In my post of January 5, 2019, I wrote:
The great worth of a person comes from love, and only love (in all its variety that includes friendship and true neighborliness) makes the individual irreplaceable. No talent, skill, or accomplishment can make a person irreplaceable. Even the best in the world at something is soon replaced by another who is better. Aging takes away such greatness, and it is soon forgotten. Only love values the person as the person. Love holds dear the particular person, who that person is rather than what that person has or can do.
No sooner had I written those words than I saw a problem and not a trivial one. So, my next paragraph raised a troubling question.
Fine. That all sounds beautiful, but what of the person who is unloved? And what of the one who was loved by people who have died and now is left alone? What of the person who has been hurt, perhaps shamed, too deeply to be able to accept love or the need for it? Are the lonely, the lost, and the embittered no longer human?
Here is my crucial question. What happens when people cannot hear the gospel as gospel? As Douglas John Hall points out, we speak mostly in the church of “the gospel,” meaning the Christian message of Jesus Christ as we have received it and continued to expound it. But gospel means good news, and to be accepted and trusted as gospel, it must be heard by people as good news for them and for the world. There are barriers to their hearing our message that way.
First of all, for most people today, it’s not news. They’ve heard or misheard it before. At the outset of the Christian movement, the message was news. It was something new and radically different in the Greco-Roman world. Now, twenty centuries later, it is not new at all but encrusted with many layers of barnacles, and that’s putting the situation nicely.
Christianity has associated itself with all sorts of prejudices, corruptions, cruelties, abuses, scandals, deceits, and con games. Ever since the Fourth Century CE, it has cozied up to power, gloried in prestige, asserted authority over the lives of people and nations, and demanded privilege. The victims of an imperious Christianity have been many and continue to be many. We may think first of the Inquisition and the Crusades, but consider also the atrocities committed by the conquistadors (in the name of Christ) against the pre-Columbian peoples of the American continents, the widespread and long-term sexual abuse of children now coming to light, the horrors inflicted upon homosexually oriented people with hormone treatments and so-called “conversion therapy,” the blaming of women who were the victims of violence and other abuse in their own homes and the terrible pastoral admonitions to endure the abuse and try to be “better Christian wives,” the slave catechisms written by churches and used to indoctrinate black slaves into being good Christians by obeying their masters, the pious pressuring of girls into accepting second-class status as human beings, and the list could go on. How many situations crying out for salvation have left people unsaved because their misery was passed off as God’s will?
As long as people longed for heaven and feared hell, the churches were able to control them. When fear of hell wasn’t enough, physical and mental punishments could be added and often were.
The Enlightenment and the rise of scientific thinking brought new questionings of the churches and the faith. In reaction against free thinking and scientific method, Christian Fundamentalism arose, evangelicalism simplified the gospel and kept it focused on heaven, and end-time movements warned people to get onto the right side of a coming apocalyptic nightmare. In simplistic reactions against fundamentalism, pseudo-scientific arguments set up a straw man to be easily mocked and defeated. Accepting fundamentalist literalism as the real Christian faith and the only way to read the Bible, then launching attacks upon that straw man created what I call unbelieving fundamentalism, which continues to be quite popular on social media as a smug way of taking cheap shots at faith.
The situation is even more complex. Here in the United States, Christianity became so closely identified with conservative Americanism that much of my generation (baby boomers) simply left it behind. There are also less dramatic but no less real reasons why many people cannot hear “the gospel” as gospel, as good news for them and for the world. In the face of popular fundamentalism, preaching often became timid, safe, repetitious, non-challenging, unimaginative, and boring. Exploiting the boredom and the hunger for optimism in a society growing more depressed and cynical, mega-churches and TV preachers pushed entertainments and resort style features to make faith easy and fun for all ages, stressing positive thinking and showers of blessings attainable for a price.
There is also our human tendency to hear what we expect (or fear) to hear. A minor incident in my own ministry may illustrate what I mean.
Our ministerial association had its annual pulpit rotation, and I preached in a large Protestant church where the concept of grace was certainly stressed: God’s unmerited favor and undeserved love. The pastor asked me before the service to remind the kids in his confirmation class to write their own summaries of my sermon on index cards to be collected with the offering. Every student in the class wrote the opposite of what I had said about grace, all insisting they had to earn and deserve God’s love just as they had to earn and deserve their parents’ love. This way of hearing what we want to hear or are resigned to hearing is not unique to children. Many times I have heard people express to me their appreciation of my having preached what they had heard but not what I had said. I have also had the problem work in reverse, where someone has misread something I have written as something else the person regarded bitterly as typical of a Christian minister.
All of these factors and, no doubt, more contribute to the profound difficulty of representing the gospel of Jesus Christ to people in our time. What we represent to them is not gospel if they cannot hear it as good news of life, healing, and hope. We could blame them for not having ears that hear and hearts that believe, but that would be foolish, false, and self-defeating. What can we do? I have some thoughts if not nicely worked answers. Next time.