Ah, yes. The Bible Belt. Five points:
1. Cultural Christianity and the Christian mind
Christianity is wildly popular in the South. It’s so popular, in fact, that it isn’t merely a religious thing: Christianity is both social and cultural. There are many benefits to this, but the downfalls are almost as numerous. I enjoyed many aspects of the Christian culture in which I grew up, but some problems must be pointed out for the sake of the gospel and out of love for the people closest to my heart.
The primary concern I have is that growing up in a largely Christian atmosphere means that challenges to defend what you believe are rare. This is certainly true of my experience. (I grew up in a church that couldn’t care less about doctrine, except for “no musical instruments” and “you must be baptized to be saved.”)
As the surrounding culture grows increasingly hostile to Christianity, it will become ever more necessary to know what we believe and why we believe it. No longer will it suffice to say simplistic things like “Christianity is not a religion; it’s a relationship with God.” We must define what we mean by these terms. What do you mean by “religion”? Who is God? What kind of relationship do we have with God? Who initiates this relationship? Who sustains it? Is it like any other relationship I might have? Why should I believe in this God?
In the dangerous world of the Bible Belt, issues like these are not taught well (if at all) by pastors, nor are they learned by Christians. Simply put, Christians who refuse to think critically about the faith will not make an impact on the world.
2. Traditions: binding and blinding
My primary concern is lack of critical thinking, and my second concern is a result of the first. The traditions we learn growing up stick with us, regardless of whether they are biblical or not. The same is true of our theology. Since Bible Belters are never really challenged theologically, we grow more and more blind to our traditions. Moreover, these traditions bind our consciences: we feel like we must do them otherwise we are bad Christians.
For example, consider Calvinism. Many people reject Calvinism without trying to gain a fair understanding of it. Tradition plays a crucial role in this. Rather than letting Scripture inform our theology, our traditions (like libertarian free will) have the final say in how we interpret the Bible. We let traditions blind and bind our hearts and minds.
3. The slavery of works righteousness
The most pernicious tradition in the Bible Belt is “works righteousness.” While we may not say it, most of us really believe that the more we do for God, the more He loves us. Southern culture is inextricably tied to a “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, so we think we have the ability to make ourselves right with God by the things we do for him.
Consider the popular appeal for missions: “Go out and do all you can because God needs you to do it! Without you, the purposes of God will never be fulfilled in the world!” In effect, this is a massive guilt-trip that enslaves people to a false gospel.
Now, I don’t have any problem with missions (so long as you’re not just doing it because you’re an adventurous soul who wants to leave the U.S. for a bit; that’s probably not a good reason to go). In fact, as a Calvinist I have a real basis for missions: God’s ordained ends (the salvation of his people) will be accomplished by God’s ordained means (the work of missions in proclaiming the gospel). But we must make a distinction between God needing us to do his work and God using us to do his work. In one sense, God only works to save his people through the proclamation of the gospel. So from this point of view, God needs his people to proclaim the gospel to lost sinners. But God only “needs” us in this sense because He determined to work this way. In the ultimate sense, however, God does not need anything, including us. He could just as easily have decided to work in a completely different way without us.
At the bottom, I think slavery to works-righteousness is actually slavery to self. We think we can do so much for God because we have a tremendous view of ourselves. Look at the evangelical landscape: most sermons are about you, most Bible studies ask what the text means for you, theology is only necessary if it benefits you, etc. Because this is the cultural, social, and religious norm, no one questions it. But this very assumption, that we are the center of the universe, is the source of all our problems. If we would subject our assumptions to the Word of God, we would not fall into so many errors.
I submit to you that slavery to self in the form of works righteousness is a direct result of not seriously thinking about the Scriptures or the Christian faith. There might be more to our problems, but certainly not less than that.
4. Shattering worldviews, one person at a time
The Christian faith is a radical departure from the domesticated form of social moralism found in the Bible Belt. “Be a good person and God will love you” is as far away from the gospel as you can get. Yet in the Bible Belt, this is the default assumption. Let’s turn to the Scriptures and have our default worldview shattered.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2). This is the gospel. We have been justified (declared righteous) by God on the basis of faith alone, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9). And this faith is centered upon the person of Jesus Christ: “we have peace with God through our Lord.” We do not have peace with God because we do great things for God. We do not have peace with God because we grew up in the Bible Belt. We do not have peace with God because we go to church every Sunday, because we read our Bibles, or because we’re basically good people who try our hardest. We have peace with God only through the work of Jesus Christ. Our faith (which is God’s gift to us [cf. Ephesians 2:8]) unites us to Christ. Because of this, “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”
The works-based religion of the Bible Belt is turned absolutely upside-down by the gospel. We don’t hope in the glory of ourselves; we hope in the glory of God. God has graciously given us everything we need for fellowship with him (cf. 2 Peter 1:3). The only way to become a genuine Christian is to turn away from yourself in repentance and to turn toward the triune God in faith. Jesus put it this way: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate…even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). We must turn away from trusting in ourselves. The worst advice in the world is to “Follow your heart.” On the contrary, for the Christian, the advice is: “Don’t follow your heart. Follow Christ!” This is made explicit in the very next verse: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). These are hard words, but they are true. If you have not turned away from yourself in repentance and turned to follow Jesus in faith, you are not a Christian.
5. The radical grace of God
Back to Romans 5: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8). Again, this message is fundamentally opposed to the popular thinking found in the Bible Belt. We are not strong; we are weak. We are not godly; we are ungodly. We are not good; we are sinners. Even so, God the Father sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem “us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
This is good news. This is the gospel. Jesus was cursed in our place, died for our sins, and redeemed us by his blood. This is the only message that will set people free from slavery to self, transforming hearts and minds and lives. Christianity is not about what we can do for God. Christianity is about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Christianity is about the radical grace of God.
Thanks for reading. Have any additional thoughts? Leave a comment below if you feel so inclined.