Lean into the Light
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the gospel, what it is, what it isn’t, what people need, what they don’t, where hope comes from, where it doesn’t, etc. It’s probably not surprising to hear a pastor say that they think about the gospel. You might even hope this were so and expect this to be the case. And yet, that word, “gospel,” is a slippery one. It often proves stubbornly malleable and elusive in our time and place. Even those who ought to know better (pastors or bloggers, for example) can and do mishandle it.
Richard Beck has recently completed an interesting and (I think) instructive series of blog posts called “The Gospel Minus X Equals ???” You can start with the first post here and work your way up to number seven. Essentially, he’s asking the question, if you strip away your values, morals, and political views (which we so easily equate with the gospel), what’s left? An interesting question, that one.
Beck is a self-described progressive Christian who is critical of progressives. And his thought experiment is much harder for progressives than conservatives. For many progressive Christians, once you take away values, morals, and political views, there isn’t much left of the gospel. Many progressives have long since jettisoned antiquated views about the atonement of Christ or the need for confession, absolution, and forgiveness of sins. Salvation is transferred from the realms of ontology and eschatology to the world of politics, economics, and social arrangements. For many progressives, God functions as little more than “the thing that justifies my convictions about love and peace and justice and equality and care for the environment.” Which is fine. But is it enough? Is it “the gospel?”
Beck argues that it is not and, unsurprisingly, I agree with him. We are in need of much, much more than a good moral framework. There is a naive and conflicted anthropology at the heart of much progressive theology. We expect perfection (on select issues) and endlessly call out those who don’t rise to the standard, while at the same time claiming to no longer be bound by outmoded views of human nature that see us as “sinners” in need of salvation. Everyone’s ok just as they are except for all the people who do things that aren’t ok. God’s mostly interested in us being our authentic selves except for when those authentic selves do and say things that horrify us (mostly in the realms of race, sex, and gender). Our implicit anthropology ties us up in all kinds of knots.
The word “gospel” means “good news.” So what kind of news would count as good? Perhaps at least as importantly, who has the capacity to hear news as good? Well, presumably those who know a thing or two about badness, both “out there” in the world and “in here” in their own hearts and minds. One of Jesus’ parables that I think speaks most trenchantly in our cultural moment is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18. It’s a well-known story. You have a Pharisee standing on one side of the synagogue loudly and performatively thanking God that he isn’t like that wretched tax collector over there. And over there? Well, over there, you have a tax collector simply saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The story interprets itself, of course. But what always gets me is how Luke introduces it:
He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
This is one of the ugliest features of our cultural moment. So very many people are convinced that they are righteous and regard others with contempt. This is true of conservatives and it is true of progressives. It is not a left or right thing. It is a human thing.
I hope you’ll indulge me yet another reference to The Killers. I’ll stop soon (maybe). One of the odder introductions to one of their songs comes in 2017’s The Calling from the album Wonderful, Wonderful. The song begins with Woody Harrelson reading from the KJV of the Gospel of Matthew:
And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meet in the house, behold
Many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples
And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples
Why eateth your Master with publicans and senators?
But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them
They that be whole need not a physician
But they that are sick
What follows is a song about a son trying to get through to his father who’s run down some dead end roads.
I walked into town with a message for my old man
I got the last two chapters of Matthew in my hand
Steve’s painting houses while Bobby went and gone insane
They buried my sister but daddy, he stayed the same…
His hands still shake when the ponies break out on the track
His feet still quick when they say they want their money back
But daddy did you think that you could outrun the Holy Ghost?
Daddy’s not in a good place, obviously. What does he need? Well, probably not a moral exhortation or a seminar on social justice. Probably not some better politics or economics. He needs something beyond himself. He needs to acknowledge that his sins have put him in a place where he needs help from the outside. He needs to know that he can’t outrun the Holy Ghost.
As Woody Harrelson (and the First Evangelist) reminds us, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” If you think you’re healthy, you’ll probably ignore the gospel or reduce it to something less than it is. If you think you’re righteous, you have no need for rescue. The shudder-inducing truth of our moment is that one of the reasons we struggle so to articulate the gospel in our time and place could well be because we are so damn convinced of our righteousness.
But for the sick, the damaged, the unrighteous? The gospel is the best news of all. The song puts it beautifully:
Follow the sun out of the night
Brother just lean into the light
You wanna be sure, I’ll give you sight
Brother just lean into the light
The lord of the kingdom’s burning bright
Brother just lean into the light
This is the gospel. There is a light and a life that comes as a gift from beyond. There is salvation. There is forgiveness. Lean into it. Lean hard and lean often. And leave your tattered rags of righteousness behind. Those will only get in the way.
For some reason, every time I’ve listened to The Calling I’ve lazily assumed that the passage Harrelson reads in the introduction to the song is the same passage that the son “walks into town” with in the first line. But it’s not, of course. Harrelson’s reading from Matthew 9, not the last two chapters. The last two chapters of Matthew are primarily about two things. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the sun that comes out of the night. This is the kingdom burning bright. This is the Great Physician delivering the sick and the unrighteous and the enslaved from their predicament. This is the gospel. This is the good news.