Epic: A Third Reading
I’ve just finished reading Epic a third time. I wanted to make absolutely certain that I am not missing anything in Eldridge’s presentation. Since he claims on page 100 that he is giving the “story of Christianity”, he is elevating his book to a very lofty status. I still like the book, as far as it goes. But I still hold that it does not go far enough and that it misses something vital at the core of the gospel of Jesus.
My thoughts along these lines are so new to me that I am struggling how to understand them, let alone express them. They have come not only from reading post-modern Christian writers but also from the current study of Isaiah and multiple readings of the gospels themselves. I have asked myself over and over if maybe I am not just a grumpy old man who likes to split hairs and stir things up. But I keep believing that I am finding something significant that is worth the effort to keep pursuing in spite of how I might be perceived. As I write this, I am trying to consider every word and be as concise as possible, with no extraneous issues thrown in.
Prior to reading Epic I read a book by the president of World Vision, Richard Sterns, titled The Hole in Our Gospel. It was a very distressing book about poverty on a massive scale, but the worse part about it was his charge that the churches in the United States are mostly indifferent to it all. Citing the Old Testament prophets and Jesus, Sterns explains how God’s salvation has always included the rescue of the poor from their poverty, relieving the oppressed, and such acts of kindness to all people. This salvation is not just personal but covers all society, even nature. His indictment is that the Christians have made salvation only a personal, spiritual matter – to the neglect of the poor and disregard of God’s message and vision for his world. This is the hole in our gospel.
The Epic exhibits exactly this hole. Chapter 3, called The Battle for the Heart, describes God’s rescue plan to win back his fallen world. But it makes no mention of the billion people on the planet living in crushing poverty. According to Eldridge, God’s rescue plan is for sinners to repent. Certainly, this is part of God’s plan, but it falls far short of God’s desire to lift up the downtrodden and release the captives.
Chapter 4, The Kingdom Restored, is where God’s will is finally done – in the afterlife. While all this is true, it neglects to account for the Lord’s Prayer – “…thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”. According to Eldridge, God’s plan for rescuing the world is not in this life, but the next. If this is the case, then why should we do much about poverty, disease, illiteracy, oppression, and wars? God will fix it up later. But this isn’t the gospel of Jesus who said that the kingdom of God is here and now and invited his followers to join him in it. They started a new way of life that changed the world. The gospel of the Epic is consistent with the last one to two hundred years of Western Christianity that has not only not changed the world much, but even blesses the social, economic and political systems that have lead us to the present crises of global poverty and despair. The story of the Epic of John Eldridge is limited to the story of personal salvation and misses God’s larger vision for his lost and fallen world.
The question is whether the issues I’m raising are peripheral or optional, or foundational to the gospel of Jesus. So what does Jesus say? Jesus starts his work in Luke 4:16-21 quoting a passage from Isaiah about rescuing the poor and delivering the oppressed. Again in Luke when Jesus responds to John the Baptist’s inquiry as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah, what did Jesus say? Luke 7:18-23. Jesus’ reply is along the same lines – reaching out to the poor, the lame and the forgotten. From Jesus himself I take it that this is what he is all about. And I cannot help but conclude that this is the heart of Christianity. All else that Christians do should be centered around this – reaching out to the poor, the outcasts, the powerless, those without privilege or power, the weak, the lame, the forgotten. Isaiah is clear that God is more interested in justice and righteousness in society than in our worship.
What kind of a “gospel” is it that does not focus on rescuing the poor and the larger issues of justice for all people? I call it the gospel of personal salvation. This “gospel” nicely separates spiritual matters from the more mundane issues of politics and economics and allows individuals to “get saved” without changing or saving society in which they live. This all seems very religious and talks much about Jesus but misses the heart of Jesus.
At the close of our last breakfast study I tried to explain why I thought the chapter in the Epic book on the rescue was inadequate and misses something important in God’s rescue and Jesus’ message. Please, don’t think I don’t like the book. It is an excellent way to think of God’s story and how our own story fits in. But since I will not be able to attend the presentation of the final chapter on the restoration, and since I always seem to have trouble speaking my thoughts out, I decided to try to write them out. So here are some lengthy thoughts and I pray for your patience and prayerful consideration.
For over 30 years I have been puzzled about what seems to me the lack of influence of Christianity on our society.
1. My puzzlement started after reading early church history and how the first Christians against all odds overcame the cruel and mighty Roman Empire not by fighting back or political influence but by serving and loving and suffering – much suffering.
2. Over the years sociological surveys consistently find not only a diminishing level of religious affiliation in society but also find no difference in divorce rates and other social ills among the Christians in the USA and those claiming no religion. This has added to my puzzlement since I have always believed that following Jesus ought to make a real difference in how we live our lives. This gave me a growing sense that we Christians must be missing something that the first Christians had in the message and spirit of Jesus, but what could it be?
3. I retired and came to LV and found my church embroiled in the ugliest contention I’ve ever seen. This certainly sealed any question in my mind that we Christians are missing something indeed. But what is it?
Thinking about this over the years, it seems to me that there are 3 possible reasons for the weakness of Christianity in our modern world:
1. The world today is much more wicked than it was for those early Christians.
2. The ancient message of Jesus actually doesn’t relate much to this modern world.
3. The modern Christians are missing something in the message and spirit of Jesus.
I finally came to conclude it must be #3.
I started the Christian journey as a teenager and was befriended by an old pentecostal guy. These were the ones who spoke in tongues. And they were telling me that to get all that God had to offer I had to speak in tongues. But at the same time I was reading my Bible and read I Corinthians where Paul talks about tongues and it didn’t read like that to me. It seemed pretty plain that they had it wrong. So I slowly and quietly walked away from them. (And no, I’ve never spoken in tongues.) I mention this to underscore how we Christians go about figuring out what to believe and how to live. At all times we go to the Book; the Bible. I suggest to everyone that whatever you hear it needs to be checked out with the Bible. And not with just one verse, but in the spirit of the whole Bible.
In my retirement I’m enjoying reading. And I’m finding that others have been wondering about the same things as I have been. And they have some answers. One author said that Jesus didn’t go around getting people saved in the way we think of it today. When I read that it was a shock. But the only thing to do was turn to the Bible and read it for myself. I read the gospels of Jesus multiple times with this in mind: what is Jesus actually doing? What I read shocked me. Jesus says very little about getting saved so we can go to heaven after we die. What I read in the gospels is Jesus going around rescuing all kinds of people from all kinds of things. This fits right into the Epic book on rescue. I challenge you to do the same. Read the gospels yourself. Jesus talks a lot about the “kingdom of God”. It is assumed by some that “kingdom of God” refers to heaven. But when you read the gospels, you figure it out. Is Jesus talking mostly about getting to heaven? Or more about how to live now?
In addition to reading the gospels of Jesus, I’m studying Isaiah on Wednesday morning. It is clear in Isaiah that God is keenly interested in rescuing society in general, not just all people as individuals but governments and business and courts and all society. All aspects of society come under God’s judgment. The repeated theme through Isaiah is a call for justice to all people, care for the poor and powerless, a righteous society where every person is treated fairly and no one dominates over another or takes advantage of another. I think it is highly significant that Jesus begins his ministry by quoting from Isaiah and proclaiming that God’s time has come – NOW. It was those followers who believed him and followed his example who were the ones who changed the world.
So the problem with the rescue chapter in the Epic book is this: the author has limited God’s salvation and rescue of his fallen world to a matter of personal salvation. And this accounts for much of why the church has such little influence on society. It’s because this version of Christianity says very little about society! The church’s focus is on getting people into heaven after they die. And getting “saved” means being saved from hell. Please don’t get me wrong and think that I’m saying being saved is not important. But what does it mean to “get saved”. From what are we being saved? Just from hell after we die? Or is there more? Do we also need to get saved from selfishness? Greed? Blindness? Aimless living? Do we need to get saved from adopting the world’s values without question? Do we need to get saved from caring little about the poor since their condition is not our problem? Do we need to get saved from living by the profit motive? Of course these are all personal matters. But can we sin as a nation? Does God not judge the nations, including ours? What would Jesus have to say about our nation? How about our military budget? How can we say “In God We Trust” when our nation has the largest military and more weapons than any other nation? How about the poor and powerless in our society? Is it possible for a person to “get saved” and yet not care much about the poor? How about the billion or so people on the planet who live in crushing poverty to the point of death? Is Jesus’ message to them to “get saved”, or is Jesus’ message to us to get going to rescue them in God’s name at all costs and in all ways?! If the Christians can rest comfortably and smugly about being saved while such gross injustice is going on in the world, then I say there is something grossly missing and wrong in our message! I can’t make this point strongly enough!!! Jesus’ message is about God’s rescue of his world, not just getting our souls into heaven after we die. God’s salvation includes society, all peoples and nations.
This brings me to the last chapter of the Epic book. The restoration. This has a serious flaw as well. According to Eldridge, God’s restoration is completely in the afterlife. Yet Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Bible has lots of promises about the afterlife, and I’m not saying that these are unimportant. But here is another place where Christianity loses it’s influence in the world. It’s because instead of joining with God as his agents to save his lost and fallen world, we become more like judges of the world while we await our escape to heaven. We have been lead to believe that our getting saved is also focused on getting to heaven in the afterlife. I see it more like switching sides – from Satan’s to Gods. We in the church would certainly say that we are on God’s side, but how so? What would God be doing in the world? To know what God would be doing in the world, just look at the life of Jesus. What was he doing? Jesus went around healing the sick, feeding the hungry, releasing those held captive by disease (physical and spiritual), giving sight to the blind (physical and spiritual), welcoming sinners into the kingdom, going outside the systems of his day to invite those left out by society to come close to God. This is the restoration of God’s world. In the here and now. Will it all get done before the end of the age? Probably not. So should we give up and let the devil have the world? Absolutely not. This world belongs to God and God’s desire and passion for his world is great. Certainly God’s final restoration will come at the end of the age. But read carefully how it comes. Not by us going UP to heaven, but St. John saw a new heaven and a new earth coming DOWN from heaven and a time when God dwells with his people. It is heaven on earth! This is the message of Jesus that should propel us out to be God’s agents of love and service who willingly suffer with those who suffer.
How has the church missed this for the last couple hundred years? That’s the next puzzle. But I have some clues. Perhaps our nation has blinded us to God’s desire to save society. Our nation came about by the exploitation of the native people who were already living on the continent. It continued by the exploitation of slaves – which was legitimized from many pulpits with many Bible verses. Even a hundred years after the abolition of slavery it took a national non-violent resistance for the rest of the nation to begin to treat blacks with full human rights and dignity. (Which, by the way, my local church was against.) When the industrial revolution came along, greed went into high gear such that the profit motive became supreme and legitimized exploitation of workers and all actions against the environment. Our nation today runs on capitalism and consumerism speeding to outrageous excess. Though we call ourselves a Christian nation, we have not done well at all in the matters of social justice for all people and righteousness. I believe that if we could really see ourselves as God sees us as a nation, we would have plenty more repenting to do. The message of the poor does not play well in our affluent society. It’s safer to talk about heaven and other “spiritual” things. Thinking about the poor makes us feel guilty, so we don’t want to go there. We have many reasons to avoid the message of God to share with the world.
In the study of Isaiah, it is clear that God judges the nations. The prophet did not spare his own nation from God’s judgments. Yet I sense a great resistance among Christians on this matter when it comes to our own nation. We are supposed to be good citizens and pledge allegiance to our country. But does that mean we have to wholeheartly, without question accept the excesses of capitalism and the profit motive? What about our military budget? What would Jesus have to say about a huge military? Clearly, Isaiah gets into politics. The safest thing for the Christians is to focus on individual salvation and leave politics to the politicians. But then is there any wonder why Christians have such little influence on society? Doesn’t the message of Jesus have anything to say about how a country should be run?
If you think I’m getting carried away with all this, then I suggest you study Isaiah and his vision. In our group we are only beginning to grasp Isaiah’s vision, but one thing is sure – it is no small vision. It’s BIG. It includes all of society, all the nations and people of the world, and the earth itself, and it is born out of the holiness of God who demands justice for all His children and righteous living. Isaiah’s holy God is not fooled by lip service if a people are not doing justice and living righteous. I’ve wondered how Isaiah was accepted by his society. He proclaimed doom to his own nation and its leaders. His message was not well received, just like God told him. And he was probably not regarded as a good, loyal citizen. Neither were the first followers of Jesus regarded as good citizens because they would not say, along with the masses, “Caesar is lord”, because they knew that “Jesus is Lord”. And they were right, but oh how they suffered for it! And if you don’t sense anything wrong with the way things are right now, in your life and in our country and the world, then I guess all this must seem kind of crazy to you.
Finally, the church’s focus on individual salvation and how a person believes instead of working for justice and righteousness in society leads the Christians to debating among ourselves about who is saved and who is not and which beliefs are more important than others and so on. The world cares nothing about any of this. Instead, when the Christians focus on the great needs of the world there is much to work together on. This would bring about unity of purpose that would earn the attention and respect of the world. Think of Mother Teressa. Yet she was a Catholic and some of us don’t even like Catholics. See what I mean about being fragmented? This makes us weak
I read the Epic like a person who sees a movie after reading the book that inspired the movie. There is always more to the book that the movie leaves out. I’ve read the Book that the Epic is trying to make into a story like a movie. And I’m convinced Eldridge is leaving something out – something vitally important.
There is so much more I’d like to say. About how we talk about salvation more like a legal settlement with an angry judge than accepting an offer of undeserving grace and love. About eschatology gone crazy. And other things. But I will spare you.
I have written elsewhere at length a lot of thoughts about what it means to be a Christian. It’s on my web page at “Are You A Christian?” I suggest here that there is a conventional “wisdom” about Christianity that seems very religious but is not very close to the message and spirit of Jesus. It has a long table comparing this conventional “wisdom” with the message and spirit of Jesus contained in the gospels.
Also in my web page are more thoughts on the on-going Isaiah study on the holiness of God and Isaiah’s vision.
Both of these are works in progress and are being influenced as I go along in the men’s breakfast group and the Isaiah study. I would welcome whoever would like to enter into conversation with me on these and other topics.
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Much of what the church does say about society is off base. We think we are in a morally superior position to make ourselves the judge the rest of society, but even in this our focus is on the sins we don’t like, things like homosexuality, and whatever other sins we think we are not committing. From our supposedly moral superior position we can see very clearly the speck in others’ eyes while Jesus warns us of the log in our own eye.
I see our modern society moving further and further away from God in a country that claims to be Christian. I see our churches divided into competing religious camps. Lots of TV and radio preachers throw stones at the others who don’t interpret their favorite Bible verse the same as they do. I see my own church broken by anger.
All this in a time when secular society is acknowledging a spiritual life
I guess if you are reading this and don’t see any problem or sense something missing, then maybe this will mean little to you.
When I refer to lack of influence on society, I have to point out that there is not even agreement among Christians about what that influence should be. Many would say it relates to low morals in society, meaning mostly sexual. They would be for banning homosexuality, putting prayer back in school, displaying the ten commandments in public building, banning the teaching of evolution in schools, and in general forcing this kind of right-wing agenda on the rest of society. But the influence I’m talking about has more to do with social injustices, oppression, social and economic systems that lead to growing poverty, national security based on the force of power and such matters of society.
Am I just splitting hairs or being critical?
Focusing on individual salvation and a belief system has taken our focus off of the larger mission of God to reach ALL of his fallen world. For proof of this I offer the rescue chapter in the Epic book where Eldridge speaks eloquently about God’s rescue of his world yet makes no mention of God’s burning desire to alleviate the suffering of the billion or so desperately poor on our planet. All he mentions is individuals getting saved. Of course, people getting saved is important. But what about society? What about the war machines of society? What about the obscene economic disparity between the rich countries and the poor? What about the 16,000 children who die every day from starvation and easily treated diseases? God is weeping over our planet! Our world is in a mess and it’s getting worse.
But the message of the church has been to get people saved so they won’t go to that nasty place after death and in heaven will be our final restoration. This is the Epic story. But the restoration according to Jesus has already begun. It occurs not when we escape this world into the heavenly realms, but when we get saved from greed, fear, indifference, living aimlessly, selfishness and pettiness. And in our country, our sins are many: excessive consumption, environmental pollution, military excess,
So here is how my puzzle is coming together. It’s actually simple. The Christians are having such little influence on society because we have missed the part of Jesus’ message that propells us out into society to redeem it. We focus on saving souls but don’t feel any urgency to feed the hungry, help the homeless, stand up for the powerless…
The focus of the Christians over the years has been on getting our beliefs right. Beliefs are important, for sure, but to focus mainly on them leads us to argue with each other about things the rest of the world cares nothing about. No wonder Christianity is so easily dismissed as ill-relevant. Instead, if all the while we were caring for the poor and needy around the world, if we were suffering with those who suffer, that would earn the respect of even the non-believers. If we felt an urgency to be part of God’s mission to save society, then the vast, overwhelming needs of the world would bring God’s people together to do God’s work and our different beliefs would take a back seat to focus on serving and loving and suffering.
The last chapter of Epic tells the story of God’s restoration. But do you see what he is saying? He has thrown all of God’s restoration into the afterlife. I beleive this is wrong. Jesus proclaimed that God’s kingdom is here and now. And he taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven”. We pray this every Sunday, but what does this mean? I think we have given up on this prayer. We have given the world to the devil and wait for our escape to heaven. [ If there is a battle going on in the heavenly realms ] Is it no wonder then that Christianity has such little influence in the world. We are all waiting to leave it!
we have made ourselves society’s judge. but mostly against the sins we don’t like
I’ve had these thoughts churning in my head and heart for the last couple of years. They won’t go away. I think I’m on to something here. I still searching and praying and reading and thinking.
I could say a lot more in this message, but then I’d get to rambling again.