02.28.2016 Preaching Text: “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isaiah 51:1b)
As with most pastors I appreciate feedback on my sermons. And by that I don’t mean just positive feedback. After all, I put a lot of time and effort into making my points and it’s gratifying to find out how others are hearing it.
A couple of weeks ago, in the receiving line following the service, one of our members said to me in a very friendly way, “Cheer up! It’s not that bad!”
She was referring to the sermon which, as I recall, had to do with the increasing secularity of our culture and its now decades-long rejection of the church. I commented on how the church, rather than defending and promoting the truth of the gospel, too often appears to agree with the secular critique, assuming a defensive posture that is as timid as it is defeatist.
It’s hardly a new theme for me, in case you hadn’t noticed! And, to be honest, it’s generated an occasional bit of fretting over the years. The gist of these comments, for some hearers at least, is that my message isn’t upbeat enough, and perhaps even a bit negative.
I want you to know that I do think about this sort of thing. I question the tone and content of what I say. On the other hand, I remain convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the church today faces a great challenge, one we shirk at our peril.
My overall sense of the current spiritual climate in the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is that we are at a crossroads of sorts.
As Tony Robinson points out in Transforming Congregational Culture (a book we’ve studied at various times here at First Church), for too long the mainline Protestant churches have relied on the wider culture to do our work for us, of teaching and transmitting the uniqueness of the Christian gospel.
Long ago we hitched our wagon, so to speak, to American culture, falsely assuming it to be “where the action is.” This might have seemed a good idea back in the early part of the 20th century when Christianity served as the sole basis for a larger, dominant “civil religion” that held sway up until the 60’s.
But even then, problems existed.
The biggest problem the church faces today, in my opinion, is the enduring legacy of civil religion, now gone to seed. Beginning in the early 20th century, amid the heady dreams of ramped-up, turn-of-the-century optimism, the church set out to expand its influence beyond its four walls by self-consciously “Christianizing” the wider culture (and its institutions).
This new era of unbridled optimism resulted in, among other things, the 1927 publication of a highly influential, though now largely forgotten, book entitled, The Man Nobody Knows, by Bruce Barton, a Madison Avenue copywriter. Its basic mission was to present Jesus as a 20th century salesman/businessman. The idea was that by applying Jesus’ values and ethics, anyone could become a success.
Ten years later, in 1937, Dale Carnegie’s published his even more influential book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Its themes were similar. Positive thinking and the applied use of positive personal behavior would insure success.
It wasn’t too long before Norman Vincent Peale put the cap on this movement. In his landmark 1952 book, The Power of Positive Thinking, Peale burnished the path first trod by Barton and Carnegie. By thinking and imagining the future you want, and never allowing a negative thought to color your horizon, you could succeed, not just in business, but in life in general.
Since then, we’ve had any number of other “inspirational” leaders carrying forth this same banner, including, but not limited to, Robert Schuller and, in the latest incarnation, Joel Osteen, pastor of a huge Houston megachurch and worldwide tele-evangelist empire.
All in all, their messages are remarkably similar. As are their respective successes. So much so, in fact, that I’ve concluded that “positive thinking,” in whatever form, is the de facto religion of America. And Norman Vincent Peale is its pope.
The reasons for this are largely hidden, though hardly surprising, given that contemporary American society has no discernable “epistemology,” epistemology being the study of how we come to know something.
From day one of our founding, the world has marveled at just how optimistic Americans tend to be. So much so, in fact, that we’re even considered a bit naïve. My contention is that this in-bred optimism has a lot to do with Christianity.
This is surprising only to the extent that we take for granted just how optimistic and “positive” Christianity actually is – and how it differs from other religions and worldviews.
The pre-Constantine Romans, for example, were absolutely astonished at how joyful and hopeful the earliest Christians were. It was unlike anything they had ever seen. These same early Jesus-followers were even known to wear festive garments as they processed to the burial places of their fellow Christians, often singing and praising God in joy-filled confidence.
Most of us are simply unaware that virtually all religions of that time, and even today, were and are essentially bleak, pessimistic. Many interpret life as a largely futile, ongoing struggle against an implacable, hostile world, producing suffering that leads ultimately to extinction beyond death.
Christianity shook up the world with its unprecedented joy and hope.
Founded as the “New Jerusalem” by our Christianity-inspired forbears, America has always reflected the gospel’s inordinately optimistic, positive view of life. It’s in the very air we breathe, so to speak.
The problem is that once we sever optimism from its source, i.e. Christianity, such optimism risks becoming fanciful, if not harmful. The merits of thinking positively depend entirely on what it is we’re being positive about!
As I’m always saying, there’s a fine line distinction between positive thinking and denial. As the famous aphorism attributed to Albert Einstein says, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.” Being positive about the wrong things, in other words, is actually a bit insane!
So, again, it’s not a question of whether we should be positive or not. It’s a question of what we’re positive about. Being positive and marshalling our energies in the service of something that goes against God’s design for our lives does not lead to a positive result.
In the Forum this past week we talked about how often God closes one door in order to open another. I can’t tell you how many times in the past God denied me that for which I had fervently wished, leading to acute disappointment. Yet, in retrospect, I’m grateful for those momentary setbacks. For had I tried to push through those closed doors, my suffering would have been far, far greater.
In conclusion, then, my overall defense to the charge that I’m not always upbeat enough is that I don’t really see myself as being “negative.” There is method to my madness: to critique and lay bare false optimism in order to reclaim the church’s primary focus on the true source of all genuine optimism and positive thought – the gospel, the one thing we’ve supplanted in pursuit of a secularized form of “positive thinking.”
Oh, and as for my need to “cheer up”? In all honesty, I’m as happy as a clam! Amen.