Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Making God Groovy

This will be part book review and part confession.

First for the book review, or rather reviews.  Two otherwise good books contain a common flaw:  they try to make God groovy.

The first is pastor D. A. Horton's introduction to theology, DNA: Foundations of the Faith.  It is in many ways an excellent primer, covering a gamut of theological topics without getting too complex or controversial. On primary doctrines (for which there must be accuracy to be Christian) he is solid.  For less important doctrines he explains the various positions and leaves it to the reader to study for himself which is most biblical.

So what is my concern?  It seems that D. A. Horton's main goal was to produce a book in the lingo of the "urban reader", which is to say, in hip hop.  By that, I don't mean simpler English (I would have no problem with that), but the specialized English of a ghetto teenager.

He goes so far as to state (on the second page of chapter 1):
A modern parallel to Koine is the language of ebonics... Ebonics has spread throughout the world thanks to technological advancements and hip-hop culture.  Rap music, the most recognized and vocal element of hip-hop culture, has broken down cultural, socioeconomic, and racial walls worldwide.  As God used the spread of Greek civilization to later advance the gospel, so is He using ebonics and rap to spread the Good News today.

Hip hop is a modern parallel to Koine Greek?  Hardly.  Koine Greek was the lingua franca of Jesus' day; hip hop is a specialized dialect that only a subset of English speakers understand.  God put the New Testament in Koine so that it could be accurately understood by as many people as possible.  People talk in hip hop so as to identify and communicate with a specific clique.  For example:
You know how you can tell when someone is gone off that lean by the way they walk and talk; in the same way, believers who are living Spirit-filled will show evidence.  (Pg. 35, emphasis added)

This kind of writing actually excludes people from understanding. He could have simply said "intoxicated" instead of "gone off that lean" and we all would understand, but he is attempting to win the attention of urban readers by using their code.

If we need a theology in hip hop jargon, perhaps we also need a theology in computer nerd jargon, or in the complex language of philosophers, or in the eloquence of eighteenth century romanticism? Must we use slang to make urban dwellers want to study our God?  Do we need to tell them "God is bangin'" (pg 37)?  Then our God is not very glorious.  No one has to produce hip hop books on Yosemite or the Grand Canyon.

The second unfortunate example of making God groovy is an even better book: The Jesus Bible by Zondervan. Certainly I can't criticize the Book itself (!), or even the main concept behind this particular one (showing how each section of the Bible points to Jesus, in simple language that children can understand).  Each book of the Bible has a helpful introduction, and there are daily devotionals sprinkled throughout its pages.  I can even reluctantly overlook their use of the flawed 2011 NIV revision, since this book is aimed at children who may move on to a more accurate translation as they mature.  The hardback binding is solid and should hold up to years of use.

But if you look at the cover of the book, you can probably figure out for yourself what I find inappropriate.  The font and color scheme would be more appropriate for the Sponge Bob or Curious George than for something about the Creator of the Universe.  Even the Hardy Boys get nicer book covers than this.  The garish fonts and color schemes are continued throughout the book in the devotionals, book intros, etc., but fortunately not in the text of Scripture itself.  Most of the devotionals are sound, but some devotionals trivialize God, such as the one which calls the descent of fire from heaven at the consecration of Solomon's temple "the ultimate high five" for Solomon.

Must the Bible look childish for us to get children to read it?  Then it's not a very powerful book.

But the danger of obscuring God's glory is not limited to 'groovy' packaging.  It can be done just as easily, and just as sinfully, by trying to package God in pomp and eloquence and external grandeur.  We are representing the God who became a man and worked as a carpenter.   The gospel can be subverted by tuxedos as well as skinny jeans.

As Jonathan Leeman writes in his fantastic book, Reverberation:
What happens then when a local church tries to reach its community by saying, "We're smart and hip, too.  So join us"?  It subtly undermines the very message of the justification by faith and the free gift of righteousness because it invests value in hipness to unify people.  Like the laws of Sinai that divided Israel from the nations, so this world divides itself according to laws of fashion, the laws of funny, the laws of intellectual sophistication, and the law of ethnic belonging... When you therefore say to the world, "Hey, don't count us among the uncool, but count us among the cool," you merely play into the hands of the world's systems of law, justification, and separation...  (Pg. 78)
Nor is this danger limited to books.  A few weeks ago I had the chance to spend a couple hours talking about the things of the Lord with a young man.  Afterwards I realized that I had tried to act groovy (probably rather pathetically) while I was with him. I had tried to act witty and smart and spontaneous and fun so that he would like me, and therefore like what I told him about Jesus.  As if Jesus needs help with P.R.

So, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the line between portraying God with grooviness or gloriousness does not run between good books and bad books, but through every human heart.  Including mine.  May God help us to carry the glorious treasure of the gospel "in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves" (2 Cor. 4:7).

Note: I received a free copy of DNA from Moody Publishers and The Jesus Bible from Zondervan, in exchange for writing an unbiased review.

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