A couple of week’s ago the senior pastor of our congregation asked a poignant question in his sermon: what do you think about what you think about? It’s provocative, isn’t it? Are we pleased about the things that occupy our minds most of the time, or at least when we do have time that is not necessarily given to jobs or the people we are responsible to and for?
I was reminded of the question as I perused a book mention last week, David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, and by a post on my facebook page this morning regarding the death of singer Whitney Houston. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It consists of two pictures side by side: on the left is a picture of Whitney in her performing prime, with the caption reading, “One person dies and 100 million cry;” on the right is a picture of starving children, presumably in Africa, with the caption reading, “One million die, and no one cries.” What are we thinking about? The fact that we as a culture think very much about fame and fortune and little about hopelessness and want is betrayed by the wild popularity of shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice.” We like to be entertained; and we like to find someone who is basically much like us and vicariously live into the great American ideal with them. If our chosen competitor makes it, we feel however faintly that we made it, too. It’s the same phenomenon that drives people from the love of sports to an intense attachment to a team or individual athlete. The fact that we think very little about those in great want is betrayed by their ubiquity.
Platt reminds readers of the inconvenient words of the New Testament regarding wealth and the approval of people. They are words we have managed quite creatively to blunt. We “spiritualize” them and turn them on their heads, somehow succeeding in doing the impossible—making the gospel sound like the American dream itself. From the man who needed to build bigger barns to hold all his accumulating goods, to the man at whose table Lazarus begged, to the one who turned away when his possessions were said to be the price of following Jesus, to the one who is offered the favored seat in the assembly of the post-resurrection church—it’s just not a ringing endorsement of gaining success at the bank.
Our misreadings and desperate interpretations of the Bible might begin with a skewed idea of what the gospel is all about in the first place. Platt suggests this early in his book by taking our favorite verse (John 3:16) and pointing out the obvious: God’s love is for the whole world. Our individualistic way of thinking turns this in to an individually directed message, to the point where it is commonplace to encourage people to substitute their own name for “the world.” When we do so we change the focus entirely. We have so individualized the gospel that we think it’s about individual people, rather than a reaching out to the whole world. The individual gospel plays very well with the American dream–it’s all about me, my salvation, my success, my claim on heaven when I die, and, by the way, about a whole lot of goodies I can name and claim before I get there. And it’s the “goodies” that occupy our minds, our thoughts entirely too much of the time, and not on the world God loved so much.
It is a convicting question, is it not: what do you think about the things you think about?