When driving down Broadway on my way home from work, I’m often entertained by the mosaic of life lining the street. Antique shops, graffiti on the walls, pot shops and gas stations decorate the corridor of cars heading home.
Last week, while at a stop light, I couldn’t help but notice the interesting mix of bumper stickers on the black Land Rover in front of me.
In two corners were stickers heralding Moab, Utah and skiing Colorado’s mountains. On the right side was a Colorado State University sticker, and right below an SUV boast: “You can go fast, I can go anywhere.” Quintessential Rocky Mountain weekend warrior.
Then the kaleidoscope gets interesting. On the far left, a white outline of a female body in high heels, bending over, with the message: “She thinks my Land Rover is sexy.” Below is a series of three stickers: a hand gun that reads “Rocky Mountain Gun Owner,” another Land Rover sticker, and an ad for Key West. Below the license plate, a sticker proudly heralding the owner’s favorite brand of smokes: Camel Trophy.
And finally, on the lower right corner, just above the bumper, is a Jesus fish.
My brain startled awake on the sweltering ride home. How could the owner of such a sexy Land Rover reconcile all these beliefs? The objectification of women, the sauntering pride of owning a big SUV, advertising for a tobacco company, outdoor adventuring, proudly owning hand guns, and biblical Christianity? The moral, the immoral, the amoral, the recreational, and the transcendent all mixed together like stone soup.
Was there a common thread? Or did this guy’s mom just stick a Jesus fish on the back to balance out a fairly typical Coloradan youth’s affections?
What’s going on here?
The American Pantheon
As the light turned green and I eased on the gas, my mind stretched back to a story told by 20th century British missionary and theologian Lesslie Newbigin:
“When I was a young missionary I used to spend one evening each week in the monastery of the Ramakrishna Mission in the town where I lived, sitting on the floor with the monks and studying with them the Upanishads and the Gospels.”
Newbigin, a missionary to India for 40 years, remembers,
“In the great hall of the monastery, as in all the premises of the Ramakrishna Mission, there is a gallery of portraits of the great religious teachers of humankind. Among them, of course, is a portrait of Jesus.
“Each year on Christmas Day worship was offered before this picture. Jesus was honored, worshipped, as one of the many manifestations of deity in the course of human history. To me, as a foreign missionary, it was obvious that this was not a step toward the conversion of India. It was the co-option of Jesus into the Hindu worldview.
“Jesus had become just one figure in the endless cycle of karma and samsara, the wheel of being we are all caught up in. He had been domesticated into the Hindu worldview.”
In other words, Newbigin observed that Jesus had simply become one of the Hindu gods, worshipped one day a year but ultimately bowing to another religion, another set of ultimate beliefs.
In America today, as Christianity wanes, we do not live in an “secular atheist” culture, where no god is worshipped, but instead in a religiously pluralistic culture, where every god is worshiped. David Foster Wallace, in his famous 2005 speech at Kenyon University, says, “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
The reigning American religion today is a pantheon of gods that go by “my personal choice” or “my personal beliefs.” And in this smorgasbord of products, desires and beliefs, Jesus is great. So are sexy women, hiking, smoking on the back porch or whatever floats your boat.
The insight here is not that pluralism is bad. Let’s get clear. Cultural pluralism, where people of many views and beliefs live together in a peaceful co-existence, is indeed good and, I believe, beautiful.
But the dogma of religious pluralism, which is the belief that “the differences between the religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perception of the same truth,” has the effect of domesticating Jesus and his claim to be the resurrected Lord of all.
Our real, functional religion is a vast stew of divinities and desires that we pick from every day in the free market of consumer choice. Here, the holy of holies is “me.” We live, as David Brooks says, in the Age of the Big Me.
I’d argue that today, the greatest challenge for Christianity in the West is not just establishing the claim of Jesus’s Lordship over all of life, or even the universal significance of his death and resurrection, but instead in recognizing that we Christians have domesticated Christ in our own lives, work and culture.
In the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Kings, consistently the author criticizes the wicked kings not for abandoning worship of Yahweh, but for worshipping him alongside of Asherah, Molech, and the Baals.
Syncretism, not disbelief, was the greatest temptation for ancient Israel. So it is for the Church today.
After all, it’s awfully tempting to (naively) believe “She thinks my Land Rover is sexy.”