Bumper Sticker Christianity

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Jesus is the Reason for the Season.”  It is evangelicals who have cried out the most against the commercialization of Christmas, but then became co-opted by turning the phrase “Jesus is the reason for the season” into one of the most commercialized phrases of all time, blazoned across t-shirts, coffee mugs and yes, church signs. They can be purchased at any local Christian book store, 10% off if you pick up a precious memory angel along with it.

Free coffee, everlasting life – yes, membership has its privileges!” or “Walmart is not the only saving place.”  Do you hear what lies behind all of these messages?

Evangelicals have become experts in finding a thousand new ways to ask the same question, “What is the least one has to do to become a Christian.”  That’s our defining question.  We’ve become masters at theological and soteriological minimalism.  We are the ones who have boiled the entire glorious Gospel down to a single phrase, a simple emotive transaction, or some silly slogan.  It is time for a new generation of Christians, committed to apostolic faith, to declare this minimalistic, reductionistic Christianity a failed project!  It is wrong to try to get as many people as possible, to acknowledge as superficially as allowable, a Gospel which is theologically unsustainable.  We need to be reminded of the words of Søren Kierkegaard, in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”1  We, on the other hand, have made entrance into the Christian faith painless and almost seamless.  In the process, we have managed to produce as many nominal Christians as Christendom ever did.  If the liberal project taught us that denying Apostolic Christianity renders the Gospel inert and non-reproducible (note rapid decline of mainline churches), evangelical, minimalistic Christianity has taught us that the Gospel cannot be reduced to a bite sized piece for mass consumption.

The Gospel is about the in-breaking kingdom and the New Creation that claims the whole sphere.  Christians can’t simply choose to play in one small corner of the chessboard – you have to play the whole board, or you will lose.  The Gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, and wrote theologically laden hymns for the church, etc.  You see, they were capturing every sphere with the Gospel.  The New Creation does not simply break into one little square on the chess-board – it crashes into the whole of life!  If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us – the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history.

Brothers and sisters, it is time for us to capture a fresh vision of the great meta-narrative of the Christian Gospel for our times!   The bumper sticker “God is my co-pilot” will not get us there.  We have, in effect, been criss-crossing the world telling people to make God a player, even a major player in our drama.  But the Gospel is about being swept up into His great drama. It is about our dying to self, taking up the cross, and being swept up into the great theo-drama of the universe!  Christ has come as the Second Adam to inaugurate the restoration of the whole of creation by redeeming a people who are saved in their full humanity and called together into a new redeemed community known as the church, the outpost of the New Creation in Adam’s world. Discipleship, worship of the Triune God, covenant faithfulness, suffering for the sake of the Gospel, abiding loyalty to Christ’s holy church, theological depth, and a renewed mission to serve the poor and disenfranchised – these must become the great impulses of our lives.

There are serious flaws in the foundations of contemporary evangelicalism.  Our theological underpinnings are too weak, our knowledge of church history is too vague, our understanding of the text of Scripture too superficial, our being formed in the practice of ministry insufficiently reflective.  Thus, while some are declaring that the day of the seminary is over, that we are hopelessly irrelevant, out of touch with culture, and the churches can “take it from here,”  I want to declare today that there is perhaps no institution more vital for the proper recovery of biblical, apostolic Christianity than the seminary.  With every fiber of my being I believe in the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary.  Our faculty, under God’s care, will lead an entire generation of new Christian leaders back to the fountain of sustained theological work.  Oh, I know we are in the world of Google and Wikipedia and we now all dwell under the fountain of endless information.  Indeed, what theological term, or movement in church history, or Greek word cannot be illumined with a few clicks of a mouse.  But one cannot help but think of Dylan Thomas’ remembrance of his childhood Christmas presents, which included, “books that told me everything about the wasp, except why.“2  In the midst of the twitterization of all knowledge, we need profound, thoughtful, nuanced, men and women who are, to use the language of our mission statement, “theologically educated” and who will bring that to the service of Christ’s holy church.  We need sustained theological reflection, in contrast to Thomas Friedman’s description of our digital world as “continuous partial attention.”  Without this deep reflection, the Gospel will simply be one more commodity on offer in the marketplace of autonomous choices at the smorgasbord of spirituality and personal fulfillment.

(Part 4 of 6 from Dr. Timothy C. Tennent’s Convocation address at Asbury Theological Seminary on September 6, 2011)

1 Walter Lowrie, trans., Kierkeegard’s Attack Upon Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 258.

2 Dylan Thomas,  A Child’s Christmas in Wales (NY: New Directions, 1995),  29.

Just joining this series? Go back here to start at the beginning of this 6 part blog series.

Comments

  • John Metz says:

    Dr. Tennent,
    Thank you for an excellent post.

  • Janni Martin says:

    Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Thank you! Wonderfully said. Tozer said similar things decades ago but I don’t think he said it as well.

  • Doug Mays says:

    So well said. May God forgive all who have been purveyors of this pablum, or worse yet–heralds of this heresy.

  • “The Gospel is about the in-breaking kingdom and the New Creation that claims the whole sphere.” Yes!
    I’ve found that to understand the New Testament teaching about this inbreaking kingdom, I needed to understand the Old Testament predictions about it. There’s a free chart at LivingInTheOverlap.com that lists the key characteristics of the kingdom of God as predicted by the Old Testament prophets. I hope others may find it helpful.

  • […] excellent post from Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary: “Jesus is the Reason for the […]

  • While I generally agree with what you wrote here, I do have a quibble or two. First, I don’t think there is anything wrong in and of itself with bumper stickers, t-shirts, etc. The real problem is when they become a substitute for something else, such as real knowledge of scripture (“Whose got time to read the Bible? Besides, bumper stickers are faster and easier to understand”), real faith (“My t-shirt says I’m a Christian, so I must be”), real evangelism (Of course my neighbors have heard about Jesus. That’s why I crank up the Christian music on my stereo every day after work”) or real repentance (“Sure, I might sin just as much as before I was saved, but at least I’m proclaiming my faith on my car now”). My second point is a bit harder to explain especially without sounding accusatory (which it isn’t meant to be). You seem to write of the seminary as if it were separate from, rather than part of, the church. Yet, however important being theologically educated may be, it alone cannot lead to saving faith. The Christian life is one that is meant to be LIVED, not merely studied. Finally, while you’re right about how the Gospel shouldn’t be “boiled… down “, we should also avoid doing likewise but with the end product being a theological catchphrase or buzzword rather than “a single phrase, a simple emotive transaction, or some silly slogan. Not only do we need a new vision, but a new (albeit biblically-based) voice to go with it that will explain it to the new generation.

  • Joe Cox says:

    Then again, blogging is minimalistic and reductionistic to a generation who only read books. These have been great reads and putting them in blog forms really helps to covers the chess board.

  • Bill Adams says:

    The chess board is filled with many pieces with different roles, abilities and functions. We all have our place and our purpose, part of which is to support those on our side.
    Our bumper sticker should never read “Never let it be said I didn’t do the least I could do!”

  • I’m geek enough to be cataloguing the things God urges us to “do”, which is a list long enough to keep us far too busy to engage in the things God says “don’t” do — and even to keep us away from those the sirens of our culture call us to. More than 900 commands so far, and I’ve barely made a dent on the New Testament.

    But we know Scripture so poorly as a church that we are easily seduced by every kind of deception: “I must look successful (own lots of toys) to win successful people to Christ” “My ministry must be 501 (c)(3) incorporated (for the legal benefits) but since it’s a ministry it should be First Amendment-free from the legal responsibilities of any other employer.” And — commingling and confusing a large cluster of Wesley’s teachings — “Since I’m a Christian, you should buy from me, no matter how poor my services.”

  • Ian Thomas says:

    How about making a “Keep Christ in Christianity” bumper sticker to bring reflection to what Christianity has become and show the parallel in how Christianity has morphed in a similar superficial manner as Christmas.

  • nick says:

    According to the Bible the Gospel is the “Death, Burial and Resurrection” of Jesus Christ, no other meaning.