When I responded to a Daniel Pipes posting several weeks ago regarding the compatibility of Islam with democracy, I made a mental note to return to a larger question that arose for me. I am going to comment on that question now, but with regards to Christianity instead.
Religions have a way of morphing over years and centuries. Doctrines fade from popularity; practices are invented or dropped along the way. Sometimes these changes are made intentionally, for expediency (think Henry VIII) or to lend divine weight to human causes and power-grabs (the selling of indulgences in the 1500s; the recruitment of suicide bombers to ostensibly religious groups with underlying political or financial motivations?). In Pipes’ article, he suggested that Islam might eventually change to fit more comfortably into contemporary political frameworks. At what point does the branch grow so far from its roots that it becomes a different thing entirely?
I debated this a lot (with myself) when I briefly considered writing a book on comparative religions. I was studying Mormonism as a distinct religion, but was continually disturbed by its efforts to identify itself as Christian. That’s a story for another day, but here’s what I come back to: if most religions have a source, a sacred text or some comparable foundation, then any strain that negates or deviates significantly from that source is a new religion. Christianity is based on the gospel. I guess it seems unambiguous to me: not that everyone should be won over by the gospel, but that its essence is clearly laid out for acceptance or rejection. Jesus is pretty forthright about who He is, why he is come, and what is at stake.
Sometimes, though, we deviate with the best of intentions. Something rings false to us, and we seek to right it. If we do this by referring to the scriptures to dig out what we are meant to understand, we will usually keep the church centered. When instead we are guided by our feelings, when we seek to arrive at a place that is less unsettling to our sensibilities through our own reasoning, that’s when we are in danger of straying out from under our religious banner head altogether.
Rob Bell seems to be heading down that path, his vast readership in tow. Justin Taylor and Kevin DeYoung deal with this issue here and here. The problem with Christianity is that with all its many variants, it isn’t meant to be a Religion in the sense of lists of dos and don’ts and ceremony and trappings. It’s just the gospel, and if it’s true, how that impacts your way of living. Parts of it are uncomfortable. The application part, in particular, can cause division. But it’s when our interpretations become more and more loosely tied to the gospel itself that we’re in danger of heresy.
The Bible is less like Disney’s fairytale animated films and more like the Brothers Grimm with warts and blood and dark parts. It’s about sin and consequence, and love and intervention, and salvation and death. But a lot of people want the Disney version. It’s prettier, it feels better, it fits our lifestyles as they already are. So Christians are tempted to de-emphasize the wart-ier parts in the spirit of inclusiveness. Let’s preach more on love and less on the wages of sin, more on atonement and less on its limitations. You see it in the Emergent church trend. This may or may not have been Bell’s original motivation in abandoning, say, much of Romans. It is often the motivation for watering down our message: fear of turning people off. The gospel is offensive; it’s best to just accept that. God doesn’t need our protection, doesn’t need us to gloss over His culturally unacceptable side. If we win a few church attendees this way, we lose even more souls as they devote themselves to a gospel that is no gospel at all.