Before I move on to the next part, I wanted to expand upon a point I made in part three: stepping away from the Sunday morning expression of church-for now-does not mean that I have stepped away from community, nor do I think one can easily do so while still claiming they are following the Christian tradition in any discernible way. The decisions one makes when they are left alone with their own neuroses and what they think their Bible is saying to them on that day, in what is often a strange historical vacuum, do not tend to be in accordance with the Christian witness.
As an example of what I’m arguing against, I’ll reference here the case of Sheila Larson, who is well known among sociologists of religion for this statement: “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith is Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.”
Not long ago, I had the misfortune of sitting through a sermon where the speaker uttered the phrase “Jesus, who lives in my heart,” or some variant of that line, probably fifteen or twenty times. And went on to talk about what he could do “with Christ, who gives every bit of himself to me.” Leaving aside the bad theology of the latter phrase, I’m more perturbed by the repeated use of the phrase “Christ living in my heart” in his message with its focus on a private faith, and what that means in how we make decisions and convince ourselves of the rightness of our actions, at the expense of “working out our salvation in fear and trembling,” in community. Granted, there are four or five verses that could possibly be used as the basis of such an idea, such as Paul writing about “Christ in me, the hope of glory,” or “Not I, but Christ, who lives in me…” But those references all have something to do with the fundamental change that Paul (and other writers) say happens when we “put on Christ,” and you would be hard pressed to use them as proof-texts for saying that Jesus living in your heart means that you can ___ (fill in the blank).
I owe a debt to David Dark, both in his book The Gospel According to America and to conversations over coffee, for giving me the language to express my thoughts as it relates to this subject. So instead of trying to re-articulate the problems I see with the catch phrases used by the aforementioned speaker, I’ll let you read David’s words from chapter two of his book, Song of Ourselves: Narcissism and Its Discontents in a Bipolar Nation. This paragraph starts by referencing a claim by then-Texas Governor Bush that it would be hard to explain how Jesus “changed my heart” if people didn’t already know exactly what he was talking about. David writes:
[H]e’s right. It’s what millions of Americans are referring to when they say that they know or that they’ve “got” Jesus as their savior. I don’t mean to imply disingenuousness on the part of anyone when I suggest that this way of talking isn’t necessarily faithful to the traditional Christian confession. Harold Bloom has suggested that “knowing” Jesus, believing yourself to have a one-on-one relationship with him (unmediated by tradition; “in the garden alone”; impossible to explain to anyone who doesn’t know him like you do), is a recently developed form of gnosticism that is probably the real, most-often-practiced, American religion. Minus the obligation to aspire toward continuity with a historic, visible, practicing community (based on some recognizable fashion on what Jesus of Nazareth said and did), we’re left alone with what we believe in our hearts our personalized Jesus is telling us. The nonpolitical, fully spiritualized Jesus is on the rise in America.
As a cautionary measure against our tendency to tell ourselves the Jesus in our heart of hearts is telling us to do whatever we’ve already decided to do or that the Bible somehow buttresses whatever we feel is right, the Christian prayer of confession affords us the opportunity to recognize ourselves as fallible discerners of whatever it is the Spirit is saying to the churches. Trying to be faithful to that word, perceived with fear and trembling, is what the church does. But to the Christian mind, the individual human heart, far from having a direct line to God, is, to borrow the language of Jeremiah, both deceitful above all else and desperately wicked… Is our talk of our knowledge of Christ divorced from an apprenticeship to his way of doing things? When we say we know him (or that someone else doesn’t) are we making reference to the historical Jesus or are we simply talking about some well-meaning, inarticulate heart longing? This is why communal accountability, discernment, and confession of sin will, traditionally, save us from the tyranny of a “personal, private faith” and the clear and present dangers of Sheilaism.