The world is definitely smaller than it was even a decade ago, and, through the Internet and Facebook (which is very nearly a distinct medium of communication in its own right), we are in continual and unprecedented contact with distant friends, family, and many others around the globe. So why is it that the Christian faith, with its increasingly global reach, can differ so radically from one part of the earth to another? I do not primarily have in mind the various customs, rituals and cultural mores that differentiate one people from another. I am referring to something much more basic.
On this side of the pond, for example, we were recently treated to this bit of purported wisdom from one of the more prominent purveyors of the prosperity gospel: “Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy.” Don’t get me wrong; there is much to be said for happiness. Few of us would deliberately court unhappiness. Moreover, there is definitely a theme in the Bible connecting human flourishing with keeping God’s word (e.g., Psalm 128). Yet the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and a huge number of the Psalms should keep us from drawing too facile a connection here. In fact, the life in Christ is typically difficult and its undoubted rewards far from immediate.
Two of the more memorable chapters in Ross Douthat’s perceptive book, Bad Religion, are devoted to the prosperity gospel and the “god within.” In reading them one is particularly struck by the similarities between the two heresies in that both are focused on the self and its aspirations rather than on the path of obedience as set forth by the historic faith. Happiness can be found in the accumulation of material wealth, despite the contrary testimony of Matthew 6:24, or salvation can be found through improving one’s emotional well-being, again contrary to the witness of a host of scriptural texts which counsel, not feeling better about oneself, but repentance from sin and trust in Christ as Savior. Our North American heresies tend to reflect the priorities of liberal individualism: expanding the self and its claims with the assumed blessing of a god whose highest priority is our personal felicity. This god makes no demands on us that might conflict with our own chosen goals. Or, as Douthat puts it, he is “less like a savior than like a college buddy with really good stock tips” (189).
Across the pond, on the other hand, we are seeing daily reports from the Middle East and elsewhere of Christians, some as young as children, being put to death for refusing to abandon their faith in the face of the worst persecution imaginable. As ISIS/ISIL steamrolls its way across northern Mesopotamia, ancient communities of Christians are being uprooted or obliterated in its path. Those of us outside the region are horrified and sense that our governments are incapable of acting to stop these atrocities. Amidst this sudden upsurge in persecution, some of us find ourselves wondering what we would do in similar circumstances. If something like ISIS/ISIL were to overrun much of North America, would we follow the path of obedience even if it meant joining the “noble army of martyrs” from ancient times? If the heresies Douthat describes should, God forbid, end up dominating the spiritual landscape of North America, would we be willing to give up our lives for the sake of a gospel so fixated on the self and its needs? This question hardly requires an answer.
It is, of course, unwise to romanticize unduly the Christians of the global south. Like us, they too share in the human reality of sin and are in need of redemption in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, at the moment they also need us to stand in solidarity with them, and we will not do so credibly if we have accepted a faith that downplays the path of obedience to a God who claims the totality of our lives as his own. It is just possible that the best antidote to a peculiarly western religion focused on the self is to open our eyes and ears to our persecuted brothers and sisters overseas.