Friday, June 01, 2007

Joshua Hearne: "On the Gospel of Niceness"

My friend Josh, a third year student at Duke Divinity School, was recently ordained a Baptist minister. This is his contribution to a recent discussion on Mormonism, and whether it's "Christian" to be "nice"... His blog,
Not Quite Getting It, is high-quality, but currently on hiatus.

One of the comments that I quote most often is a paraphrase of Kyle: “When you become a Christian, you give up the right to be a jerk.” I absolutely agree with this. I think that you’ll agree with it, too, if you really think about it. When we convert from the systems of the World to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, something important happens as we are transformed into the image of our crucified and suffering Lord. As we remember that Jesus reigned from a cross, we must constantly forfeit our rights to ourselves.

If you’re a Christian, then you don’t have the luxury to escape the commitment when you want to.

But, on this thought we turn to what Kyle asked me to write about: Is our Gospel a Gospel of “niceness?”

We have to understand that there are many stories and many “gospels” in the world. They and their tellers are competing for our belief, assent, and commitment. Some gospels and/or stories admit the possibility of believing in others, as well. To make myself clear: When somebody tells you something like: “You have to look out for number one” or “If you don’t take care of yourself, who will?” then they’re preaching a gospel of self-interest. They’re telling you a story about how you should view the world. When they talk about how “what the World really needs is…” they’re telling you a story that narrates their life. They’re telling you a gospel. When they tell you what you need or need to do to be happy, they’re telling you a story. They’re telling you a gospel. There is a multitude of stories and gospels in the world.

“If you are financially stable, then you’ll be happy…” “What the people of America really need is universal healthcare…” “What those Iraqis really need is democracy…” There is no shortage of ways to describe and explain the world.

I have a fear, however, that the Christian Gospel has become a gospel of “niceness.” If we’ll only be “nice” enough, then people will get along. I’ve heard people describe “nice” people as acting “very Christian.” I’ve heard people talking about a conversation with Mormons and commenting about how “nice” they are (which they are, typically). Because of their niceness, I know people who believe that Mormons must be Christian because they’re nice.

They’re buying into a gospel that isn’t the Gospel.

Furthermore, I’ve met people who respond to my insistence that this isn’t the Gospel with a response of: “The Gospel is hard to define, isn’t it? What do you think it is?” Typically, I find this question hard to comprehend but, usually, I respond by saying:
“…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
It’s right there in 1 Corinthians 15:3b-8.

What does all this mean for us? Let me put it in a language that makes sense to me (it’s the best I can do, probably). If you’re a Christian, then you will be nice (at the very least, you’re being redeemed into a nice person). I’ll express that as: If C, then N or C>N. If you know any logic (I applaud you, by the way), then you know that just because C>N does not mean that N>C. In other words, you can’t say that being nice is a sign of Christian-ness. So what does it mean? Yes, Christians are “nice” (or are becoming “nice”) but this is not their Gospel. The gospel of niceness won’t do. It isn’t salvific. It isn’t Jesus’ message. It isn’t the Kingdom. In other words, it’s an idol.

We have to dump idols, even when they’re nice and make us feel good about ourselves. Admit it, part of the appeal of a gospel of niceness is that it makes us feel good about ourselves. If the story is that niceness is the solution, then we’ve missed the point. This argument isn’t an excuse to be a jerk (see my first paragraph) but it isn’t a false gospel, either.

Niceness won’t save you. The life, suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of a crucified God will. Anything else is an idol and a false gospel.


+ Alan said...

Nicely put. We need to talk about things like this. I don't think a lot of people really understand the distinctions unfortunately.

I like the C>N - if you are a Christian, then you will become nice, or are in the process of being transformed into the kind of person who is typically described as "nice." Now, as you intimated, if C and not N then I wonder (to be fair) a few things... if C at all? how C? Let's add an I - I=Informed (an informed, catechised Christian who knows the underpinning) and maybe an S - S=Selfish, or self-oriented (stubbornly resistant to the transforming Gospel).

So, I guess if C and I and not so much S, then N will naturally follow. If C and S, I may not matter because S often trumps I - therefore, N never quite appears. Of course, if too S, then not really C - not so much. OK, I'm getting logic crazy here. I made 100 averages in that class. Fun.

Hopefully we have C and I going toward N, as well as quite a number of other attributes, dispelling the vestiges of S along the way. God help us.

SaintSimon said...

Kyle and Alan - Well said!