This is the last chapter in the book, and it addresses a question I’ve been wondering about since we had the discussion of cultural hero systems and principalities and powers. Way back in that discussion, Beck pointed out that the principalities and powers can manifest in any mortal system.
This includes systems like churches and faith movements.
That’s a pretty big problem since the whole point of this book is largely to discuss how, as Christians, we’re supposed to be renouncing principalities and powers so that we can better follow the example of Jesus. How do we do that when there’s a very real possibility that our own faith is co-opted by demonic influences? Rejecting cultural hero systems is a difficult prospect when you realize that your system of beliefs is itself a cultural hero system.
I mean, take a moment and consider the depth of this problem. Say you’re a regular church-goer (full disclosure: I’m not and I don’t think anyone has to be in order to be a Christian), and you devote your spare time to volunteering there. You help out with the youth program, or you run a Bible study, or you help organize your church’s local service projects, or anything else that your church might do as part of its community building. These all look like worthy pursuits, but what if they’re not? What if they’re pulling time and resources from other projects that serve a more needy population? What if they’re just draining you and the other volunteers more than you’re able and willing to give (remember, self-expenditure is about volunteering, not being voluntold)? What if all the stuff that’s supposed to be about service is really just about maintaining appearances with your in-group so that you can prop each other up and remind yourselves how great you are?
It all sounds neurotic to go on about these various things, but they all happen in various churches, and we have to seriously consider if we’re doing something demonic as we congregate. The big problem is figuring out what the metric should be to decide if we have something good on our hands.
Beck suggests an idea that’s pretty simple, but also really hard to work with. Here’s the gist:
Idolatry, then, is the slavery of God where “God” and “the church” become another manifestation of our slavery to death, another form of “the devil’s work” in our lives.
The deep and hard insight here is that, if God has been enslaved, then God must stand over and against our current conceptions of “God,” over and against the idols we believe to be “God.” In worship God must be free to stand over “God,” the fear-based idols we have created to validate our cultural way of life, the blue ribbons of our self-esteem projects, and our stigmatization of out-group members. This is a worship so profound, a worship so deep and destabilizing, that it can stand in judgment of our worship. This is the capacity for a worship that can admit that God despises our worship. A worship in which God is free to speak, as did the prophets, an indictment against our worship and religion: “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies” (Amos 5:21 NIV). [italics original]
Like I said, this is tough stuff to wrap your head around. I want to call it an indictment of attitudes within the Church that try to maintain a barrier between congregants and everyone else, but it’s not that simple. There’s something here about being ready to admit that your efforts, no matter how well intentioned, may be missing the mark. Beck doesn’t say this explicitly, but I think there’s room here for a bit of doxological doubt, where we always approach our acts of worship with some humility that we might be going about this all wrong. There’s a larger point about hearing the voice of God in the despised and the demonized that makes clear we’re not talking about any kind of battle over the moral high ground. Christians who have oriented themselves more towards service to the poor still have to be wary of treating people they disagree with as pariahs.
The last image Beck leaves us with is of Christians hearing God in the voices of both people in need and people in opposition to them. We’re to remember first and foremost that the radical notion of God that begins with the story of Exodus is that God is never in favor of worldly power structures. That way lies death, and it’s always a mistake to assume that the current power structure aligns with God’s interests. I think that’s an important thing to remember in the current global climate (especially in America, where we’ve become too lax in allowing a particular form of political ideology become synonymous with Christianity), but it’s also important to remember into the future, where systems will change and things may improve for needy groups that exist now, but others in need will likely appear who still get a raw deal by whatever hypothetical power structure is in place.