Kenda Creasy Dean has a new book out, Almost Christian, which is generating a lot of buzz, even in the secular press. This CNN article provides a good summary, but the gist is that young people today who call themselves Christian are largely inarticulate about their faith. For them, following Jesus amounts to being nice, and God is like the Mental-Health Professional in the Sky who wants them to “feel good and do good.” Dean and the other researchers call this shallow theology “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
Dean and others place the blame on this squarely with adults—parents and other adults charged with teaching children the Christian faith. The problem is that many adults have the same shallow theology that their children do. We are captive to, in Dean’s words, “a ‘gospel of niceness,’ where faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers. The Christian call to take risks, witness and sacrifice for others is muted.”
Incidentally, I struggle with moralistic therapeutic deism every time I lead the time with the children during worship. What does it mean to “love your neighbor” when you’re in first grade? Helping people when they’ve fallen on the playground, sharing your toys, being kind—this is all stuff you can and should do whether you follow Jesus or not. That’s why I try in the children’s sermon (which we call “sharing the faith with the children”) to emphasize the sacred stories of our faith and let them speak for themselves. I don’t always succeed at this—the pressure to deliver a “message” is very strong in our culture, and it’s so hard to resist a clear, takeaway, which always feels so trite.
I am wondering what can be done about this watered-down Christianity, and an image came to me that may have outlived its usefulness.
Many of us have heard it said that God is ‘bigger’ than we can possibly imagine. There’s even a classic book, Your God is Too Small. The idea is that we restrict God’s grace to people who think and act like us, when in fact the love of God is way more expansive than we can possibly imagine, and is inclusive of people we’d like to keep out. We “put God in a box,” which became such a cliche in seminary that it was practically the Free Space on Buzzword Bingo.
That God’s grace is inclusive is a great message and one we cannot bear to lose. And it seems to have taken hold, since 80% of Christians believe that it’s not essential to be a Christian in order to be saved (however people define “saved”)
However, that “big God” thing has consequences. (One is that it makes the deity into a physical giant, which is just weird. I heard a preacher say the other day that he’s realized that “Jesus is way bigger than I ever imagined” and I’m picturing a gargantuan Palestinian Jew duking it out with Mothra.)
The major unintended consequence of the “big God” is this moralistic therapeutic deism that Dean talks about. In our effort to be inclusive and loving in our pluralistic society, we have lost the edginess, the distinctiveness of the Christian faith. All that matters is being nice.
I think we need another image.
My kids have a lovely picture book called Zoom. There are no words, just a series of drawings by Istvan Banyai. As you turn each page, you find that the previous image is actually part of a larger picture. For example:
(Sorry this is so small)
In the first picture, two children are looking out the window at a rooster. In the next image, you see the rest of the house and the yard. In the third, you see many more houses nearby. In the fourth, you see that the houses are actually toys being played with by a little girl. In the next, you see that the toys and the girl are really on a magazine cover being held by yet another child.
Wait… is it an actual child, or yet another image-within-an-image?
The book continues like this for pages and pages, and it’s dizzying and exhilarating to be immersed in such detail.
I think we combat moralistic therapeutic deism not by going broader, but by going deeper. Instead of making God bigger and bigger, we need to drill down: to better understand our own faith, to delve into the intricacies, to live more fully inside them. I suspect the outcome would be the same, and maybe even better—a God who is not blandly inclusive, but radically so. That God who is not who she appears at first glance to be, whose grace is present in the miniscule moments of our lives, transforming our vision of them. That God is very very small, a being of intricate and excruciating detail—and is everywhere.
I like this idea of a Zoom God.
What do you think?