Thursday, September 18, 2014

Over-Simple Faith? Over-Simple Gospel?

"...the only simplicity to be trusted is the simplicity to be found on the far side of complexity."  
                                                 --Alfred North Whitehead

I am indebted to Dr. Stephen Seamands for drawing this quote and its implications to my attention. It was a good dose of validation when I heard it, and I immediately knew that many of the frustrations I have had with the modern church/Christian music thought process is because of this concept. Many in the Christian world today fail to understand this concept.

Let it be noted that I don't endorse Whitehead's Process Theology. I just think he's right in saying this statement. Albert Einstein said something similar when he wrote, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Yet again, someone else has said, "Simplicity is not the same thing as simplistic." These quotes together make a good platform from which to launch my own questions. 

 How simple are our sermons? How simple are we making terms like "gospel" and "faith"? How simple is it to be a Christian? How simple-minded are our congregations?

I ask these questions because I have seen a strong push to over-simplify the gospel, salvation, Christian-living and Christian-thinking. We have books like The Bible for Dummies and sermons that seem to have been plagiarized directly from them. We have worship music and popular Christian songs that reflect the same theological framework as Aaron Neville's song says "I don't know much, but I know I love you. And that may be all I need to know."

I understand that people have to start simply and work up to the complex, but when we set the bar at the theological equivalent of "Chop Sticks" instead of Rachmaninoff we short-change believers who then can't "give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1Pet 3:15).

There is a big difference between a child playing a simple tune on a piano and a professional playing the same song. That difference is that the child can only play the simple song (and probably poorly at that), but the professional has the skills to play it with full control and mastery. It's fine that the child starts her music career where she does, but she should grow in her skill and her ability as she moves forward in life.

I think the writer of Hebrews would be frustrated with the depth of the average Western Christian and his/her lack of knowledge. This statement could easily have been written to the North American church today:
"We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." (Heb. 5:11-14)
The motive behind this movement to over-simplify the gospel, salvation, and discipleship is most likely to meet people (simple people) where they are. We've taken these concepts and put them on the bottom shelf. The real problem that I see is that many are leaving them on the bottom shelf without telling people that a richer and deeper experience can be found on higher shelves. 

In the forward to Scot McKnight's book The King Jesus Gospel N.T. Wright writes, "For many people, 'the gospel' has shrunk right down to a statement about Jesus' death and its meaning, and a prayer with which people accept it. That matters, the way the rotor blades of a helicopter matter. You won't get off the ground without them. But rotor blades alone don't make a helicopter. And a microcosmic theory of atonement and faith don't, by themselves, make up 'the gospel'" (kindle location 85 of 3110). I agree wholeheartedly.

My daughter has a BabyLit™ book called Pride & Prejudice: A Counting Primer. It tells the basic story of Jane Austen's class novel through pictures and numbers, but it would be a travesty if someone believed that this baby book was all that was needed to get the Pride and Prejudice experience. How much worse is it that mainstream North American Christianity is passing off skim milk as "all you need to know."

We shouldn't be in such a rush to strip our faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ down to its bare essentials that we strip it of its power. If we strip too far, many in the Christian world today may find that their emperor has no clothes.

1 comment:

  1. Good piece. I think there is a common misconception between the current cultural meaning of "faith" and the actual biblical meaning of "faith." Far too many people filling the pews of the church would fall into the James 2:19 category and qualify that as "faith" proper thus failing to realize (or ignoring) they are still dead men walking.