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.