Jesus Christ is Lord! So What!

An expanded version of the Keynote address delivered by Dr. Ralph Blair at the Eastern and Western connECtions 2002.

INTRODUCTION

“Jesus Christ is Lord!” So what! There’s no more foolish non sequitur than that. Yet among so many Christians, there’s no more frequent folly. Of course, among non-Christians, this dismissive statement seems no non sequitur. As Paul said: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ [and really mean it] unless he or she is prompted by God’s Holy Spirit.” (I Cor 12:3)

“So What!” That’s the least of the interjections of indifference. “Yeah, well, so?” “Whatever!” They get rougher, more hostile. “Who cares?” “Who gives a damn?” “Who gives a shit?” Shall I go on? Christians usually don’t go on from there. And, of course, Christians don’t actually say: “Jesus Christ is Lord! So what?” No. With eyes closed and hands aloft, Christians sing the praise chorus, “He is Lord.” And with eyes shut against that truth and a hands-off policy to what is proclaimed, we lead our lives to suit ourselves. For too many, instead of following through on Christ’s Lordship – there’s a flaking out in the fantasies of our own lord- and ladyships. For all practical purposes, it’s not: “Jesus Christ is Lord!” Forever! It’s “Jesus Christ is Lord!” Whatever!

Arthur Krystal is not a Christian. Doesn’t believe in God either. Still, he wrote an essay in last fall’s American Scholar explaining “Why smart people believe in God.” He said: “I suspect that Christianity offers the best occasion for an intense feel-good experience. Christianity, after all, has the enviable fillip of a God willing to die for our sins so that we might enter heaven. To believe that God loves us so much is surely cause to return that love.” One would think so. So, Krystal admits: “To see the delight on the faces of those who sing his praises, to hear the Mass at Christmas, to attend evensong, is to feel more than anything else that one has been left out of the secret.” Echoing Anselm, he observes: “The wise who have found God don’t wish to understand creation in order to believe, they believe in order to understand.” He concludes: “I expect that it must feel pretty damn good.”

And yet so many Western Christians are complacent, apathetic, indifferent, negligent, biblically illiterate and theologically ignorant when it comes to basic Christian doctrine and discipline. University of Southern California philosopher Dallas Willard sadly concludes that “The most telling thing about the contemporary Christian is that he or she has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teaching of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life.”

THE “WHATEVER!” CULTURE

Oprah Winfrey’s popular advice right after 9/11 was this: “Whatever it is you believe most deeply, … embrace it.” As the terrorists did? Whatever! Al Franken advises: “Pick a Religion, Any Religion! … I don’t care what kind of nonsense you believe.” Says he: “The core tenet of my religion [is] Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.” But where and why and how, Al? When little Alice asked the Cheshire-Cat which way she should go, the Cheshire-Cat told Alice: “That depends on where you want to go.” Do we want to go with Alice when she replies: “I don’t really care.” So she’s told: “Well it doesn’t matter then, does it.” But sensing something’s amiss, Alice quickly adds: “As long as I get somewhere.” But is “somewhere” really good enough? Isn’t “somewhere” just anywhere? And anywhere can be nowhere! And nowhere is despair.

New York Times social critic Michiko Kakutani perceives our culture of whatever to be a byproduct of years of radical relativism, multiculturalism, deconstruction, identity politics and other postmodernist propaganda. She sees it’s “a mindset reinforced by television shows like ‘Oprah’ that preach self-esteem and the accommodation of others [but instead lead to] niche cultures” where, for example, argument over superior and inferior ideas is taken to be personal attack and evidence of oppression – elitism, sexism, racism. A Johns Hopkins professor’s new book is entitled The Way We Argue Now. She grants that “appeals to relativism today [are] coming out of genuinely pluralistic orientation and a desire to get along. [But this, she points out] makes argument and rigorous analysis very difficult, because people will stop and say, ‘I guess I just disagree.’” (Amanda Anderson) Worse yet, they’ll say: “That’s just not the way I feel about it” – as though how one feels settles matters of truth and falsehood.

But nobody – Christian or non-Christian – can be confronted with the historic claim that “Jesus Christ is Lord!” and then go on as though nothing’s been said. That all-encompassing affirmation sits there like a most inconvenient elephant in our midst and cannot be ignored. By definition, it demands a decision – from everyone.

ADRIFT IN SPIRITUALITY

It’s not that spirituality has gone missing – though many are missing the point. When Barbara Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky about the Oval Office adultery, she asked her if she’d sinned. Lewinsky hesitated and then replied: “I’m not very religious. I’m more spiritual.” Whatever did she think she meant? Even supposedly personal and private “spirituality” is borrowed belief and derived dogma and it’s every bit as organized (or disorganized) as so-called “organized religion.” Saying you’re not into organized religion but you’re spiritual makes as much sense as saying you’re not into organized sports but you’re sporty!

Spirituality pervades us. We’re all created by and for the Spirit of God so we cannot escape the spiritual – whether aimed in a true or a counterfeit direction.

RELIGIOUS “PREFERENCE”

According to the premier historian of religions: “What goes by the name of ‘religion’ in the modern world is, to a great extent, unbridled human self-assertion in religious disguise.” (Hendrik Kraemer) Of course, that’s always been the case – though it’s not always been pulled off with such candor.

In order to meet what’s called their “felt needs,” people shop around for their so-called “religious preference” as though shopping for any other consumer product. It’s a matter of taste. And they wind up where they began – in their Religion of Me, Myself and I – a tightly-knit little trinitarianism. But this “peculiarly American phrase ‘religious preference,’” as a major sociologist notes, “contains within itself the whole crisis into which pluralism has plunged religion.” (Peter Berger)

GO WITHIN AND YOU’LL GO WITHOUT

In the elite strata of Western society today, we’re witnessing what’s being described as “a shift from a theology of transcendence to a theology of immanence.” (James R. Edwards) It’s all about me or us. We’re to make it up as we go.

There are some people in church circles who urge that we simply “go within” to find our spirituality and then express that as our Christianity. Some urge us to go into our GLBTQ identities to discover what our Christian faith should be about rather than go into the Christian faith to find out what our sexuality – and everything else – should be about. But as Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas tirelessly reminds us: “Our salvation comes only when we cease trying to interpret Jesus’ story in the light of our history, and instead we interpret ourselves in the light of his.”

Philip Yancey sees a symptom of such pseudo-transcendence in sex run amok these days. He asks rhetorically: “When a society so completely blocks the human thirst for transcendence, should we be surprised that such longings reroute themselves into an expression of mere physicality? More and more,” he says, “I see sex excess as a modern mutation of classic idolatry, a commitment of spirit to something that cannot bear its weight.”

Of course such superficial sex, even in saturation, cannot bear spiritual weight. But it can’t even bear sexual weight. So, in the words of New York Times film reviewer Stephen Holden, we wind up with “Sex as a fashion accessory.”

No matter how moved we can be by God’s good gift of sexual intimacy, even that cannot transport us to true transcendence. Why? Because, even under the best of circumstances, sexuality is always a drive toward what is never really captured: the fascinatingly other. And that other, for whom we deeply hunger – that connection with what is not the self – is an intimation of the Truly Other by Whom we must be raptured.

But so many are sexual neophytes. Though they’ve never said “No” to a trick, they’re still sexually and sensually naïve. They toy with tons of toxic sex. They’re brains are pseudo-pharmaceutically fried. They wouldn’t dare miss a circuit party. And so they miss the very soul of sex and short-circuit any chance for sexual intimacy. Mere numbers cannot count for sexual connection. But they can make sexual connection impossible. Skin-deep sex cannot touch the soul. But it can trash it. Nerve endings are not our true ends. No body cavity is deep enough to reach the vital part – the person you were made to be in your Creator’s image.

If we’re looking only within ourselves for what can come only from beyond ourselves, we’ll remain empty and isolated in ourselves. If we simply go within, we’ll simply go without. If we’re looking for the really ravishing rapture and passion, we cannot expect to find it apart from the Rapture of God and the Passion of Christ. If we need what T. S. Eliot called “something above happiness,” there’s no use looking for it in anything below the belt. There’s no use looking for “something above happiness” in anything lower than “something above happiness.” And if we posture heavenward while insisting on solutions of mere immanence, we must face up to a warning from none other than C. S. Lewis: “There is no good applying to Heaven for earthly comfort. Heaven can give heavenly comfort; no other kind.” Thank Heaven!

So the question’s not: spiritual or not? It’s: “What spirit?” – this spirit or that Spirit? The spirit of this world or the Spirit Himself? In other words: “What’s so?” Then: If that’s so, where do we go?” As the earliest Christians testified: “Jesus Christ is Lord!” That’s what’s so! So – what shall we make of that? As a familiar question puts it: How then shall we live?

THE TEXT

It’s in his correspondence with Christians at Philippi, around AD 60, that Paul expounds on the earliest Christian creed: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” And he was writing to people every bit as much enmeshed in a multicultural world as we. Paul writes:

“Make sure that your lifestyle is worthy of the Gospel of Christ. … If Christ’s love and encouragement means anything to you, if you have known something of the fellowship of his Spirit, and all that it means in kindness and deep sympathy, make my hopes for you come true! Live together in harmony. Live together in love, as though you had only one mind and one spirit among you. Never act from motives of rivalry or personal vanity, but in humility, think more of one another than you do of yourselves. None of you should be preoccupied with merely his or her own welfare, but each of you should learn to see things in terms of the other person’s welfare.

“Let Christ Jesus be your example as to what your approach should be. For he, who had always been God, did not cling to his equality with God, but voluntarily stripped himself of all privilege in order to be a slave, born as a real human being. And, having become such, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying the death of a common criminal. That is why God has now exalted him, and has given him the name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus, ‘every knee shall bow,’ whether in heaven or on earth or under the earth. And that is why, in the end, ‘every tongue shall confess’ that ‘Jesus Christ is Lord!’ to the glory of God the Father.” (from Philippians 1 and 2)

A Bible scholar says: “The confession Jesus Christ is Lord stands as the climax of the drama of salvation. [Jesus Christ] receives the new name which is none other than God’s own name [and the hymn’s climax is] the sign of a new aeon already begun in the Church and the world.” (Ralph P. Martin) He points out that “now in Christ, pre-existing, incarnate and humiliated, and exalted, God and the world are united and a new segment of humanity, a microcosm of God’s new order for this universe (Eph 1:10) is born.”

When Paul, “Hebrew of Hebrews,” says that “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” he’s echoing the prophet Isaiah. (Isaiah 45) Amazingly, the specific text is “one of the OT passages that most strongly emphasizes the sole authority of God.” (Martin) Isaiah’s words are these: “I am the Lord [Adonai], and there is none else. … there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; There is none except Me. Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself … That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.” You’ll still hear this read in the Friday evening services at synagogues. And, here, in the earliest Christian creed, Rabbi Paul is applying this text to Jesus Messiah, Jesus the Christ. No wonder the Temple establishment and Roman authorities were up in arms. Tom Wright of Westminster Abbey explains that “When Paul said ‘Jesus is Lord,’ it is clear that he meant that Caesar was not. This is Jewish-style no-king-but-God theology with Jesus in the middle of it.”

Wright notes that Paul “takes the [Shema, the] Jewish formula which is the most basic expression of Jewish monotheism, and places Jesus at the heart of it.” The early church’s Christ-centered creed is based in the central Jewish prayer (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God.”) (Cf. Deut 6:4; I Cor 8:4) This is especially striking when Paul’s Greek is compared to the Greek Old Testament text of this prayer. Paul glosses the term “God” with “the Father” and “Lord” with “Jesus Messiah.” As Wright instructs: “There can be no mistake: Paul has placed Jesus within an explicit statement drawn from the Old Testament’s best known monotheistic text, of the doctrine that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the creator of the world.”

Paul wrote to Colossian Christians: “In Christ, all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” (Col 2:9) We see this same high Christology throughout the New Testament. In the very first sentence of Second Peter, for instance, “God and Savior Jesus Christ” are linked by a single Greek article. (II Pet 1:1)

Well is the creed true? Says Hauerwas: It’s not only Christians’ “truth, [and] the truth for everyone,” but it’s the absolute truth about “the way things are … the way the world is.” If Jesus Christ is Lord in the sense that the Jews meant “Lord,” then nothing is left untouched by His Lordship. If Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, every Caesar-substitute is dethroned. It’s the most profound statement that can be said about anyone. And it’s a statement, then, about everything.

Physicists talk about a “theory of everything.” Physicist Stephen Wolfram is now claiming that, by computer experiments, he has found the simple rules behind everything. Hearing this, people are all ears. Focusing on the central event of the Cross, Richard John Neuhaus asserts: “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.” Said Eugenia Price: “Jesus is God’s explanation for everything.” Hearing this, are people all ears?

Sadly, these truly comforting Christian statements sound arrogant to people pre-programmed to postmodernist propaganda. And so, in their selectively intolerant indignation, they protest: How dare you say that Christ is the truth about everything! How intolerant! How culturally oppressive! But how beside-the-point can they be? If it is true that Jesus Christ is Lord, then that fact of reality – by definition – tolerates no competing claim. And if it is not true, the fault is not intolerance but falsehood. But they’re blind to their own intolerance as well as to their own illogical argument. They’re every bit as dogmatic as the Christians they’d fault. They’re claiming: Jesus Christ is NOT Lord! And it makes no sense for them to allow that Jesus Christ may be Lord for Christians but not for them. The terms of the historic creed do not have room for such a fashionable favor. That creed, for which Christians all over the world have been tortured and killed rather than deny their Lord, does not mean to say that “Jesus Christ is some sort of little mini-lord” or a petty political hack with no jurisdiction over in the next county. The cosmic meaning of the creed won’t allow for such “true-for-you-but-not-true-for-me” exclusion. The creed is inclusivity itself.

Christianity is not a religion among the world’s religions. As a Bible scholar reminds us: “There is – surprisingly – very little about religion in the Bible” – and what there is, is overwhelmingly negative. “Religion is man-made,” he notes, but “the gospel comes direct from God.” (A. R. C. Leaney) The man who wrote The Christ of the American Road, The Christ of the Indian Road, and The Christ of the Every Road – granting that “religions are the Word become word” (philosophies, moralities, and so on) – nonetheless affirmed that, in contrast: “the gospel is the Word become flesh.” He signed his books: “Jesus is Lord. E. Stanley Jones.” “Religions,” he said, “are man’s search for God. The gospel is God’s search for man. Therefore, there are many religions, but only one gospel.” Amen.

Yet as C. S. Lewis cracked: In speaking of man’s search for God you might as well speak of the mouse’s search for the cat! Remember that poignant poem from Francis Thompson, depicting our running as fast as we can to outrun “The Hound of Heaven.” So the 20th century’s major theologian, Karl Barth, said that “sin celebrat[es] its triumph in religion. … Conflict and distress, sin and death, the devil and hell – [these] make up the reality of religion.”

If Christianity is not a religion among the world’s religions, what is it? Simply but profoundly put: Christianity is Christ. It cannot be said better. From the beginning, Christ Jesus called himself “The Way.” (John 14:6) From the beginning, the company of his followers, the earliest church, was known as “The Way.” (Acts 9:2; 24:14) And from the beginning, the church has been called “The Body of Christ” and “The Bride of Christ.”

But “the Christ” that is Christianity is not one of the “christs” bandied about in much of contemporary “spirituality.” I found a book called Christ Consciousness. Its subtitle? “Emergence of the Pure Self Within.” The book is a self-referenced New Age book that’s promoted with this blurb: “This book could well have been called Moses consciousness, or Buddha consciousness, or love consciousness.” But could the creed have been: Moses is Lord? The Buddha is Lord? Moses and the Buddha would turn over in their graves at being called “the Lord” in this sense! The blurb promises that “Within each one of us exists the consciousness that can change this world, and ourselves … from within us.” Nonsense. But in a lost and biblically-illiterate culture, it sells.

Jesus of Nazareth is no generalization, no generic “christ.” In Jesus Christ we see Israel’s Messiah who said he, the Son, revealed His Father perfectly. As he said to Philip: “Anyone who sees me sees the Father. I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:9f) He said: “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) It was in Jesus Christ that Paul said: “all the fullness of God lives.” (Col 2:9) Paul said “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.” (II Cor 5:19) Duke University’s Will Willimon points out that here, it “is not that God was in Jesus but that God was in Jesus, reconciling the world to himself.” He explains that “the great, invigorating challenge … is not that Jesus was [a] god, but that God was Jesus.” Even a postmodern theologian like David Tracy insists that to “believe in ‘Jesus Christ with the apostles’” is not to believe in “simply a ‘Christ principle.’ It has to be related to Jesus,” he says. And therefore, in words of a church historian: “For Christianity to be intelligible, its meaning cannot be plastic as if it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean.” (D. G. Hart)

And yet the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord is seen to be irrelevant or inconvenient to both Christians and non-Christians these days. But look: There are no two ways about it. “Jesus Christ is Lord!” is a double-edged sword. Jesus promised that. He said he’d be the source of conflict and division, splitting up families, separating one person from another, severing assemblies – even slicing between bone and marrow in all the conveniently contrived inconsistencies inside one’s self. While granting practicality to some tolerance, Barth nonetheless noted in his reforming commentary on Romans that “The One in whom we are veritably united, is himself the great intolerance. … He is who disturbs every family gathering, every scheme for the reunion of Christendom, every human cooperation.” And then Barth points out that this is due to the fact of Christ’s authority over all: “He disturbs, because he is the Peace that is above every estrangement and cleavage and faction.”

TRIVIAL PURSUITS

From the beginning, the confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” was in competition and opposition to all prevailing priorities of culture and creed – secular and religious. It still is. It’s always thus – by definition.

The Philippians faced temptations from those Paul called “dogs” or S.O.B.s. Paul says they fool around at focusing all their attention on themselves instead of on Christ. (Phil 3:2)

Just look at all the fashionable fooling around these days! Look around at all the tragic and even silly self-absorbed substitutes for “Jesus Christ is Lord!” in so many churches these days. From fundamentalist fortresses of the Religious Right, to suburban megachurches of pop-psych consumerism, to congregations that do little but baptize the sociopolitical agenda of the Left – American Christianity is in trivial pursuit.

Pursuing Trivialities of the Religious Right

Some fundamentalists do recognize the sad triviality of identifying Christianity with the ideological and political Right. In their book, Blinded by Might, two leaders of the Religious Right argued as much. (Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson) These fundamentalists recognize that such identification, as one Right-wing activist says, “might hurt the proclamation of the gospel.” (Joel Belz) No kidding.

This spring, Jesse Helms had a near-deathbed conversion on AIDS funding. He admitted he’s “been too lax too long in doing something really significant about AIDS.” Saying his conscience was “answerable to God,” he admitted: “Perhaps, in my 81st year, I am too mindful of soon meeting Him.” Better twenty years late than never, Helms says he now knows of “no more heartbreaking tragedy in the world today than the loss of so many young people” to AIDS. So he’s calling for additional millions of dollars to fight pediatric AIDS in Africa. But he’s still not concerned about the welfare of Americans who contracted HIV in what he disdains as “the homosexual lifestyle.”

The Religious Right is trumpeting a Constitutional Amendment that would seek to prevent same-sex marriage. They say they don’t want to discredit marriage. But the divorce rate down in the Bible Belt is higher than it is in the rest of the country. James Dobson admits that most of the calls coming into his Focus on the Family’s preacher hot line are calls from Right-wing preachers addicted to pornography. One in five of the fundamentalists who call Focus are hooked on sex in cyberspace.

The Religious Right refuses to extend the right hand of fellowship to gay Christians who gladly affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord. But the Religious Right mounts awards ceremonies for antigay Right-wingers like “Dr. Laura” who believe that Jesus Christ is not the Lord.

The Bible’s good news is: Jesus Christ is Lord. And yet in circles of the Religious Right, the all-too-common shrug is “So What?”

So: Is Jesus Christ Lord of the Religious Right? Yes, of course – because Jesus Christ is Lord, period. But how is this best-ever news that Jesus Christ is Lord acknowledged among people who seem, sadly, to be more fixated on the trivialities of narcissistic Right-wing ideology and political power than they are committed to living in Christ and His reign of real, self-sacrificing love – even for the enemies of the Religious Right? How do the lifestyles of the Religious Right work out the implications of the gospel of salvation in Christ, wholesomely and harmlessly? How are they salt of the earth? How do their lives shine like a light in the dark?

Pursuing Trivialities of Evangelicaland

Some evangelicals do note the sad triviality of identifying Christianity with suburban prosperity, pop-psych pampering and fads of faith that fade as fast as they’re fashionable. They rightly object to the “Here-we-are!-Now-entertain-us!” mentality of the megachurches offering quick-fix comfort and all the consumer convenience of megamalls. They echo the hype of TV infomercials: “But wait! There’s more!” It’s all aimed at what a Wake Forest dean calls “Christian cocooning.” (Bill J. Leonard)

Do you know that the top one hundred bestsellers in Evangelicaland at the moment include only four books on Christ, two on the Holy Spirit, six about the Bible, and but one on the gospel? Only four books are even popular level theology. Yet five of the top nine are Left Behind novels. All the rest are on so-called “family values” and feel-good, pop psych/spirituality.

A Dallas Seminary history professor is correct in critiquing evangelicalism’s now being “where liberalism was 100 years ago.” He says: “They took Christ out of the Gospel and reduced it to a moralism.” (John Hannah) And so there’s Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, promoting her own preaching revival called “Just Give Me Jesus.” But unlike Jesus, she was attacking homosexuality as being unbiblical. What happened to “Just Give Me Jesus?” When asked about those Christians who claim that women preachers are themselves unbiblical, she objects: that’s “a man-made rule that’s sort of cultural.” Hm.

Rodney Clapp, in Evangelicaland’s flagship magazine, notes that “Evangelicals … frequently berate culture-in-general. But what would happen,” he wonders, “if these critics of current culture won the day and set the pace for the media, art, architecture, and political tone of the U.S. as a whole? … Would contemporary culture be better off today with [what] that evangelical culture would apparently offer? Meaning a focus on individualized character and morality, an obsession with comparatively minor offenses with little ability or willingness to see the bigger picture, an exclusion of any but escapist and sanitized literary and musical fare? I can’t honestly say,” he says, “that I would rather live in that world, or that it would, all things considered, enable me to be a more faithful Christian disciple.”

Roy Clements says that the thing “that disturbs me more than anything else about the kind of Christianity we see today … is its superficiality. … We are shallow Christians. … We never get beyond the glib clichés, the sales talk and the trite formulae.” Evangelical giant John Stott called Roy Clement’s preaching “Christian teaching at its best.” But when Roy’s same-sex orientation was made known, Stott and other evangelical gurus lived up to that lamented superficiality when, in so far as they were concerned, his homosexuality trumped his homilies. What had happened to this “Christian teaching at its best?” Nothing. Roy still preaches it. But, in Evangelicaland, there’s a bigger fish to fry than “Christian teaching at its best.” Being gay’s a much bigger fish. But Roy Clements preaches Jesus Christ as Lord. So what?

The Bible’s good news is: Jesus Christ is Lord. And even in evangelical church circles, the all-too-common shrug is “So What?”

So: Is Jesus Christ Lord of Evangelicaland? Yes, of course – because Jesus Christ is Lord, period. But how is this best-ever news that Jesus Christ is Lord acknowledged among people who seem, sadly, to be more fixated on the trivialities of material prosperity and pop-psych pampering and their own narcissistic ideological and political power than they are committed to living in Christ and His reign of real, self-sacrificing love – love even for the enemies of their Evangelicaland? How do the lifestyles in Evangelicaland work out the implications of the gospel of salvation in Christ, wholesomely and harmlessly? How are they salt of the earth? How do their lives shine like a light in the dark?

Pursuing Trivialities of the Religious Left and Queer Spirit

The sad triviality of identifying Christianity with the ideological and political Left is just as prevalent and perverse as is the misidentification of Christianity with the ideological and political Right or the self-satisfied suburban culture of Evangelicaland. But does the Left admit this? Some earlier liberals did. H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale critiqued the message of the liberal church to be this: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.”

Though they try to paint the Right as all black-and-white, the Left is really just as all black-and-white. There was Bishop John Shelby Spong – overseer of the Church of What’s Happening Now – in yet another TV interview, asserting dogmatically: “Conservative people see things in black and white. Liberal people see things in grays.” He didn’t notice that he’d just committed precisely the offense he attributes to conservatives only. (“The Factor,” Fox-TV, October 20, 2001)

Now it’s certainly understandable that lesbigayt people are attracted to the pro-gay Left and repelled by the antigay Right. This alignment simply reflects perceived self-interest. But at what cost?

Open Hands is an ecumenical quarterly of lesbigayt folk in the major mainline denominations, edited by a gay Presbyterian. In the fall issue we find a piece called “Re-Creating Religion.” It’s by a gay activist and former Catholic monk who argues for a “transformation … in the very nature of religious truth.” (Toby Johnson) He insists: “The old stories don’t make sense anymore.” But to whom do they not make sense? He complains – erroneously – that “the fundamental doctrine of salvation in Christianity [is] based in the mythology of bloody human sacrifice.” He then says that that “probably doesn’t speak to you.” Is he speaking to or on behalf of his readers? Re-enacting the vain search for new religions that Paul observed going on long ago at Mars Hill, he asserts: “We modern human beings are literally having to create our own religions.” And out of what does he propose we “create our own religions?” The great jazz improviser, Charlie Mingus, created new and unconventional time signatures, keys, and changes. But he “created [this] new art from well-established forms” (Harry Siegel) As Mingus himself put it: “You can’t improvise on nuttin’, you gotta’ improvise on sumpin’!” What’s this guy’s “sumpin’?”

Well, he sings the praises of the “Body Electric, Wild Men, Wicca and Faeries.” He assures his readers that “Freed from orthodoxy, gay people can make up their own interpretations of what all the myths were intended to mean.” So very postmodern. Don’t bother with what was originally meant – just ask yourself what it means to you! But contrary to his call to indigenous interpretation, he heavy-handedly tells his readers exactly what they should believe. He informs them: “We are all One Being.” Where’d he get that? He concludes in naïve anachronism and provincial prescription: “We save religion and redeem the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and the other founders of world religion by creating our own synthesis consistent with the modern vision of reality.” Do we, indeed?

Someone deeper and far wiser – C. S. Lewis – said that what he wrote was a “re-stating [of] ancient and orthodox doctrines.” But, he explained, “If any parts of [my books] are ‘original,’ in the sense of being novel or unorthodox, they are against my will and as a result of my ignorance.” He added that, in Mere Christianity, “I was not writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion,’ but to expound ‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and was what it was long before I was born and whether I like it or not.” Did that make him out-of-date? Noting that Lewis used to call himself “a dinosaur,” the Washington Post Book World noted nonetheless: he “speaks to people where they are.”

Franciscan contemplative activist Richard Rohr laments the “crude and clumsy” improvised rituals in “feminist circles, bereavement, justice, and minority groups, and belief systems of every stripe.” He says he’s sad “that most of the rituals I have attended still avoid, deny, or mitigate the stark and truthful and impossible revelation that we call the ‘paschal mystery.’” Rohr says: “That is still our big trump card, even though we ourselves, while we mouth it so well, barely believe it.”

Are we really so provincially arrogant as to assume that each of us must improvise divine revelation in his or her own image and idolatrous individualism? A wise missionary/theologian observes that a spirituality of mere subjectivism tries to attach to “a privatized God, and a privatized God cannot or should not exist.” (Adrian Hastings)

Besides, we hardly need reinforced isolation and loneliness, the essence of depression. We need community in faith, we need connection, we need intimacy. There is no community, connection or intimacy on our own. We are called into a fellowship with other believers as we worship and serve our Lord together. Said John Wesley: “Christianity is essentially a social religion.” Sociologist Daniel Yankelovich points out: “The individual is not truly fulfilled by becoming ever more autonomous. Indeed, to move too far in this direction is to risk psychosis, the ultimate form of autonomy.” He illustrates by footnoting Jesus: “The injunction that to find one’s self, one must lose one’s self, contains the truth any seeker of fulfillment needs to grasp.”

Now if there’s a “felt need” to escape childishness, that’s great. Paul encouraged that in the best sense of growth in grace. But to mature beyond childish superstitions does not call for deserting a child-like faith. Sadly, so much of what’s taken to be a move away from the childish is about as childish as adults can get. And speaking of the need to escape, might there not be a profound need to escape the clutches of one’s own contemporary obsessions and what Lewis called “chronological snobbery?” To act our age, as Maurice Boyd notes, does not mean uncritically adopting the age in which we find ourselves – for we are ageless.

The Bible’s good news is: Jesus Christ is Lord. In lesbigayterianism, the all-too-common shrug is “So What?” In fact, the “So What?” is pronounced with arrogant pride.

So: is Jesus Christ Lord of the Religious Left and queer spirit? Yes, of course – because Jesus Christ is Lord, period. But how is this best-ever news that Jesus Christ is Lord acknowledged among people who seem, sadly, to be more fixated on the trivialities of narcissistic lesbigayt ideology and political power than they are committed to living in Christ and His reign of real, self-sacrificing love – love even for the enemies of the “approved oppressed” – lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people? How do the lifestyles of the religious Left and queer spirit work out the implications of the gospel of salvation in Christ, wholesomely and harmlessly? How are they salt of the earth? How do their lives shine like a light in the dark?

TRANSCENDING THE TRIVIAL PURSUITS

Preoccupied and distracted by the amazing disgrace of the Bible-thumping politics of the Religious Right, the wired worship theatrics of Evangelicaland, and the postmodernist pap of the Religious Left, we can so easily miss the shockingly best news ever: the amazing grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord.

This is the sesquicentennial of the hymn poem, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Who is crowned with many crowns? “The Lamb upon His Throne.” That’s it! The One on the Throne is the Lamb, slain before the foundation of the world. Jesus Christ is the Lord of all because Jesus Christ is the Lamb for all. The slain Lamb and the sovereign Lord are One. And so: “Hark! How [this] heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own. Awake, my soul, and sing of Him who died for thee, and hail Him as thy matchless King through all eternity. … Crown Him the Lord of life, who triumphed o’er the grave. … Crown Him the Lord of peace, whose power a scepter sways. … Crown Him the Lord of love, behold His hands and side, Those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. … Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time, Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime. All Hail, Redeemer, hail! For Thou has died for me; Thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity.” So crown Him with many crowns! For His first crown was a crown of thorns!

If we have even a hint of what it means to affirm that Jesus Christ is the sovereign Lord because Jesus Christ is the sacrificial Lamb, we can begin to grasp something of what Christian lifestyle may mean. Jesus Christ is Lord! So what then?

CLOSING COMMENTS

If Jesus Christ is Lord – what shall we do? How shall we live? Well, we’ll have to do better than simply switch sweatshirts and caps from Abercrombie & Fitch to Abreadcrumb and Fish! What counts is what’s ticking under the sweatshirt. What’s going on under the cap?

And the big deal at Exodus conferences must be something other than a class in cosmetics. The big deal at EC conferences must be something other than queering Christian choruses. The big deal at both should be the true freedom for serious Christian discipleship that’s found only in the crucified and risen Christ, the sacrificial Lamb who is the sovereign Lord. True freedom is neither freedom from homosexuality nor freedom for homosexuality. “Ex-gay”-identities and lesbigayt-identities are perversions of a same-sex orientation that must be de-exceptionalized. Those enslaving, self-styled identities must be de-perjored and de-privileged. True freedom is found in the crucified and risen Christ, in the sacrificial Lamb who is the sovereign Lord. He calls us to follow Him in self-denial – not in pathological denial of a homosexual orientation or an aversion to a loving life-partnership. True freedom is lived in self-denial – not in pathological denial of our slavery to sin – whether of a homosexual or heterosexual orientation. True freedom is found, as Paul urged the Romans, in “the intelligent offering of our bodies as living sacrifices, so we don’t let this world squeeze us into its mold.” (Rom 12:1) True freedom is found in finding real life in Christ’s Life, beyond all our attempted escape from a so-called “gay lifestyle” or attempted escape into it. True freedom is found in the crucified and risen Christ, in the sacrificial Lamb who is the sovereign Lord over all sickness, sin and death. And that freedom is in the way of the cross, the servant-lifestyle of serious Christian faith, living in a personal relationship with the Lord Who is the Lamb “slain from before the foundation of the world.”

According to the administrator of America’s oldest Protestant denomination: “No issue today has as much potential to divert our mission” than homosexuality. (Wesley Granberg-Michaelsen) Can homosexuality divert our mission in EC? You bet it can!

So beware of the identity thieves. Don’t let them steal your identity. Don’t let the Religious Right do it. Don’t let the Religious Left do it. Don’t let the “ex-gay” lobby do it. Don’t let the lesbigayt lobby do it. You are not theirs. As a Christian, you belong – body and soul – to your faithful Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. And Christ is God’s.

Look: It’s not homosexuality that brings us together. It is Christ who brings us together. He enfolds us in His love. He holds us close in His “wider place” (as Genie Price called it) – His wider place of unlimited self-denial for the sake of the whole wide world – and for the sake of our little gay corner of that world. We’re called to take the way of the cross all the way Home.

But you’ll be hard pressed to find this way of the cross at pep rallies of the Religious Right or in the bloodless banalities of “a Christ without a cross.” You won’t find the way of the cross at Gay Pridefests. And you’re unlikely to find any cross at all on the walls of the megachurch malls – let alone the via crucis. Nevertheless – Jesus Christ is the Lord! To the glory of God the Father!

So instead of self-serving complaints about what they, those nasty homophobes, have done to us (and getting much of it wrong), shouldn’t we witness to Christ’s righteousness that absorbs into Himself all self-righteousness – theirs and ours? Homophobic preachers who panic their congregations over “the gay agenda” (and get so much of it wrong) should be doing the same. But that’s their job. Listen to Luther, in The Freedom of the Christian: Christ “suffered, died and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. … His righteousness is greater than the sins of all, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell.”

We’re called to “come out” – as G,L,B or T? Yes, I suppose we are. But so much more, we’re called to “come out” for Christ, to be set apart from this world’s system (including much that passes for a GLBT worldview) and “come out” for the world’s real needs for Christ.

Jesus Christ is Lord! So what then? Do you – by God’s Spirit – affirm for yourself that He is Lord? Do you – by God’s Spirit – live out His Lordship in your everyday life? Do you – by God’s Spirit – live out His Lordship in your sex life? This is serious stuff. This isn’t fluff. He’s not looking for lip service. He’s looking for a life committed to loving God with all we have and caring about the real welfare of others as we care about our own. Only loved by Him can we love like that.

In warning disciples about false teachers, Jesus told them that a day would come at last when many people would claim that they had called him “Lord,” that they had done so even officially. But He will say to them (with tears in His eyes): “I have never known you. Go away, you who have worked on the side of evil.” (Matt 7:21-23)

Paul warns Christians to avoid the error of false teachers who ruin their hearers by harping on the extraneous. Rather, Christians should avoid all needlessly divisive chatter and concentrate on rightly handling the plain word of truth. (II Tim 2:14-16)

By God’s grace, we can know the truth, we can say the truth, we can do the truth. The truth is this: Jesus Christ is Lord over all that stands between you and Truth Himself, Life Himself, Love Himself.

Is the Lamb the Lord of your life? How so?

All Content Copyright © 1997 - 2013 Dr. Ralph Blair | Site by Webtegrity