Worship at the Altar of Self

Here’s a repost from 2009. Enjoy! -JB

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself.” -Jesus

As fall stares tired youth pastors in the face, weary from summer trips and fun-in-the-sun adventures, we try to take a deep breath, grab a mini vacation before ramping up for another year of bringing the good news of Jesus and the realities of the Kingdom of God to our students. What keeps me going and fuels my ministry attempts is plain and simple: I really believe truth matters, eternal life is at stake and the world bombards our teens (and all of us) with many messages that lead us in the opposite direction of the “abundant life” found in a right relationship with the true and living Creator God. 

I am preparing to teach out of Paul’s Letter to the Romans this fall.  I will be focusing on some of the similarities between the ancient culture of pagan Rome that Paul is confronting with the message of the gospel and our own 21st century world growing rapidly more pagan and religiously pluralistic.

The gospel confronts all rival truth claims. The gospel unmasks all attempts to create our own religion in our own image. But the gospel is being softened and twisted by the dominant philosophies of the day. Believers and unbelievers alike have been drinking deep from the waters of modernity and postmodernity. We are swimming in their ideals and interpreting the world through their ideas. Like the proverbial fish in the aquarium, we are so immersed in the water that we don’t see it — but rather we see everything else through it.

photo-scot_mcknightScot McKnight had a piece in Our Of Ur blog recently called “Self in a Castle: How Modernity and Postmodernity Have Conspired to Warp the Current Generation.” He describes one deep influence of our current postmodern landscape. He speaks of the toxicity of self-serving (and we might say “self-enslaving”) individualism and the elevation of self as the final authority on personal faith and belief. As you read this lengthy excerpt join with me in asking yourself how we (especially youth pastors) can speak the truth of the gospel in love to students who themselves are the most passionate believers (though often unknowingly) of this new kind of self-made faith in the gods of our own culturally-shaped images.  

Modernity’s singular contribution to the history of ideas is individualism. David Bentley Hart gets this exactly right in his new rant against the flimsy ideas in new atheism when he writes: “We live in an age whose chief value has been determined, by overwhelming consensus, to be the inviolable liberty of personal volition, the right to decide for ourselves what we shall believe, want, need, own, or serve” (Atheist Delusions, 21-22). That is, “it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good.” Personal freedom, which both Kolakowski and Hart understand far more profoundly than most, has become getting to do whatever I want, when I want, and how I want – and government’s job is to make sure it happens now. That’s, of course, an exaggeration, but it’s the exaggeration that is causing our problem in gospel work today. Perhaps the most important words in Hart’s lines above are “by overwhelming consensus.” The consensus is so overwhelming that the emerging generation – each of us – believes we can form our own religion. A religion of our own making, however, never leads to transcendence or worship of God or anything like the ancient Hebrews’ “fear of God.”

So, here we are. Staring at a unique cultural product: humans turned inward to invest sanctity in the Self and who have constructed a postmodern castle wall that informs that, because that Self is so sacred no one can violate your choice – you determine what to believe and what is right and wrong. The Self is protected the Wall of Individual Relative Choice.

The tragedy of the “self in a castle” is that we are blind to it – blind to see it in ourselves every time we choose to think we are the most progressive and wisest of all generations, every time we fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved levels of love that we call tolerance, which is a vapid imitation of what genuine love is, and every time we think our moral struggles rival the profound struggles of an Athanasius or an Augustine, a Luther or a Calvin, a Bonhoeffer or a Martin Luther King, Jr..

The Self is so large because our walls are so high, blinding us from seeing the Morning Light. That Light is the Light of All Light.

How do our ministries come against the worship and service of Self?  How might we unfortunately contribute to this individualistic kind of thinking in our ministries?  How does Jesus’ command to “die to self” speak to this issue?  If you had to speak to teens about this issue this coming week, what main point(s) would you want to drive home?   

One Comment Add yours

  1. mike says:

    i would speak to them about the concept(s) of freedom. individualism in the age of modernity and post-modernity fuels the idea that you ought to be free to do, act, think in any way you choose (with the occasional caveat, “as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else”) and complete freedom is the ultimate prize. freedom is good all the time and you are free to do whatever you choose and along the way, when necessary, we’ll find ways to justify our choices. yet, so often in the pursuit of freedom we become slaves. it’s the oldest trick in the enemy’s book. but Christ offers a way to a different kind of freedom-a freedom from those things that enslave us. ultimately, we are free only to the extent that we choose the master we will freely serve. the world whispers and shouts, “you are free to…” Jesus says, “through Me you can be free from…” even bob dylan got it right, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody”

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