Ever since I was a Junior in High School I think I can say that I have had a really hard time over several decades with what is associated with Christianity when it comes to what you see on TV. I thought that Jim and Tammy Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert and Jerry Falwell were such a strange brand of Christianity that really made wanting to be a Christian actually difficult to do. But it appears that not much has changed as we still have over-the-top spokesmen for the Christian faith who make the rest of us look, well, bad! Many, many times over the years I personally wrestle with whether or not the American church has completely missed the mark of true Christ-like faith. With many of the experiences I have had over the years I wonder why it is that we have created a Christian ghetto by pulling out of the culture in the 20th century and creating our own little (very bizarre) sub-culture; why we think if we just get the right people in politics all will be better (Bush proved that theory wrong even though I think Gore and Kerry would not have been better. They were their own worst enemy.); and why there has become an air of arrogance as certain evangelicals manipulate fear for their own self-interests (end times theories, the homosexual agenda, the Operation Rescue side of the anti-abortion groups, etc.).
Then along comes Robert S. McElvaine with his book "Grand Theft Jesus: The Highjacking of Religion in America." Although I do not agree with everything that McElvaine says in his book, he did push me to see how far the modern day church has gotten from the real teachings of Jesus in their pursuit of a form of Christianity that is more influenced by our own materialistic, consumer culture and Constantinian influence for power. I am truly afraid that the modern day church has gone so far off of the mark that we have more in common with WalMart than that of Jesus Christ. In fact, I even wonder at times that if Jesus did return today, how the church really would respond to him or maybe how Jesus would really respond to the current church.
One of the highlights of this book is when McElvaine brings out the example of the Amish response to the senseless mass murder of their own people. They immediately forgave, like within 48 hours of the actual murders. This is one of the most amazing modern-day examples of real hard-core faith putting into practice the teachings of Jesus.
I had to disagree though on McElvaine's belief that all religions are essentially the same. I know that pluralism is becoming more and more popular and if you look at all religions on a surface level it is easy to assume that all roads lead to the same God. This is what stops me from going down the road of pluralism: the cross. This is the crux of Christianity that Jesus had to die for our sins to conquer death and provide a way for his righteousness to cover us and bring us into a right relationships with God, AND transform us to be more like Christ. Now, if there were many other ways for people to get to God then what logical sense would it make for Him to have his Son crucified for us. If there was just one other way to God then this path that Jesus took would seem to come from a barbaric, evil and sadistic God. Why would He have his Son crushed on our behalf if there was another way? But if Jesus is the only way then we see a beautiful picture of a God who loves us so much that He sent his one and only Son so that we may have life through him.
McElvaine rightly asks the question of what is this new life in Christ supposed to look like? This is a good question that I believe the church needs to spend more of it time unpacking. I have grown up in churches that have placed such a high priority on evangelism that we have forgotten what it really means to be a follower of Jesus. In fact, I have always argued that if we discipled people into being Christ-followers in their day-to-day lives, evangelism would happen naturally without us having to create programs to "share our faith". Our own lives would reflect the teachings of Jesus in such a way that our actions would speak louder than our words! Discipleship is truly a lost art in many American churches. It is time we stop defining ourselves by what we are NOT and begin to simply follow the teachings of Jesus and living them out in our day to day lives. And I don't mean living them out at church (although that may be a good start) but in our families, in the workplace, in our neighborhoods, and around the world.