Fortune Cookies and Altars of Hewn Stone

I went to church this morning. It was the first time in a long time because, well…

Well, I don’t really want to get into that.

Or, I do, but getting into that is the broader purpose of this blog, and the “because” should be obvious enough soon enough if it’s not already from other entries.

Anyway, I’d made up my mind not to be critical or judgy, but to just go, take in what I could, benefit from what I could, see if I could find a place for myself there, and remember that none of these people should care what I think of their church service, because nobody needs to clear it with me before they play a worship song or preach a sermon. Clearly.

That, and being critical and disapproving is just plain exhausting.

I find that when I do it, it’s because—as a follower of Jesus Christ, I feel somewhat responsible for how he’s represented, for the work done in his Name, for the messages spoken in his Name, the causes undertaken in his Name, etc. As a Christian, the things said, done, condoned or condemned in his Name are, in a sense, being done in my name, and that of anyone and everyone else who identifies with Jesus Christ. I don’t have more claim on the name of Christ than anyone else, but to do have some claim, and I have an obligation to try to set the record straight when he’s being misrepresented.

And, there’s that whole “Great Commission”-thing: as a follower of Christ, I’m commanded to go out and tell people about him, to the effect of making disciples. So, you can’t be a Christian without taking some responsibility for how Christ is known and perceived in the world.

But, it’s not like God is my own personal intellectual property. I have no licensing rights, no authority to go from church-to-church as the Theological Police. Nor do I want to. Like I said—it’s exhausting, and it doesn’t make me very popular when I find myself doing it.

So, I went into this with the best of intentions. Or the laziest of intentions. Whatever. In either case, I didn’t want to be critical. I wanted to be nice and friendly and likeable and be able to sincerely tell the people I met there how much I enjoyed the service and how much I looked forward to coming back and how much I’d love to take them up on their offer for lunch, etc. I really just wanted to rejoin the human race by being a part of a community of like-minded people. I wanted to be part of a church again.

Anyone still reading this has probably gathered by now that my intentions didn’t quite play out…

My sense of alienation started with the worship service, but that’s pretty routine anyway. When I see lyrics projected on the screen about “giving my everything for Your kingdom cause” and about how we’re “set free through the blood of Christ” and how we’re supposed to be “people of selfless faith,” etc., I can’t help but wonder, “Are we all really singing about the same thing?” What does that mean to these people—that we’re set free through the blood of Christ? If you ask some Christians, it means we don’t have to eat kosher or be circumcised anymore… something that never would have applied to us or our predominantly European ancestors anyway. Some will say it means we’re “set free from sin,” but in what sense are we “free from sin”? Some think it just means we can do whatever we want and presume on God’s forgiveness and a trouble-free afterlife… “Is that what everybody’s so excited about this morning?”

But, that’s a tangent. Those are the considerations that come to mind in any worship service at any church I’m visiting for the first (or second, third, or hundredth) time, based on past experience and common observations about denominational differences and doctrinal divisions. The ambiguity makes it hard to take the collective emotion seriously, so I find myself fighting an increasing feeling of silliness about so much enthusiasm attached to so many vague abstractions and potentially misguided theology.

I fully realize how weird, and how cripplingly dysfunctional it is to let myself become so morbidly preoccupied with these considerations during worship service. I mean, the point of doing it together, in a group, is that we’re all on the same page—that it should be fellowship as well as worship, and that only really works if there is a common foundation to our collective enthusiasm, so we can feed off of and reinforce each other in our common faith.

But, there’s only so much I can control, and having some worship and fellowship is better than none at all, so I try to bury all these distractions and just go with it.

Then came the sermon.

The text was the Book of Esther, and the message was about how “God can take something ordinary and use it for something extraordinary” (never mind that Esther would have had to have been extraordinarily hot to get noticed in the first place, and never mind that the preacher apparently thought it was the Persians, not the Babylonians, who carried the Jews into captivity, but that’s just quibbling on my part).

The point to which the sermon led was that the congregation needs to give extraordinarily to pay for the ongoing church building project.

That wasn’t the only point, though. It was just an example to illustrate the general message that, even though you might just be an ordinary (insert occupation here… schoolteacher, construction worker, office drone, corporate manager, etc.), God can still use you for something extraordinary, because that’s what He did with Esther.

A couple of people shouted “Amen, brother!”

Then there was an altar-call, in case anyone had been so moved by the sermon that they wanted to publicly commit or recommit their lives to Jesus.

Now, I don’t dispute that God can use ordinary people or objects to extraordinary effect, or that that’s what He did with Esther.

I also don’t dispute that churches need money for building projects and payrolls and utility bills and other operating expenses, and so people need to tithe, and if there are legitimate but extraordinary expenses, they need to give extraordinarily… if they want those expenses met.

And my point isn’t just to criticize the sermon for not being very good or original.

Because, let’s face it—we’ve all heard this sermon a hundred times. Not exactly this one, but something along those lines: “Look what God did with this loser in biblical times! Even hookers and slaves got to be used by God. Think of what He can do in your life!”

But, again—the quality of the sermon, or lack thereof, is not my point.

As a journalist, I know what it’s like to put something out there for public consumption and criticism, and I know that every article I write isn’t a Pulitzer-prize winning work (to date, none of them have been). Heck, I know a lot of it isn’t even very good by my own meager standards, and so I’m wide-open to criticism.

But, if I didn’t know the difference between writing news and writing my own opinions or speculations, I’d get fired pretty quickly, and rightly so.

Likewise, a school teacher who doesn’t know the difference between educating children and indoctrinating them should not be employed as a teacher.

A police officer who doesn’t know the difference between using force to uphold the law and using force to get his own way should not be employed as a police officer, and should probably be in jail.

In the case of preachers…

As I was sitting in church this morning and wrestling with my reasons for being so put off by this sermon, a certain law from the Old Testament kept coming to mind: there were recurring prohibitions in the Law of Moses against idolatry, but along with them were some peculiar and seemingly arbitrary instructions about the construction of altars.

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites this: “You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside Me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.

Make an altar of earth for Me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause My Name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.’”

When they made an altar, it was to be made of, well… it was just supposed to be a pile of dirt, basically. Or, if they wanted something more substantial and sturdy, they could use a pile of rocks, but they weren’t supposed to be anything special—no fancy, hewn rocks, because any use of a tool on the stones would defile them.

That didn’t apply, of course, to the altars in the Temple—the Altar of Incense and the Altar of Burnt Offering. They had horns and were made of precisely-measured wood and decorated with bronze and gold, so they had to use tools for that.

But, they were made according to a strict, God-given pattern by specifically-chosen, Spirit-filled people.

The point was that God didn’t want any kind of human creativity to enter into the equation. He didn’t want to be worshiped on an altar fashioned through human skill or imagination.

Even if it was a particularly gifted human who was completely and genuinely devoted to God, who just wanted to please God by using his or her talents to His glory, it was nonetheless forbidden.

The reason for that, I believe, was that if they were going to worship God, He wanted them to worship God.

If an altar was adorned with man-made artistry, that pattern of artistry would have been associated with the worship of God, then eventually institutionalized as a part of that worship, and it would only be a matter of time before that pattern came to represent God—if only for the group of people who used that style of altar.

But, God can’t be represented by any image or pattern of human design: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air…do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.”

The destruction caused by idolatry is twofold: first, and worst of all, it confines “God” within human understanding. He is infinitely more than we can ever imagine Him to be, but we effectively cut ourselves off from Him when we cling to a man-made concept of God instead of God Himself.

Therefore, all theological systems should be merely provisional—they should always be open to revision and growth. A great many churchgoers cling dogmatically to certain doctrinal positions like security blankets, refusing to relinquish them, even in the face of clear, compelling evidence that they’re wrong. They think they’re being faithful to God by doing so, but they’re all too often only being faithful to a particular concept of God, because it’s the one in which they’ve invested their reputations and identity, and on which they’ve settled.

Secondly, it limits us by raising up natural forces and concepts as gods, setting them above ourselves.

For instance, most ancient people in the West and in the Near East worshipped the goddess Ishtar, or Easter (Ashtoreth or Asherah in the Old Testament),  or Aphrodite/Venus as she was known to the Greeks and Romans.

Ishtar was the personification of female sexuality. Worship of her was usually coupled with worship of her consort Baal, the storm god, through temple prostitution.

The thinking behind this system was that when it rained, that was supposedly Baal having sex with Ishtar, the earth-goddess. Baal was worshipped as a means to an end: to bring the rain to water the crops. So, in order to bring this about, Baal and Ishtar had to be aroused by ritual sex acts in their temple.

Now, contrary to a few long-standing Christian traditions, the Bible doesn’t teach that sex is in any way bad. It’s good. God invented it. Our sexuality is a part of our humanity—it’s an aspect of having been created in God’s Image, even.

However, it has to be controlled. Christian or not, for just plain old social and legal reasons, we all have to learn to control our sexual impulses, to some degree. Like all of our other appetites, once mastered, it becomes an indispensable servant. But, it must be mastered.

In fact, mastery of our appetites is an essential aspect of our salvation. Our salvation consists in our “participation in the divine nature” and “escaping the corruption of the world caused by human appetite,” or “epithumia,” as it reads in the original Greek. Salvation amounts to being given the New Nature, but to participate in our New Nature, we have to become greater than our appetites.

When our sexuality is exalted to the status of godhood, though, it becomes the master. The belief system arising out of idolatry tells us that our sexuality is a god to be worshiped and obeyed. Mastering it is out of the question, and appeasing it is a religious obligation, no matter the cost. Sacrifices must be made in service to it.

Archeologists have discovered innumerable artifacts from that religious system in Israel: mass infant graves where the aborted fetuses and murdered newborns of temple prostitutes were disposed of.

Ishtar/Aphrodite worship gave them an outlet to let their sexuality master them, and routine horrors followed.

Or, if a personification of female sexuality didn’t put them in a worshipful mood, there were male prostitutes at the temple of Apollo.

And then there was Mars, the god of war, to whom all sacrifices were justified, by virtue of his divinity.

But, there were also more domestic and mundane gods and goddesses: Hestia, goddess of the hearth and home; Minerva, goddess of learning and of commerce; etc.

All aspects of nature, civilization, and human experience were personified and deified and worshiped. According to this thinking, none of these forces were subject to man, but mankind was subject to them all. They weren’t just institutions that had been set in place by natural forces now understandable through psychology and sociology: they were gods and goddesses. Social structures were set in stone, so to speak, because they had been set in place by the gods. If you were born a slave, it was because the gods wanted it that way, and to oppose the institution of slavery was to oppose the divine order. The status quo was validated and protected as the will of the gods, and anyone who questioned it was likely to be tried and executed as a corrupting influence. And if you had impulses for sex and violence, those could be denied no more than an impulse for music and poetry and justice. These were all gods to be worshiped, and their whims were to be obeyed.

The sin in that was that it made man subject to what God had apportioned to all the nations under heaven. Contrary to a great many ideas entertained by fundamentalist religion, it has always been God’s plan that humanity learn to conquer and control nature. We were meant to walk on the moon, understand natural processes of meteorology and biology, and even split the atom. Idolatrous worship held us back from that, and it took the advent of Christianity put us on that track by inspiring the innovations of God-seeking men like Isaac Newton and Gregor Mendel and others whose devotion to God and understanding of monotheistic cosmology taught them that the universe must be naturally-ordered and subject to intelligent observation and prediction.

It was also sin—again, because it equated natural forces and human appetites with Ultimate Reality, thereby exalting the status quo as the Divine Plan.

In contrast, the prophets and apostles taught that this world is fallen and corrupt, but God has promised to fix it—to redeem and transform it—through the Messiah. Following the Messiah, then, means joining his cause to redeem the world. We don’t just sit back and wait for it, though—we work to bring it about. That’s what the Great Commission is about. That’s what the Church is for. We are God’s instrument and agency for bringing about the Messianic Age.

I’ve written at length in other entries about how to do that, and how what we’re calling “evangelism” and “discipleship” aren’t really, so I won’t rehash all that here, except to say that, at the very least, it means we have to be willing to relinquish the safety of existing institutions and beliefs. “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” the Lord said.

So, when I hear a sermon about how “God can take something ordinary and use it for something extraordinary,” with no actual reference to how Esther fit into God’s larger redemptive plan, and no practical instruction for how that applies to us (other than to tithe more), I can’t help but be critical, despite intentions otherwise.

And I’m not being critical because it wasn’t a very good sermon. I’m being critical because it was idolatrous.

If that “extraordinariness” to which he called us was in any way related to the overall message of the gospel, or even a clumsy admonition to seek the face of God, I wouldn’t have been moved to write this. But, it wasn’t. It was nothing but a validation of the status quo: “You’re fine being an ordinary (insert occupation here), because God will use you for something extraordinary. It’s all a part of his plan. You don’t have to do anything differently. Just accept the warm, gooey, sugary sentiment we’re feeding you, and you’ll go to heaven. Oh, and give us money.”

Sure, he made reference to Scripture, but was that really the message of Scripture? Or was that just something he projected onto it to give an appearance of being “scriptural”?

Jesus called people to leave everything to follow him, and said that if we love our families more than we love him, we can’t really follow him.

With that in view… does anyone really think God’s purpose for the Book of Esther was to tell us to be content with our day jobs?

Maybe God wants us to be content in our day jobs, but you can’t really get that from the Book of Esther, and you can get the opposite message from plenty of other passages, if you want to.

The fact is, it didn’t really matter what the Book of Esther actually teaches, because that preacher just wanted to dial-in a sermon that told everyone they were Ok, and that they should feel good about themselves and where they are in life, because that’s where God wants them.

I get that he and the countless other preachers who routinely do the same thing are trying to be “relevant” and all that.  But, the Bible is already relevant, if they’d just let it speak for itself.

Instead, they’re projecting their own ideas onto it and feeding them back to themselves, repackaged in biblical rhetoric. And you can make the Bible say whatever you want when you do that.

But, that reduces the Bible to a fortune cookie, or a daily horoscope. It reduces the gospel to a gooey, sentimental affirmation of the status quo, and it offers a “word of God” completely devoid of God.

Using it that way is the equivalent of worshiping God on an altar of over-decorated stones, and then worshiping our own artistry as God, and then using that worship as a validation of whatever else we want to chisel upon the altar.

That’s why there are a million different little versions of “Christianity” out there who can’t agree on what the Bible actually teaches, apart from a few broad, toothless generalities.

And that, my friends, is why I always feel like such an alien in church, and why I hate going. I just don’t see the point. I feel like I’d be better off getting some fortune cookies, and hanging out in a bar.

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4 Responses to Fortune Cookies and Altars of Hewn Stone

  1. Chris says:

    So what church you going to next? Doesn’t sound like that one is worth going back to. But there are some out there with really nice buildings. Check one of those out.

  2. Alek says:

    Another awesome article, what I always admire about you is the fact that your eyes are open and are your own. You are able to think outside of mainstream society and formulate your own opinions. You are a free man with your head in the right place.

    I hope you find more like-minded people that you can fellowship with and if you don’t you will have me as a friend.

    And what’s really weird about Baal and Easter is that if he is storm and she is earth and lighting strikes the ground and it rains… Then that means that rain was the equilivent to god semen, which is really sick to think that some imagined that when they created that religion.

  3. Meredreth says:

    Good to see another great post. I respect the honesty of your writing. I can never decide if its reassuring to hear such truth or heartbreaking to reflect on how disillusioned the religious societies are today.

    Please keep writing and posting. I’ll keep reading.

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