It's Not Really About You

New year – new you?

It’s a brand new year – how are your New Year’s resolutions holding up so far?  My guess is your neighborhood gym is getting a little less crowded each morning, cigarette sales are already beginning to return to their late 2010 levels, and Amazon is busy processing a glut of diet cookbook returns.  Happy New Year indeed!

For a moment, think about the process of making (and breaking) New Year’s resolutions as a religious ritual.  Like many rituals, resolution-making is repeated regularly at the same time every year.  Resolutions make us feel better about ourselves, and – like most rituals – they create a shared experience that is held in common by a group of people.  Resolution-making even contains a degree of confession and repentance (that is, recognizing the need for change and then taking action to bring about that change).

So, if a New Year’s resolution were a ritual, would it be a Christian ritual?  I don’t think so.  Instead, I’d call it a ritual taken from American civil religion.  Most folks who fill the pews in 21st century churches don’t know the difference between the two – do you?

In a nutshell, American civil religion is a mishmash of cultural myths, therapeutic moralism and capitalist grit crammed together into a vaguely Christian framework.  It’s aimed at becoming a “good person”, a “model citizen”, and being “respectable” in the community.  It endorses success, happiness and individual choice, while demonizing failure and forced conformity.  It teaches that hard work and sacrifice are always handsomely rewarded, and that God helps those who help themselves. 

What would have happened if the Church had always confused the American civil religion with the message of Christ’s death and resurrection?  In other words, what if our mothers and fathers in the faith had lived according to their yearly ritual of making (and breaking) resolutions instead of the process of becoming the people God is calling us to be?  Maybe our Bibles would read more like this –

  • In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus appears to his disciples and commands them to go into all the world and be good people, to work hard, and make friends.
  • On the day of Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts, the followers of Jesus are recognized as respected, model citizens when they are baptized with the Holy Spirit. 
  • In the early centuries of the Christian Church, untold numbers of martyrs shed their blood and gave up their lives because they endorsed the status quo and unthinkingly took part in the power plays embedded in everyday culture. 

I pointed out a while back that we’re always being spiritually formed – and it’s really a question of what kind of spiritual formation we’re getting.   This New Year, I challenge you to think critically about the rituals, lifestyles and values that are forming you.

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