Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Breaking the Salvation Spell

Let me tell you about my landlord.

First off, I don’t think “landlord” is quite the right term since we have quite an informal arrangement, but I do pay him for the roof over my head so I guess landlord technically applies.  Anyway, Oom Eddie* is a rather remarkable person.  For one thing he has forever immunized me against the hateful idea preached by some (Alex Jones, I’m looking at you) that schizophrenics are evil, demonic people desiring only torture and murder.  Oom Eddie may be schizophrenic but he is also the kindest, gentlest, most generous soul that I know.  Sure, I feel a twinge of worry when he mentions God speaking to him but then again, God only ever tells him to be good to others and to work on math problems so I’m not losing any sleep over it.  Really the only terrible thing he does is to eat his chicken mayo sandwiches with the chicken on the side!  As you may have guessed he is a deeply religious man, but unlike most of the people often described as “deeply religious” he actually walks the talk.  Despite growing up in church and being among believers for all of my 33 years I have never seen anyone this consistent about practicing what Jesus preached.  No beggar at our gate ever goes away without being fed.  He doesn’t just pay lip service to helping the poor, he actually buys them groceries and clothes.  Also, he doesn’t differentiate between “deserving” and “undeserving” poor people – he helps everyone.  Going by what Jesus taught in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats*, Oom Eddie should be more certain of his place in the Kingdom of God than anyone else I know.  Yet recently he became deeply troubled regarding the subject of salvation. 

See he read the following in Revelation 20:15:
“If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
After reading that he really locked onto the idea that your name has to be in the Book of Life and
so he began to tell everyone that they had to pray God to write their names in the Book of Life.  No substitutes accepted – they had to ask it in those exact words.  There was a note on the fridge and everything!  However as amusing as it was, I realized that what he was doing was no different from what a very large segment of Evangelical Christianity has been doing for years.

Here’s the thing, open a piece of evangelical literature and you will find that everything from The Believers Voice of Victory to a Chick Tract will tell you the exact words you need to say in order to make it into heaven (and avoid hell).  If you are an evangelical Christian you know exactly what I’m talking about – the Sinner’s Prayer.  I had never really thought about it before, but isn’t that kind of weird?  Does it make sense that the same people who talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus (as their personal Saviour) would tell you to start said personal relationship with something so formulaic and impersonal?  Actually no, formula is not the right word for this.  When you have to say just the right words and mean it in just the right way to make something happen that’s not really a formula, that’s a spell!  If you believe God to be real and personal, why would you relate to him via spellcasting?  I’m no Jesus, but I like to think of myself as a person and I have to say that not one of my friendships exist because someone came up to me and spoke specific, preordained, “friendship words”.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why evangelists do that.  When there is a right way using the right terms then you can be more certain of your salvation.  Only it doesn’t really work that way does it?  As I child I must have prayed the sinner’s prayer dozens of times – pretty much one for every new version I came across.  Because that’s the problem with spellcasting isn’t it?  You have to do it just right.  You say your spell wrong and the magic brooms go nuts you might not make it to heaven.

However it was when I was searching the interwebs for examples of sinner’s prayers that I realized the far bigger problem with salvation-by-formula – it’s not Biblical.  Check out this example I found online under the heading:  “What must one do to be saved?”

Believe the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) that Jesus died for your sin, was buried, and has risen from the grave. (Mark 16:16) (Romans 10: 9&10)
Confess that Jesus is the Son of God.  (Acts 8:37) (Romans10:9&10)
Repent of the sin in your life.(Luke 13:3) (Acts 2: 38)
Be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of your sin. (Acts 2:38) (Mark 16:16)

See the problem?  No, I’m not challenging the Theology of it, not in the least.  But did you notice how in order to put that formula together, they had to hop all over the New Testament?  Doesn’t that seem odd?  If there really was a right way, a series of steps to attain salvation, wouldn’t it be in one place?  Shouldn’t it be in one place?  We are talking about Salvation after all, the thing that determines your eternal destiny!  If ever there was need for a surefire formula, this would be it!  And yet scour the Gospels, page through the Epistles, you’ll find pretty much nothing resembling the formulaic salvation spells we ask new converts to pray.

I did however find some really great examples of actual sinner’s prayers.  I even got a Biblical one! The striking thing was that none of it resembled any kind of formula.  Instead they are heartfelt and uniquely true to the people praying them.

There is the restrained account by Dag Hammarskjold:
I don't know Who or What put the question, I don't know when it was put. I don't even remember answering. But at some moment, I did answer Yes.
There is the sacred rawness of Anne Lamott’s account:
I hung my head and said, "Fuck it: I quit." I took a long deep breath and said out loud, "All right. You can come in.
Then there is arguably the most famous sinner’s prayer in the world, the heartfelt plea of the nameless thief on the cross:
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

Now I don’t think you are ever likely to hear any of these after a preacher said “Everyone close your eyes and pray after me”.  These prayers lack a strong theological backbone, they are devoid of Scripture references and they aren’t that eloquent.  Yet they worked (well we know the last one did anyway).  They weren’t much but they were real and honest and stripped of all pretension.  The people who said those words owned them like you could never own a form prayer.  None of those could be mistaken for a spell, instead they sounded like something you would say to an actual Person.  They sound like the beginning of a real relationship.

But OK, maybe you think I’m trying to fix something that isn’t broken and that I’m simply nitpicking so I can have something to blog about.   Alas, much as I enjoy an occasional nitpick, this isn’t one of those cases.  I recently read that studies in the US have shown that for the past 40 years or so, the number of evangelical Protestants has remained stable.  Think about that.  The same people who report constant good responses to outreaches and altar calls have not been growing in number.  This means that we are losing converts at the same rate that we make them.  Now there are probably many reasons for this but maybe it’s time to start admitting that the formulas aren’t working.


*For those unfamiliar with Afrikaner culture – it is customary to refer to all our elders as Oom (uncle) or Tannie (aunt) regardless of actual relation. 
**  That’s one teaching you never seem to hear used during evangelistic outreach, even though it explicitly deals with the subject of salvation…  Is it just me or does Jesus appear to be implying that faith without works is dead but that works (Without faith?  It never gets a mention...) is pretty much good enough?


Tania said...

Well said. And I also know Oom Eddie, he is such a good person!

I believe in the personal relationship with God - for me, it doesn't matter how or where you meet Him (in church or at the Cross), or with which words you welcome Him into your life (if any words are neccessary). It matters that you know He loves you, and to accept that.

GumbyTheCat said...

You nailed it when you call things like the Sinner's Prayer magic spells. Evangelical Christianity, and religion in general, have a lot of superstitious vestiges in them.

To think that you have to say something, with all the words in the right order, and with just the right amount of fervor and feeling (not to mention picking the right religion to begin with)... in order to get the positive attention of a god who is supposed to have created a hundred billion light year wide universe with hundreds of billions of galaxies, each containing hundreds of billions of stars... is the height of man-made religious ludicrousness.

Of course, to think that such a being can be contained in a tiny little book like the Bible, or the Qur'an, or the Vedas, is ludicrous as well.

I think maybe more Christians would understand how silly such man-made ritualistic nonsense is if they actually took the time to try to comprehend just how vast the universe is, and how utterly insignificant Earth and humanity are in the grand scheme of things. Maybe then, some will realize that you can't talk your way into the heart of the creator of an essentially infinite universe by rote prayer, even if it is heartfelt.

If there is a creator being out there, and if this being is aware of our existence, and if he knows us as individuals, I would imagine he/she/it would judge us more on how mature we are (i.e. how we respect and treat others, especially the less fortunate) rather than how well we memorize and execute any prayers, which are essentially computer programs meant to access a divine database.

The universe (and by extension any possible creator) gives all indication of being aloof and indifferent to us and all that we care about. It is way past time humanity recognized that fact. As the late Carl Sagan said in Pale Blue Dot, there is no indication that there is anyone out there to save us from ourselves.

Maybe if we spent our time taking care of one another and loving each other, and forgot about trying through ritual and incantation to appease a god who, if exists, seems to go out of his way to appear nonexistent, this would actually be pleasing to this god. After all, what is more nobly human, and more mature, than to honestly and earnestly apply the golden rule to our lives? Would not any parent wish his children to become all that he knows his children can be? THAT is growth. Meaningless religions are not growth, they stunt growth.

This is what fundamentalist Christianity forgets. Humanity and goodness is lost in the mad rush to grab the carrot of heaven through rote, unfeeling ways. Fundamentalist Christianity actually discourages good works as unnecessary for finding favor with God - to the point where many fundamentalists denigrate good works as a deception of Satan.

Whatever creator may be out there, I do not believe for one second that religion is the way to get closer to it. I believe that is there is a god that the way to draw closer to it is by showing we are maturing.

Plucky said...

Great post Eugene! Formulas, formulas . . . Everyone we turn someone is trying to ram another formula down our throat . . . I hate 'em I say . . . Formulas that is . . .

Hey, your Oom Eddie sounds like a great guy . . .