As a kid, we had this Christian VHS tape. It was the animated story of three young kids who travel through a fantasy land and are tempted to dishonor God in many different ways. (I now realize this was the Christian version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.) Idolatry, the animated characters sought to convey, was the act of giving ourselves over to cultural taboos. Partaking – or even thinking of partaking in any of these taboos, the film warned, was the one sure way to ruin the love that God has for you.
Through years of indoctrination at Sunday school/vacation bible school/youth group/AWANA, we convinced children that life is really a series of decisions that determine God’s will towards us. God’s will wasn’t really his will, so much as it is our performance (because that is, we tell ourselves, the genesis of God’s will towards us). We can see why Luther defined sin as “being curved in on oneself.” To evaluate sin, we should look first at whether there are threads of self-obsession (which breaks the first commandment) in our actions, then – from there – we can choose to consider the current whims of wider religious culture to determine whether or not something is taboo. For those saved by grace, then, we are still free to do what we want. Taboos are not prohibited for Christians. In fact, the bible goes to some pretty uncomfortable places when it comes to the certainty we have in the uprightness of our man-made principles (taboos): “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm, therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
A first step in getting free from slavery is simple: stop calling slavery good. Stop acting like unwilling devotion is an act of worship. God doesn’t need your good works (your neighbor does), but – even more than that – he especially doesn’t need your half-hearted good works. “God, if I do this, well, you owe me.” “But God! That time I gave money to that homeless guy and I really didn’t want to! Remember how glorious that was? I didn’t want to give, but I did anyway. Good, right?”
We have such unquestioned respect for human exertion, that we don’t give a rat’s ass if the motive for our good works is thoroughly narcissistic. Are your good works primarily about establishing a good reputation? Then it’s not good works. It’s public relations.
I would rather hang out with a person who has given up on finding hope under the sun, than a person who has delusionally placed hope in their own weak hands. At least the gospel will sound like good news to the first person. To the second person (the evangelical?), the gospel will become another competitor in the pursuit of self-adoration.
There is no biblical basis for the rampant stodginess among evangelicals. It’s undeniable that Christians are the most easily offended. This is a caricature that the devout wear as a badge of honor. “Damn right I know what’s good and holy.” Jesus and Paul had no trouble upsetting the taboos of the devout in their lifetime. Christianity is not built on taboos, it’s built on the confession that perfect adherence to man-made taboos will NEVER make us righteous.
Am I just tearing down taboos because I’m an edgy hyper-grace guy and I want to make my Christian followers nervous? No. Everything I just said makes me nervous as hell. But I’m convinced that it squares with reality. If I don’t readily admit how silly Christian taboos can be (and often are), then I am implicit in years and years of Christians using taboos to bludgeon and ostracize outsiders.
(Associating with black people was taboo for good, upstanding, white Christians in the South – not even that long ago. The fact that the woman in this picture, holding the “We DO NOT welcome the colored” sign, is operating out of religious zealousness should give us pause to consider whether our own Christian zealousness is about loving those “below us” or gaining approval from those “above us.” If Satan can get our focus from loving others to protecting our reputation, then we, too, are not far from proudly protesting those who don’t belong. Religious devotion left unchecked will lead us to incredibly delusional places – read about the psychology of cults. The soul-crushing guilt drives the soul-crushing religious anxiety which drives the soul-crushing pharisaism which crushes the souls of everyone you love.)
The VHS from childhood bubbled up from my subconscious as I happened upon this quote from Martin Luther on Idolatry, which I leave with you:
Idolatry is all manner of seeming holiness and worshipping, let these counterfeit spiritualities shine outwardly as glorious and fair as they may; in a word, all manner of devotion in those that we would serve God without Christ the Mediator, his Word and command. In popedom it was held a work of the greatest sanctity for the monks to sit in their cells and meditate of God, and of his wonderful works; to be kindled with zeal, kneeling on their knees, praying, and having their imaginary contemplations of celestial objects, with such supposed devotion, that they wept for joy. In these their conceits, they banished all desires and thoughts of women, and what else is temporal and evanescent. They seemed to meditate only of God, and of his wonderful works. Yet all these seeming holy actions of devotion, which the wit and wisdom of man holds to be angelical sanctity, are nothing else but works of the flesh. All manner of religion, where people serve God without his Word and command, is simply idolatry, and the more holy and spiritual such a religion seems, the more hurtful and venomous it is; for it leads people away from the faith of Christ, and makes them rely and depend upon their own strength, works, and righteousness.