If we really feared God, would more of us flee Christianity?
Francis Chan looked relaxed as he sat on a grungy couch backstage at the Roberts Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday. Dressed in ripped jeans, a plaid shirt and white sneakers, Chan threw oral grenades through the door of the modern church.
"Pastors sell people on God," he said. "We talk people into God, and to sell God to them, we have to sell them on the parts of God they'll like. It's like selling vacuum cleaners — you focus on the features people will like. We don't often talk about the parts of God people wouldn't like."
Cornerstone Community Church, a 4,000-member congregation in Simi Valley, Calif. He was in St. Louis to address attendees of the International Christian Retail Show, which brought 7,000 people to the America's Center this week.
"If people were to read the Bible for themselves, rather than listen to pastors who take verses out of context, they would realize there's a reason to fear the Lord," Chan continued. "If God were to speak audibly today, he'd say, 'These people do not fear me,'" he added.
Fearing God is an ancient theme, and often thought to be the exclusive domain of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. But the truth is more complicated, according to biblical scholars.
While it's true that in much of the Hebrew Bible, "when God appears, you're going to be afraid," said Marc Brettler, "it's important to note that fearing God is not the only emotional attitude" of the Israelites. "It's not as simple as the common view that the Old Testament features a God of fear and the New Testament a God of love."
In"Fear God," Chan points to Psalm 111:10: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding." His sermon is inter cut with a scene of a beautiful woman on a bed, in a white room, that's slowly filling up with water. The water eventually overwhelms the woman and her face goes from placid to worried.
Chan says in the film that while some have assumed fearing God in the Bible just meant reverence or awe, "when I read the Bible, it looks like real fear to me. It appears they are terrified."
"The reality is that whoever you are, the moment you see God, you are going to fear him," Chan says. "We all will." ...
"'Fear of God' is a technical term and nothing to do with our concept of fear at all," he [Brettler] said. "It's a general term for religiosity."
So when the author of Proverbs writes "then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God," he is talking about faith leading to wisdom.
"It expresses a whole mindset, which includes fear, but is not predominantly focused on fear," Brettler said.
Much of that nuance is lost on today's believers, said Knight [Douglas Knight, professor of Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University], and yet the fear of God can be understood in the randomness of everyday tragedy.
"People are fearful of a vengeful God, or an arbitrary or unpredictable God that dispenses cancer, hurricanes and droughts," Knight said.
"Am I a God nearby," God asks in Jeremiah, "and not a God far off?"
"This is not a chummy God; it's a God who demands worship, but who holds himself at a distance from us, as well as close," Knight said. "Fear of God means acknowledging and respecting that distance and yet still worshipping God in spite of it."
That recognition of God as the holy other is unlike anything else in human relationships, according to Knight. Part of the fear of God is simply acknowledging the difficulty of encountering a force that is beyond human understanding.
"That's kind of unsettling," Knight said. "Do you hear about that much from the pulpits? Probably not."
And that's Chan's ultimate point. A shiny, happy, welcoming Christianity is much more conducive to the modern interpretation of Christ's commandment at the end of the Gospel of Matthew to make new disciples by "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you."
A church with the hellfire-and-brimstone style of Puritan preachers like Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards is unlikely to be attractive to today's church-shopping masses.
"For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine," Paul wrote, "but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires ..."
Chan, who founded Cornerstone in 1994, announced in April that he would leave his church to pursue a different ministry. Whatever Chan chooses to do, it's likely he'll continue his assault on a modern American Christianity he considers "arrogant."
"We tell them what their itching ears want to hear — that's how pastors get popular," he said back stage at the Orpheum before his film's première. "It's a big church and a lot of people have fallen in love with it. But if we were doing this right, there should be a lot more people who hate us."
Posted in Tim-townsend on Saturday, July 3, 2010 12:00 am Updated: 7:10 pm.