Category Archives: false gospel

Letter 54: Enthusiasm and Gnosticism

Back in the 1980’s, my parents were supporters of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL ministries.  As a matter of fact we stayed at the Bakker’s Heritage USA site twice, enjoying the waterpark and attending tapings of the PTL Club.  I even appeared in one of the camera pans across the audience.  It seemed wonderful, magical, and just a little false.

It as built out in the middle of nowhere, and while there was a drought on, the managed to keep the waterpark going and water all of the plants at the facility.  It was a place humming with excitement, as there always was another project to build for, and of course to raise money for.  It struck my teenaged brain as odd that they never seemed to finish a project before launching into the next one.

It became easy to lampoon the Bakkers, especially once their ministry collapsed amid according irregularities and sordid tales of sex.  This is why I found the below article so fascinating, by placing them within the arc of the American religious experience, and our strong temptation to Gnosticism.

Most of this follows from the uniquely American solution the problem of competing religious faiths: privatization. By making religious truth a matter for individual conscience, we cut out a cause for civic strife, but we also placed the center of all knowledge within ourselves. We chose what was right and wrong. And this narrative structure has come to dominate American thinking about religion and ideas in general. We seek conversion, rejecting whatever surrounded us before, and making a definite commitment, preferably throwing off the “shackles” of the past.

The strong emphasis on a personal encounter with God, a core element of both Puritanism and Evangelicalism, grounded in a well of experience, is a powerful story.  But these all revolve around the self. Without a sense of sin and it’s effects, it is all too easy to name ourselves as the arbiter of God.  Spiritual growth becomes self improvement.  Unleash the power within.  Master the secrets and become like God.  The sin of Adam and Even becomes the fulfillment of the truth within.

“The heart is deceitful more than anything else, and it is disastrous. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 (LEB)

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker: A Scandal of the Self

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Filed under authority, Christianity, false gospel, Gnosticism, Holy Spirit, Self Help, Spiritual Gifts, understanding

Letter 49: “Do This In Memory of Bruce Barton”

 

The message this Sunday, as it often is, was about identity.  We ended by reciting a lengthy list of attributes that should describe us, each starting with the proclamation, “I am….”  Each “I am” had a Bible verse attached, and it was somehow linked, in some way, to something God had done, but it was all about me.

 

After the first few “I am’s” I fell silent.  I couldn’t join in.  God does not always want our ease, or our power.  Actually, much of the Christian tradition is about learning to suborn our will to His, to accept what He wants, and not infrequently, that involves suffering.  Milton went blind, William Cowper went mad, and the martyrs went home.  Being uniquely loved by God doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this.

 

We seem much too obsessed with our identity, and too little with God’s.  It’s a fine distinction I know, but much of our preaching and teaching sounds like sanctified self-help, with a concordance attached.  We miss the point of Ephesians 2:5-11.  Christ was so sure of His identity that He didn’t think about it at all.  He was about His Father’s business, and so should we.

 

Such messages look Christian, feel Christian, but somehow fall short.  There is quite a history to such messages in this country.

 

In 1925, Bruce Barton, a son of the manse, wrote The Man Nobody Knows, the best-selling non-fiction book in America of that decade.  Barton was very clear about why he wrote the book.  He took issue with the image of Jesus presented to him in Sunday School and from the pulpit.  As Barton told it, Jesus was a man’s man.  He was a winner, and by following Him, we could become winners too.

 

This marked a subtle shift.  Yes, the Gospel was about serving God and helping others, but as a component of self-fulfillment.  The Gospel becomes just another miracle cure.  One that just happens to be 50% more effective, and without a nasty aftertaste.  Who wouldn’t want that?

 

All of this begs a question, what is the purpose of our lives?  The Bible is rich in words of comfort and assurance, because we need them.  It is also filled with admonitions to self-denial and sacrifice.  We are told to take up our Cross and follow Him who did see equality with God as something to be clutched like a miser, but was willing to die.

 

A gnawing disconnect gripped me, especially after we received Communion.  It didn’t feel quite right.  When confronted with the reality of Jesus, John the Baptist told his followers, “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John 3:30.

 

May it be so, O Lord, may it be so.

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Filed under Christianity, false gospel, preaching, Self Help