In chapter four, Tom introduces us to Gabe Lyons and a deeply penetrating question.
Is the United States of America a Christian nation?
When some hear that question, their ideologies come out like switchblades, slashing quick answers. Yes, of course. No, of course not. I ask a different question: What do you mean by Christian? This is the question that Tom and Gabe are asking.
On one hand, America has the reputation of being a pious, religious nation. “Impressively large percentages of the population profess belief in God, pray, attend church on a regular basis…, attest to faith being an important part of their lives – and expect their elected leaders to likewise have a strong faith lives.” (61) Is what what is meant by “Christian nation”?
On the other hand, it is one thing to profess faith,but “does the collective behavior of Americans add up to something we might accurately deem to be “Christian”? (61)
To the latter question, the answer appears to be no. That doesn’t mean that Americans aren’t good people who do some good things (charitable giving, disaster relief, helping neighbors, volunteering at soup kitchens, and so on). But there are some problems. Tom points out;
- America is a violent society. This stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ teaching and example. Violence is part of our common life (30,000 gun deaths a year = 80 per day), our entertainment and our foreign policy. American started a preemptive, interventionist war in Iraq, engages in “enhanced interrogation” (code for torture), and uses drone strikes aggressively (even against her own citizens abroad). The question must be asked: “…is this rampant violence what one should expect of a country infused with the teaching and wisdom of Jesus, the ‘Prince of Peace’?”
- America is an unequal society. The growing gap between the rich and poor is evidence of systemic inequality. Tom writes, “One shudders to think what Jesus might say to a society that blithely accepts, even celebrates, an economic dynamic that produces a relative handful of citizens who own fleets of cars and maybe a private just or two…while some on the opposite end of the ladder double their worn-out cars as their places of residence.” Inequality and the host of problems it causes – for individuals, families and society as a whole – works against the shalom that God intended for the world and is currently working to bring about.
I agree with Tom and Gabe that these two problems (among a host of others) signal a gap between our affiliation with the term “Christian” and the way we practice what Jesus said and did. This, according to Lyons, is what gives Christians a bad reputation in the world and hinders the work of the church (especially among younger generations).
Let me stop here! To me a common theme has emerged in the first four chapters. That theme is image. More specifically, the church’s poor public image. In Gabe’s own words;
I want to help a new generation of leaders understand the perceptions and images that young people have of Christianity – what people really think of us. People have a lot of opinions about our faith, and every time I strike up a conversation with a friend or neighbor, it seems like those perceptions are incredibly negative. (emphasis added)
Here’s my question (or, perhaps, critique): What is the relationship between image and motivation for followers of Jesus? Did Jesus come down from heaven to earth, saying, “You know, my Father has a bit of an image problem. I mean… have you read the Old Testament? What I’m here to do is rehabilitate that image so you all can see what a great God He really is and you’ll love him and serve him and like him more.” Can you imagine how the stories in the gospels would change if Jesus’ chief concern was image. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “You know, I really shouldn’t heal on the Sabbath, but this is a great opportunity to show the crowd that God is more about helping them than keeping the rules.”
My concern: I think the people Tom has profiled up to this point are incredible, creative, entrepreneurial, and sincere followers of Jesus. This is not a critique of their faith, sincerity and work. It just seems to me like in each case in the book (thus far), a market-driven consumer mentality is at play which is ill-suited for the way of Jesus. Jesus healed people because he had compassion for them. He served people because he loved them. He ate with people because he liked to be with them and they liked to be with him. He broke the rules to set people free. He died for people to liberate them. He broke down dividing walls in order to create one humanity. I could go on and on. Never do you see Jesus doing things in order to rehab an image. Jesus was misunderstood. He was rejected by a great many people. He wasn’t universally liked. He didn’t seem to go out of his way to make his message palatable to the masses.
So, I guess what I’m getting at is that being like Jesus isn’t a PR campaign. At the heart is loving people like Jesus loves them. That means our motivation for stepping out and stepping towards others matters. Is it possible that what we’ve seen in the first 4 chapters of Tom’s book is an exploration of the ways modern religionists practice what Jesus condemned on the sermon on the mount? Doing religious stuff in the full view of others in order to be seen by them (which is done to reinforce the idea that I’m someone, I’m hip and cool, I’m not like those stogy old religious people that others hate, and on and on…).
What is the relationship between image, motivation, faithfulness, compassion….?
[I’m going to step away from this view for a moment to write a review of Reza Aslan’s Zealot, then I’ll return to finish up the remainder of Tom’s book]