Neither Earthly nor Heavenly Good

Earlier this month, I told you about the Kabbalah craze that has enthralled Hollywood. Celebrities like Madonna have become outspoken devotees of what is supposed to be a form of medieval Jewish mysticism. I say "supposed to be" because what is actually being peddled is only the latest example of what I call "do-it-yourself God kits" -- quasi-religions that enable people to feel good about themselves without making real moral demands. While it's easy to poke fun at Hollywood's excesses, if we're honest, we ought to acknowledge that some of these same tendencies are at work in many of our own churches. A decade ago, Yale professor Harold Bloom wrote The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. Bloom argued that many Americans, including some Christians, were practicing an updated version of the ancient heresy called Gnosticism. Bloom cited what he called the "experiential" nature, and the disdain for authority and tradition, that characterizes much of contemporary American religion. This emphasis on personal experience is what Bloom meant by "Gnostic." While Bloom had many critics, some Christians, like Father Richard Neuhaus, believe that Bloom is on to something. Neuhaus notes that many of the books in the "New Age" section of bookstores are purchased by "people who think of themselves as Christians but are either unwilling or unable to recognize Gnostic doctrines quite at odds with elementary Christian teaching." Writer Jeremy Lott adds that Bloom's book "should serve as cautionary tale and barbed warning" for evangelical Christians. He's right. What Bloom wrote about the "experiential" nature of American religion is often true in Christian circles. For many Christians, their faith is primarily a matter of personal experience and has little to do with historic Christian teaching or being part of God's people, the Church. The idea that the Christian faith produces a distinct worldview is often greeted with uncomprehending stares. Another troubling tendency is on display at nearly every Christian book store. Dozens of books promise to tell readers the "secret" or "key" to success in some area of life. For students of church history, this is a little too reminiscent of the Gnostic idea of salvation through secret or esoteric knowledge. Nearly all of these books claim to be based on biblical principles. While they may be, what readers are buying is special knowledge that enables them to "tap into" or "unleash" some hidden power. As with the "Jesus and me" emphasis on personal experience, this hunger for special knowledge reflects an indifference to historic Christianity and the worldview it produces. As with the "do-it-yourself God kits," the emphasis, admitted or not, is on enhancing one's quality of life, not in conforming our souls to the Truth. The result is ignorance about, and disregard for, the cultural mandate. Experiential religion begins and ends with the question "What's in it for me?" Shaping culture out of love for God and neighbor rarely figures into the equation. So, while the goings-on in Hollywood may be amusing, what's happening in some churches isn't. Some Christians have become, to modify the old saying, so earthly minded that they are neither earthly nor heavenly good. And that's not how it is supposed to be. For further reading and information: Jeremy Lott, "American Gnostic," Books and Culture, November/December 2002. BreakPoint Commentary No. 040514, "An Old Error in a New Package: Hollywood and Kabbalah." David Mills, "Getting Jesus Right," Touchstone, October 2001. Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (Simon & Schuster, 1993). Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Free Press, 2003). Paul Vitz, Psychology as Religion (Eerdmans, 1994). Charles Colson and Ellen Vaughn, Being the Body (W Publishing, 2003).


Chuck Colson


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