Monday, October 18, 2010 by niebuhrian
And, looking up to the deep blue sky, you ponder the eschatological nature of Jesus’ ministry, or the attributes of God in relation to creation, or why you might bother to wear leather work pants while singing on a mountain top. It’s okay, you are in a place of confession. You’re even allowed to acknowledge that you might want to make the hills come alive with the sound of doctrine.
While we’re on the subject of confession, I might as well admit to an indiscretion of my own. The pulpit, for some reason seems to be a place of confession.
My rarely spoken of act happens under the cover of darkness. On these nights, I wait patiently until my wife and daughter are asleep and the house is quiet. I settle down into the cushions of the couch in our basement. Sitting there, I whip out the remote control and begin to reprogram the television in order to find some of the stations that normally never see the light of day in our home.
With the television ready to broadcast those illicit channels, I sink a little further into the sofa and let the words and images wash over me. Talking heads full of perfectly gelled hair, million dollar smiles and crowds of adoring fans draw me into the world of televangelists.
I find myself basking in glow of cheap easy grace that requires little more of me than to send in a pledge card, a check and say a quick prayer. And so, I sit there in the flickering light of the television and hope that the blissful ignorance of unquestioned and faith-filled positivism will make me feel better and quiet the discontent of my mind. I pine to go back in time to the point when all of this faith business was as simple as these carnival barkers for Jesus make it out to be.
I mean if I just believed what they had to offer; I would be wealthy beyond my wildest dreams; I would have a permanent smile on my face from all of the ways God blesses me; I would no longer have to worry about this world and its problems.
I sit there and get the chance to think that my self-esteem is the only thing that matters in this world. After a few minutes of this kind of theologically self-affirming navel gazing, I re-program the television to cover my tracks and shuffle off to bed. Of course, when I awake the next morning, I feel a little dirty and ashamed at my night-time exploits. Which makes me wonder what is it that sometimes draws me into that grand Messianic Industrial Complex.
I mean one obvious reason to watch is for the sheer entertainment value. The interpretations of scripture are often laughable, as are the ornate chairs and television productions from which they are proclaimed. Then there are the rooms full of gushing fans and the serious call centers waiting to take down your pledge information, or maybe if the price is right say a little prayer for you. It’s entertaining to watch people try and drum up support for the impoverished, the unsaved and the outcasts from the comfortable confines of a television set.
Yes, entertainment is one reason to watch televangelists, but mostly, I think it is their confidence that draws me in to that world. Because, it certainly isn’t their doctrine.
Most televangelists by my count are one trick ponies when it comes to doctrine. There are the theology of prosperity types, who claim that if you make a positive affirmation of faith, and tithe, preferably to their church, then you will receive untold wealth and blessings from God.
Another trick that some of them claim is the eschatological prophetic vision. These are the doomsayers that sit behind faux news desks and trot out the same old scriptures over and over again in order to support their claim that the end of the world is near. The problem is they have been claiming this for 20 years, using the same tired interpretations and nothing’s happened.
Now, some televangelists are “the baptize all nations” folks. They are the ones who plead for you to save your soul and make the commitment to God. They are the weepy big haired women or the perfectly styled men with the strong voices, nowadays they even come in tattoo-flavored for the kids in the crowd.
Finally, there are the faith-healers and positive thinkers. Their doctrine generally comes from the power of positive thinking movement with a little God thrown in, just to make it feel Christian. They are ones who believe that everything is up to you and if you just think right, God’s blessings will flow, as if God were some magical spigot you could turn on and off.
In fact, our parable today (Luke 18: 1-8) is one that would bolster most arguments that these kinds of televangelists would make. They might say, if you pray hard enough and in the right ways, you will convince God to act on your behalf. Persistence and positive thinking helps get God off the couch and on the road to helping you with what you need.
For all their faults, the one thing they do well is preach these messages with confidence and charisma. They don’t hide their beliefs. They speak their minds, teach their doctrines, and tell you what to do and believe in order to encounter God in your life. And despite the shallow waters in which they theologically tread, people eat up their confidence and message as if this were the last meal we would ever receive.
You would hope that people would bored with a one trick doctrine. You might hope that we would be wise as serpents, realizing that just because something is repeated over and over again, it doesn’t make it true. You would think that we would grow bored with the repetition and lack of complexity. But we, as a nation don’t, we keep listening to the confidence and the faith that televangelists have in their message, believing just as they do, that the more we hear it, the more likely it is that that message is true.
When Paul warns us about finding teachers who merely parrot our opinions, under the guise of faithful teaching, I think in a narrow way he was warning us about the televangelists of his day. More broadly, he was warning us against finding one simple comfortable position or thought or teacher and never stretching ourselves in life or in faith.
Paul was reminding us that the Gospel is something radical and life-giving, challenging us to see God in the world no matter how messy it gets or alone we might feel sometimes. Sound doctrine, in many ways, is a reflection of the notion that the Gospel “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” More so than that, doctrine forms the building blocks upon which we live out our faith in the daily moments of life.
Doctrine helps us interpret the world through faith colored glasses. It helps us grasp at both the biblical witness and the events unfolding in the news with an eye towards how God continues to work in the world. And, whether you know it or not, you carry doctrines with you wherever you go. Because our doctrines form beliefs, which guide our actions and reactions.
We minister types will occasionally converse about theological worldviews. Which is a fancy way of asking, “how does what you think and believe about God impact the ways you physically, mentally, emotionally and relationally interact with the world?”
A theological worldview is basically a living, breathing doctrine which guides our steps, making the world meaningful by placing theology and faith as central to the way we interpret everything: from family to parenting, voting to vacationing, from what we eat, wear, drive to where we live, work and play. We learn about doctrine so that we might begin to make sense of our experiences in meaningful ways that reveal our beliefs and faith in God.
Doctrine is something that can make the hills come alive as they sing of God’s creation. It is something that makes relationships more meaningful as we seek to see the image of God in one another. I think the major difference between the doctrines we learn and live by and those of televangelists is that ours recognizes the complexity of God’s world. Furthermore, we embrace that complexity, seeking God in moments of knowing and in times of mystery.
Let me tell you why it is important that we teach and preach and read about doctrine, why we gather together in fellowship and also seek to care for one another. We do this so that in those moments when the world comes crashing down upon you; when you knock at the doors of life until your knuckles bleed, and yet the door remains closed; when the mystery and complexity becomes overwhelming and things no longer make sense. We teach about doctrine because: it is in these moments when the rug is torn from underneath our feet that a solid foundation of faith is vital. It is in these moments that we must be able to find the truths of faith that sustain and guide us, so that we might find rest and hope again.
We must find ways of embracing sound doctrine so that we might live confidently and boldly in faith. And yet, so often our doctrines, the life blood of our faith, remains hidden from the world. We are found scratching our heads like disciples hearing a parable for the first time, often offering nothing of meaning, and when we do speak the words of faith, they fail us and world laughs or cries at our silence.
And so, when children kill themselves because the doctrine of the world they inhabit is violent and unrelenting, and safe places are few and far between. And when the church is strangely silent, even though our hearts break with the families and our anger boils at a culture that allows such tragedies. We seem lost.
We must all begin to find ways of speaking, with words and actions, through the foundations of our faith. Because, when we cannot speak with confidence about who we believe God is and how God works in a complex world, we no longer are relevant to the world around us. And people begin to believe that the truth from the church comes from mouths of televangelists.
If you are willing to let them be the voice, your voice, of Christianity, so be it. Stop learning, stop listening, stop reading and stop stretching yourself and your faith. If not, then go and find the places, the classes, the books, the people that will challenge you. Go out seeking to meet God in the world wherever that might be and boldly live as a proclamation of the good news of hope and love that God has shared with us all.