The Distorted Message

Comedian Ricky Gervais, a professed atheist, famously wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that he is a better Christian than many Christians because he does a better job of keeping the Ten Commandments.  My first response to Mr. Gervais would be, “Wrong religion!”  He is talking about Judaism, not Christianity.  But I am inclined to give the British comic a pass because it is a common mistake made by religious and irreligious alike.  And it gets to the root of our young people’s problem with biblical perplexities and higher criticism.

The message of the Bible that our young people think is fraught with contradictions, overseen by an angry God, and disconnected from reality is NOT the true message of Scripture, but a caricature of the Bible that we have allowed into our churches and homes by our sloppy interpretation of God’s Word.  By taking verses out-of-context, worshiping the English words rather than the original meaning, and failing to fit Scripture into the big picture, we have created a distorted imitation of the true message of the Bible.  This distortion is what our young people are rejecting and rightfully so.  But without the true message in front of them, they have nowhere to turn and in sad numbers are abandoning the faith.

What do I mean by distortion?  Let’s start with a simple one related to our introduction to this post.  Christianity starts with the Ten Commandments.  True or False?  Of course, the answer is false.  Christianity begins with Christ.  It not only begins; it lives, dies, and finds its full expression in Christ alone.  Everyone generally agrees with this last statement on an intellectual level, but in practice, not understanding all that changed between the Jewish religion of the Old Covenant and the Christian message of the New Covenant, and elevating the Old Testament to a prominent place in the Christian message is all around us.  And it distorts our message into the consequence model of the Old Testament where…Christianity is about following the rules.  Christianity is about God rewarding those who follow the rules.  Christianity is about God punishing those who do not follow the rules.  The highest goal of the Christian life is to attain God’s blessing – material wealth, happiness, etc. – that is promised in the Old Testament.

In short, this kind of teaching and belief lead to what sociologist Christian Smith discovered in his extensive research into the spiritual lives of American teenagers.  He found most teens “practicing a religion best described as ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,’ which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are ‘good, nice, and fair.’  Its central goal is to help believers ‘be happy and feel good about oneself.’ ”

Author Drew Dyck asks and answers the question, “Where did teenagers learn this brand of faith?” in an article in Christianity Today magazine.  He writes, “Unfortunately, it [Moral Therapeutic Deism] is taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches.  It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups.  When this naive and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.”

In other words, what God are we describing to our young people?  The God of the Bible with all His glory, mystery, and off-the-charts-ness intact, or a God we can tame to do our bidding?  Let’s deliver a true message, including the fantastic new arrangement He offers to each of us in the availability, newness, and power of the New Covenant.

Biblical Perplexities

Another of the challenges identified by Dr. Ruth Tucker in her book Walking Away from Faith is biblical perplexities and higher criticism.  For those of us who have grown secure in the reliability of the Scriptures, it can be easy to dismiss other’s doubts with a quick wave of the hand across the standard arguments that convinced us.  But as in the case of our previous topic – the interaction between faith and science – a proper mix of confidence and humility is in order.

On the confidence side, we have the Bible rooted in secular history more securely than any other religious text.  For example, here is a New Testament passage you probably did not memorize in Sunday School that sets the tone for accepting and embracing the authenticity of the Gospels.  “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.  And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:1-3).  And the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was soon to follow.

Here and elsewhere, Luke establishes the time (around 30 A.D.) and the place (Palestine) for the announcement of Jesus’ coming and the subsequent commencement of His earthly ministry.  Since then, many specifics of Jesus’ culture, travels, ministry, and crucifixion have been corroborated by archeology and historical research.  (see The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel).

With so much evidence in our corner – and growing all the time – why the doubts?  I suspect the case for doubt in the area of biblical perplexities is at least two-fold.  First, our time and place in history is separated from the New Testament authors by large gaps in time (about 2000 years), in language (Aramaic and New Testament Greek vs. English and other modern languages), and in culture (an eastern vs. western mindset).  These “gaps” lead to confusion, apparent contradictions, and a misunderstanding of the basic message of the Bible.  How we address these “gaps” rather than just glossing over them can make a huge difference in keeping our young people intellectually connected to their faith.

The second reason for doubt in the face of biblical perplexities is the general and uneasy feeling that the message of the Bible stands in contradiction to our everyday experience.  In other words, “If the Bible were true, it should explain or at least agree with my present reality and it doesn’t.”  As more and more young people move away from the rationality of our western philosophical tradition, connecting the truth of Scripture to their reality becomes even more crucial.  In my opinion, the Bible not only agrees with our reality, but is actually the only philosophical system (if we can call it that for this discussion) that fully explains our reality; a connection to reality so strong to me that it was the primary driver in my decision to fully embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ as a college student.  Unfortunately, this message is often missed by our young people today and its cause will be taken up next time.