There you’ll find an extensive variety of items, ranging from Bibles in dozens of different versions to things known as “Jesus junk.” These are mugs, bracelets, posters, etc. that have been made holy by pasting Scripture verses or hokey sayings across them. One of my all time favorites
was the tee shirt that sported a logo similar to that used by Gold’s Gym. The graphic artist cleverly removed the “l” from “Gold’s” so that it read “God’s Gym.” The slogan was later changed to “The Lord’s Gym” due to copyright infringement issues.
More striking than these words, however, was the illustration underneath them. It showed a very muscular Jesus struggling to lift a mammoth cross, with the words “the sins of the world” written across it. Below this it said “bench press this!” It’s sights like this that make me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
You’ll find other classy items at the Christian bookstore. Among them are knick knacks with sayings meant to inspire the owner. A very popular choice is the plaque with this verse from Jeremiah: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” – Jeremiah 29:11.
Let me share a little bit about the book of Jeremiah. It’s the gloomiest piece of literature you’ll ever read. It’s filled with woeful statements directed against Israel for abandoning God. It’s so depressing that it’s coined a term. The word “jeremiad” refers to a person who dwells on the negative and
spreads bad news further than Johnny Appleseed scattered – well, apple seeds.
The above mentioned verse is the singular bright spot in the entire text. It’s basically the Lord’s assurance to His people that after He’s dragging them through the mud and slapping them around He’ll do something nice for them. Yahweh’s methods in the Old Testament was often akin to the way R. Lee Ermey might deal with a group of green recruits.
If you don’t know who that is then I suggest googling his name. He’s a prolific actor as well as a colorful character, a heck of a guy. In particular I urge you to watch the film “Full Metal Jacket” in which he portrays a Marine drill instructor during the Vietnam War.
Anyway, my point is that the Jeremiah verse shouldn’t be understood to mean God has a wonderful plan for your life. Interpreting it that way is ridiculous. That doesn’t prevent millions of people from doing so, however. For many Christians, understanding the Bible’s real message is less important than getting a buzz from it.
Books are big sellers at the Christian bookstore. In fact I’ll say this for Evangelicals: on average they read far more than the typical American. While many of the volumes found on the shelves are well worth having there are others that are pure crap. Falling into this category is a wildly popular one entitled "Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence."
The woman who wrote it is an interesting character. She has a Master’s degree in Philosophy and other impressive credentials. She’s also a fan of recovered memory “therapy,” a pseudo-psychological school of thought popular in the 1980s. Back then it was commonly believed that thousands of Americans had been abused by Devil worshipers during childhood, and the resulting trauma caused them to repress any memories of it.
A legion of therapists arose who said they had the ability to help them recall what happened, by using guided imagery and hypnosis. In reality they were using the suggestibility of their patients to plant recollections of thing that never occurred.
The results of this nonsense were tragic. Innocent people across the nation were accused of horrific crimes, often by their own kids. Some of them were sentenced to prison, though their convictions were eventually overturned. A series of lawsuits and investigative reports ultimately discredited the quacks that were peddling this garbage, but not before many families and lives were ruined forever.
None of this has deterred the author of Jesus Calling from continuing to believe in it, however.
In the introduction she claims that one day she put pen in hand, cleared her mind and Christ took over from there, using her body as a conduit to write personal messages to her. From reading them I’ve found that the Jesus is quite a sentimentalist. Over and over he tells her how much he loves her, how he wants good things for her and wishes she would just fall into his arms and trust him completely.
Strangely absent from these love letters are the sort of things he’s noted for saying in the Gospels. He never tells her “you faithless and perverse generation, how long do I have to put up with you?” Personally I would have been happy if once, just once, he told her something like this: “put down that stupid pen and go out and do something useful. My words in the Gospels were good enough for every other follower of mine. They’ll have to be good enough for you too.” He disappointed me by not tossing that into the mix.
Of course my sarcasm is evident. Jesus didn’t inspire the syrupy platitudes that infest this tome. The author invented them herself, and, in a case of reverse plagiarism, she gave God the credit. I believe she kept the royalty checks, however.
What strikes me is how easily most of the book’s fans, and there are millions of them, have accepted it as a genuine message from Christ. This would put it on a par with the Bible. That fact should throw up a red flag in the mind of every Evangelical who reads it.
Apparently this occurred to the author. In the introduction she says that these writings “were not inspired as Scripture is.” This begs the question “what does that mean?” If both books contain God’s words then they are equally inspired. Churches worldwide should read from Jesus Calling every Sunday. The Gideons should put copies in hotel rooms. The Pope should proclaim to the world that new Scriptures have been written.
What’s behind the mass enthusiasm for his book? A number of things are. First and foremost is the fact that the world is filled with sad, lonely, hurting people who are less comfortless by those around them. So starved are they for any hope that they read things like Jesus Calling out of desperation. It makes them feel better. Unfortunately it also leaves them vulnerable to being manipulated. Nonetheless I feel nothing but compassion for them.
I have a far less charitable attitude towards people who misuse Bible verses like the one in Jeremiah. One of the most despicable religious movements in the world today is known as the Prosperity Gospel. It can be summed up in one sentence: God wants you to be rich and healthy, and if you’re not it’s your own fault. Televangelists love to preach this nonsense, as it’s a perfect setup to bilk money out of people. They challenge their viewers to “step out in faith” by sending in a donation, so that the Lord can return their investment with interest.
Most “ministries” that peddle this nonsense don’t show their financial statements to the public. There’s an unfortunate loophole in IRS regulations that makes that optional for non-profit organizations, although all legitimate ones release theirs anyway. Because of this the preacher running the scam can spend virtually all of the incoming funds on his lavish lifestyle, and then throw whatever is left at a soup kitchen or orphanage. That way he can report that the money received is helping to feed the hungry and house the homeless.
I feel sorry for the people who fall for this BS. Many of them are partially to blame for it, however. Most scams rely on the victim’s greed to help hook them. After all, we enjoy our greed. Very few of us follow Paul’s advice in 1st Timothy 6:6-10:
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.
Jesus never said that he’s concerned about our earthly success. He never intended for us to see him as a cheerleader or business coach to inspire us to get a better job or a bigger house. He came to turn the world upside down, to make a mockery of its value system and confront us with the nasty things about ourselves we refuse to face. He brought comfort to the comfortless; that is true. But to those who were already comfortable he brought great discomfort. Much of what he said was coarse, provocative and unlikely to build rapport between him and others. Consider the following:
How terrible it will be for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead people's bones and every kind of impurity.
If people come to me and are not ready to abandon their fathers, mothers, wives, children, brothers, and sisters, as well as their own lives, they cannot be my disciples.
Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (How closed-minded!).
A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.’ Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, ‘Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me!’ she said. He replied, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.’ “ (Yes, he did go on to help the woman’s child, but not before first trying to provoke her by insulting her ethnic heritage).
Not exactly meek and mild, was he? Face it, you wouldn’t want Jesus at your next party. Corporate CEO's wouldn’t welcome him into their boardrooms. Politicians might want their picture taken with him, but they would ban him from their strategy meetings.
So far in this post I’ve picked on Evangelicals. It’s time to take a swipe at the other end of the spectrum. I’m currently reading a book entitled “The Historical Jesus: Five Views.” The first essay in it is written by a liberal professor named Dominick Crossan. In it he transforms Jesus into a first century political liberal, a non-violent activist concerned with social justice for the marginalized.
As another scholar points out in his response, Crossan’s view is based less on evidence than it is on the all too human tendency to form God in our own image. The more books I read by revisionist biblical scholars the more convinced I become that they’re not interested in finding the historical person behind the gospel stories. Their real agenda is to make Christ politically correct, the sort of guy who would fit in well at an anti-Wal-Mart protest or a PBS fundraiser. “You’re so right, Jesus. Obama is much too conservative. Would you like a glass of wine, or maybe some organic fruit?”
These efforts are as doomed to failure as the Religious Right’s crusade to make Christ into a ball cap-wearing, Pledge of Allegiance reciting, homophobic clone of themselves. He won’t play along with our efforts to make him safe, friendly or comfortable.
Let me say here that I don’t believe Jesus’ intention was to insult and degrade people for its own sake. He wasn’t a sadist. But he did speak plainly, even rudely to people when he felt it would force them to confront themselves and acknowledge their own character flaws and hypocrisy.
With this in mind, I’d like to suggest some things Jesus might actually say if we were to have a conversation with him:
“You didn’t need to get those shoes. You’ve already got fifty pairs. Why are you obsessed with looking like people on television? Underneath their designer clothes and silicone breasts they’re as lonely and insecure as you. Why not look at Mother Teresa as someone to emulate, or that cleaning woman who works evenings at your office? She has more character and class than anyone in Hollywood, which you’d find out if you took the time to speak with her for a change.”
“Smoking a cigarette, I see. I don’t know what bugs me more, your willingness to pour carbon monoxide into your lungs or your support for an evil corporation that peddles poison to teenagers. And don’t get me started on that garbage you eat.”
“Boy, you really sounded self-righteous at that rally this morning, condemning people who look at pornography. You achieved your goal; everyone thinks you’d make a great Senator. Just make sure they don’t find out about those websites you visit late at night. What? How did I know about that? I know everything!”
“You get a bonus at work and what do you do with it? You waste the money on that camper. You know as well as I do that you didn’t get it for family trips. You just wanted your neighbors to see it parked in front of your house. You are one sick, superficial piece of crap, you know that? How long will I have to wait before you grow up a little?”
“Yes, I heard that singer say he doesn’t believe in me. I also heard you say he was going to Hell for it. You’re an asshole. That poor guy was beaten half to death by his dad when he was eight years old. The only people who ever showed him any acceptance were the drug addicts at school. He’s clinically depressed and angry at the world. Maybe you should have taken the time to find out a little about him before pronouncing judgment. It’s always easier for you to point a finger than to look in the mirror, isn’t it, you Hell-bound hypocrite?”
“I’ve heard your prayers to me for your cancer to be healed. It’s not going to happen. We all have crosses to bear in this world and this is yours. Yes, I have reasons for letting this occur and I’ll gladly share them with you on the Other Side. In the meantime you’ll have to take life one day at a time and relish each moment, because time is running out for you.”
“You can ask me till your dying day why I let your child get killed in that car wreck, but you won’t get an answer this side of the grave. Cursing my name won’t change my mind about that. If you want to make her death mean something then I suggest donating money or doing volunteer work for Mothers Against Drunk Driving or some other worthy cause in her name. I’ll suffer with you in your grief. But I won’t take it away.”
Imagine the Son of God calling us to tell us these things. Would we pick up the phone?
Jesus isn’t a nice guy, in the sense of being agreeable and avoiding conflict. He’s not interested in winning friends and being the life of the party. He’s often coarse and unsettling. Yet for all of this he’s the most genuine person who ever lived. Following him doesn’t mean drifting along on a cloud of bliss from one spiritual high to the next. Being his disciple may bring more sadness and loss into your life than if you ignored him totally. That’s not a very comforting thought, but it’s the truth. He loves you too much to tell you anything else.