There’s lots of bad religion out there. But the answer isn’t no religion, it’s true religion: living outpublicly and communallywhat we say we believe privately and individually. True religion puts flesh on the bones of faith. Resurrecting Religion offers an inspiring, stretching vision for finding our way back to the good news of our faith.
At a time when most people practice their faith in the extremeseither extremely publicly, with a legalistic, combative tone that creates division, or extremely privately, to the point that our faith becomes functionally irrelevantaward-winning author Greg Paul offers a vision for religion that is good for us and good for the world.
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THE SPICY TANG of weed drifts on the night air as I approach the house. I give a mental shrug — probably for the best; it should calm him down some. He's sitting on a plastic chair in the shadows on the narrow porch, as far away from the stairs and entrance to the house as possible. Mike looks up from beneath the brim of his fedora, and I catch a glimpse of his face set hard and furious before it crumbles at the sight of me.
I've known Mike for twenty years, since the days when he lived in a lean-to hidden in the wooded area beside Rosedale Valley Road. We've become close friends through the years, and nobody on God's green earth has ever taught me more about what it really looks like to live by faith. It's one thing to claim it when you've been given the comfort of security and every advantage and opportunity, as I had; it's of a different order entirely when you've grown up with abuse, addictions, homelessness, time spent in jail, and the steady rain of indignities that saturate a life on the streets.
He begins talking before I'm all the way up the steps, the words spewing out of him, his voice rising to a kind of high-pitched quiet shriek — equal parts lament, accusation, and threat. Grief and anger throttle his vocal chords. He zigzags like a water bug over the surface of his beefs: Danny's being a jerk; he needs his dog; those crackers are the real criminals — they would never have called the cops themselves; he can't live like this and needs to go home; he was only trying to clean things up a bit; he's not leaving — has nowhere to go. And then the end of the tirade: He's dying — doesn't anybody get this? If Danny wants to play the hard man ... Mike can't believe it himself yet.
Slow down, I tell him. Breathe. We'll figure it out. What happened? Some kind of household tiff that got out of hand. Hardly surprising, given the circumstances — Mike and Danny were old-school tough guys back in the day, among the hardest of the hard boys out on the streets and in the jails. Where they come from, you can never afford to back down, and all the edges and instincts they've built are still there. It'll get really ugly if it gets physical. Eventually, I leave Mike lighting a cigarette and go inside to talk to Danny.
Danny is calm and quiet — and unequivocal: Mike's going to have to go. In the morning, if he can just come in and go straight to bed. Feels bad because the guy is going through some really nasty stuff, the worst, and no wonder he's snapping, but if he stays, it'll be a total gong show. Danny is wearing only track pants despite the coolness of the night, and I wonder to myself if this is an alpha-dog kind of thing, although his demeanor is surprisingly gentle. I understand his position, though; I do. I'd say the same thing. Bear is staying in his room and staying out of this mess. That's something.
Megna, the other Mike, appears out of the kitchen. He's clearly a little freaked out — doesn't have the same street background as the others and isn't used to this kind of volatility. He tells me Cook is on his way — Megna called him before he knew Danny had phoned me, but I'm grateful. A little dispassionate and highly competent backup will certainly be welcome if this thing goes sideways. And it still could.
I head back out to the porch. Mike, sitting there beneath his fedora, his jaw and the bones of his eye sockets a line drawing in shadow. The streetlight silvering the smoke of his cigarette, and the tears tracking down the hollows of his cheeks.
I'M NOT THEM
Maybe it happens to you, too: You're having a conversation with somebody you don't know all that well, and somehow the topic comes around to God stuff. It might be that you mention going to church or quote from the Bible. If you're one of those rare individuals who is comfortable doing so, you might actually be "witnessing," but most of us are being cautious, uncertain of what the other person's perspective is. You don't want to offend or, frankly, make an idiot of yourself.
At some point the individual cocks his or her head and, after a momentary pause, asks, "So, you're religious?" If that person had said, "Sounds like you're spiritual," or asked, "Are you a follower of Jesus?" it would have been simple to answer with, "Well, yeah."
It's that word, religious. It conjures up images of the Crusades and whacked-out TV preachers selling prayer hankies and fringe lunatics burning copies of the Quran while proclaiming God's hate-of-the-week. It doesn't at all express the way you approach your own faith.
So we chuckle nervously, people like you and me, and mutter about being a Christian, yes, a seeker — it's more of a faith journey — and wind it up with "I wouldn't say I'm religious, really, but I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which is a different sort of thing ..."
While people such as Bill Maher and Christopher Hitchens (or my latest fave, the Amazing Atheist on YouTube) may offend us with their rudest statements about God and Christianity, we find ourselves also recognizing some painful truth in what they have to say. Sure, they make taking cheap shots at the looniest aspects of the church their stock-in-trade; there are, sadly, a distressing number of easy targets in organized religion. But that's the point — we don't want to be lumped in with those wing nuts! They are not us!
Of course, a clever guy such as Maher would say, "Really? You mentioned a 'personal relationship with Jesus Christ.' You mean the Jesus Christ who died a couple of thousand years ago? Do you converse regularly with his ghost, or is he more of an imaginary friend?"
And we would sigh, then try to explain.
Because, truly, it is a very personal matter and experience, isn't it, this faith relationship we have with Jesus? It's real. The laughter of atheists doesn't disprove it; in fact, the categorical dismissal of what billions say they have experienced is both arrogant and exactly the kind of intolerance of which they so often accuse Christians.
Our faith might be dim at times or intermittent; the relationship might be shallower than we'd like it to be; we might struggle with far too many moments of doubt and enjoy too few of transcendent clarity — but whatever the character and challenges of my experience of God, it is my own. Nobody else, I'm sure, experiences God in exactly the same way as I do or as you do.
It makes some sense, then, that we so instinctively resist tagging our individual spiritual actualities with the one-size-fits-all label of "religion." We don't want to align ourselves with the weird public twitches and screwball attitudes of the lumbering beast with the bull's-eye on its back. And we don't want to take that precious, personal sense of connection and lock it up in the kind of inflexible box that the word has come to imply to us.
Still, I sometimes feel — maybe it's the same for you — a bit disloyal when I distance myself from the idea of religion or being religious. It's as if I'm a teenager trying to avoid being seen with a younger, socially awkward sibling. I have the niggling sense that, while I'm trying to claim something precious and powerful by focusing on the "personal relationship" bit, I'm also, just maybe, losing something by denying that I'm religious.
One way or another, we all act out publicly what we believe internally, even if our actions are sometimes unconsciously connected to our beliefs. We live our beliefs. We recycle because we believe the environment is under stress, or we toss an empty coffee cup out of the car window because we don't. We think guns facilitate violence and therefore refuse to own them, or we stockpile them because we believe the only answer to violence is more guns. We think that the truth is important and do our best to be truthful, or we believe that a few lies that deliver the desired result are justified.
Actually, we don't mind claiming this kind of integration of what we believe with how we act. In fact, we don't think much of people who claim to believe a certain way but behave contrary to those beliefs, whether they're Christians, atheists, Hindus, or politicians.
And that, I think, is the nut of our instinctive objection to religion: So many people and institutions appear to behave contrary to what they say they believe, or have beliefs that encourage destructive actions, that we don't want to be associated with that abusiveness or lack of integrity. We've come to view religion as the mindless adherence to a rigid system of behavior that at best is repressive and at worst gives issue to a wide range of dysfunctional and even vile activities. On a more mundane level, maybe we just don't want to be typecast or have our choices and activities restricted by inconvenient dogma.
Our problem, then, is not religion per se; it's bad religion. Sick religion, religion that the biblical writer James calls "worthless."
There's no doubt that religion in general has acquired a bad name in our contemporary first-world society, and there can be little doubt that the name has been well earned. So much so that a great many of us have come to believe that all religion is the empty, worthless kind. But it's the Christian faith specifically, and the religious expression of it, that concerns you and me, so it might be helpful for us to do a little thinking about how we've arrived at the point where we often want to disown our own religion.
As Alan Hirsch points out in his insightful book The Forgotten Ways, the early period of the church's existence was a time of exponential growth. From the death of Christ until about AD 100, it grew from a couple hundred uncertain followers to perhaps twenty-five thousand; over the next two hundred years (by AD 310) there were as many as twenty million disciples spread throughout the world — disciples who were poor, rejected, and often actively persecuted. They were proclaiming and living a religion that had integrity with the words and life of Jesus, as well as claiming for themselves the power of his death and resurrection.
Fast-forward seven or eight hundred years, and we see something quite different. The poor, weak church — that had spread throughout the Roman and Byzantine world, like yeast through a batch of dough — had become a powerful entity whose political, economic, and military might dominated the Western world. The popes maintained armies of their own, and they manipulated most of the armies of Europe by means of the sale of indulgences and threats of excommunication (the classic carrot and stick). They also crowned kings and exacted tribute from them.
And the church taught that there was no salvation except through its own offices — an individual could not approach God to confess and receive forgiveness for his or her sins; instead he or she had to do so through the seven sacraments of the church. People's souls were held, quite literally, ransom. Paying money to the church could cut years, centuries, or even millennia off the "refining" torture people would supposedly endure in purgatory before being admitted to heaven unless, if they failed the test, they were cast into hell.
The slaughter of thousands was justified during the Crusades simply because these people weren't Christians. By means of the Inquisition, the church tortured and often put people to death merely because they were suspected of not being Christians or because they held divergent views on some arcane point of doctrine. During one shameful era in Spain, to be a Jew who had not publicly converted to Christianity meant certain torture and death. Even among "the faithful," people who were too poor to pay for church rites or too weak to perform the prescribed penances were (according to church doctrine) abandoned to the flames of hell.
It was such dissonance with Jesus' original teaching and way of life — which valued people who were as unlovely as a leper, as useless as a paralyzed man, as repugnantly "other" as an Ethiopian eunuch, as sinful as a prostitute, and as dangerous as a bandit or Roman centurion — that prompted the Reformation.
The Christian religion — the way people were living out what they really believed, as opposed to what Jesus, their putative "Lord," had taught — had made a sad, often obscene, frequently abusive caricature of the church.
Those of us who are Protestant can't afford to simply lay such bad religion at the door of our Catholic brothers and sisters. Martin Luther himself, famously and tragically, turned to virulent anti-Semitism toward the end of his life, publishing a sixty-five-thousand-word treatise (longer than this book) titled On the Jews and Their Lies. He proclaimed that their houses and synagogues should be destroyed and that they were not God's chosen nation, but the devil's people. Certainly not a welcome to a people who were mostly poor and oppressed.
"We are at fault," he ranted, "in not slaying them."
Are you groaning yet? Within a couple of decades, depending on who was on the throne, Catholics and Protestants were taking turns torturing, decapitating, and burning one another at the stake in England. Who in their right mind wants to be associated with such vile lunacy?
We could work our way through the centuries from then until now, but it would be too depressing, and most of us are aware of these travesties already. It should be said, however, that Christianity has produced much that is truly wonderful and worth celebrating. Has anyone noticed that it's the countries with a Christian heritage in which women are most valued; tolerance of divergent political or religious views is most practiced; freedom of speech, movement, and assembly is most in evidence; and educational and employment opportunities are most widely extended? Ignatius, Teresa of Ávila, Julian of Norwich, and a slew of others who were among the greatest spiritual writers in history lived during those wicked pre-Reformation times! Saint Francis of Assisi led a movement of believers who took a vow of poverty, eschewed worldly power, and dedicated themselves to announcing God's forgiveness to all. Francis even tried, it is said, to end the Crusades. Literacy, libraries, universities, hospitals, and nursing were all gifts of the medieval church to European society.
Despite these bright spots, there's no doubt our failures have often been lurid and wrought on an extravagant scale. Unfortunately, the disconnect between the Good News that Jesus announced and the way we, his followers, behave is still disturbingly evident today. The church's historic addictions to money and power seem to continue. So, yes, bad religion. (Other religions have been as bad or worse.)
Although there are significant exceptions, Western Christians as a group are among the world's wealthiest people. In itself, there's nothing wrong with that, but we do tend to use our wealth to ensure that we will stay wealthy and get wealthier instead of using it to lift others out of poverty. We'll go to war to ensure that we continue to have access to a supply of cheap gasoline, and we swallow gratefully the lies we are fed that allow us to pretend there's another, more noble reason. We've shown we're willing to line up behind leaders who flog fear, hatred, bigotry, misogyny, and the other toxic symptoms of entitlement as long as we think they'll protect our hegemony and grant us the illusion of access to power. We're more interested, it seems, in worldly power than in spiritual power.
Muslim people around the world consider the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be religious conflicts, and they believe that Christians have invaded their countries and killed their people primarily because they are not Christian. We may not think of it that way, but they certainly do, and no wonder. Those wars could not have been joined by Western governments without the vocal and enthusiastic support of Western Christians.
We have majored on a few issues of public morality, such as abortion and same-gender marriage, and largely abandoned the cause of biblical justice — so much so that the very word justice has come to mean little more in our society than state-sanctioned vengeance. We're viewed as being more concerned about same-gender marriage than we are about almost a quarter of our children who are growing up in poverty, or the insanely high incarceration rates of African Americans in the States and the First Nations people in Canada.
Christian churches in Canada, the States, and Australia have colluded with governments, courts, and police to strip aboriginal people of their land, livelihood, freedom of movement, culture, and even children. It has been pointed out that this amounts to cultural genocide. Several of our largest denominations participated in this spiritual and economic rape of entire peoples, often adding the actual rape of children to the long black tally of our sins. We did this over a period of about one hundred and fifty years and now spend enormous amounts of money and energy trying to avoid or minimize accountability.
Excerpted from "Resurrecting Religion"
Copyright © 2018 Greg Paul.
Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Bad Religion 1
Chapter 2 Spiritual or Religious? 23
Chapter 3 Dry Bones 45
Chapter 4 Bad Religion Can Feel So Good 59
Chapter 5 Believe it or Not 71
Chapter 6 Living the Beatitudes 87
Chapter 7 The Leveling Effect 115
Chapter 8 Watch Your Mouth! 143
Chapter 9 The Surprise in Submission 161
Chapter 10 A Twenty-First-Century Reformation 181
Appendix: The beatitudes, paraphrased 203
About the Author 215
What People are Saying About This
“True religion,” writes Greg Paul, “is to faith what voice is to a thought. It puts flesh on the bones of faith.” This book describes the gritty intersection between incarnational theology and integrated spirituality. With raw vulnerability and buckets full of hope, Greg Paul will restore your faith in the church.
I have a growing suspicion that the antireligious sentiment, which is so pervasive in Western culture and is captured by the mantra, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual,” is simply the latest version of that old enemy and heresy, Gnosticism. It’s like saying, “I love football; I’m just not into the organized kind.” Unless our faith is rooted in and structured around practices and pathways that have stood the test of timeunless it is, in some real and deep sense, religious it will not hold together. Indeed, the root of the word religion is exactly that: to re-ligament, to tie broken things back together. Greg Paul’s book Resurrecting Religion comes just in the nick of time. Gregwho claims to be neither theologian nor writer, but who does both these things brilliantlyspeaks winsomely, urgently, convincingly about our need to reclaim our religious identity and heritage, while also doing what Jesus and the prophets did: rejecting all bad religion. This is a book for our times if ever there were one.
Greg Paul’s central premise, that true religion is vital for the life and salvation of the world, is backed by an experiential authority that is uncomfortably hard to dismiss. Particularly, reading the book of James through the lens of the Beatitudes is a lesson I’ll not soon forget. This is a timely and important book.
It’s easy to criticize religion. It’s an entirely different thing to offer thought-provoking insights of your own religious practice from the trenches. Deep inside the muck and mire of human existence is where the gospel first gave light and the religious impulse was born anewone that would care for widows and orphans in their distress and spark a living faith in a living God. Greg Paul lights up the dark realities of our post-religious talk with the hope of a religion that matters in real life to real people, right now.
Resurrecting Religion will inspire you to live out the biblical call to justice and Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. In a world that continues to create distance between the rich and poor, Greg’s book teaches us the importance and power of having close relationships with those living on the margins of society.
I highly recommend that you read Resurrecting Religion for these reasons: stories that will move and inspire you; insight that is wise and practical; writing that is vivid and lucid; a guide (Greg) whom you’ll enjoy spending time with and who has lived this story with integrity and by grace; and, finally, because this book will give you a vision for more faithfully loving your neighbors in response to our common prayer that God’s Kingdom will come on earth as in heaven.
In this book, Greg Paul speaks an urgently contemporary word about the church. He knows about the church. He knows its faults: excessive accommodation to culture, privatism that is mostly irrelevant, and intellectual schemes remote from reality. But he also knows better than that. His pages teem with testimony about “the other shoe” of gospel obedience that lives in the real world, that moves in ways of mercy, compassion, and justice, and that heals and transforms. Paul is a story teller; he has rich, concrete, compelling tales about real people living out gospel lives. His book is a treasure house of evidence that there is a way that need not yield to “bad religion.” We will not want to miss out on this rich testimony!