January 27, 2008 Commentary:
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn with Kim Riddlebarger, Rod Rosenbladt, Ken Jones, and I'm Mike Horton. We're talking in this broadcast about political temptations; it's part of that distraction from Christ and him crucified. Looking away from Jesus Christ has been a perennial temptation throughout church history. The Pharisees were so distracted by their campaign to reestablish the Old Covenant theocracy that they missed the Messiah when he actually appeared. Most of those who were crying "Hosanna" to the son of David in regal celebration as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were crying "Crucify him, crucify him!" on Good Friday. For those looking for nothing more than national commitment to biblical morality and driving out the Romans, Jesus was certainly a great disappointment. Ironically on the road to Emmaus soon after his Resurrection Jesus caught up with two of his disciples who were still deeply disillusioned. "We thought he was the one who would redeem Israel," they said. Not realizing that he just had redeemed Israel on a much grander scale than they had room for in their limited horizon of expectation.
Looking away from Christ has been easy for Christians too; especially when the supposedly Christian emperor fancies himself Christ in absentia. Before long Popes were also Christ's visible substitutes, the whole of Europe was simply Christendom. The Holy Roman Empire complete with its crusading knights who assumed the role of David's warriors defending the city of God. Today there are many Christians who still pine for a supposedly "Christian America" as the latest incarnation of Christ. Since 2008 is an election year many churches will have even more opportunity to be distracted. But Christ only had one incarnation, it was over 2000 years ago in Palestine, born in a barn with humble earthly witnesses rather than in a palace attend by a royal staff, Jesus was born to live a life of perfect love and holiness for us, to bear our sentence on the cross, and to be raised on the third day for our justification. It's easy to miss this Jesus if we are not careful just because we were looking for something more spectacular.
How does our obsession with turning America into Zion contribute to Christless Christianity? What do we mean when we talk about the doctrine of the two kingdoms? What happens when we confuse them, and how did we become to confuse them so obviously in a land so committed to the separation of church and state? Does our faith have anything to do with parties, candidates, and platforms? Political distractions, that is our subject on this edition of the White Horse Inn as we wind up our introduction to the theme for 2008, challenging Christless Christianity.
January 20, 2008 Commentary:
Joel Osteen: A Case Study in American Religion
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn where we are launching our new year-long series, "Christless Christianity: The American Captivity of the Church." In the last two programs we looked at Christless Christianity in general and Crossless Christianity which is really the heart of the problem as we are assessing it here. And then in this program we want to take a look at a specific example of what we are talking about. We realize an extreme example, but it does reflect a wider tendency and drift towards Christless Christianity that probably evangelicals would not have been attracted to in the 30s and 40s and 50s but today Joel Osteen is now considered an Evangelical leader.
If Charles Finney's legacy helps us to understand how we arrived at the current crisis, Joel Osteen the Pastor of Lakewood church in Houston, Texas may be the clearest example in contemporary American religion. Name it/claim it, heath and wealth, or prosperity gospel, these are nicknames for a heresy that in many respects is an extreme version of perhaps the most typical focus of American Christianity today more generally. Basically God's there for you and your happiness. He has some rules, and principles for getting what you want out of life and if you follow them you can have what you want. Just declare it and prosperity will come to you. Although explicit proponents of the so-called "prosperity gospel" may be fewer than their influence suggests, its big names and best-selling authors, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer are purveyors of a pagan world-view with a peculiarly American flavor. Its basically what Martin Luther called the "theology of glory." How can I climb the ladder and attain the glory here and now that God has actually promised for us after a life of suffering. The contrast is the "theology of the cross." The story of God's merciful descent to us at great personal cost, the message the Apostle Paul acknowledged was offensive and foolishness to Greeks.
Every few years a religions best-seller sweeps the nation with the message of self-help. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive-Thinking, Robert Schuller's TV ministry and series of best-sellers, Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez, and other sensations have come and gone. Each time the media treats the appearance of a work in this vein as though it were a new phenomenon, but the success of this genre has long been established. The attractions of Americans to this version of the glory story is evident in the astonishing success of Joel Osteen's runaway best-seller Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential and the sequel, the recently released Become a Better You. Beyond his charming personality and folksy style, Osteen's phenomenal attraction is no doubt related to his simple and soothing sampler of the American gospel--a blend of Christian and cultural elements that he picked up not through any formal training but as the son of Baptist, turned prosperity evangelist, who was a favorite on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. However, gone are the eccentric caricatures of prosperity tele-evangelism with it flamboyant style and over the top rhetoric, and bad hair. At least in the televised broadcasts of his services there are no healing lines with people falling or fainting when the preacher blows on them. He doesn't send blessed prayer cloths or speak endlessly of sowing seed in his ministry in order to reap their desired miracle.
The pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, which now owns the Compaq Center, and is now the largest church in America does not come across as a flashing evangelist with jets and yachts , but as a charming next door neighbor who always has something nice to say. However Joel Osteen is definitely a leader of a new generation of prosperity evangelists. His explicit drumbeat of health and wealth, or word-faith teaching is communicated in the terms and the ambiance that might be difficult to distinguish from most mega-churches and other seeker driven ministries. In this broadcast we are going to take a look at Joel Osteen as an example of that increasing creeping fog that we are calling Christless Christianity.
January 13, 2008 Commentary:
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn. We are launching our year-long study of "Christless Christianity". We are trying to not just throw out jeremiads, but to understand a little bit better the crisis that we confront. The whole reason the White Horse Inn exists is to point out the crisis, to understand it a little bit better, and then to be able to respond with the glories of Christ and his gospel. "Crossless Christianity: Getting Saved in America" that is our topic on this edition of the White Horse Inn.
Christ died for us. That statement is absolutely central, of course, in Christianity. Prefigured with intricate detail in the sacrificial system of the old covenant Christ's death in our place is one of the most clearly and frequently stated teaching of the NT. So why would Protestants want to abandon this core doctrine? And why would a growing number of Evangelical theologians and pastors find Christ's sin-bearing death in our place, that is the substitutionary atonement, too offensive to be plausible, much less central? Echoing the well-worn verdict of radical theologians, Brian McLaren has written that this doctrine seems to him like "cosmic child-abuse." It's no wonder, therefore, that for him Jesus is more of a moral example to be followed than a redeemer, one who liberates us "to be all we can be", rather than one who has come to save us from being "all that we have in fact have been."
With the paradigm of moralistic-therapeutic-deism, the cross just doesn't make sense. Deep down we are all pretty decent people, we could be a lot better; Jesus came to transform culture on the way he got himself killed; that view is actually being defended by some professing Evangelical theologians today. What this means is that the only kind of atonement doctrine that is possible is a subjective theory. Christ's death may be morally, emotionally, politically, psychologically useful for us, but it wasn't in any way required by God's inherent character. Through it we may be reconciled somehow to God, but God doesn't have to be reconciled to us-- He just loves us the way we are. Given such sentimentalism and moralism across an incredibly wide spectrum in American religion today there is no really no place for the cross anymore. Why would Jesus Christ have to die such a horrible death not only an unjust crucifixion, but the Father's sentence of death for transgressors? If all we really need is an inspiring example to get our act together? That is the question that we are going to be addressing in this edition of the White Horse Inn, "Crossless Christianity."
January 6, 2008 Commentary:
Hello and welcome to another program, in fact, another year as we are launching a new theme this year, "Christless Christianity: the American Captivity of the Church." "I've tried everything, nothing really worked. Well, worked for a while then I got burned out. At the end of my rope I started flipping through the dial and came across this crazy program with four guys talking about the gospel. It's all about Christ and him crucified, I finally came to realize. But I can't find that anywhere in my area there is a church doing that. I'm beginning to think that this gospel-centered approach you guys talk about all the time is a great idea that doesn't actually exist on the ground." Like thousands of other e-mails my colleagues and I hear from listeners to our weekly broadcasts, this e-mail represents the longing and frustration of many Christians. They know the difference between a feast and a Happy Meal and are always elated to find a good church, but for many it is just an ideal. I meet a lot of people who drive two hours each Sunday just to find a church that proclaims Christ from the Scriptures. I grew up hearing people saying that they left their mainline Protestant or Catholic bodies because they never heard the gospel. Now I hear people say they have left Evangelicalism for the same reason.
Most Americans believe in God, affirm that Jesus Christ is in some sense divine and the Bible is the Word of God. 86% of American adults describe their religious orientation as Christian while only 6% describe themselves as atheists or agnostic. Judging by its commercial, political, and media success, the Evangelical movement seems to be booming. But is it still Christian? I am not asking that question glibly or simply to provoke a reaction, my concern is that we are getting dangerously close to the place in every-day American church life where the Bible is mined for quotes, but largely irrelevant; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshipped, and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game-plan for our victory rather than a Savior who already achieved it for us; Salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God's judgment by God himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all we can be. As this new "gospel" becomes more obviously American than Christian, we all have to take a step back and ask ourselves whether increasingly Evangelicalism is a cultural and political movement with a sentimental attachment to the image or trademark or experience of Jesus more than a witness to Christ and him crucified. We have shown in recent decades that we really don't have much stomach for this message of the Apostle Paul called a "rock of offense, foolishness to Greeks, and a stone that causes stumbling." Far from clashing with the culture of consumerism, American religion seems not only at peace with our narcissism but gives it a spiritual cast.
Now before we launch this protest, I want to be clear about what we are not saying; first, we are not going to be saying that "Christless Christianity" characterizes all churches in the United States today. There are a lot of marvelous exceptions, and I hope you are a member of one of them. Second, we are not going to be standing on a denominational high-horse hurling critiques at other denominations and traditions below. One thing I think will become increasingly clear as this series unfolds is that all four of us are painfully aware of the fact that the creeping fog of Christless Christianity is as discernable in our own circles as anywhere else today. So much of what we are calling "Christless Christianity" isn't really profound enough to constitute heresy. Like the easy listening music that plays ubiquitously in the background of popular culture: in elevators, in malls and at the airport, the message of American Christianity has simply become trivial, sentimental, and irrelevant. Driven more by distraction than outright denial, Christless Christianity is killing us softly. Our charge is not necessarily that Evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal, but that it is becoming theologically vacuous. Far from engendering a smug complacency, core Evangelical convictions centering on Christ and him crucified drove three centuries of Evangelical missions. The ministry of John Stott, a key leader of this post-war consensus, has embodied this integration of Christ-centered proclamation with a passion for mission. And yet when asked in a recent issue of Christianity Today how he evaluates this world-wide evangelical movement Stott could only reply, "The answer is growth without depth." There certainly are signs that the movement's theological boundaries are widening, and we will touch on some worrying examples as we go along. Furthermore vacuity and liberalism have typically gone hand-in-hand when it comes to the church's faith and practice.
Nevertheless it is not heresy as much as silliness that is killing us softly. God isn't denied, but trivialized, used for our life programs rather than worshipped and enjoyed. Christ is a source of empowerment, but is he widely regarded among us today as the source of redemption for the powerless? He helps the morally sensitive to become better, but does he save the ungodly, even Christians? He heals broken lives, but does he raise those who were dead in trespasses and sins? Does Christ come merely to improve our existence in Adam, or to end it sweeping us into his new creation? Is Christianity all about spiritual and moral makeovers? Or about death and resurrection? Radical judgment and radical grace? Is the word of God a resource for what we have already decided what we want and need, or is it God's living and active criticism of our religion, morality, and pious experience? In other words is the Bible God's story centering on Christ's redeeming work that changes our stories or is it something we use to make our stories a little more exciting and interesting? Christ's person and work are largely taken for granted in the interest of other more supposedly practical and relevant concerns of our day. When it comes to what happens on an average Sunday and in the ordinary diet of Christian ministry, I just don't think there is a remarkable difference between liberal mainliners and conservative Evangelicals. Some may take their cues from the New York Times and the others from Fox News but the real question is to what extent churches in America are really convinced that the proclamation of Christ from his Word is the power of God unto salvation. When the diet becomes "What Would Jesus Do" instead of "What Has Jesus Done" the labels just don't matter anymore.
Amazingly, Protestant Liberalism survived despite its abandonment of the gospel, just as the health and wealth gospel promoted by Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and T.D. Jakes, attracts a wide following even though it's exchanged the central Christian claims for the American Dream. Religion, spirituality, and moral earnestness, what Paul called a form of godliness that nevertheless denies its power, can continue to thrive in our environment precisely because they avoid the scandal of Christ. Folks whatever we say our practice does not support the contention that the Evangelical movement today is Christ-centered. Christ may be used for personal and public purposes, his trademark might be spread all across America, he may be even in some sense followed as a prophet or a king, but as our high priest, Christ and him crucified, he seems more peripheral to our own agendas. "Christless Christianity: The American Captivity of the Church" is our theme that we are introducing of this edition of the White Horse Inn.