I didn’t want to read the NY Times article, What Religion Would Jesus Belong To, by Nicholas Kristof. Just as I suspected, the article lacked a deep understanding of Christianity. It lumps Christianity together with other religions of the world in a pluralistic mush. I don’t know the depth of the author’s understanding of Christianity, but it didn’t show in the article (though he claims a conservative Christian background).
Still, the article makes a good point… and I shouldn’t be so reluctant to admit it.
American churches don’t reflect “the Jesus we meet in the Gospels”. Never mind that the author’s proof is another NY Times article complaining of the Christians of the Republican Party. The author seems to equate Jesus with the current political and moral landscape, as if Jesus would condone it, as if the modern American church is the exact representation of Jesus. If the modern American church doesn’t accurately reflect the Jesus we meet in the Gospels, it isn’t a reflection on Jesus; it’s a reflection on the modern American church.
The article regurgitates the often repeated studies that reveal an increasing secularization of the United States and the swelling group called “nones” who identify with spirituality but have no interest in going to church. The author urges progression in the church away from “religious bureaucracy … back to the moral vision of the founder”… as if the “moral vision” of Jesus is the forward thinking relativism and inclusivism of the modern, non-religious moralists.
This is not the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels either. Just because the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is not reflected in our modern American churches doesn’t mean that we should substitute a different modern American ethic in its place. If the Jesus in the Gospels is the standard, then we should let the Jesus in the Gospels speak to us without filtering it through our modern American lenses.
The author is correct, that people still have “a deep impulse for spiritual connections”. The “nones” describe themselves as spiritual, or desiring spiritual things, albeit with an aversion to religious structure.
The article ironically, and somewhat schizophrenically, rues the attention grabbing headlines of “pompous hypocrites” that “shape public attitudes about religion” while also recognizing that those same “religious Americans donate far more to charity and volunteer more than secular Americans do.” (Maybe the media dwells on pompous hypocrisy because the headlines are written by pompous, hypocritical editors who have an anti-Christian agenda!)
Significantly, the author finds a “holy sense of awe” in stories of a missionary doctor in the Sudan treating bombing victims, an evangelical physician laboring in Angola and a rabbi fighting for the rights of Palestinians. He rightly says, “Now, that’s religion”. Evangelical Christians should surely agree!
Jesus not only preached the Gospel; He healed the sick.
But, this isn’t the hallmark of Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus taught with authority. Jesus claimed to be God, and He was crucified for it. Jesus rose from the dead, and He offers eternal relationship with the God of the Universe! Through Jesus we can call this Holy God “our Father”!
Jesus was… and is… radical.
And this is part of the problem with the church today. The church is no longer radical!
(At least, the American church. The Iranian church and Chinese church and Pakistani church, and others around the world, are living the radical message of the Gospel in the midst of darkness.)
If the nones are as spiritual as they claim, they don’t want the pablum Christianity that is found in the pews of most churches in America today. They don’t want the doctrines, and the systems, and the bureaucracy and the same old thing.
I can’t blame them. The Christianity we see in many modern American churches isn’t the Jesus we meet in the Gospels.
The Jesus in the Gospels is radical in love, radical in His claim of authority, radical in His offer to people who give up all to follow Him. The message is as radical today as it was in the 1st Century, but for different reasons than the author suggests.
Yes, society has changed, as the author observes, but I am not sure that the Jesus of the Gospels would be as welcomed in our secular American culture today as the author seems to think. Jesus was counter-cultural – but that doesn’t mean in a progressive American sense!
Jesus wasn’t even on the cutting edge of cultural change in the 1st Century. That might have made Him a zealot.
Jesus wasn’t embraced by the staid, religious conservatives of his day either. Far from it! They are the ones who ultimately demanded his death.
Jesus was radical on both ends of the political spectrum of his day, and he remains universally radical today.
I think we all yearn for the radical nature of God’s love that was perfectly displayed in Jesus, but we get used to the safe confines of our religious enclaves. Either that, or we recoil reflexively from them, as the author seems to do, and reject the modern church altogether. (I don’t mean to imply that I know the author has left the church altogether, but many have.)
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is still alive today and seeking and saving the lost like he was in the 1st Century. It’s just that the American church doesn’t reflect Him well. We have allowed ourselves to become comfortable with something less than the authentic Jesus.
We need to be moved (again) by the Jesus of the Gospels, who was anything but safe or traditional.
That Jesus challenged the rich young ruler to give all that he had to the poor and follow Him. That Jesus challenged the Pharisees to be born again. That Jesus challenges us to take up our crosses and follow Him, leaving all that is comfortable behind us.
I know, as well as anyone, how difficult that is. But, nothing is impossible with God.
We can only be the disciples, priests and children of God – the witnesses we are meant to be – by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Let’s pray for a movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives that would radicalize each of us and the church – not in a political, cultural or moral sense – but in the classical, spiritual sense and transform us, individually and collectively as the Body of Christ, into a reflection of the Jesus we meet in the Gospels.
Interestingly, after completing and posting this piece, I read a biographical article on a young man who made a lot of money operating a website for new age and occult interests. He recently had an encounter with the living God and has turned from his new age and occult past. He took down his old new age website and is now an ambassador for Jesus Christ.
His observations about the church that he grew up in, and left, are relevant to the Jesus we meet in the Gospels (who seems to be poorly reflected in those churches). He says,
“What we seem to have, from my background at least, is a very cookie cutter, conservative, and dry religious system. And that’s the way it is perceived from the outside world.”
“The minute that we encounter the living, breathing presence of the Holy Spirit everything changes. And I would encourage people to pursue that, to pursue God in His fullness and to seek Jesus as He really is….”
 A Challenge To My Fellow Evangelicals, by Deborah Fikes, August 19, 2016, http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/08/19/a-challenge-to-my-fellow-evangelicals/
 “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
 Matthew 10:27
 Acts 1:8