Getting saved. These two words describe the best-selling product of one of the most successful industries of the last half-century: the American evangelical church. If it were a publicly traded company, investors who bought shares in the early 1970’s would be looking at capital gains of some thousand-fold at this point. Mainline Christians and Catholics get confirmed; Orthodox do whatever they do; but evangelicals, we get saved. And some of us, at least according to twitter, get #oversaved (look it up). The way that you prove you’ve been saved is through your zeal to get other people saved. It’s a genius business model, if that’s your goal. I happen to think that the mystery of Christ we are called to embody has been painted over by a man-made commodity we’ve been given to consume.
My soul was manufactured by the evangelical machine in a very particular way. I am the grandson of an irreverent south Texas Baptist deacon farm-boy oil man and Baylor University regent who sometimes tells off-color jokes when he isn’t talking about his love for Jesus. I am the son of a feisty, fiercely loving math teacher turned stay-at-home mom and volunteer church outreach director who is married to a closet Methodist endocrinologist thirty year Sunday school teacher who has written several book-length manuscripts of Christian existentialist philosophy as a hobby. Combine this DNA with the fact that I grew up during the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention in a vocally moderate household, and it pretty well explains who I am. I could be a decent evangelical except for one big problem: I’ve gotten saved four times and I’m not sure that God is done saving me yet.
According to the theology of my upbringing, it’s impossible to get saved more than once, because once you’re saved, you’re always saved, and if you’re not sure that you really got saved, then you probably aren’t, because people who have been saved just know. Well the first time I got saved was in second grade. I asked my parents if I could be baptized, so Dr. Bill Turner of South Main Baptist Church in Houston, Texas came over to talk to me about it and I quoted enough Bible verses at him to convince him that I was ready. I probably had more Bible verses memorized then than I do now. I remember being terrified that I was going to get water up my nose, but I didn’t, and my family threw a big party afterwards with chicken tetrazzini and Texas Nacogdoches chocolate cake.
This salvation lasted for a good while. I was a good kid for most of elementary school. I remember getting “honor camper” at our preteen Bible camp when I was only in fourth grade. It was when the kids started bullying me in fifth grade that things went south. I had gotten my first rock album on a school choir trip to Louisville, Kentucky: U2’s The Joshua Tree. I didn’t realize this would be the gateway to gangster rap two years later. All I had to do was flip over the NWA Straight Outta Compton album to hide the “Explicit Lyrics” label from my mom in the checkout line at Sound Warehouse. Another nerdy kid named Adam had introduced me to gangster rap. We used that music to pretend like we were cool and talk back to the kids who picked on us when they weren’t around. I still have the first three tracks on Straight Outta Compton almost memorized, and sometimes when I’m tired of being a pastor, I feel like busting out my Ice Cube and becoming a honky with attitude again.
After eighth grade, I moved to North Carolina, started smoking cigarettes, and then transferred to public school for tenth grade. I discovered that all the hot girls who wouldn’t talk to me in school were going to Young Life so I started doing it. That led to salvation #2 at Windy Gap, the Young Life summer camp in the western North Carolina mountains. I remember Miranda was the name of the girl from Alabama that I had a huge crush on and Phil was the name of the Young Life leader who sat with me on the sidewalk between the cabins where we prayed Jesus (back) into my heart. At least for the next couple of days, I told everyone that I had just become a Christian for real because there was no doubt about my sincerity this time.
But then the year after salvation #2, I smoked more weed than I had the year before it. I did however get involved with a Young Life Bible study and went on a Young Life wilderness trip called La Vida in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. By the time I got finished with high school, I was a “straight-edge” teetotaler and a total Jesus freak. First year in college, I was fired up to tell the University of Virginia about Jesus, so I joined three different campus fellowship groups, made my own tracts to hand out to people between classes, and then planned an evangelism rally for Valentine’s Day called the Lovefest, chalking all over the sidewalk, “Free love is coming!” thinking that we could nab some confused hippies that way. My mom made 1000 rice krispie treats. Got a black preacher to deliver the message because in my racially tokenistic mind, I figured white folks who were unsaved would be more likely to listen to a black evangelist than a white one. I felt like I was on my way to big and important things. But when I got nominated to be on the exec committee of our Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, another guy in the group told me that I couldn’t sign the sheet of paper saying I held the Bible to be inerrant because he didn’t think I really believed it. I thought about it, agreed with his assessment, and tore the paper up. So I quit IV and nobody really came after me. I started going to a liberal church where the preacher railed against the Republicans from the pulpit, which was amusingly naughty to me. And then the summer after my second year in college, I went on a three-week trip to Mexico with my friend Kevin because it was cheap and dangerous enough to be epic. That was where salvation #3 happened.
If I were forced to pick the one salvation that really worked, it would be the August afternoon in 1998 when I was standing in the Zócalo of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, even though this one made the least sense. I had gone to Chiapas in search of the Zapatistas, a rebel guerrilla movement that had taken up arms four years before and then disappeared into the jungle, led by a mysterious man in a ski mask named Subcomandante Marcos. An Argentinian veterinarian we had met in a Mexico City hostel told us he could take us to meet the Zapatistas and maybe even the Subcomandante himself. He was long gone, but there we were, my friend Kevin and me, in San Cristobal. We learned soon after we arrived that selling Zapatista t-shirts to gringos was the most lucrative business among the shopkeepers there. I remember seeing three frat boys wearing guerrilla ski masks and taking photos high-fiving each other and doing revolutionary poses.
Then a little girl walked up to me. She was wearing the color-coded indigenous dress of the Mayan villagers. Must have been five years old. Barefoot. The skirt of her dress was dirty. She was holding Zapatista dolls that were unraveling in her hand. She said to me, “Cómpralo, señor, por favor, cómpralo” (Buy it, sir, please buy it). They were a peso apiece (ten cents at the time). And through her eyes, God ripped my heart out of my chest and said, “You can never be a tourist again.” It was an eternal moment that will haunt me forever. I can’t explain how I know that was when God saved me. Certainly there are ways of putting it into a narrative, saying things like “And then I knew I had to live for God’s kingdom and stop living for myself” or “It’s funny how after that encounter, I have spent most of my adult life in ministry with Latinos.” But these are contrived explanations that I spit up retroactively only when an official church agency forces me to write a personal narrative that explains my call to ministry. In the moment itself, there was only mystery. God called, but I didn’t make any particular decision to obey or follow or say yes. I don’t even remember if I recognized the significance of the incident until months later when I was sitting with a friend in the Charlottesville amphitheater telling her that I was going to learn how to play guitar and go back to San Cristobal to sit with the street kids and “do something to help them.” Just kind of generally be their messiah or something. She told me that was the stupidest thing she had ever heard, and though I stopped speaking to her after that, she was right. The little girl from San Cristobal didn’t inspire anything remotely heroic from me. But somehow she became the angel who started me off on a journey in which God has taken me places and I’ve stumbled along behind Him.
Salvation #4 was quite recent: September 19, 2012. It’s perhaps anti-climactic since I just named the third one as the real deal, but salvation #4 might be more decisive because I discovered the Biblical fear of the Lord and received a confirmation of the gift of speaking in tongues, so that even the hard-core Pentecostals have to accept me as a Christian now. Our church was doing a sermon series called “Jesus is My Candidate” to try to speak some sanity and Christian unity into a bitter election season. Because I’m a diva, I decided that we needed to do a twitter campaign in which we would get online and tweet messages about Jesus with the tagline #JesusIsMyCandidate to get it to trend, especially during the presidential debates. The campaign did well for about three days. On the third day, we trended globally, which I know because a Japanese girl responded to it and I’ve still got the screen capture. Because of this context, I was in a pretty hyped up state. That Wednesday, at a morning prayer meeting with three women, the Holy Spirit came over us and caused us to speak in tongues. I had been experiencing troubling physical symptoms that turned out to be ulcerative colitis. I was very worried at the time that I had cancer because I had lost about 20 pounds very rapidly. This caused me to break down during our prayer time, which then led to a complete surrender and abandonment of propriety by all of us that made the Holy Spirit fill the room like we were in the temple with Isaiah in the year that King Uzziah died.
For what it’s worth, this was an extraordinarily unnatural event for me. I’m an acutely snobby, intellectually elitist endocrinologist’s son who grew up among Baptists that are very cynical about Pentecostalism since Baptists (at least pre-megachurch Baptists) believe strongly in authenticity of worship and we suspect anybody that throws their hands up in the air and squeezes their eyes shut and opens their mouths wide of putting on a show for other people like the Pharisees Jesus talks about in Matthew 7. Anyhow, the next day, I was typing an article about our “Jesus Is My Candidate” campaign to put on the Huffington Post whose religion editor had just made me an official blogger with my own login. I had written something that was really scathing about the culture wars, denouncing a bunch of celebrity pastors, and presenting our campaign as the solution to all of the evangelical church’s problems. And then the power in our church flickered and I lost everything. There wasn’t any reason for it to flicker, no construction going on outside or anything else. Since I had just been speaking in tongues the day before, I figured Satan was out to get me so I told my co-worker Katie about it and she said I should interpret it as God protecting me. I had been reading a lot about the fear of the Lord recently on my iPhone Daily Office devotional app, so it hit me that fearing God means recognizing that He’s really alive and not just a theory that helps people follow rules and be good citizens. It wasn’t that I hadn’t believed God was alive; it’s just that He had never before done something so clearly independent of thoughts in my brain or the actions of another person. So I figured that God had reached very blatantly into my office that Thursday and deleted my freaking article because it didn’t honor Him. (The power flickered again in the same way about a week later, but I’ve decided to call that God disallowing me from holding onto my cyber-theophany without ambiguity.)
In any case, I was pretty revved up by all that was happening and probably more than a little sleep-deprived. That night I wrote a very long disturbing blog post that felt like it was being dictated through me, so I called it a prophecy. When I was finished, I had a tremendous pain in my abdomen just under my rib cage, so I lay down in my bathtub wondering at what point I needed to get up and tell my wife to take me to the emergency room. Something happened in my bathtub which I’m going to name wrestling with Satan. There was a vile presence in the room; horrendous sounds were coming out of my mouth in an awful language that I didn’t know (and which my wife in the next room couldn’t hear). I remember saying, “Throw them in the fire!” and then weeping violently because I thought I had told God to cast someone in hell. And somehow I had the audacity to wonder if the abdominal pain that was making it difficult for me to breathe was in some way a stigmata of the cross. I went to sleep at 6 am, got up a few hours later, and went for a walk around a nearby lake to plan my sermon. I can’t explain what about the sunshine was brighter and more beautiful that Friday than I had ever seen it, but I really felt like I was walking in the eschaton, and that any minute, I would run into Jesus on the path.
This strange altered state of consciousness lasted for another couple of days and then I came down from it. I told my psychiatrist about it at our next meeting wondering if it was my meds acting funny. He said, “Well, do the benefits outweigh the costs?” Who knows? Maybe it was a manic episode, but somehow I can’t write the whole thing off even though I have a history of mental illness that causes me to monitor myself very carefully. Nothing that intense has happened since then, but I sometimes go outside at night and talk to God in the other language that seems to contain actual words which I’m not making my lips say. It would really cool if I found out that I was reciting the Koran in Arabic or something. Wouldn’t that be crazy evangelism? I wonder if that’s ever happened. Before that week in September, I was deeply suspicious of the glossolalia that had come out of me 4 or 5 times over the last few years, partly because I was haunted by the scene from the documentary “Jesus Camp” where the camp director brings out a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush and tells her campers, “All right y’all, it’s time to speak in tongues over our president.” Anyway, God has forbidden me from qualifying how I talk about this weird thing I do by saying something dismissive like it’s probably just gibberish. So salvation #4 is when I learned the fear of the Lord and had my postmodern cynical frame of reference shattered irreparably.
I could probably narrate other events as “getting saved” too: when I discovered a gospel I had never heard before in Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved; or when I sat on the floor of a room in an artists’ colony Toledo, Ohio, every night for several months while I journeyed through deep depression, staring at a candle and saying, “Lord, please clear a space for yourself in my heart” several hundred times; or else the time I was running late for my grad school English class at Duke, lighting one cigarette from the butt of another because I had run out of matches, on the phone with the woman for whom I would give up smoking, feeling so relieved that she didn’t care about the awkward pauses in our conversation and that she said, yes, she would like to eat falafel with me. I get saved twice every Monday when I go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. First, when I sit in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in silence and feel a safety and peace in its mysterious unnatural light that is more physical than physical reality itself. Second, when I receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ from the priest who doesn’t know that I’m a permanently illegal alien in his kingdom as a Protestant ordained clergyperson married to a woman whom I believe is equally called to sacramental ministry, which means presumably that I could never become a Catholic layperson even if I could teach the catechesis and even though I love everything I’ve read by Henri de Lubac and Hans von Balthazar and believe very strongly that extra ecclesiam nulla salus (whatever that means for me).
I realize you’re not supposed to start the introduction to a theology book by jumping straight into biography, but I needed to explain the personal biases at play when I say that the evangelical church has a major salvation problem. I’m very much in agreement with the celebrity street evangelist Ray Comfort that most of the Christians in the pews who have “gotten saved” are now trapped in a salvation that really wasn’t, hiding behind a false assurance to which they desperately cling, making any further evangelism impossible and putting them in a serious eternal bind.[i] “Getting saved” stopped being real when it became a product with a clear-cut formula and a mass-produced diagram showing God, humanity, and the cross that bridges the canyon of God’s wrath. Because once it turned into a commodity, “getting saved” became just another thing you do when you live in the suburbs like putting your kids on the soccer team and signing them up for SAT prep classes and making sure that everything else about your career and your family is successful in an unobtrusive way. I feel like “getting saved” has become analogous to the indulgences that Johann Tetzel was selling in 1517, which provoked Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church and start the movement that is the reason we’re not all Catholic today. Perhaps I’m speaking too melodramatically; I know that God has used even this mass-marketed, user-friendly salvation product to touch the lives of many people (even if they needed three or four system reboots after the original dunking like me). I imagine that many of those Christians out there with “positive and encouraging” voices and smiles aren’t obscenely shallow but really do have deep and genuine relationships with Jesus. It’s all very confusing, and I remember God told me to stop being a cynic. Still, I say that evangelicals need to be saved from our cheap and tacky salvation.
We need to tell our Sunday school teachers and Young Life leaders to stop telling kids that “getting saved” has a one-size-fits-all format. To some, it really feels like a decision. Others can’t call God’s grace anything but irresistible. Some people cry out in otherworldly languages and faint when it happens. Others wake up one morning realizing that they’ve been a Christian for several years, and it was so natural to follow Jesus, they thought that was how everybody lived. Some of us need to get dunked all the way under. Others of us got sprinkled when we were little and can’t point to a moment in our lifelong journey with Jesus when we can say we weren’t “born again” before it but were definitely “born again” after it. Some people feel the need to get dunked even though they were sprinkled as babies, which hurts me when I hear about it, even though they probably don’t mean to say that whoever sprinkled them wasn’t really a Christian. Some do a year of class before officially becoming Christian. Others just go up to the front row after the sermon and tell the pastor it’s time. Others go to church for a year when they’re in eighth grade, get confirmed, and never go back (in our church attendance database, we have a field called “Date last attended,” which in many of our church member entries more often than not is the last week in May, confirmation Sunday). I get it; I quit Boy Scouts after getting Eagle, but this is Jesus we’re talking about!
Of course, these logistical details are all trivial compared to the critical thing that evangelicals get wrong about salvation: Jesus doesn’t save us from God; He saves us from ourselves. We have made Romans 5:8, “God proved His love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” into “God proved how badly He wants to torture us; just look at how He covered His Son with wrath on that cross.” Now let me be careful here; that awful word orge that we translate as “wrath” is too widespread throughout the Bible to preach a wrath-less gospel. It’s got to be part of the picture somehow. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to spend every waking moment thinking about how to tell the story in a way that doesn’t make God look like the meanest, dooshiest middle school gym teacher in the history of push-ups. God is not the bad guy. And that’s what we make him out to be when we say, “Good news; God hates you and wants to burn you in hell, but if you listen to what I say and agree that I’m right, then we can say a prayer so God will turn into your best friend after that.” Why is it okay to make God look like a schizophrenic because of our lack of aesthetic sensibility? There is far too much at stake to tell the story in a clumsy way or, worse, a way that we choose for the self-satisfying purpose of puffing out our chests and proving that we’re grave, serious people who believe in tough truths.
When did beauty stop being a legitimate criterion for evaluating how well we’re telling God’s story? According to theologian David Bentley Hart, it happened in the Enlightenment, when Immanuel Kant decided that beauty was a superficial, easily describable phenomenon and the infinite beyond expression was a monstrosity called the “sublime.”[ii] Hart suggests that the definitive problem of Western metaphysics is the assumption that beauty is trivial and the infinite is monstrous. He proposes that we correct this with a cosmology that recognizes beauty as the infinite beyond our comprehension, in other words the One we call “God.” What if God’s glory and holiness are understood to be a ridiculous beauty that causes us to weep and shout hallelujah, having completely lost control of ourselves? What if the problem is not that God is an uncompromising bureaucrat who enforces all the rules that the custodians of His sovereignty give Him to enforce, but rather that we won’t be able to stand our ugliness in the presence of His beauty?
Something made Isaiah tremble when he went into the Jerusalem temple like any other day and saw that God was actually there. Something made him say, “Woe is me. I am ruined! For I’m a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”[iii] Isaiah had already been prophesying in God’s name for five chapters of his book (and against the scholarly consensus, I refuse to make Isaiah 6 into a call story that is misplaced; it is the encounter of a man with the God he thought he knew whose holiness was so far beyond his power to comprehend or proclaim that he wants to disappear in utter shame). God doesn’t need to threaten Isaiah with punishment for Isaiah to respond to Him with terror. He just sits back on His throne and judges Isaiah with the very presence of His glory which compels the seraphim to make an earthquake with their cries of “Holy! Holy! Holy!” Isaiah feels infinitely ugly to be confronted by such an unspeakable beauty.
And then Isaiah receives the closest thing to punishment that can be found in the story. He is approached by a seraph (who by the way was not a cute little baby with a halo like in the Goodyear commercial, but a fiery winged cobra with six wings). The seraph takes a coal from the altar of God’s eternal fire and singes Isaiah’s lips with it, saying, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” There is no indication that God Himself has even been watching, though of course He knows exactly what’s taking place. Note that God never says, “How dare you enter my presence, man of unclean lips?!!!” The seraph doesn’t report back to God after the lip-roasting: “Okay, He’s clean now. You can look.” Instead, God plays dumb, asking a question that anyone in the room can answer even though the only people in the room are fiery winged cobras and a prophet with bleeding, charred lips: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And it is then that Isaiah accepts the vocation that seals what we could even call his salvation: “Here am I; send me.”
A God who makes seraphim cause earthquakes and causes prophets to pee in their pants is a God whom we should never caricature. What did Isaiah see? It wasn’t a mean middle school gym coach whose logical rigidity and punitive pettiness makes thirteen year olds flick him off every time he turns his back. It wasn’t even a fascist dictator leading a parade of fiercely loyal soldiers whose absolute power means that whenever he says something is good, it’s good. Petty fascist dictators are people we honor with the most grandiose sieg heil we can muster while we’re plotting how to assassinate them. All we can say based on Isaiah’s vision is that God’s presence commands holiness without Him having to stoop to the indignity of walking around the room confiscating cell-phones and making everyone spit out their gum. He doesn’t raise His voice or slam his clipboard down so hard on his desk that it breaks in two when His students aren’t listening, like I did when I was a tenth grade English teacher (and it only made my students laugh at me even harder). The judgment of God’s integrity is infinitely above any kind of gesture that we could ridicule or feel legitimately oppressed by; that’s what makes God’s judgment so unbearable to those who have not been given the power to receive it as love, and also what makes all the crude caricatures of God with which tough, sober-minded evangelicals flex their muscles so unbearable to me. If He were just the “cage fighter” God that attracts those Christians who are enchanted by a pagan sort of masculinity,[iv] then being oppressed by Him forever would be a meaningful martyrdom which would provide at least a modicum of solace. But God is God. Nothing we can do will make Him less truthful, beautiful, or loving. It is knowing and hating how wonderful He is that makes His presence hell for those who cannot stand the radical humiliation of throwing themselves upon His mercy. What we need from Christian salvation is to become people who can receive the overwhelming truth, beauty, and love of God without wanting to die like Isaiah did before his mouth was atoned by fire into lips that could say, “Here am I; send me.”
I like the way that Hebrews 12:28-29 puts it: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” That fire is infinite comfort to those who have been made capable of drinking it; it is torture to those who haven’t. The fire is perfect truth. We don’t know what it’s like to live in a world of truth, since we live in a world where “people love darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil.”[v] We’re like rats who have spent our whole lives in a sewer and would get our retinas roasted by the sun if we ever accidentally ran out into the open daylight. It is not like Plato’s cave that our journey to the light is a journey to abstraction; it is rather a journey from the appropriation of our world as a frenzied, anxious consumption of stuff under our white-knuckled control to the awesome strangeness of the same rainbows and ice cream cones and crickets experienced as a doxological symphony proclaiming the beauty of the Poet who writes every moment into being. We don’t need for Jesus to make God into something other than light and fire. We need Jesus to make us into people who can step into the light and drink the fire of a God whose Word “is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow [as] it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”[vi]
You will have to be the judge of whether the story I’m starting to tell here sounds more compelling than what we could call the Chuck Norris version of the story. I’m sure some of you are litmus-testing it for key words and concepts that you hold to be essential. I imagine that C.S. Lewis would have failed your tests too in his Chronicles of Narnia series and his Great Divorce. I don’t claim to offer the whole orchestra here, just a section, perhaps the wind instruments. I just want evangelicals to go back to a time before our ideological purism suffocated our imagination. I’m trying to say things in a different way that defends God’s beauty without misrepresenting His truth (which I may well fail at doing). I don’t think popular evangelical discourse has been very attentive to God’s beauty or to His infinite nature. Maybe you use the word “analogy” when you anthropomorphize God, but are you really surrendering the “clarity” of your exacting description to the “unapproachable light” of God’s mystery?[vii] It doesn’t count to justify the clunkiness of your divine caricature when others are revolted by it with a self-validating “God’s ways are mysterious” card. If you pull out that card in defense of your own inadequacies, you commit the blasphemy of putting yourself inside the “unapproachable light” with God.
So the goal of my book is this: to save evangelicals from our caricatures of salvation. I’m not going to get all of them. I feel like a gardener looking at a spaghetti mess of thorns and weeds choking the good fruit. I know that I’ve seen ugly fruit, but it’s so hard to find the exact roots that need to be yanked. Something very ugly made Fred Phelps a “fag-hater” and Terry Jones a “Koran burner.” Sure, these two guys are extreme outliers, but I suspect a whole lot of evangelicals watch more Fox News than they crack open their Bibles because they already “got saved” and they already know that God’s on their side and mad as hell at the same people they’re mad as hell at. I’m on email lists in which Christian leaders mix Biblically sound devotionals with pornographic conspiracy theories about the Muslim Brotherhood and sinister plots to let the UN perform experiments on our children. Only a gospel that doesn’t care about being beautiful can produce disciples that don’t care about exuding “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”[viii] more than they care about being “right” in some abstract sense. And if you insist that the mainstream media’s devious misrepresentation of evangelicals is entirely to blame for the fact that most of America voted against us in 2012, then we desperately need to work on our talking points and message discipline as ambassadors of Jesus, whether you’re an elephant or a donkey.
My hope is to share fresh paradigms for talking about what Jesus has made possible for us through His life, cross, and resurrection that are within the boundaries of Biblical orthodoxy and respectful of Christian tradition but different enough from the ruts that we’ve been digging not to get snapped back into the “getting saved” formula that dumbs itself down more and more the further we drag it. I am convinced of the core evangelical claim that justification by faith is central to our personal salvation, and I am equally convinced that various short-circuits in our “getting saved” mechanism have entrapped many self-professing evangelical Christians in self-justification instead of a justification that truly comes from Christ. The seven chapters that follow seek to name the self-justifications and stumbling blocks that have gotten mixed up in the evangelical understanding of salvation and the corrections that need to be made in order to allow the space for Christ’s genuine liberation.
“Mercy not sacrifice” names the self-justification that Jesus called out in the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13, namely that they would rather keep God at arm’s length through their grandiose gestures of sacrifice than subordinate themselves to a mercy which invades their hearts and makes them merciful toward others. “Worship not performance” names the essential difference between the worship that is self-abandoned delight in the presence of God and the performance that uses a fake “worship” to prove our worth to God and each other. “Deliverance not punishment” deals with the question of what exactly Jesus accomplished through His cross and resurrection and how we mischievously use our tough talk about it to prove our fidelity to a God whose hardness is our self-justifying currency. “Communion not correctness” will contend for the primacy of reconciliation and authentic intimacy to all Christian doctrine and morality and the danger of trying to pursue an abstract univocal correctness instead of the perfect love of God and neighbor that makes communion possible. “Sacrament not commodity” will deal with the critically important contrast between two systems of value which few evangelicals recognize to be in conflict: the church and the market. “Restoration not escape” will confront the ethical nihilism that has been created by evangelical Armageddon lust, recognizing that hope in our resurrection demands that we desist from our blithe trust in the inevitability of our world’s impending destruction. “Brokenness not privilege” will confront the question of divine election, advancing the claim that God chooses us when He liberates us from our privilege so that we can experience the brokenness of cruciform living.
[i] Ray Comfort, Conquer Your Fear, Share Your Faith, [need page]. I don’t agree with Comfort about anything else, least of all his ghastly Biblical exegesis.
[ii] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, [need page]
[iii] Isaiah 6:5
[iv] The purest “cage-fighter” god is the pagan Dionysus who shows what a man he is in Euripedes’ classical Greek tragedy The Bacchae by whipping the women of Thebes into a frenzy so that they tear the Theban prince Pentheus’ head from his body and kick it around like a soccer ball. If Nietzsche had grown up in a masculinist megachurch, he never would have said all the hurtful things he did about the effeminate Christianity whose meekness and mercy ruined the heroic virtues of a far manlier pagan antiquity.
[v] John 3:19
[vi] Hebrews 4:12
[vii] 1 Timothy 6:16
[viii] Galatians 5:22-23