American Christianity is unbalanced, I believe. This is not a uniquely American problem though; no culture will ever have a perfectly balanced expression of Christianity. Cultures have a certain set of values and those values inevitably help shape their expression of Christianity, for good and bad.
In America we tend to value practicality. We focus on making things productive and efficient. We focus on things that get results; that help us accomplish our goals. We are a goal-oriented society. This naturally leads to an emphasis on work, which is good because God created us to work:
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. — Genesis 2.15
God expects us to work:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. — Exodus 20:8–10a
The Apostle Paul also expects us to work:
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. — 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12
We also tend to value idealism. We’re eternal optimists. We’re always envisioning and imagining a better life, a better country, a better world. We differ quite vastly over what that ideal world looks like, but we are always imagining it. When we combine this with our emphasis on work it naturally leads to the conclusion that we can make our ideal world a reality. And this also is not a bad thing. The single mother, for example, who wants to get out of her minimum wage job and earn more money so she can work less and spend more time with her children should try to make that ideal a reality; it’s a good thing.
What isn’t good is when a healthy dose of the futility of life is not injected into the marriage of these two values. I think this injection is missing in American Christianity and I think it is missing because we have neglected the perspective of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. I suspect if I surveyed 100 American Christians and asked them what their favorite book of the Bible is that Ecclesiastes would have less than 5 votes, in fact it might not get any. It is a sad thing to think about, and I think also indicative of why American Christianity is the way it is.
It requires us to think and reflect on some of the cold hard truths about life, and we don’t like to do this. It isn’t productive. It doesn’t produce results. It doesn’t help us reach our goals. So why bother with it? Not only this, but it also undermines our idealism with fatalism. Consider the following:
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. — Ecclesiastes 1.14
Why would we want to acknowledge this? If this is true we reason, then why bother doing anything? Why bother standing up for the rights of the unborn? Why bother trying to eliminate racism? If it’s all useless then why bother? And so our thoughts stop there and we move on to the nice friendly passages that make us feel warm and fuzzy inside.
However once we come to grips with the perspective of the Preacher we can conclude along with him:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. — Ecclesiastes 12.13-14
When we recognize that all our striving after the actualization of our ideals is useless and in the end doesn’t matter it frees us from carrying that unnecessary burden and allows us to focus on what does matter: keeping the commandments of God. We recognize that God will judge each of us individually. Were we covetous and never content with what we had? Were we adulterous and consistently involved in sexual promiscuity? Did we spread false lies about others for our own advantage? Did we love something more than God? How well we loved God and loved others is what we will be judged on.
The reason why I write this is because I have noticed a tendency over the past couple of years within the church to think that we need to solve the social injustices in our country and world. I think this is dangerous because it is placing an unnecessary burden on the church and I think it will eventually be too much for us to carry and will crush us. We are not called to solve all the problems and injustices of the world. We are called to be salt and light. Living testimonies of the love of God to all humanity. If we first look at the state of our own soul and work to purify and cleanse it, then the societal change we want to see will naturally flow from it. It does not work the other way around. This is what Christ taught us:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. — Matthew 23.25-28