“…the rejection of the gospel’s implications for combating race and class divisions nurtures social niches and fosters a ‘social-club’ gospel.” Consuming Jesus, p. 26.
This leads me to think of a late night of channel surfing at a friend’s house. We came across a billowy yellow-haired TV evangelist in typical gaudy fashion, and his similarly adorned female cohort. My friend isn’t a Christian, and I could only wonder how much of an influence these (in my opinion, blasphemous) programs had on her perception of Christians as a whole. We were disturbed by their “us vs. the big bad world out there of which we are not a part” message, and so my friend changed the channel; but this only led us further down the rabbit hole of TV evangelism.
In Chapter 1, at the end of the section, “Rapture and Retreat: Tendencies of Premillennial Eschatology,” Metzger explains that “the reaction against the social gospel movement was most likely the chief cause for the virtual disappearance of concern for social justice among fundamentalists” (p. 23). While Metzger does not espouse the social gospel (here defined as a gospel that is concerned only for material and social well-being to the neglect of spiritual well-being), he has stated elsewhere that he sees the “gospel as social” (Jesus is vitally concerned for the body and soul–the embodied soul). The only other option would be what he calls an “anti-social gospel,” which can easily lead to the “social club gospel” noted above (“members only”–my kind of people). And in some cases, that is what we find. Metzger doesn’t talk much about TV evangelists in his book, but I see them as the extreme fringe of this general movement. This is where we stand today–a place in which televangelists warn against the horrors of this world: financial despair, economic unrest and global tension, all the while adorned in gold and heavy make-up in the safety of their TV studios. No mention of entering into the struggle, no urge to be the hands and feet of Christ to love others. Only an invitation to buy their books. That’s real hard and spiritual, right?
While there is no logical connection between the rapture doctrine and social retreat, there is a historical-cultural connection between the two. Many fundamentalists who held to the rapture doctrine also retreated to the cultural fringe, waiting for the great removal. If God is going to remove the church from tribulation, why bother caring for the world? It’s all going to burn anyway, right? So the thinking in some circles goes.
This can lead to the mistaken view that salvation is a privilege for certain souls–members only. Or for those who are actually interested in those outside the camp, it can lead to a quick-fix mentality: just get people “saved,” and all will be well. But all is not well. It’s not easy or comfortable for us consumers to reach out and enmesh our lives with others, and to understand that how we live drastically affects the ways others live, both locally and across the world. For us to understand, it would take great intentionality to enter into their situation and patience to stay the course, just like Jesus. After all, he lived on earth–in the midst of the people’s pain and suffereing–for thirty plus years. And he longs to live in the same world today through his hands and his feet–his body, the church.
Instead, we often see churches sprouting where the money is abundant at the expense of isolating and excluding minorities. We find affluence and power in direct association with the spreading of “white man’s Christianity” (which not only includes white people, but also minorities with “white man’s” syndrome–the “power at all cost” mentality). Meanwhile, those whom Christ is calling to himself outside these privileged gates–whites and minorities alike–are dying, because they are not easy to engage with; their lifestyles are not attractive and appealing. This lack of concern for the lost, the last, and the least is–to put it mildly—not biblical. Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He touched lepers. Like his father, he cared for orphans and widows in their distress. I believe that our great challenge is to re-visit and inhabit the picture the gospel paints. Such revisiting and inhabiting must occur in small but intentional actions–actions leading to big-time change (and such momentous change may take decades to come to fruition). But what a picture our community will eventually be! It is worth it, because Christ’s kingdom is not built in a hurried moment before the ship sinks, with only the fastest swimmers on board and the ablest bodies manning the lifeboats. That’s not how Christ works, thank God. He calls us to live now in light of what will be, and to stop settling for so little when God calls us to so much more, as Metzger often says. With this in mind, Metzger has also said to me that we need to raise the following question: “How then shall we live–as escapists and elitists, or as cultural engagers?”
Do you see Christianity as predominantly calling for separation from culture (rather than desiring to transform it from the inside-out)? Do you see some relation between this division in the body of Christ and the espousal of a gospel “for the privileged few”? What small steps do you think we could take in our respective communities to bring reconciliation to the body of Christ, where we become the church that engages everyone meaningfully, and where we break down divisions based on race and class? We all need one another to move forward together. Please share your thoughts with me.