Reader’s Digest Christianity
For a while, my parents were getting Reader’s Digest every month while I was growing up. Because they were stored in the bathrooms, they were widely read. In each and every issue there was an interview with some celebrity, usually an actor or an athlete.
Reader’s Digest’s favorite kind of celebrity was the “self-made” variety: someone who had come from nothing, preferably a broken home in which the single mother had to work multiple jobs to afford the windows that protected the family from the ceaseless gunfire outside. The interviewers inevitably ended their pieces by asking the celebrity something like, “If you could offer one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?” (In fact, this makes up the bulk of Reader’s Digest…the part that isn’t ads. It’s full of pithy little pieces of advice for an improved life: “For a fun afternoon with the kids, try making caramel apples! To sleep better, try eating more blueberries! For a more fulfilling marriage, try going camping together!”) The celebrity would always say something like, “The one thing I would like to tell your readers is that you can’t let anyone tell you that you can’t accomplish your dreams. I’m walking evidence of that. If you want something badly enough, and work at it hard enough, you can accomplish anything at all.”
So much Christianity has become Reader’s Digest Christianity: “Jesus can help you achieve your dreams. He’ll go ninety-nine yards if you just go one. Do a little and he’ll do a lot. God helps those who help themselves.”
The Kingston Trio has a great song called “Desert Pete” about a man crawling through the desert, dying of thirst, who comes upon a decrepit old water pump. Next to the pump he finds a bottle of water. There’s a note, too. The note next to the bottle says that he has to use the water to prime the pump before he can drink any. Here’s part of the chorus:
You’ve got to prime the pump. You must have faith and believe.
You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive.
You’ve got to give before you get.
That sounds like a lot of preaching these days. “Do for God and then he’ll do for you”, “Do your best and then God will do the rest.” It’s Reader’s Digest Christianity.
I’ve said before that for every good story in the Old Testament, there is a bad children’s song. Perhaps one of the most well-known is “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” You know the one:
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho;
Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, And the walls came tumbling down!
You may talk about your men of Gideon,
You may talk about your men of Saul;
But there’s none like good old Joshua and the battle of Jericho.
I know what you’re thinking: “C’mon, Tullian. Don’t be such a cynic. It’s just a cute, harmless way of helping children remember the story.” Ok, ok. I’m not saying that knowing, liking, or even singing that song is bad. But the song doesn’t really tell the story. Or, more accurately, it leaves out the most important part of the story.
But it’s not only the children’s song that leaves out the most important part of the story. More concerning to me is the fact that most sermons and Sunday School lessons do too.
You remember the story, don’t you? Joshua comes up against the city of Jericho. The people of Jericho built huge walls around their city because they wanted to protect themselves from this “God” they had heard so much about—a God who split the Red Sea in half for his people. Verse 1 says that the inhabitants of Jericho hid behind those walls, “not going out and not coming in.” And God’s big plan was to have Joshua’s army walk around the city for six days and then on the seventh day, walk around the city seven times concluding with a huge shout from God’s people. When the walls of Jericho “come tumbling down,” it seems as though Joshua’s faithfulness (and willingness to follow through on this ridiculous plan) is being rewarded. So this Joshua-at-Jericho story seems, at first glance, to fit perfectly with Reader’s Digest Christianity.
We read the story (or hear the sermons) and sing the song and make this whole account about Joshua and how he bravely fought the battle of Jericho and how as a result of his great faith, the walls came tumbling down and he led his people into the Promised Land. And then we turn it into nothing more than a moral lesson: “If we, like Joshua, have great faith and bravely fight the battles in our lives, we will see our personal walls of sin come tumbling down and enter into the Promised Land of spiritual maturity.”
When we read the story of Joshua this way, we demonstrate that we’ve completely missed the hinge on which this story turns. This whole story hinges on the placement of one verse: “See, I have handed Jericho over to you, along with its king and soldiers” (Joshua 6:2). The key point is that God hands Jericho over to Joshua BEFORE Joshua does what God wants! We expect God to say something more like, “If you do this crazy thing—if you prove your faith to me—I’ll reward your faithfulness by being faithful in return.” But in God’s economy, his promise precedes our faith! In fact, his promise CAUSES our faith. So, as it turns out, this story completely breaks down Reader’s Digest Christianity. It’s like a wrecking ball. God’s economy is the opposite of Desert Pete’s: you get before you give!
God’s word is creative (his words “let there be light” actually create light): when he calls someone “faithful” they become so. When he declares someone “righteous,” they are righteous. God makes his pronouncements at the BEGINNING, before any improvement or qualification occurs—before any conditions are met. God decides the outcome of Joshua’s battle before anyone straps on a shield or picks up a sword. And he not only decides to deliver unconditionally; he does so single-handedly. No one lifts a finger to dismantle the wall—the promised victory is received, not achieved. So, in the end, the seemingly harmless song is wrong and misleading because Joshua did NOT fight the Battle of Jericho. God did. Joshua and the Israelites simply received the victory that God secured.
Of course, this battle points us to another battle that God unconditionally and singlehandedly fought for us. It points us to another victory that God achieves and that we receive. We are the ones trapped inside the fortified walls of sin and death—of fear and anxiety and insecurity and self-salvation—and Jesus’ “It is finished” shout from the cross alone causes the walls of our self-induced slavery to come tumbling down. Real freedom, in other words, comes as a result of his performance, not yours; his accomplishment, not yours; his strength, not yours; his victory, not yours.
That’s good news!