The idolatry of the "Good Life"

Internet Monk warns us of the influence of American culture in our preaching:

The idolatry of "The Good Life" is, instead, the reshaping of the Christian movement into a particularly American religion where God becomes the means to provide us with the comforts, material blessings, experiences and "necessities" of a prosperous American lifestyle as defined by American culture.

Coming to terms with this idolatry necessitates that the Christian confess the presence and power of American culture as it defines the good life. This is a daunting task, for it has the potential to shake the typical American to his/her foundations. This "Good Life" worldview holds forth standards for what we "should" have that include specifics in all these areas and more:

Health, finance, housing, technology, clothing, jobs, transportation, personal appearance, fashion, leisure, freedom from pain, education, personal comfort, food, use of the environment, activities/sports, achievement, medical care, freedom, sex, relationships, emotional states, access to information, communities, possessions, security and a hundred other personal preferences....

Evangelicals in America are creating a religion that tells them how to be happy, how to be financially secure, how to be successful, fulfilled and healthy. Evangelical Christianity in America has pushed missional values to the fringes and brought "the Good Life" so close to the center that sermons themselves are calmly titled "How to Discover the Champion In You." To which everyone applauds.

The most popular pastors in America preside over this idolatrous affair with the glib assumption that the purpose of the church is to make us beautiful, prosperous and fully secure in American culture, but, of course, thankful to God for making sure we have all these blessings....

At the end of the day, do evangelicals want to be disciples of Jesus? Do they want to be a missional force in this culture? Are their priorities evangelizing and congregationalizing in other cultures? Are they a movement communicating the gospel across barriers? Or are they pursuing "the Good Life" in America with the blessing of God? Do they want God to pay off their credit card bills, make their children beautiful and popular, and insure their security in their suburban neighborhoods? Is our passion for the mission of the church or the comfort and profitability of our own enterprises? Do we see the world through the values of Jesus and his Kingdom, or do we see the world- and ourselves- through the values of advertising, prosperity and fashion?

Why theocentric preaching isn't as boring as it sounds

I first got interested in theocentric preaching when I realized how much anthropocentric preaching I've done, and how awful it really is.

We were set up. Two years ago I attended our first D.Min. residency with Haddon Robinson. He and Duane Litfin assigned us a whole bunch of texts and asked us to express the big ideas, or central themes, of these texts. They included stories like David and Goliath and Jesus calming the storm. They knew what was going to happen.

Everyone went running toward anthropocentric themes:

  • God will help to slay the giants in our lives.
  • Jesus will calm the storms of your life.

Think about that for a second. We were in a room of pretty smart people, all of them seminary trained and with years of ministry experience. And pretty much all of us ran to directly to application and missed the main point of these texts.

The story of David and Goliath isn't about how to handle the giants in our lives. It's the story of a man who did the job God asked Israel to do hundreds of years earlier, which they'd neglected: to drive giants out of the land God had given them. It's about doing what God asked, even when what he asks seems impossible. Still relevant, and much closer to the purpose of the text.

Jesus obviously doesn't calm all the storms in our lives. The story is ultimately about Jesus' identity, and we're not meant to allegorize the storms. It takes a bit of work to get there, but I believe Mark's account of the story is there to communicate that the Kingdom is secure, even when everything looks lost, because Jesus is in charge. My circumstances aren't as important as the fact that Jesus is okay, and the Kingdom is okay because of that.

Not only are these themes more faithful than the anthropocentric ones, but they are more satisfying and they ring more true. I don't know how I could look some of my people in the face and tell them that God will slay all the giants in their lives and calm every storm. He simply hasn't, and they know that. If I tell them this they look at me like I'm out of touch or a liar.

I can look in their eyes and tell them that if God asks them to do something, He will back them up no matter how impossible it seems. I can tell them that even when everything looks lost, it's okay because Jesus is still okay, and the Kingdom depends on that and not how well you and I are doing.These themes are more true, to Scripture and to life, and they are more satisfying than how-to sermons.

Telling the story of God

Sidney Greidanus has written a few books that touch on the challenge of theocentric preaching. In The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, he argues that the Bible's purpose is to primarily tell God's story, which intersects at points with ours:

In contrast to anthropocentric interpretation, therefore, theocentric interpretation would emphasize that the Bible's purpose is first of all to tell the story of God. In relating that story, the Bible naturally also depicts many human characters - not, however, for their own sake but for the sake of showing what God is doing for, in, and through them. Hence, when preachers pass on the biblical story, they ought to employ biblical characters the way the Bible employs them, not as ethical models, not as heroes for emulation or examples for warning, but for people whose story has been take up into the Bible in order to reveal what God is doing for and through them.

God is not relevant, he is the measure of relevance

From Connexions:

Indeed I'd suggest that the fundamental malaise of contemporary Christianity is precisely its substitution of a problem-solving God for a God who is ultimate mystery.

For many people, God is a god who answers my questions, satisfies my desires and supports my interests. A user-friendly god you can access and download at the push of a prayer-key, a god you can file and recall when you need him (which gives "Save As" a whole new meaning!). A utility deity for a can-do culture. Evangelism becomes a form of marketing, and the gospel is reduced to a religious commodity.

The real God is altogether different. He is not a useful, get-it, fix-it god. He is not "relevant", he is the measure of relevance. Indeed best think of God as good for nothing and totally unnecessary, playful rather than practical - and whose game is hide-and-seek: "such a fast / God," as the poet R. S. Thomas puts it, "always before us and / leaving as we arrive." The Bible speaks of God as a desert wind, too hot to handle, too quick to catch. A God who is only ever pinned down - on the cross.