I suppose if I thought about it long enough I could come up with another dozen or so defining items about "Old Time Religion". But it would become extraneous at some point. I think I covered the items I wanted to cover. Except one. It's been a few days since I wrote and it's given me time to contemplate. And in my contemplation I came up with one more item. You'd think this one would be a given, and an assumed part of even the most contemporary Faith gatherings today, but it's not...and that's the real problem.
When I was a boy, growing up in church, (for the record, I'm 49...I was a boy growing up in church in the 70's and early 80's) Jesus was the central figure. Jesus was the Son of God. The Savior. The Sacrifice, The Beloved Son. The Returning King. I started attending that church in 1973. I was almost 10 years old. I will tell you without blinking that during the roughly 15 years I attended that church--and the Christian School they operated--I learned real, honest to goodness Theology.
I learned that Jesus was God Incarnate. Very God of Very God. I couldn't fully explain it then, and I can only explain it a little better now, after graduating with a Bachelors in Religion. But I knew He was totally God and totally man. He was Holy. He was deity.
I learned that Jesus was the only way to Heaven. The only means of salvation. The only path to a relationship with God. There were not a lot of other paths. Jesus was not an inclusivist. Nor was I. Nor am I now.
I learned that there was a literal hell. Some of the descriptives were symbolic or metaphoric, but Hell is real and what makes it terrifying is not the torture described in the Bible. It's not the pain or the fire (which some claim does not exist...and I understand their claims) What makes Hell so terrifying and awful and frightening is that it is the one place in the universe from which God has totally withdrawn Himself, His Grace, His Mercy and His influence on the actions of men and the spirit world. If we think our society has been declining in recent years, and if we (rightly) make the correlation between the absence of a recognition of God in our society to that decline...imagine a world where nothing holds back the evil hearts of men. Imagine a place where God's Grace, Holiness, Mercy, Image, and Presence are totally withdrawn, and the evil in the heart of man is unbridled. That...is Hell.
I learned that Jesus loved us so much that He died a horrible, painful, unimaginable death. He did this willingly, and purposefully. It wasn't a tragic ending that caught Him by surprise. He wasn't a great teacher who got caught in the crossfire of the Jewish Religious Establishment and the Roman Empire.
I learned that Jesus made the claim about Himself, "I am THE way THE truth and THE life. NO MAN comes to the Father unless they come through me!" (John 14:6) I learned that God the Father established this truth and verified it and holds this true. He has not changed His mind. He has not remodeled the path and made it wider.
I learned that Jesus was the "Soon Coming King". His return is imminent and He is not coming as a Lamb this time. He is coming as a conqueror. He is coming to do terrible business with those who reject Him and stand against Him.
More than anything...I learned that Jesus was the only means of change, of redemption, of renewal, of rest and rejuvenation. Not social platforms, not "engagement" (a term that makes me throw up in my mouth a little) not out-of-sequence discipleship where you skip over the head-on-collision moment with Jesus and get right into the training part and hope that somehow the soul catches on to what is missing. He supersedes "equipping" people who barely know Him. He is far more glorious and majestic than the weak worded worship songs that speak of Him like He is a teen heartthrob.
Jesus was and is God in human skin. And He was not to be trifled with. He was gentle to those who needed gentleness...because they were already broken. But He was tough as nails and unbending in the truth of who He was. He never watered down the message. He never told the sinners, "It's okay...just try harder next time". He gently told them "Stop trying! You can't do this...you need me!" At this news the broken soul fell down before him and declared themselves unworthy. There was a sorrowful, repentant moment where they bowed their hearts for certain and their knees quite often. They had what has become my favorite term...a head-on-collision with the Christ of God. They did not come slowly to a crossroads so much as they smashed into a cross. They climbed from the wreckage realizing that they could not take one more step without making a lifetime, permanent decision to accept or reject this man. This bloodied, beaten, carved-like-a-side-of-beef man who claimed to be God. They had no options for negotiation. They could not hold up Buddha or Mohammad, or Vishnu, or Confucius or Freud, or Kant, or Bill Nye the Science guy an equal to this man they stood face to face with, or a way to refute His claims. It was Jesus or NO ONE.
That is the basis of the theology I was raised with. Yes...a lot of ancillary, unnecessary, personal preferences were included and they morphed from conviction to doctrine. But they never changed the essence. They never wavered from the belief that "Jesus is the Answer, for the world today, above Him there's no other. For Jesus is The Way"
Today's Gospel has moved far afield from that belief. On the far side of the spectrum lie (pun intended) the Emergents and their nonsense, Non-Theology. Preaching a barely necessary Jesus to an already-good-enough crowd. Church is a social gathering and a place to remember liturgy or listen to Tom Petty suddenly sanctified as Sacred Music, because it makes something twinge in our hearts. So does a Monet, but we don't hang one in the sanctuary and genuflect to it.
The Emergent Jesus is unnecessary because they have done away with Hell. To get to that fallacy they had to do away with inerrancy. From there...you have a religion of your own creation.
The less-than-Emergent "Contemporaries" are slightly better. They believe in Salvation. They believe in an inerrant scripture and a necessary experience with Jesus. They just don't believe you have to do that first. They spend weeks, months, or even years on social gospel issues or Christian-life Self Improvement. How to wear your armor better or be a better tither, or pray more. But they don't begin their doctrine with the head-on-collision with Jesus that is so clearly depicted in the Gospels. As best I can determine, they teach far more than they preach. As best as I can deduce, they build their evangelistic vision on the premise that "If we teach from the pulpit as if everyone listening is already a Christian, the ones who aren't will someday see some magical difference between themselves and the others in the church and they'll simply bow their heads at that moment and accept Jesus and have their salvation moment. But we don't "do" altar calls and we don't make clear cut distinctions between "saved" and "lost" because we don't want folks getting uncomfortable and leaving (with their checkbooks). Jesus in this genre has been rendered a necessary disturbance. "Please go somewhere and get saved and then come join our "fellowship" " (And bring your checkbook)
The fundie Jesus is still out there. Angry and miserable and hating us all for what we made Him endure. But that is fading and the inroads made by the grace teachings of Brennan Manning and Chuck Swindoll, to name a few, have quieted that storm quite a bit.
But the fact is that Jesus has been mollified. The modernists have neutered Him where His claims to exclusivity are concerned. They have created a dozen paths to replace His claim as the only way. They have removed Hell, claiming that loving God would not do such a thing. If He were merely loving perhaps, but He is also Holy. And He is Just. And a Holy, Just, God can...and must...render judgment, and consequence for sin. He may not surrender any of His attributes or He ceases to be God. He lovingly provided an escape mechanism through Jesus' work on the Cross, but for that to be an authentic substitutionary sacrifice it must be willingly accepted. Not granted in a random manner to all...whether they ask or not.
They have removed the head-on-collision moment with Jesus and replaced it with a high five. A group hug with Buddha, Mohammad, Confuscious, Vishnu, Crystals, Stars, moon gods, nature and...for good measure...Carl Sagan. Nobody wins unless we all win, so they rewrote the rules and decided we all win. The only way to achieve that was to denigrate the authority of God Himself and violate the Person and Deity and Exclusivity of Jesus Christ.
I certainly didn't learn this in the Baptist Church I grew up in. Where Old Time Religion was taught...not merely preached. Where wreckage was strewn from those collisions, but rescue was offered at the altar. Where stories of the impact of that collision were told through tears and with great passion. And where we believed so much in what had happened to us through the work of the Cross that we told others at every chance.
They were far from perfect. But 30 years later I realize they were far closer than I gave them credit. Because people came there seeking, and seldom left wondering where the answer was. If they walked out of that building after 90 minutes, and they didn't know absolutely that they needed Jesus Christ, the one and only Son of God...they did so willingly, and could no longer claim ignorance.
Methods could be improved. That is eternally true. But the message cannot be improved upon. It doesn't need to be.
As long as the Message is Jesus.