity and conviction is a favorite pastime of conservative Christians. But I think that beating up on this straw man is far too easy.
Rather, what I saw in the bookstore was an invitation for self-reflection. It forced me to ask, “What have we done, as the church, to contribute to this distorted picture?” The reality is that we, as Christians, are just as guilty of painting this picture as the broader culture.
It creeps into our marketing. We have church signs that reflect pithy platitudes in neon lights to those passing by in their cars. Phrases like “Son screen prevents Sin burn” or “Walmart isn’t the only saving place” or “Whoever is praying for snow, please stop” blink incessantly at the endless stream of commuters. We have radio stations that play “positive and encouraging” music which too often sounds like a sanctified version of boy-band hits. And we have Christian bookstores that sell the exact same children’s books as the ones I found in that local bookstore (yes…the exact same books).
It creeps into our talk. Too often we are ready to talk about the times when God has comforted us in difficult moments or made us feel better when we were down. But we aren’t as quick to talk about those times when God has made us feel uncomfortable or when Jesus has truly challenged us with the self-sacrifical call to discipleship. We are too quick to credit God with giving us that job or providing us with that raise and not so quick to address the issue of tithing or his exhortation to die to oneself. In fact, when someone actually gets honest about their struggles or doubts in following Christ, too often we in the church tell them to keep it to themselves or tone it down for fear that such “raw” confessions might offend.
We love spiritual disciplines like meditation, retreats, and journaling, but shy away from lament and fasting. We sing songs of joy and triumph, but never cry out with songs of pain and heartache. We love pictures of Jesus with lambs and the Empty Tomb, but no longer adorn our heads with ashes nor paint crucifixes.
The truth is that the culture sees religion as sentimentality because that is what we, in the church, have offered them. So rather than railing against the “culture” that just doesn’t understand, I think it is time for us to get honest about the faith that we profess.
It is a faith that is hard. It is a calling that it high. It is a conviction that is challenging. But it is also one that is life giving, world changing, and community transforming. It is centered on Jesus, a man who invites us to, “deny [yourself] and take up [your] cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). It is a Cross-shaped faith that promises death AND resurrection.
This Lenten season we are invited to see Christ as he truly is and to be invited to a faith that is shaped by his Cross. My prayer is that instead of sentimentality, we would offer the world the Gospel of a crucified Lord and a risen Savior and that our lives would be shaped by that story and that story alone.