An Army, Not An Audience

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If your faith isn’t directing you to plant vineyards and guard them with the sword, it might not be faith at all.

If you’ve ever nurtured an apple crop through to harvest, enduring heat waves, hailstorms, coddling moth infestations, and property taxes, only to see a family in a brand new SUV stealing apples during a pick-your-own visit, you might have some sense for why I write about God a lot. I know some people proceed straight to the justice question when they are wronged. They lawyer up. They make complaints. They take solace in a withering Yelp review.

Me? I want to dig up the bitter root, the spiritual sickness, and burn it in the public square with a blow torch. I’m aching to know what went wrong with the American soul, to know why families could camp overnight in Central Park in the 19th century, but wouldn’t do that now without the help of a SWAT team. When I see a trunk full of stolen apples, gathered by a pair of parents who were actually teaching their children how to steal, it’s all I can do to keep myself from asking them if they were raised by wolves.

I’m sure our decline is rooted in many causes, but my target today is vague because the problem is vague. It’s something like shooting at a fog bank with a pellet gun. I’m talking about the spiritually and scripturally vague mind, the sort of mind we can expect from churches held together by pastors who fear specificity, because if they waxed very specific about political or moral problems, they would run the risk of fracturing their tithe-paying coalition. If they speak about divorce, they scrape the sores of a dozen people out there actually considering it. If they speak about government waste, they must take care to avoid offending those benefiting by that waste. If they speak about abortion, they speak to a congregation partially addicted to it.

As a result, we absurdly “let go, let God.” We quote “our weapons are not against flesh and blood” for the 400th time, never tempering it with “rulers don’t bear the sword in vain.” We forget that the same apostle who admonished us to “seek gentleness” also commanded us to turn gross sinners over to the devil for “the destruction of their flesh.” We’re all about seeking genuine love, but we’re not allowed to hate evil — that sounds too judgmental, doesn’t it? We remember not to judge hypocritically, but we forget that Jesus actually commanded us to judge righteously.

We get half the story — the fun, generous, loving half. We get the Jesus who rides a surfboard and passes out flowers in the park, not the Isaiah 63 Jesus whose garments are soaked in the blood of His enemies.

So half of the problem is that we’re a generation dedicated to half the gospel. We quote the scriptures we like, not the ones that challenge us. When was the last time you picked up a Hallmark card featuring God’s promise to smear shit on the faces of false priests? When was the last time your pastor reminded you that the church should be a holy terror to its enemies? Christianity could be brought back down to earth, where it could be made real and present, (where it could do some good, in other words), if we were better scholars, if we were catechized with a little more discipline, if the Bible informed us culturally and politically based on the entire text.

Unfortunately, the vague “Christian” mind is actually proud of itself. It actually enjoys sloth. These folk live to turn the entire problem over to God, so they can sit back and enjoy the divine light show, forgetting all the while that God works through His servants. He even exacts vengeance through His people. He actually shares His glory, and His love, and His wrath with us. We’re not an audience. We’re an army.

You’ve seen what I’m talking about — the vague, mystic, withdrawn, ambiguous believer, who is actually proud of not really ever saying, or doing, much of anything. You would call him a spiritual couch potato, but he actually carries himself with such reverent self-assurance that you hesitate. Is he really walking on water, this one? Is she really about to turn that crust of bread into a sumptuous fish and loaves feast? These people are so spiritually proud, they can be a little unnerving. As I said, they are a moving, foggy target, but they look something like this:

    • A friend has trouble finding work for his family and so you offer him some leads on employment. When you ask him, later, how things worked out, he tells you he “is not laying up treasures on earth.”
    • You have a long exchange of scripture with someone and they conclude that you can’t understand them because you are not “spiritually minded.” Invariably, they are justifying some brand of legalism or outright heresy that goes all the way back to Galatians, but you just don’t get it, because you are not reborn of the spirit.
    • Everyone knows in your town there’s one candidate who will actually stand for Christian values, but the pastor declines a place at the pulpit, even as he gives you a loving and reassuring smile about putting your mind on “things above” along with the inevitable “our weapons are not carnal” consolation.
    • You lament poor academic standards in the public schools and someone clucks “knowledge puffeth up, brother, knowledge puffeth up.”
    • You wonder why your church doesn’t have a pro-life outreach and someone actually says those little killed babies are now in the bosom of Jesus. (I’ve actually heard this one more than once.)
    • Someone laments apathy in the face of Christians being brutally killed all over the world by Muslims, and they respond, with a kind of Amish serenity, “vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.”

It doesn’t matter, really, how easy it is to address any one of these errors in scripture because the believer dedicated to a mystery is actually proud to bathe in that very mystery. He sees it as his virtue. He relies on God more than you do. He’s simple like a child, don’t ya know? You think too much. You are making an “idol out of scripture.” (I’ve actually heard that one too.) Moreover, he very likely has a semi-learned pastor in his corner trying to keep the peace that you are accused of breaking.

This headlong embrace of confusion, ignorance, and apathy — all in the name of not being “of this world,” is powerfully countered by the stories Jesus told Himself — good servants who traded their talents to make greater wealth for their master, a Nicodemus who was chided for not knowing God’s Word better, a Samaritan who rushed to the aid of the beaten, instead of relying solely on prayer. When Jesus commissioned His disciples, He assured them the “gates of hell” would not stand against the withering onslaught of His church, His “ecclesia,” His “called out.” Again, we aren’t an audience. We are an army.

The distant, distracted, useless believer isn’t alone. I think they represent most of today’s evangelical and Catholic churchgoers. Religion is a sweet sea of mystery and solace, a place to escape the cares of this world and a place to feel superior to the world at the same time. This sort of “belief” is going to be difficult to dislodge, because ignorance and pride are a very stubborn combination. It will likely take a revival — a genuine Biblical revival, and not just the sort that fills stadiums.

James Riley is the founder of Colony Bay Productions and the owner/manager of Riley's Farm in Oak Glen, California. James produced and directed the 18th century period Drama, "Courage, New Hampshire" which debuted nationally on INSP and can now be seen on public television. A graduate of Stanford University, James and his wife, Marylinn, have six children and five grandchildren.

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