Archives For Gnosticism

christless-christianityChristless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church outlines what its author, Michael Horton, believes to be a fundamental shift in American Christianity.

Pinpointing cause, consequence and remedy, Horton tackles both Pelagian and Gnostic tendencies within American Christianity and culture. For Horton, America is pulling away from Christocentricity in its social activism and its proclamation of The Gospel.

In its place is what American sociologist, Christian Smith identifies as, ‘Moral Therapeutic Deism’. The basic message of which ‘is that God is nice and we are nice, so we should all be nice.’ (p.42).

Christless Christianity is a critique of both liberal Protestant, emerging and Conservative (American Evangelical) Christianity. (Think of the latter as the body corporate and the former two as the body collective.) Even though the body collective still considers itself beyond institutional Christianity, both are institutional and both have a hand in promoting ‘moral therapeutic deism’.

In Horton’s view, both corporate and collective have downgraded the Christian faith and what it means to be Christian. His criticism begins with a lengthy discourse on Joel Osteen, which then takes on the ‘therapeutic narcissism’ (p.72) of “God is a genie” consumerism (p.68), the “seeker sensitive” mega church phenomenon and the “personal Jesus” of American Evangelicalism. His second criticism flows into a less aggressive admonishment of liberal Protestants, Brian McLaren and the emerging church.

‘‘For many Americans reared on the “Christian America’’ hype of the religious right, “emerging church” movements may seem like a major shift, but [it’s just a change in Parties]’ (p.116) For all of the Emergent Church movement’s incisive critiques of the megachurch model, the emphasis still falls on measuring the level of our zeal and activity rather than on immersing people in the greatest story ever told’ (p.119)

According to Horton, the body corporate is guilty of replacing the proclamation of the Good News with just good advice. Positive psychology is king.Consequently, the understanding of what it means to follow Christ is diminished into slogans and ‘works-righteousness’ (p.123). It has taken the place of good exegesis, deed (sacrament) and the correct teaching of The Word (preaching).

Whereas the body collective, in its rejection of both Pentecostal and American Evangelical consumerist institutionalism, progressive “Christian” (liberal protestant) and Emerging churches, aren’t free of guilt. In many ways they’ve replaced Jesus as the Gospel with the social gospel. Theology is surrendered into the service of an ideology.

 ‘In many ways mirroring the Religious Right’s confusion of Christ’s kingdom of grace with his coming kingdom in glory and the latter with a political agenda already defined by a political party, the Religious Left seems just as prone to enlist Jesus as a mascot for programs of national and global redemption.’ (p.114)

As Horton states,

 ‘Loving and serving our neighbour is the law, it’s not the Gospel (p.123) […]‘There exists today a false distinction between law and love, whereas the biblical distinction is between law and grace – the law tells us what God expects of us; the Gospel tells us what God has done for us (p.125).’

In today’s terms, this is equal to the theological statement, “God is love” being replaced with the term “love is love”; Good, grace, holiness and righteousness are interchangeably used with niceness and tolerance. “Love is all you need” and being nice become seen as the prerequisites that an individual can use to buy into God’s good graces. Jesus as free gift and His embodiment as ‘grace in the flesh’[ii] is ejected.

 “Just love God and people” is not the Gospel; it is precisely that holy demand of the law that we have grievously failed to keep. Our love toward God and neighbour is the essence of the law; God’s love toward us in Jesus Christ is the essence of the Gospel; 1 Jn.4:10’ (p.136)

Horton’s description of the basic message of Moral Therapeutic Deism, shares similarities with late feminist and political scientist, Jean Bethke Elshtain who in her book of the same year, ‘War On Terror (Just War Theory)’ warned of the dangers attached to reducing the depth of Christianity to an “ethic of universal niceness” (source). From which we don’t see Christian doctrine, but instead a Machiavellian politick, where appearances become more important than substance.

‘’Seeker friendly” filters tune out that which is deemed non-offensive and tune into whatever wins popular applause. As a result, the Gospel and the mission of the Church are obscured. The uniqueness of Christ is undermined. The Christological centricity, along with the centripetal and centrifugal nature of Christianity-as-mission is then effectively negated.

‘To the extent that churches in America today feel compelled to accommodate their message and methods to these dominant forms of spirituality they lend credence to the thesis that Christianity is not news based on historical events just another form of therapy’ (p.180)

Horton labels this as the takeover of Christian doctrine by self-salvation, Pelagians and special inner revelation; self-deification, Gnostics. Christians are encouraged to ‘feed themselves’; to rest their faith in an inner ‘voice (p.59); to buy into any spiritual’ (p.179) experience where they can attain ‘self-salvation’ (p.42).

The act of grateful obedience, in response to the Divine judgement and mercy that delivers humanity from sin in Jesus Christ is jettisoned.

In sum, ‘Christless Christianity‘ takes a stand against corruption. In doing this, Horton pushes back against Pelagian and Gnostic influenced trends that see Jesus as the Gospel, replaced with the social gospel, and  the ‘preaching the Gospel replaced with preaching just good advice’ (p.202).

Horton makes no apologies for charging straight into the behemoth of Christian compromise for corporate or collective benefit. It is no secret that the left and right divide permeates the church as much as is does the state. In his critique, Horton calls out both, arguing that they are as guilty as each other in preaching an alternative Gospel. The only remedy for which is resistance and reformation.

Horton’s critique is relevant. It’s sharp and appropriate. Christ cannot be divorced from Himself, nor can He be separated from those He represents:

‘…being grafted in Christ, we are delivered from this miserable thraldom; not that we immediately cease entirely to sin, but that we become at last victorious in the contest.’ [iii]

Come the second reformation.


Notes:

[i] Horton, M. 2008 Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Baker Books Baker Book Publishing

[ii] Attributed to John Webster

[iii] Calvin, J. Commentary On Romans (Romans 6)

Disclaimer: I purchased the book and received no payment of any kind for offering this review.

Rehabilitating Marx?

November 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

I am not an adherent of Marxism. I do not favour the idea of an oligarchy boxing people into slavery to an overarching ideology or binding them to economic classifications which transform citizens into clients of the state.

With its blueprint for a ‘politically correct anarchy’ (Wright, 2013:46) this is something that the extreme left seems to be so attracted to. I am also not supportive of “practical-atheist, post-Christian” Western capitalism and its ”Darwinian” justifications for greed, such as an over-emphasis on the enlightenment, and a preference for egoist individualism.

I am, however, an adherent of finding a ferocious balance. One that falls in line with Alex De Tocqueville’s belief that ‘too much power is as bad as no power’ (cited by Elshtain, 1995:11). One that also falls into agreement with Jean Bethke Elshtain’s view that democratic civil society only exists, as long as there is a  disposition towards a ‘generous openness to sharp disagreement; a democratic feistiness over against a cynicism which breeds mistrust, paranoia, resentment and fear’ (Elshtain, 1995:xii & xiii).

In other words a healthy dose of respect for disagreement,responsible care; an openness to wisdom, truth or open rebuke spoken in love.

I currently lean towards a fair economic system, such as distributionism which fairly empowers and raises the underprivileged (not just keeps them in that position and lowers everyone else).

Having said this, with a sense of gratitude I acknowledge, the historical alliance between capitalism and democracy that Dr.Tim Stanley recently highlighted:

I write about this subject with the ferocity of a convert. I was once a Marxist and I once fooled myself that there was a distinction between economic analysis and practical despotism. There isn’t. I wish this could be patiently explained to the dumb kids who put Marx on their wall and wail about the unique EVIL of a capitalist system that has actually lifted millions from misery and proven to be a close ally of democracy. It’s an education every bit as vital as the one we give about fascism. – Tim Stanley [link]

It might pay to consider the publisher’s note in Gene Veith’s 1993 book Modern Fascism. Especially when being confronted by the noise of the left (and a growing number from the right) on social media. Often perpetuated by people who generalise and sadly, show little concern for objective analysis:

…A sincere, conscientious effort to clarify biblical principles and apply them is far superior to relying on a framework of secular relativism in a society that prides itself on pluralism and (egoist) individualism and yet in some respects is captive to fascist-type domination’ (Veith, G.E 1993 Kindle Loc.75-77).

It is here that I  find myself in agreement with Tom Wright, who points out that neo-Gnosticism finds itself expressed in both far-right and far-left ideologies. To the point where the ‘vox Dei (voice of God) is set aside leaving the vox populi (voice of the people) to become a law unto itself’ (2013:39 – I plan to write a bit more about this once I finish a review of Elshtain’s ‘Democracy on Trial and complete my reading of Wright’s book).

For the Church, Wright suggests that:

‘we should understand some key elements of today’s culture in terms of modern types of Gnosticism e.g.: Far-right American Evangelicalism, the Historical distortions & elevated conspiracies from the Left, Dan Brown & Richard Dawkins et.al…We can and should identify, and critique, an overall gnostic mood in today’s culture’ (2013, pp.4-31)

Sources:

Elshtain, J.B 1995 Democracy On Trial  Basic Books Perseus Books Group
Veith, G. E 1993 Modern Fascism, Kindle for PC ed.Concordia Publishing House.
Wright. N.T 2013 Creation, Power and Truth SPCK Great Britain

©RL2013