As Halden and James K.A. Smith have noted, it is hard to take seriously a book on Christ and Culture from a guy who doesn’t really believe in the significance of cultural forms larger than the individual. I haven’t read his Christ and Culture Revisited, and don’t plan to. But an old book of his, A Call to Spiritual Reformation came through the bookstore recently, and flipping through it, I stumbled on this highly illustrative quote:
If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.
Let us all thank Dr. Carson from taking the church’s focus off starvation, disease, and war, and placing it back where it should be: sin!
The quote is worth addressing through deep and careful exegesis -- my goodness, an entire body of literature has arisen in recent decades solely dedicated to addressing similar claims -- but let's think about the basic Scriptural and theological problems it raises.
First, though, before we get to hard questions for this quote, I want to remember again -- if only for myself -- how to disagree with brothers and sisters in Christ. It is easy to anonymously ridicule a perspective I find wrong sitting at my desk in my apartment staring at a computer screen. It is easy to imagine the person voicing the perspective as a disembodied book sitting on a shelf or floating in the air, just waiting for my brilliance to dismantle it. And I like that.
"But not so with you." Serious, critical, and even sharp disagreements can and ought to be shared between Christians in all viable mediums of communication -- even the blogosphere -- but that ought never to blind us to the fact that as followers of Jesus we are called to an alternative way of life, including and especially when we disagree.
So as we continue, I hope my sharpness and criticism will serve the purpose of furthering the good work of theology worked out together, in dialogue, and not as a sarcastic slap in the face or a "Gotcha!" Keep me honest.
That said, on to the tough questions.
How does one arrive at determining "our greatest need"? If one does, and one comes to the answer "our sin," what is the substance of that claim? If our greatest need is neither economic nor political (nor related to entertainment or health), but "sin," are those categories areas of life unaffected by sin? Are they "affected" by sin but separate from the "reality" called sin, which might be to say that our sin is essentially ontological, existential, or even "spiritual"? What might it mean for our sin to be called "alienation" or "rebellion" from God, yet not be economic or political? Is human life -- which does not merely involve but is economic and political -- sinful in a non-human way? From whence, and how, does non-human sin enter human life? Does our "salvation" from this apparently non-human sin come through a human being -- i.e., a person wrapped up into economic and political realities? If so, is this salvation neutral to or divorced from factors of economics and politics, so that we might say the human "Savior" of humans from their non-human sin is incidentally economic and political? Is the end for which the ostensibly human Savior saves humans from their non-human sin thus non-economic and non-political, a salvation from economics and politics? What might this non-economic, non-political salvation look like?
In fact, in deep and abiding contrast to the claims of the brief paragraph quoted by Adam, our greatest need is economic, is political, is health-related. ("Entertainment" seems a throw-away line, disparaging the other options rhetorically, though we'll address that, too.) "Sin" indeed does name the capitol-P problem in human life, and thus the capitol-N need to be addressed, but "sin" is not categorically removed or even separable from the human realities called "economics" and "politics." Our greatest need is economics because our sin embodies itself economically: we exploit the poor. Our greatest need is politics because our sin embodies itself politically: we make war. This is not our "spiritual" fallenness intruding on "earthly" realities, but the very form and substance and it-ness of our sin.
To subcategorize the form of our sin from its more determinative "spiritual" reality is, like the Creed, to whittle down Jesus' ministry into a comma in between incarnation and crucifixion. That is, to make Jesus' functional and primary title "Savior" above all others is both to lose the fullness of the cross and to miss the entire point of Jesus' ministry on earth as a human being.
Jesus was a Jew in first century Palestine, a woodworker from the badlands. His people's land was occupied by foreign imperial power, and before and after Jesus' time there were uprisings and rebellions led by insurrectionists seeking to liberate the nation from the pagan occupiers. Some of these claimed the named meshiach, "anointed one," the designated title for the nation's past kings. The imperial ruler instituted a religion by which his subjects were to worship him as kyrios and soter and huios theou, that is, "lord" and "savior" and "son of god." This ruler put his own image on money which funneled throughout all occupied lands and demanded taxes in tribute. Furthermore, various forms of sickness were prevalent and widespread in that time, including a form of skin disease that separated groups of people into alternative communities composed solely of those suffering from the disease. They were untouchables.
That is the context. Enter Jesus.
In Jesus' ministry as recorded in the four canonical gospels of the New Testament, the most dominant subject of his teaching is money. The most prominent type of story told is of Jesus healing sick persons, restoring them to health. The centering theme of Jesus' parables and stories is something called "the kingdom of God," or perhaps "the kingly reign of God." Jesus is called Messiah, Lord, Savior, and Son of God, all titles applicable to political insurrectionists, kings of Israel, and the Roman Emperor. He enters the capital city to a throbbing mass of people clambering in feverish expectation and excitement. The Roman authorities execute him in the form of capital punishment reserved for revolutionaries and insurrectionists. And his followers after him, forming in small pockets throughout that same land and the rest of the empire, confess sole allegiance to this executed criminal over against all other claims, worship him instead of all other gods, and suffer and die willingly at the hands of further imperial means of persecution and execution.
Friends -- at what point in this story do we find an apolitical message?
Christ was, in fact, an economist. In his life and in his teachings he modeled and taught how to approach, engage, and appropriate money. That is what an economist does. And Jesus apparently felt it of such importance he talked about it all the time.
Christ was also political. He wasn't a politician, but he was undoubtedly a political figure. At least one (likely many more) of his twelve closest followers was a zealot, a radical revolutionary committed to violently overthrowing the occupying forces. Jesus was executed by those same occupying forces. The fact that the politics of Jesus does not align with the politics of the world does not negate the plain fact that his entire life and ministry was inherently political.
Christ was a doctor! He healed diseases in sick human beings! Is there another definition of "doctor" of which I am unaware? Even one of our traditional titles for Jesus, "the great healer," betrays this knowledge.
Christ was even an entertainer -- he went around drawing huge crowds and told them stories. The man irreducible to mere "Savior" apparently felt didacticism about sin and salvation less important than hearing a good story. (I jest, but this is a serious point.)
There can be no doubt: In addition to each of these titles, and many more, Christ was savior, too. But the salvation of the savior Jesus of Nazareth, claimant to the throne and executed rebel, healer of disease and teacher of divine economics, storyteller and anointed one, is not so reductive or irrelevant or religionly that it may be simplistically labeled as a spiritual solution -- unrelated or neutral to actual matters of human life as it is lived -- to a spiritual problem between me and God called "sin."
Instead, Christ the economist who saves, Christ the king who entertains, Christ the doctor who heals our politics -- this Christ is the Savior of all the world. And lest we miss the point, as the following piece of art makes clear: Which Christ we worship as Savior entails which kind of saved community we will be.
[First and third images from the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library; second picture from the Web Gallery of Art; fourth from Daniel Erlander.]