God and gods

One of the most influential books in our culture right now is The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (it is on the freshman literature reading list at EHS). The story is about a boy from India on a spiritual journey who becomes a Hindu-Muslim-Christian. My son Andy was enthralled by the story of this young man’s search for spirituality and faith. As Pi goes about on his journey, he experiences the “truths” of different world religions, and embraces them all on different levels. Pi has a conversion to Christianity, that resembles the experience of many, responding to an altar call in a church service. The thing is that he does this, while continuing to embrace other faith views.

The reason this book is significant, is because it is a reflection of the spirituality of our culture. A few years ago, the challenge that confronted the church in its evangelism was convincing a non-believing world that the Gospel was true, and that Jesus was God in the flesh. While this still remains a factor in some circles, most people have no problem with Jesus and the idea of God, but they see Him as one of many expressions of the divine that are experienced in every world religion. In other words, Jesus is your god, Buddha might be that person’s god, and Allah the other’s. But this is taken one step further, as many embrace several approaches, or even all of them. The salad bar approach to spirituality is actually in vogue, with many people coming to the bar adding a bit of this spiritual idea, and a tad of that spiritual practice, coming up with their own mix. A recent book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist (what an incredible title) demonstrates a culture that is so comfortable with spiritual incongruities. Never mind the fact that the God of Judaism (monotheism) has nothing in common with the somewhat athiestic and pantheistic approach to spirituality in Buddhism. The book is one person’s story of incorporating multiple faith beliefs in her spiritual mix.

If you have been hanging out at Genesis (or listening to the Jonah series online), you heard us discuss the religious view of the sailors in Jonah 1. The spirituality of these men and that of our culture is fairly similar. Each man on the ship had his own list of deities that fit his background and life purpose. He developed his list of gods from his heritage, family background, career path, and nationality. Each man had his list, and when the storm arrived, each diligently cried out to his list of gods, rubbing the belly of whatever idols or images they could find. It is this background of the frantic prayers of these sailors to their pantheon of gods that Jonah awakens. Eventually he comes and shares about the one true God who created all that exists, is sovereign over it, and enters into loving relationships with people. Jonah never intended to discuss his faith with these men, but the events of the story left him no other option.

As a church seeking to live God’s mission, one of the great challenges we will face in the coming years is our efforts to communicate the Gospel of Jesus to a pluralistic, salad bar spirituality culture. I believe that if you spend time talking to neighbors, finding their belief systems, you will find people who pray often, but they are not sure who they pray to or why. They will have a mix of spirituality that has been pieced together from new age religious ideas, Catholicism or some other Christian heritage, Oprah, their horoscope, and the latest in spiritual guidance from some magazine. They may be willing to speak to you, and even express a belief in God and an acceptance of Jesus.

Herein lies the danger. For many, we no longer need to communicate that the message of Jesus is “true”. Rather, the challenge is communicating that Jesus is exclusive. When a person comes to faith in Jesus, he or she is embracing the true God at the rejection of other views of god and other approaches to spirituality. I am fearful, that if we are not clear, people seeking to become followers of Jesus are actually adding Him to their salad. They accept the idea of Jesus as one of the many “truths” they embrace, much like Pi. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the truth,” meaning the one and only. A person cannot truly become a follower of Jesus with a salad bowl of spiritual truths and practices.

On the deck of a ship in the Mediterranean a group of sailors came to know and believe the one true God, made sacrifices and vows to Him. They went from having a list, to becoming those who feared the Creator. God even used the running of Jonah and the incredible storm to pursue these men. God is pursuing your neighbors as well. I’ll close this blog with a few thoughts about the process of sharing faith in this culture.

1. Be patient — for many, the process of becoming a follower of Jesus will be more of a journey than an event. It may take months, or even years of discussion for a person to come to the point that they trust Christ alone. They may feel that trusting in Jesus is intolerant, or struggle with how it denies their family heritage.

2. Use story — How is your faith story a small part of the greater story of God? This culture is drawn to faith stories. Share your own, and use stories in the Bible, when the opportunity arises. We tend to see the Bible as a book of propositional truths, but at the heart, the Bible is a story.

3. Be careful about condemning the salad bar spirituality — Jonah never said anything about their gods. In Acts 17 on Mars Hill, Paul even used pluralistic spirituality as a way to point people to the one true God. He explained that their many gods was actually the heart yearning to know the real God.

4. Pray with people – On the ship, the sailors prayed to the LORD just before pitching Jonah overboard. I am not sure if Jonah joined in the prayer or taught them how to pray, but somehow they understood that they needed to pray to God alone to seek forgiveness. Do not miss opportunities to pray with people. Friends might encourage you to pray for them if they are hurting, struggling, or in a difficult situation. You should pray for them, but try praying with them. Ask if you can pray, and pray to God, in Jesus name.

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