American Christianity

Blue-and-red-paints

If you think your theology is solid, founded on the bedrock of Scripture, untainted and uncompromised, you just don’t understand the human brain. You can try to argue, but it wouldn’t take long for me to prove just how much your personality, culture and upbringing affect every aspect of your thinking, including your belief system.

This may sound like I don’t believe in absolute truth. If every human brain is a hodgepodge of inborn tendencies and outside influences, how can any of us be sure that our belief system is correct? How can any of us know if our hopes are not tangled up with cultural fantasies, as if hope in a resurrected god-man and a glorious eternity is as absurd as hoping for a fat, bearded man to come down your chimney with a bag full of Christmas presents? 

This is why Jesus gave us a person when he left, not a book. A person stays current, while a book can become outdated and mistranslated, leading to errors of interpretation. A person stays, well, personal, while a book stands at a distance, needing to be read and properly internalized. A person is a pure, unspoiled entity, while a book can become misconstrued as is passes through the filters of our culturally-conditioned cerebral cortexes.

One way to know if our theologies are tainted is to take a close look at the fundamentals of our theology and the fundamentals of our culture. If Christianity is red, and American patriotism is blue, how purple are American Christians?

Red:

Think of Jesus as a needle and thread. A Creator comes down to his estranged creation. He is resisted, killed and driven into the earth by his enemies. He reemerges in a miraculous resurrection, then returns to heaven, having established an outpost of light in spiritually dark world. He sends his Spirit to his followers, creating a solid connection between heaven and earth. Then he starts to pull on that divine thread, working to heal fractured hearts and minds, restoring relationships, gradually drawing heaven and earth back together again.

Blue: 

Think of our Founding Fathers as peacemakers of a different quality. This was a peace founded in freedom, forging a government that was explicitly by the people and for the people. Individuals from all cultures and backgrounds were encouraged to come to a unique land where they could try to forge a new life for themselves without persecution. They were encouraged to work hard and pursue their own happiness. They were encouraged to embrace their God-given rights, and respect the rights of the people around them.

Purple:

America is a great place to be a Christian. As long as we’re not breaking the law or infringing on the rights of others, we don’t have to be afraid of being dragged to prison or being ritually executed. Sadly, this is not true for hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.

Sometimes, however, we don’t clearly differentiate between living as Christians in a free country, and living as citizens of a Christian country. I covered this misconception in a recent post. In this post I want to talk about some of the repercussions of thinking like an American in a Christian culture rather than drawing a clear distinction between the two.

Government:  

Every Christians would acknowledge that Jesus is their King. He is the Head of his Body. He is the Shepherd of his Sheep. Though Christ is definitely for his people, his rule is not established by the people, but by the will of his Father because of his righteous life and sacrificial death (Phil. 2:8-9).

Sometimes we pray as if Christ’s kingdom is more of a democracy than a monarchy. It’s not that we don’t accept the sovereign rule of Christ, it’s that we feel as if we should have more of a say in his decisions.

I’m not saying that we should just accept everything that happens in our lives as God’s sovereign will, never stopping to ask for guidance or divine intervention. Of course we should pray. God is a relational being. But as we pray, we need to test our motivations.

Are we praying according to the mission of Christ or according to the American Dream? Is our focus on spiritual transformation or our own physical or emotional comforts? Are we thinking of others or ourselves? Are we willing to accept the answer of our King without question, or do we plan to beg until we get what we want?

Success:  

America is all about individual achievement—quality education, extracurricular activities, building a resume and portfolio, starting a family, leaving a legacy. Christianity is all about laying aside your life for something greater, allowing yourself to be trampled, if necessary, for the spiritual healing of the nations. This may be the clearest distinction between American idealism and the heart and mission of Christ.

How often do we see our connection with God as a way to boost our upward mobility? We pray for God to help us choose the right home, the right school, the right career path, the right partner. When we have an interview, we ask for prayer. When the interview goes well, we say “Praise God.” When we get the job, we say “God is still on the throne!” If not, we pray for strength, wondering what lesson God might be trying to teach us. Or we pray against further assaults from the enemy.

Our American idealism might lead us to emphasize certain verses, tearing them out of their first century contexts to fit our modern emphases: “I can do all things through Christ…” “We are more than conquerors…” “All things work together for good…”

But what do we mean by ‘good’? A stable job? A healthy body? A happy family? Have you ever wondered by Paul’s prayers rarely, if ever, focus on these kinds of things?

Retirement:

We live in a culture that works toward financial security and retirement. Is it any wonder that we often think of heaven as the ultimate goal of our Christian lives?

The Bible is very clear about the mission of Christ, how he will eventually return to earth to complete what he started at the Incarnation, coming to rule on the earth. Why don’t we ever talk about life after life after death? Why focus so much on getting away from our current struggles, going to a Narnia-like existence where there are no more tears, streets are paved with gold, and where lions sleep with lambs?

Is it because our minds are hard-wired for wealth, comfort and security? Or is it because we genuinely have a passion for justice and peace? Maybe a little of both.

Where do you think the gospel of Christ and American idealism tend to merge? Or am I overthinking this one?

3 thoughts on “American Christianity

  1. I think the two are very intertwined. Some because Christian ideals influenced our founders, and some because American ideals have influenced our Christianity. It is a problem that is going to become more acute as American ideals change towards the secular. My heritage is Amish, which is a group that has addressed this problem by withdrawing from society. While there is a certain appeal to that, I don’t know that it is the right solution. I think that in many areas our Christian beliefs and our national beliefs are not mutually exclusive, but there are also areas where they are in opposition. A decision I have made, rather recently actually, is to pay attention to where those conflicts arise, particularly in the area of success, and when I see them, to choose my faith over my culture. I believe that is what most Christians want to do, but if we are not intentional about it and we let ourselves get swept along with the current, we will end up being more American than Christian, even if we don’t want that to happen.

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    • Great thoughts, Karl. You’re right about the dangers of being swept into cultural currents. It’s so important to be able to differentiate between the basic values of our country and of our faith, and make the right choices.

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