Feel Good Christianity


In late 17th century Scotland, a young farmer waits to meet his fiancée. She is a maid in the nearby hall. Today she is late, so the young man takes out his Bible and leans against a wall to read.

A party of soldiers crosses the bridge, leading to the farm. They are paid by the Crown to hunt down Covenanters. Right now they are searching for the two sons of this farm. Their eyes land on the young farmhand. He looks about the right age to be one of the sons. And what is that in his hand? No one but a Covenanter would read a Bible! The soldiers approach the young man and shoot him dead.

The sound of the gun carries beyond the bridge to the ears of the maid. She runs towards the farm. As she crosses the bridge, the party of soldiers moves past her in the opposite direction. One of them swings at the maid with his sword. But to his surprise, she catches hold of it and smashes the blade in two against the stone wall of the bridge, throwing the fragments into the water below.

The irate soldier lunges towards her again, but his commander holds him back with the jibe that a girl beat him and deserves to live. While they make fun, the maid pushes between the horses and runs to the farm. She sees her worst fears confirmed - her fiancé is dead. Now she must be bury him in haste, in case the soldiers return for a trophy: a body to hang on a tree for months, as a warning to others.

Such events were not unusual in that period of Scottish history. Nor were they confined to that nation or that era. History is full of accounts of courage, persecution, tragedy and heroism to such a degree that they can seem like fiction to us today. From time to time, we may wonder whether we would ever have the strength of character to do the right thing. Unable to know either way, we soon retreat into the comforting belief that the world has changed so much in the last centuries that we will never be so tested, that we will never have to find out whether we could give up our plans, our ambitions, our families and lives because we love God more than we love ourselves.

However, the world has not changed. We have.

Revolution of the Soul

In the middle of the 18th century, anti-Christian philosophers were given patronage and licence to share their ideas through published writings. It is doubtful that many ordinary people read the manifestos of such men, but the generations that followed disseminated the ideas more widely through novels and poetry. The labours of these philosophers and creatives has been dubbed “Romanticism”. At this distance in time, we do not need to know the writings of Rousseau and Voltaire, Goethe and Keats, to understand what they taught. The tenets of Romanticism were:

  1. Christian truth is make-believe. The Bible cannot be trusted. We must find truth elsewhere.
  2. Man can only find truth in himself, through his own knowledge and senses.
  3. Man’s knowledge and senses are informed by science and art, the new fountains of truth.

So it happened that the Word of God was replaced by the words, pictures and music of men; that people began to walk by sight not by faith.

This truly was a revolution of the soul. Before this watershed, atheism had been a posture of non-belief and not going to Church. Now it gained all the appearance of substance. The voyages of scientific “discovery” (not least the theory of evolution) were regarded as physical proof that man had conquered God; while audiences being moved en masse by drama, novels and music was regarded as evidence that man could find and express profound truth without God.

Instead of the arts being a welcome entertainment, as they had been during the centuries before, they became works of great importance to help people “understand life” - or rather, to view the world through the atheist’s eyes.

This revolution happened within Christian nations. People did not abandon moral behaviour over night, neither did they necessarily quit the Church. On the surface all was well. But people who once had heard a sermon preached from the Holy Scriptures were not entirely sure that the Bible was true anymore, or else they thought that a sermon was a dry way of expressing things. After all, it did not communicate to the senses as much as that poem by Tennyson or reach the soul like that Cantata. The mindset was changing for those within the Church as much as for those without.

The poet John Keats once wrote:

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination - what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth." (footnote 1)

There was a time when ministers of the Church withstood such sentiments, knowing that it is heresy to validate truth by something as fickle and deceivable as the judgment of the senses. But those ministers finally died and with them the awareness of the old way of looking at the world. Far from being innovative, Keats’ words now state a universally accepted fact. From the moment they are born, people in Western cultures inhale the veneration of art, as the source of truth, and beauty, as the validation of that truth through the senses.

By the start of the 20th century, the Church system had been realigned to accommodate this new thinking. It had been frighteningly easy to achieve, because it was simply a matter of reinstating pre-Reformation practices. The medieval-style choir, dressed in surplices, was trained to perform chants that had not been sung in English worship for over 200 years. All the senses were amused, from the smell of incense and the sight of architectural grandeur to the sound of professional musicians. The Church dressed herself up to be a sensory delight, as though - in an age of doubt - she could validate the Word of God by the artistry of men.

Losing our Way

Christians born in the 20th and 21st centuries have lived their entire lives in a culture saturated with Romanticism. So how has it affected the Christian’s walk? Consider again the three stages of Romanticism:

  1. The Bible is wrong.
  2. Man has truth in him.
  3. Man expresses truth in art.

A modern professing Christian will (hopefully) reject stages 1 and 2 but most will assume the third to be fact.

For example, a Christian woman may love to hear particular worship songs. She believes that the singer has a special gift and is blessed by God; in fact, she believes that he helps her. When her faith feels weak, she only needs to listen to her favourite song and her faith is strong again. In time, she interprets her spiritual state according to how she feels. One day, she picks up the Bible and she is disgusted by what she reads. She doesn’t mind the passages that make her feel special and loved, but there is so much that leaves her cold. There are many descriptions of the attributes of God that do not make her feel good so she shuts the book with the firm belief that the Psalms need editing and the Old Testament needs removing altogether. She feels terrible and invites a friend over to watch Little Women. It does the trick - she feels fine again. She perceives her faith as restored.

Observe how easy it was for her to reach stage 1 from stage 3. If we elevate art and the senses above their ordinary role, if we grant them the powers of spiritual discernment, then we will come to love the Bible less and invent a new truth. We will eventually find the Bible wrong. (This is almost inevitable, as stage 1 is an inherent part of stage 3.)

Now such people will not necessarily recognise the departure they have made. They will identify themselves as a Christian still (often with passion). They may not even vocalise any distaste for the Word of God. But they betray it by their growing inability to communicate about Christian truth outside of what it means for them personally. Such a person will say that they do not care about doctrinal differences and they will make this assertion in the guise of a gesture of love, not seeing that it in fact shows apathy towards God. They do not want to know the God of the Bible as He has revealed himself. They have already changed Him into an idol to make them feel comfortable when life gets hard and never impose anything on them by way of duty. They do not want that image shattered.

This is not a considered position. People within the Church have not each determined to pick-and-mix through Scripture and love God on their own terms. They are probably not aware of their total dependency on sensory stimulation for their belief in the truth. They live as people do within any cult - oblivious to the walls around them, oblivious to the loyalty by which they live, oblivious to the fact that their will is possessed by another.

Mediators

If the original Romantics worshipped men like Goethe and Schiller, it follows that the Christian Romantic will have his own figures of devotion. Some will be musicians, as mentioned before. (footnote 2) But beyond that there is a much broader sphere of influence. Consider the modern style of Christian book promotion. In order to be successful, a Christian writer must gain a degree of celebrity, elevating them into a guru-like position, so that every word they pronounce is prophecy. Once an author has gained such a “following” it is inevitable that their financial success in publishing will confirm in the minds of other Christians that they are a fountain of truth and wisdom.

We are awash today with such gurus. As long as they keep their audiences feeling good, then they retain their position of power as the one who can stimulate weakening faith. No one can criticise such authors. For instance, N. T. Wright has espoused many heretical views, seeking to undermine the Protestant position from within. (footnote 3) Can Wright’s present position of power within culture be eroded? Make an argument on the basis of Scriptural truth and you will be perceived as “lacking love” and your “divisive” attitude will be dubbed “unChristian”. How? Because by taking a confrontational approach against Wright’s heresy, you make the listener feel bad. If you make him feel bad then he doesn’t feel spiritually good. You then become someone who does not edify his faith (since it is based on feeling) and therefore your own profession of faith is dubious. You are in fact identified as a hater, lacking in grace and Christian love. If only you were more like N. T. Wright ...

Take another example. A guru like Ann Voskamp makes us feel good. She is not going to be critical or even mildly challenging. She is going to encourage you that God loves you just as you are. And in that affectation of friendship for all her readers, the trick is played. You feel good, so your faith is confirmed, so you need to go back to Voskamp and read her often, because she helps you believe. Consider one of her latest “pearls”:

~ If you get that you’re a mess that’s all you need to get all his grace ~

There is almost a willfull ignorance in such banal aphorisms, whereby we sweep over, as though merely intellectual concepts, the cross and resurrection, justification, atonement, judgment. There is a sense of entitlement in the attitude, as though a 3 year old has pulled the tablecloth down deliberately and landed a beautiful dinner on the floor, only to summon his mother with a click of the fingers: “Bitch - sort it out - it’s your job!” To be so flippant about such a subject as salvation, to be so colloquial with the Lord God Almighty would have been scandalous even fifty years ago. But now it is normal.

Removing the influence of a guru will not solve the problem. Consider how often such gurus have removed themselves from a public role through revelations about their private lives and what is the result? People who had supported the disgraced figure immediately find someone else to be the mediator of truth in their lives. Nothing changes fundamentally. They do not leave their influence because they have seen the error of it all - they leave because no one wants to be seen as the last person in a cult! The new cult environment is chosen for its security, which is why a more remote figure such as the Pope, Wright or Voskamp appears most attractive. How many years have they been doing the job? Have they been caught out yet?

There is the added benefit that if the remote figure is well-known, then other people can judge you according to your allegiance. For instance, reading Wright suggests you aspire to look intellectual and reading Voskamp gives a girl the glow of being a sweetheart. We choose our cult leader according to who will make us feel good and who will make us look good.

In this, the Christian Romanticist is just like the atheist, who chooses his cult leader on the same criteria. Those who gathered to mourn outside the home of the musician "Prince" recently were mourning a man whose music had made them feel good; being seen as one of his followers had made them look good. A Christian Romanticist will ultimately sense that their grief is akin to his own, their loyalty is like his loyalty. He knows how they feel at losing a hero. He knows what music can mean to the soul. He understand them because he is like them. Such a Christian, incapable of hearing doctrine, cut off from the power of the Scriptures, will find it a short road towards sharing the same immoral views and behaviour as the atheist. After all, if being a lesbian makes a girl feel good - who are we to criticise?

The Word of God means nothing to such people. They can only be reached via the gurus of Romanticism. No Christian guru is going to make people feel the pain that is due at the word, “Repent!” It is poor marketing. Instead the guru will feed a selfish sense of entitlement that you should have the things in life that make you feel happy - job, marriage, kids, car, holidays, success. And when a devotee has wanted one of these things and the desire is seemingly granted, a chorus rings from other devotees, “God is so faithful!”

Scripture says: “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1.9.

The modern Christian judges God according to how much he contributes to our vision of what we want our lives to be. We judge him faithful according to whether we feel good about life and as we lean heavily on artists, writers and musicians to reveal the truth, we praise them alongside God. We will acknowledge that God is faithful only when we feel it to be true.

Whereas the farmhand, leaning against a wall, waiting for his fiancée - what did he have? He had no earthly future ahead of him. Marriage would not happen - no children. He was never raised above the station of farmhand. He had not achieved a name for himself while he lived. Under the judgment of Romanticism, he was a nobody who knew nothing. But he lived and died a true Christian. His identity was not at the mercy of philosophers and artists. He did not need them because he had the Scriptures, which told him that he was adopted through Jesus Christ to be a son of God, that all his sins were forgiven because Jesus Christ - God and man - had lived without sin and died for the sins of the world, that our guilt was imputed to him, his righteousness imputed to us. The Scotsman knew what it was like to keep commandments, slip, repent and start again. He could read the Bible and learn about his Creator, God and Redeemer. Such knowledge, blessed by the Spirit of God, grew in his heart and mind through sanctification. The bond between him and his Lord surpassed all others. This is the difference.

Other Christians, just like this farmhand, were given an opportunity to recant and save their lives. So many refused and faced lengthy torture before death. They did not curse God or regard him as faithless for not granting their personal dreams. They did not consider it as a failure on God’s part because they could not find Voskamp-style "joy" in the Boot.

The gurus of Romanticism can only function as prophets of truth as long as our problems are small. They convince us that we are safe and all is well just long enough that we can live by believing in them and not in God. And when the crisis occurs and the guru is not available - what then?

Godliness with contentment

It is possible to live in reality today, to view ourselves as God sees us - nothing more or less. It is possible to know the truth from His Word. We can discover what is required of us and try to honour Him in all our ways. Then, when difficulties arise - of any size or importance - we will not try to make ourselves feel better, we will not count our blessings to make it hurt less, we will not seek an artistic mediator to make us feel like the hero we know we are not - no, when a problem presents we will pray and trust in the Lord. He will be with us in the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. It may be that the fire burns us. It may be that the fire hurts us so much that we do not think we can take any more. But He will be there.

The transformation from Romanticism to Real Christianity is to stop living according to our personal feelings and start applying the external standard of God’s Word to every aspect of our lives. This does not negate any contact with the arts and sciences. We can read and watch for entertainment. We can listen to music without making it therapy. We can study the fern and gaze at the stars. We can learn to treat diseases. But all these aspects of human knowledge must first be made subordinate to the ultimate knowledge and ultimate truth as God has revealed in His own Word.

The Romantic mindset blinds us from knowing our duty before God because we first consult our need to feel good and often cannot see past it. We are therefore less able to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength through keeping his commandments. We are consequently less able to love our neighbour as ourselves, since how he feels is irrelevant compared to our own sense of happiness. The Romantic person therefore lacks empathy and insight, is less interested in other people’s problems and unwilling to put himself out for another’s good.

Whereas, if people do not have a Romantic mindset, if people truly seek each other’s good out of love to God, then problems in life are reduced to temporary external circumstances. They are still challenges but they cannot change who we are or what we believe.

"The more a man trusts to sense, the less he lives by faith, for sensible feelings are no faith. Impressions are not believing. I see the sun, I hear a sound, I feel an object: faith has no place in these instances. Its essence is believing and trusting what God hath spoken. If His Word be believed, and by believing the conscience finds peace, and the heart joy, these are joy and peace in believing. They come from believing, are its effects, and no more enter into the essence of faith than comfortable feelings do into the essence of a man. He is as truly a man when miserable as he is when comfortable." (footnote 4)

Anne Askew was racked until her bones were broken but would not recant and had to be carried to the stake, where she was burned to death. The painter Edward Freese was tormented for his faith until his mind was shattered beyond repair, but still he answered his persecutors’ questions with the same repeated phrase: “My Lord is a good man.” (footnote 5) These people were real. They were not superhuman. They felt pain. But they loved God more. They did not doubt the truth although they were in agony of body and mind. How can we call ourselves Christians if we doubt the truth just because our will is crossed?

If we begin with the foundation stone of the Word of God, if we make that the source of Truth, then Romanticism has no power over us. It has no truth to offer. It separates us not only from our duty to live to the glory of God, but from the real and awesome comfort of the Scriptures:

35. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36. As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
37. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.
38. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,
39. Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (footnote 6)

 

Footnotes

1) The Romantic Revolution, Tim Blanning, p.602

2) For a more thorough explanation of this, please see the forthcoming title Music Mania: How the Victorians joined the cult of Classical Music and why England has never been the same since, Abigail Judith Fox

3) For example, Steve Chalke’s infamous rejection of the doctrine of the atonement as cosmic child-abuse was merely an extension of Wright’s view: “Of course, there have been crude and unbiblical versions of the doctrine of the atonement, and many have rightly reacted against the idea of a vengeful God determined to punish someone and being satisfied by taking it out on his own son.” - For all the saints? Remembering the Christian departed, N. T. Wright, p.304

4) The Walk of Faith, William Romaine, Chapter 4, p.133

5) History of the Reformation, D’Aubigne, Volume V, p.432

6) The Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 8