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The Importance of Healthy Christianity #1 ©

The unsigned letter was found with the bodies. “If nobody understands, it does not matter. I am ready to die now. Darkness settles over Jonestown on its last day on earth.” (from the RollingStone article: 13 Things You Should Know About Cult Massacre) Its meaning when paired with the reality of what took place is almost unimaginable, unspeakable. What we do know is an outline of the plain facts of the event. On Nov. 18, 1978, the self-anointed Rev. Jim Jones led his followers, members of the San Francisco-based People’s Temple, ensconced at a secluded jungle settlement in Guyana to committed mass suicide by drinking a cyanide laced punch. More than 900 people died in that forlorn jungle that day, including at least 304 who were 17 or younger. Representative Leo Ryan, whose congressional district included the Peoples Temple, along with several members of his staff were murdered by Jones’ guards. One of the survivors of the Peoples Temple Massacre, Laura Johnstone Kohl, perceptively commented to RollingStone, “We – all of us – were doing the right things but in the wrong place with the wrong leader.” Those words “we were doing the right things but in the wrong place with the wrong leader” should rightly haunt us. In our day, there is much made of pursing orthopraxy, that is “right practice.” Right belief (“orthodoxy”) is dismissed by some under the clouds of tolerance and pluralism. But consider more of the Jamestown tragedy. Jim Jones was deeply influenced by the ministry of a man who called himself “Father Divine.”  Back in the early part of the 20th century, “Father Divine” drew huge crowds and many saw him as God. Jones himself later went so far as to claim “he was the reincarnation of” Father Divine.”  Jones served for a time as a Methodist “student pastor at the Somerset Southside Methodist Church” in Indiana in 1952.  According to Wikipedia, he “later claimed he left that church because its leaders barred him from integrating blacks into his congregation.” Reality reports a different story. While his practice of the Christian faith had a deeply loving multi-ethic component, Jim Jones failed both theological and psychological assessments (being ultimately rejected by the local Committee on Ministry in the Methodist Church). His mental illness led to a messiah complex and destructive paranoia despite good intentions. The lack of coherence in his theology fed the egomania and psychological illness. Instead of the orthodox creedal affirmation that Jesus is Lord, he substituted himself for Christ. Warped belief birthed horrific practice. Is the Jim Jones Guyana case an extreme example of unhealthy Christianity?  To be sure, but it also serves as both a guide and a warning. Right belief and right practice go together. In his probing work, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat perceptively writes: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it.  It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.” (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, p. 3) Pause and consider the impact of a version of Christianity kidnaped by either the right wing of the Republican Party or the left wing of the Democratic party. However good our political parties, Jonestown massacre survivor Laura Johnstone Kohl words about following the “wrong leader” echo into our modern reality. Cast the mind’s eye on rising popularity of the prosperity gospel (a heretical flower that blooms like a perennial). Wrong belief in the prosperity gospel lead to actions corrupted by greed and distorted faith built on shifting sand.  Consider the almost ludicrous and massive historical inaccuracies of saga’s like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It distorts beyond recognition the historic Christian faith. Or reflect on the culturally popular phrase “spiritual but not religious,” which has led the millennial generation to one of the loneliest generations in human history. Each point to the high price of diseased religion, and more specifically, of diseased Christianity. The hard truth is that orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy go together. They are ultimately inseparable. It is here at the juncture of reclaiming a healthy Christianity that we must lean into the teaching of the Apostle Paul. The Apostle Paul writes the infant new born church in bustling Roman regional city called Philippi, “Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel.” (Philippians 1:27) To the best of my knowledge, only one other time does the Apostle Paul use the phrase “of most import” or “of first importance” or some other equivalent. The other occasion is found in 1 Corinthians 15, the third and fourth verses when he writes to a letter to the church at Corinth. “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) On that occasion, he writes of a central, core, cardinal doctrine (that means “teaching”) of the Christian faith – the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ. He spends a chapter arguing that if you don’t buy the doctrine of resurrection, you can throw the rest of this away; it is a waste of your time – “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless;” he write a few short verses later, “you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19) There, in 1 Corinthians 15, the issue is of critical belief – doctrinal importance (orthodoxy = right belief). In this passage from Philippians, the issue is of critical practice – the way we live (the technical term is orthopraxy). The two – orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice) are inseparably linked. Break one and the other soon will fail. This then is at the heart of our calling from the resurrected and living Lord! The importance of a healthy Christianity can scarcely be doubted. Today, we live with a desperate need for a healthy Christianity.  More to come ….