Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Your best life now?

I have several litmus tests for religious books, but the strongest and clearest is this: if you can find it in a grocery store, don't buy it.

Perhaps I'm just being too high-minded, like the indie music snob who refuses to like anything that is popular, but I think there is a deeper reason. With apologies to those who have found such books helpful, I find that the "religious" books found in the check-out lane of the grocery store are less about religion and more about personal growth, clothed in religious language. The Prayer of Jabez, for instance, is ostensibly about prayer, but in my reading it is more about praying for (and receiving) material things than it is about praying that God's will be done. My favorite, of course, is Joel Osteen--he of the beautiful teeth--who proclaims that you can have Your Best Life Now, both in book form and in a board game.

Admittedly, I have not read read any Joel Osteen, nor have I played any of his board games. I am, however, familiar with his arguments, and I have watched him on television enough to know that the crux of what he is preaching is not what I believe. Osteen's message seems to me to be less about what God wants for your life, and more about what I want from God (I will simply note, here, that Joel Osteen does not have a seminary degree). I think I am being fair to Osteen's theology; he has said that his focus is less on God and more on "teaching people to live their everyday lives" and "the power of a positive attitude." As one who finds the apostle Paul appealing and the apostle Peale appalling, I just can't buy into the positive attitude business. I can't make it jive with "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

I have been thinking lately about this argument that the Christian religion has within it a set of principles that in fact does lead to your best life now. I am so appalled by these "Christian living" books that focus on being happy and rich that I tend to lose sight of the idea that there is a set of ethics within the Christian religion that do offer the best way of living.

Part of my trepidation is that I don't want to end up on the front cover of a book. My teeth aren't as white as Joel Osteen's, so this is a vain thought. But more seriously,  I guess I don't want to even be seen in the same universe as those who profit off of religion.

So I sometimes err on the other side. I have within me this fundamental notion that if you are really religions--if you take the Gospel very seriously--you are really unhappy. You ought to sell everything you have to the poor, and if you don't, you have to at least feel conflicted about buying things you don't need. As long as you feel conflicted, I guess you're ok.

Look, I know this is ridiculous. Writing it out makes me feel ridiculous. But I often find myself so frustrated at the state of this "feel good" American religion that I err on the side of misery.

Certainly, there is misery in religion. I don't think it is easy to sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. And this is my main critique of the "Christian living" crowd. Living the Christian life is not about living your best life in terms of getting all the things you want, or in terms of moving past doubt, or in terms of being happy at the expense of the reality going on around you. If you can walk into a slum, where children go hungry and adults can't even find a sanitary place to go to the bathroom, and be happy about it, you're probably doing something wrong.

But you can be joyful. You can have the peace of Christ in your heart, even when that heart is broken at the state of the world. You can have love in your heart, even when you find yourself surrounded by the unloved and the seemingly-unlovable. You can, in fact, have your best life, if you just change the paradigm of what that best life looks like.

Here, in my rush to judge the wildly successful TV preachers and authors, I've thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or at least the good news of the Christ child out with the mindless, pseudo-religious drivel. I am so concerned, as a moderate, mainline Methodist, about being lumped in the same category as Joel Osteen that I have nearly rejected the notion that the Christian way of living is, in fact, the best way to live! This is the place in which Osteen is most insidious: he drives the rest of us away from Christian living!

I'm sure this comes forth in my preaching, and for that, I've got to repent. The Christian life is the best way to live--just, perhaps, not in the way Joel Osteen seems to think.

The Christian life is not going to make you rich, but it will save you from the idolatrous (and ultimately self-defeating) chase for money.
The Christian life is not going to make you happy all the time, but it will save you from the meaningless ignorance that comes when you plug your ears.
The Christian life is not going to magically tell you what God wants you to make for breakfast, but it will open you up to the incredible possibilities that occur when we partner with God in God's work.
The Christian life is not going to give you all the answers, but it will invite you into a community that struggles with the questions and does its best to respond in kind.
The Christian life is not going to fulfill your every earthly desire, but it will lead you to serve others in such a way that your desires are transformed.

After all, we do not serve a malevolent God. God wants us to thrive in community with one another. God does not want us to be rich, perhaps, but money is vanity, anyway. The Christian life is, in fact, the best way to live--even if we must reframe the notion of what your "best life" looks like--and if preachers of the Gospel keep running away from this idea, we've got no leg to stand on when someone shakes our hand after worship and says, "You know, what you said this morning reminded me of Joel Osteen. Your sermon was almost as good as his was."

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