The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong

A fascinating article in the August Harpers (no link) about a paradox in the practices of American Christians. Around 85% of us call ourselves Christian (compared to an Israel that is 77% Jewish). 3/4 of Americans also believe that the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves."

That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor.

The culture of self-obsession has been adopted by Christians, despite the fact that the belief system is constructed to promote just the opposite.

A New York Times reporter visiting one booming megachurch outside Phoenix recently found the typical scene: a drive-through latte stand, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at every service, and sermons about "how to discipline your children, how to reach your professional goals, how to invest your money, how to reduce your debt." On Sundays children played with churchdistributed Xboxes, and many congregants had signed up for a twice-weekly aerobics class called Firm Believers. A list of bestsellers compiled monthly by the Christian Booksellers Association illuminates the creed. It includes texts like Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen-pastor of a church so mega it recently leased a 16,000-seat sports arena in Houston for its services-which even the normally tolerant Publishers Weekly dismissed as "a treatise on how to get God to serve the demands of self-centered individuals….

But remember the overwhelming connection between America and Christianity; what Jesus meant is the most deeply potent political, cultural, social question. To ignore it, or leave it to the bullies and the salesmen of the televangelist sects, means to walk away from a central battle over American identity. At the moment, the idea of Jesus has been hijacked by people with a series of causes that do not reflect his teachings. The Bible is a long book, and even the Gospels have plenty in them, some of it seemingly contradictory and hard to puzzle out. But love your neighbor as yourself-not do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but love your neighbor as yourself-will suffice as a gloss. There is no disputing the centrality of this message, nor is there any disputing how easy it is to ignore that message. Because it is so counterintuitive, Christians have had to keep repeating it to themselves right from the start. Consider Paul, for instance, instructing the church at Galatea: "For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment," he wrote. ‘"You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’"

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