In Power Evangelism, Wimber spelled out his understanding of the impoverished framework that is so basic to Westerners that they cannot even see the assumptions as assumptions but rather as fundamental truths about the world. Westerners, he said, assume that we live in a truth only through empirical study and rational thought. We feel confident in our ability to control our environment, and we feel little need for any help from anything outside ourselves. We assume that only that which has been tested and proven is true. And finally, we accept reason as the only and highest authority in life. This secular, self-reliant, materialist, and rational culture is, Wimber argued, the greatest impediment to a Christian’s personal encounter with Christ. Now, he argued, we live in a world in which most intellectuals have abandoned the hope that we have a purpose for being, and we live in a moral crisis and a miasma of existential doubt (Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, p. 317).
There appears to be a growing approach to practicing Christianity—particularly in the United States—that concerns me. Maybe this is simply a case of semantics. I, however, believe that it’s much more divergent and deadly. What some would probably argue to be semantics, I consider fundamental differences of core belief; for these semantics lead to differences in how individuals come to know and relate to God. Subsequently, there is a schism in Christian orthodoxy (“correct belief”), which is noticeable when considering Christian orthopraxy (“correct practice”). And—truthfully—it’s always been there…
This schism of which I write comes down to this: Is God who “we” (as Christians) say He is, or, is God who He says he is? Is there a difference? Do we know God as a personal being, or, do we know God as a formula—a process that we’re intended to follow for our personal betterment? Do we relate to God as a person with ultimate authority, or do we relate to God as a concept/theory that we subjectively apply into our lives as we see best?
What is central to this semantics schism? FAITH. Some theologians would refer to the two groups formed by this schism as being the “visible and invisible” and “only visible” Church. One group [the only visible Church] consists of individuals who profess to being Christian (though not), while the other group [the visible and invisible Church] actually consists of those who both profess and actually are Christians (because, by their faith, God deems them to be). Subsequently, by its very nature, the invisible Church is smaller than the visible (which encompasses the invisible):
How much of the “visible” Church also constitutes the “invisible” Church is unknown to us—only God knows. What we can ascertain through scripture is that there are professed Christians who Christ assures us are not His followers:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’ (Matthew 7:21-23, NASB).
Christ clearly states that following Him requires personal relationship. Moreover, through that relationship, our behaviors towards Him and others should—though imperfectly—mirror His righteousness. To have relationship with Him, however, requires faith. Faith in what you may ask? Faith in Him—not a false conceptualization of what you want Him to be for you. Therefore, to have faith in Him, requires that you have faith in:
- Who He claims to be
- What He claims to be Truth
- How He lives and loves
- His death and resurrection; including its purpose
- What He requires from those who desire to be His disciples—how to follow
Unfortunately, when applied to religion, faith is a dirty word in our secular society. To need faith, in its simplest religious context, means that you must believe something without verifiable evidence or tangible proof. Faith is a core component of religions because we’re unable to use a scientific method to obtain tangible evidence of a supernatural world. From a secular perspective, if there isn’t any hard evidence of its existence, then it doesn’t exist.
IMAGINATION VERSUS IMITATION
For instance, nearly two years ago, I read When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by Dr. Tanya Luhrmann. The book was offered as a reading option in a Qualitative Theory course that I was taking. An anthropological ethnographer—investigating cultural artifacts through immersion—Luhrmann’s book shares her investigation of evangelical Christianity (i.e. Vineyard church) over a two-year period. As a class assignment, I was required to write a book review.
In the book’s preface, Luhrmann—who doesn’t claim to be Christian—writes that, perhaps, her work “will serve as a bridge across the divide, and help us (i.e. Christians and nonbelievers) to respect one another” (p. xvi). What she refers to as a bridge, however, is an explanation for how—from a nonbeliever’s perspective—an otherwise “reasonable person could choose to become and remain this kind of Christian” (p. xvi). While an exceptionally written and meticulously crafted work that cleverly positions conflicting perspectives, her book (if anything) affirms that it’s absolutely necessary to know Christ to truly understand Christianity.
Luhrmann ironically suggests as much later in her book. For her work to serve as a bridge between nonbelievers and believers, it must lead to something—faith in, and connection to, an unseen reality. In summarizing thoughts shared by Joseph Ratzinger (now known as Pope Benedict XVI), Luhrmann supports my assertion:
We humans cannot know God. That is why, he [Pope Benedict XVI] continued, we were given Christ, and that is why Christ and the [W]ord are crucial, for they enable the twofold movement through which humans can reach God and God can reach back to humans. Ratzinger has a point: If prayer leads to an experience of divinity that escapes words and representation, one might conclude that the words of the Christian scripture are as a kind of elaborate window dressing, no more accurate in their description of the real than a Buddhist stupa (p. 168).
For Christians, God is “knowable” through Christ. Moreover, they believe that one must know Christ—not an imaginary, personal construction of God—for eternal relationship with Him:
The Truth is that if we don’t have faith in Christ (see earlier bullet-points), then whatever we claim to be God is imaginary. And if we truly know Christ, then we’re not going to deny Him. We’re going to follow Him—trust me. To fully understand Christianity requires that someone is actually a Christian by faith through the Holy Spirit. The bridge is one-way: From faith to follower. Any other “bridge” is solely an illusion of understanding—imaginary.
To support her position, Luhrmann focuses on what she terms “kataphatic” prayer. Such prayer, she asserts, allows individuals “to know an unknowable divine through their imagination” (p. 168). What she chooses to acknowledge, yet continually disregards in her examination of evangelical Christianity, are faith-driven actions, or God’s actual presence in the lives of believers. Luhrmann repositions biblical teaching and emphasizes non-biblical practices by professed Christians as justifications for narrowing her research focus to kataphatic prayer.
She references the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, where Paul tells the church in Corinth “You are to imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NASB). Unfortunately, this verse of scripture is taken out of proper context, with Luhrmann developing a poor justification for why “imitate” should be “imagine (pretend).” She argues:
To imitate is to behave in reality. If you imitate someone who is waving her hand, you do, in fact, wave your hand. A boy who imitates the distress signals of a ship at sea is still sending Morse code signals, even if he is not at sea. To pretend carries the implicit understanding that the pretender is not what he imitates. The boy pretends to be on a sinking vessel even though he is standing on his own front lawn. To imitate is to act. To pretend is to suspend disbelief” (p. 73).
My rebuttal? While we [Christians] are not Christ, we’re clothed in His righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21), being indwelt with the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9-11). He is present and with us. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we’re capable of resembling Him in our actions; serving as His ambassadors. We’re to literally copy Christ’s actions—this is what Paul means when he tells us to imitate Christ. There is no half-way. To follow Christ means surrendering our lives to Him:
And He [Jesus] was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23, NASB).
Furthermore, for us to know what Christ would do in particular situations requires us to understand the bible, which represents both Truth and His [God’s] Word. Christ fulfills scriptural law; meaning that to “imitate Christ” is to adhere to His teaching through His Word (i.e. the Bible). For a 300+ page book claiming to examine how evangelical Christians relate with God, there is little mention of the Bible. Why? Probably because it contradicts her position that Christians are unable to know Christ outside of their imaginations.
Consider also, that Paul tells the Church in Corinth to imitate Him as He imitates Christ. This is a call for discipleship. Originally, a written version of the New Testament was neither available nor accessible for the early Church in its entirety. Many of Paul’s letters that are now books of the New Testament offer guidance for specific Church communities; serving as tools for proper training and discipleship. Paul’s letters support his existing relationships with the churches to which he writes. And Christian interdependence—invested relationship among believers—is essential for developing healthy relationship with Christ:
“For where two or three have gathered together in My [Jesus’] name, I am there in their midst” (Matthew 18:20, NASB).
But again, Luhrmann marginalizes this aspect of relating to Christ—of knowing Him better. She disregards the many ways that Christians can (and should) deepen their relationship with Christ, because she cannot fathom the supernatural. Rather, she takes her disbelief in the supernatural and projects it onto Christians. She doesn’t believe that we, as Christians, can imitate Christ because she doesn’t believe that:
- reality includes the supernatural; rather, she believes that her known reality is the reality
- Christ is present in our lives through the Holy Spirit; rather, that we construct Christ
- we can truly know Christ; rather, she believes that we’re only pretending
Further, for her to build a compelling research study, Luhrmann must focus on that which she can explain. She does this by narrowly focusing on kataphatic (i.e. imaginary) prayer, which she then compares to her dissertation research “on people who practiced magic in present-day Britain” (p. 190). Throughout her work, Luhrmann builds a case for implying that modern people create a visual simulacra (i.e. false reality) within their imagination to “create” their God. Her postmodern, epistemological perspective inherently refutes an absolute such as the Christian God. She slowly and methodically—throughout the entirety of her book—redefines what it means to be an evangelical Christian and relate to God. Her definition, however, is void of the supernatural; being secularized through the eyes of a nonbeliever. It’s absent faith.
She compares experiences of kataphatic prayers, to “magical realism (p. 301),” suggesting that “the kataphatic practice seemed to give people more of what the scriptures promise to those who turn to Christ: peace and the presence of God” (p. 211). Her definition of God, her “modern God,” is “ ‘hyperreal’: realer than real, so real that it is impossible not to understand that you may be fooling yourself, so real that you are left suspended between what is real and what is your imagination” (p. 301). Accordingly, by following a social interactionist’s perspective, Luhrmann’s research supports a personal (i.e. socially conditioned and subjectively constructed) Jesus, but not the biblical Jesus.
While it’s impossible for me to be enthralled with Luhrmann’s research findings, how could any other conclusions possibly be derived from her epistemological (i.e. “what is knowledge”) perspective that would be in agreement with mine? If I met with her and shared my concerns about her positioning of evangelical Christianity, what would that encounter accomplish? She admits that she doesn’t possess a Christian faith. The work that she produces from a secular perspective is exemplary—truly. Her data collection is meticulous. She is a gifted writer, and it’s easy to recognize the efforts she makes to be both thoughtful and respectful to the audience (i.e. Christians) that she researches. Moreover, I believe that most who follow a secularist worldview would find her work to be both captivating and convincing in its conclusions.
But isn’t that the point of her research? And isn’t that the problem for those seeking Christ: “Who is Christ?” versus “What are internalized social constructions developed subjectively from the psyche?” Am I right!?!
What’s actually much more concerning to me are the regular encounters with fellow, professed believers whose words and actions lend support to her conclusions…
These are professed believers who are constantly:
- explaining away whatever Christian doctrines (i.e. scriptural teachings) they don’t understand or to which they don’t agree or adhere
- creating their own “truth” rather than seeking to understand “Truth”
- focusing on how they feel about situations regardless of whether their feelings align with scripture
- following Christ’s teachings selectively, based upon their own subjective determinations of what they believe is “right” and “wrong” (e.g. abortion, gay marriage, premarital sex, polygamy, fornication, gluttony, gossip, etc)—unrepentant for their faith-conflicting beliefs and behaviors
- treating Christ as a “grace card” without any desire to grow in His likeness
- condemning others with intentions of positioning themselves as “better”
- performing as a means to warrant salvation
- enabling others to sin; allowing those they call friends to succumb into habitual sins. Not lovingly confronting others with whom they are invested, worrying more about maintaining their relationships with these people, rather than about the health of their friends’ relationships with God
- depending on the forgiveness of others, while not exhibiting forgiveness when others wrong them
- claiming that Christ is calling them to act in a manner that doesn’t align with scripture (“God’s Word”)
Again, to call oneself a Christian is to claim to faithfully follow Christ. Christians don’t follow the idea or concept of Christ; but rather, the actual person of Christ and His teachings. We [Christians] should regularly ask ourselves, am I behaving as a brother or sister in Christ? Do my actions mirror His actions? Does my heart mirror His heart? Consider what Paul tells the Church in Thessalonica:
Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, NASB).
Christians’ actions should always be intentional and Spirit-led (i.e. Christ-focused). The bullet-point examples of secular-minded behaviors (under the false guise of Christianity) that I present above are not comprehensive characterizations. Moreover, it’s not necessary for individuals who currently fall into the “only visible Church” group to be engaging in all of these behaviors—only to be absent of faith. Scripture, however, communicates that there should be visible evidence of faith in the lives of Christians. Christians are called to refrain from acting on worldly desires and, instead, produce fruit of the Spirit:
For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another (Galatians 5:13-26, NASB).
An integral message is communicated in the above scripture. Through faith in Christ, in pursuit of Him, with hearts of stone now flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), we should imitate our Lord in more than our actions, but also in our intentions behind those actions. For us to produce fruit of the Spirit necessitates its presence in the action—the love of Christ being enacted for God’s glory. This is what I believe is meant by Paul when he tells the Galatians that:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me (Galatians 2:20, NASB).
Basically, Paul is saying that to live by faith in Christ means that we relinquish our worldly desires, and focus on the eternal—that which glorifies God. Our bodies are no longer our own, but serve as part of Christ’s body. Our mind is no longer our own, but rather that of Christ. We disassociate with the world when conforming ourselves to Christ:
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2, NASB).
Christ’s likeness within us must increase, while our independent and sinful nature must decrease (John 3:30). Therefore, we should continually ask ourselves: Am I conforming to Christ, or, is my perspective of Christ conforming to me? There is no neutral. We’re either conforming to Christ or we’re resting in sin:
For Christ’s followers, complete conformity to the likeness of Christ means to become a new creature:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (2 Corinthians 5:17, NASB).
And as a new creature in Christ, all of our behaviors should tie into our relationship with Him. Our relationship with Christ must not be based on prayer alone; or scripture alone; or service alone; or solely on Christian community. We must embrace an all-encompassing relationship with our Lord that is reflected in everything we say and do. We’re to live by deed and Truth (1 John 3:18). Our life is His.
Thus, with the utmost conviction and the deepest faith, may we follow Christ our Lord, and not our idea of what we’d want Christ to be for us.
Jesus Christ, our Lord—the actual Son of God—is infinitely better than what we can construct or imagine!