My concern resides in our age old tendency to reshape the gospel so that it matches our own personal ideals and passions, with the result that we create a mythical moral high ground to stand on, and thus stop growing. Right now social justice is fashionable. There’s good reason for this, and it’s a welcome swing of the pendulum from the old days, when missionaries would (at least according to missiological legend) handed out tape recorders, the Bible on tape, and tracts, before handing out food, “just in case someone perishes without knowing Christ.” We’ve come a long way from that, but just as that was fashionable then, wells in Africa are fashionable now.
The risk we run, with any fashionable expression of the gospel, isn’t that it becomes entirely untrue, but that it becomes a distortion. We might, for example, consider ourselves exemplary Christians because we have joined the One campaign, sponsor a child with World Vision, and skip lattes on Fridays, giving the money to economic development work in Africa instead. It’s all cool, all popular, and has every risk of being cross-less, both in the sense that Jesus is moved from the center to the margins, AND in the sense that we’ve no practical expressions of self-denial. I’ll explain both:
1. Jesus moved to the margins simply means that we take St. Francis word literally, to a fault. He’s the guy who said, “preach always, use words only when necessary”. I always want to add a third phrase to his timely remarks: “…and words will usually be necessary”. This is because everything we do, we do supposedly as a means of heralding the arrival of a soon to come new government, with the new reign of a new king. How strange would it be to bring the ethics of the new king, and the blessings, but conspicuously, even intentionally ignore the CENTRALITY of that King’s presence as the source of all hope. And yet this seems to happen all the time in the new and fashionable social gospel.
2. The cross lacking IN us means that we’re running the risk of defining the outworking of the gospel in terms of things we’d do anyway. “Sure, I’ll sponsor a child, buy fair trade coffee…” While that’s great, and fits in well with U2’s theology, what’s missing is the reality that Jesus will also ask of each of us, in specific ways, acts of self-denial. Maybe our sexual ethic will need to change. Maybe he’ll ask us to not just write a check, but move to Africa, or the inner-city, or South Dakota, and His calling doesn’t align with our passions. The overwhelming testimony of scripture is that Christ is seen most clearly when we lose something. Moses leaves the desert to follow God’s calling. Peter leaves his nets. Paul subjects his will to God’s and changes his missionary strategy. People died for this, as I wrote last night, and it’s the self-denial piece that sets this apart from fashionably cool social justice. Jesus said it pretty clearly: “unless you deny yourself and take up YOUR cross and follow, you can’t be my disciple”
We like to talk about passion, justice, culture, relevance. It’s the stuff, not only of Christian magazines and web-sites, but of billion dollar bands. But the cross? Other than the one’s hanging around our necks, I fear it’s fallen on hard times, both as a central message, and as an existential necessity for we who claim to be disciples.
That’s all… except to say that Joshua Tree is still my favorite.