Sunday, May 20, 2007

Good Article for your Sunday afternoon....or whenever

The Jesus Memeby Leonard Sweet
Christians are not a perfect people. The church isn’t a perfect institution. But we worship a perfect Savior.
What, then, is our problem?
Why has tactlessness and tackiness become the Christian mark? Why has the Christian faith become so graceless, artless, joyless?
At a party, my dinner companion asked me why Christians are the ones who like to hover around the Tree of Knowledge, baiting the serpent and battling each other, instead of playing in the garden?
Why are so many people Christians today only because they found Jesus before they found other Christians?
I believe we’ve lost a down-to-earth spirituality. Over a 2,000-year period, we’ve jerked and tugged the Christian faith out of its original soil. Henry David Thoreau warned that words—when derived properly—come with the earth still clinging to their roots. But the earth has been shaken and scrubbed off the roots of our faith to the point where much of our fruit has become juiceless—as dry and sour as an old lemon.
The church may clutch Jesus to its side, but it no longer clutches Jesus to its inside. The church has embalmed Jesus in rules, codes, canonicities, and traditions that have everything to do with the church saving itself, and nothing to do with Jesus saving the world. As a friend put it, "If God so loved the world, why can’t the church?"
That’s why I’m weaning myself from talking about the church. I don’t even like to talk about Christianity. I now talk about the Jesus Meme.
What is a "meme"? It is to the social world what a gene is to the biological world. (It rhymes with "gene" as well.) It’s a design code that shapes and supports the fabric that a social organism weaves around itself—and a meme’s impact on an organism is either catalytic or cataclysmic.
With that in mind, I’m more and more convinced that some recombinant engineering needs to be done on Christianity’s memetic code to return it to its original form—the Jesus Meme.
Where have we departed from the Jesus Meme?
Christianity today is largely object based and church focused while the Jesus Meme is relation based and world focused. We aren’t being what we were created to be.
We don’t need more time off to meditate and medicate, to conference, to "re-imagine." That’s like a doctor prescribing a summer on the French Riviera for a bankrupt banker. We need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit that created the church in the first place. We need to replant the faith in the rich, biblical soil from which it’s been wrenched.
To that end, I’m now studying and lecturing on the three most definitive father-son stories in the Bible: Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament, the Prodigal Son in the New Testament, and the God-the-Father, God-the-Son story throughout Scripture.
All three stories answer the same questions: Why did God create us? What does God want from us? What is the essence of "faith"?
The summary of the Hebrew answer: "To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8); the summary of the Jesus answer: "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16).
The consistency between the Old and New Testaments is startling:
Faith is fundamentally a set of relationships—with God, with neighbor, with world, with creation. Faith in God—as well as being an encounter with the divine—is a relationship involving all of you and all that is around you.
Relationship is the essence of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, "God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity." The Trinity doesn’t deal with time, space, or matter—it deals with relationships.
Why did God create us? For relationships. God is a God of relationships. Reality can be experienced only through relationships. Hence the Hebrew concept of covenant. Hence the Jesus concept of salvation.
This is one of the things that distinguishes the Judeo-Christian tradition from other religions: God calls us into a relationship—it’s more than a wisdom tradition or a moral system or a path leading to higher and higher states of existence.
The essence of the Christian faith is as simple and complex as what physicists call a "super-string": God loves you and desires a relationship with you through Jesus, God’s only begotten Son. What’s true in physics is even more true in theology: The importance lies not in the things themselves, but in the relationships between things. Biblical thinking is less about principles and places than about patterns and relationships. Principles and places play supporting roles as nouns (e.g., "God is love.") But the main story is about patterns and relationships as verbs ("God so loved..."; "God loves you.")
What makes us human? What makes humans created "in the image of God?" In Imaging Christ: Politics, Art, Spirituality (The Villanova University Press, 1991), theologian Joseph Sittler bases his conclusion that the imago Dei "specifies a relation." Because for humans "there is no ontology of isolated entities, of instances, of forms, of processes, whether we are reflecting about God or man or society or the cosmos. The only adequate ontological structure we may utilize for thinking things Christianly is an ontology of community, communion, ecology—and all three words point conceptually to thought of a common kind. ’Being itself’ may be a relation, not an entitative thing."
COG agrees with Sittler. And what is COG? It’s the name of the first robot that emerged from Embodied AI (Artificial Intelligence). Embodied AI differs from Pure AI in that the former says that giving a machine intelligence means giving it a body that can enter into relationships. Ann Foerst—the theological advisor of the COG project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the director of its God and Computers Project—argues that "our humanity does not come from our brains or our body but from our complex interactions with the community. We are human because we must deal with other humans and the rest of creation" (Forbes ASAP, October 4, 1999).
So, the Jesus Meme is more than packets of theological information filled with objective rules or objectified rituals. The Jesus Meme is a life-or-death relationship with God through faith practices, stories, songs, beliefs, walks, ongoing traditions, upcoming technologies, and the connectedness of a social brain to the very Spirit of Christ. (The rediscovery of a relation-based spirituality is crucial to ministry with postmoderns—George Barna isn’t the only one arguing that to evangelize today’s teens we need to start by building relationships!
Which is why faith is about more than beliefs to be learned, it’s about bonds to be lived. Faith is more than holding the "right" beliefs, it’s holding the "right" (i.e., "the least of these") hands. As Christians, we’re judged not on the basis of how "right" we’ve gotten our beliefs but how well we’ve loved. The purpose of Christianity is to help people come to faith—in other words, to establish relationships with God.
And faith is accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow him.
Christian revelation is not a subjective experience. But Christian revelation is a person named Jesus who calls us into a graced relationship through faith. Each person receives a call from God through Christ. And what is the nature of that call?
Follow me.
The power of these two words will never be nuclear until they are no longer unclear. Jesus did not say "follow this teaching" or "follow this idea" or "follow this commandment" or "follow this ritual life" but "follow me" (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27; Matthew 9:9).
Follow me.
As Jesus elaborates on what "follow me" means, he reveals that it consists less in knowing this or believing that than losing oneself, denying oneself, bearing one’s cross, embracing the other, and following after him. Faith in Jesus isn’t intellectual assent to a set of beliefs but a relationship lived.
What is evangelism then? It’s inviting others into a relationship with God so that the Holy Spirit can make Christ come alive and live in them, so they can live in God’s fullness and providence. Evangelism isn’t leading people to information about Jesus or to right beliefs about Jesus—it’s leading people to relationships with Jesus.
The Jesus Meme is not a possession you wield, but a life you yield.
Follow me.
Leonard Sweet is the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at the Drew University School of Theology in Madison, New Jersey, and author of Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in the New Millennium Culture (Zondervan), AquaChurch: Essential Leadership Arts for Piloting Your Church in Today's Fluid Culture (Group), and A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Cafe (Broadman & Holman).

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